The Microsoft Surface is no minor thing to review, especially when you consider the stakes for this product. The tablet / laptop hybrid — which was announced at a surprise event in Los Angeles back in June — is not just a unique product in the market, it's also the first of its kind for Microsoft. The company's foray into designing and building its own hardware is not exactly unheard of, but competing directly with partners on PCs certainly is. Adding fuel to an already-crackling fire, Microsoft is making two distinct versions of the Surface available: the $499 (and up) Surface with Windows RT, which runs a scaled back version of Windows for ARM chipsets, and the yet-to-be-released Surface with Windows 8 Pro, a full-on, Intel-based Windows machine with all the power you'd expect from a modern laptop. I've been tasked with reviewing the former, a product which competes in both price and functionality with the iPad and higher-end Android tablets.
The device itself is an interesting new addition to a crowded market. Though Windows RT touts a desktop environment which looks and feels very similar to Windows 7, the OS doesn't allow for legacy Windows applications to be run or installed, save for the Office suite and a desktop version of Internet Explorer 10. Furthermore, new apps must be written for the tiled environment of Windows 8 — the new Windows Phone-influenced interface which seemingly defines Microsoft's future.
So what to make of this strange hybrid? Is it the next logical step in computing — a transmutable slab which offers the best of the past and the present — or is it something else? A half-step, a feint, a compromise? Can you really have it all, as Microsoft suggests, or is the Surface trying to go in too many directions at once?
Hardware and design
Microsoft is focused on clean, simple lines
The Surface hardware is handsome indeed. The rectangular slab is a magnesium alloy forged from what Microsoft calls VaporMg, though it feels like thin, stiff aluminum to the touch. The device is wrapped edge-to-edge in the material, which is treated in a black (or nearly black) paint job. The backing is prone to fingerprints, though it's easy to clean. Microsoft seems to be focused on clean, simple lines both in Windows 8 and its recent product designs, and the Surface reflects that in spades. The sides, bottom, and top of the device edge back from the glass front in a slight taper, making for an angular, clean profile. On the back of the Surface, there's a small strip of plastic that houses a camera (and presumably Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios), as well as the novel, full-width kickstand that the company is touting as a key feature of the device.
The kickstand is indeed a unique addition to a tablet of this size, and it's sturdy and works reasonably well. I do have some niggles with it — particularly the fact that its position can't be adjusted in any way, meaning you have to like the angle the screen is at and live with it (it was usually too upright in most scenarios I tried it in, but not unusable by any means). The kickstand also has extremely sharp metal edges, which caused it to scratch a couple of wooden surfaces I found myself placing the Surface on. It's also not very useful on your lap — unless you like to struggle. You could use the kickstand to put the Surface upright in portrait, though it's not terribly stable, and I wouldn't trust it to not fall over with the wrong kind of touch.
The front of the tablet is all screen, save for a small camera and light embedded beneath the display at the top and a capacitive Windows home button that sits centered (in landscape, the preferred orientation) at the bottom. Along the top of the device, you'll find a sleep / power button on the upper right edge. On the left side is a set of volume rockers and a headphone jack, while the right side boasts a USB jack, Micro HDMI port, and the odd and difficult to use proprietary power jack. A microSDXC slot hides underneath the kickstand. I mean, it's really hidden; there's not even a little icon to indicate where it is.
The Surface feels good when you hold it... but it's huge
Along the bottom edge of the device is a powerful magnet and dock connector which allows you to attach either the Touch Cover or the Type Cover accessories. The magnet worked extremely well, and both accessories are interesting experiments which have their plusses and minuses — I'll talk about them more later on in the review.
The Surface looks and feels pretty good when you're holding it... but it is huge. At 10.81 inches across (in landscape) and 0.37 inches thick, it's not really that comfortable to hold in landscape for extended periods, and in portrait it's laughably tall. Trying to hold the device upright to read a book in the Kindle app felt about as ridiculous as taking a picture with a tablet. Maybe more ridiculous, actually. The Surface seems to desperately want to be docked and on a desk or table rather than in your hands or on your lap. After using it for an extended period of time, it's hard to imagine bedtime reading or casual throw-it-in-a-bag use for this device. It's nice that Microsoft wanted to retain the 16:9 aspect ratio, but I would have happily traded some of that wide real estate for a more portable, comfortable device. In comparison to a new iPad or Nexus 7, the device seemed bulky, awkward, and just plain heavy. That's especially telling considering that the thickness and weight of the Surface and the iPad are nearly identical — those extra inches matter.
Overall, Microsoft has designed a beautiful tablet that's unfortunately more functional as a laptop... on a desk. The styling and components are incredibly well made and high quality, but the form factor isn't svelte or small enough to really come across as a true hybrid.
Specs, cameras, display
This isn't a speeds-and-feeds affair
Inside the Surface, you'll find an Nvidia Tegra 3 chipset, 2GB of RAM, and either 32GB or 64GB of hardwired storage (I tested the 64GB version). You'll find the requisite Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios as well, alongside a light sensor, an accelerometer, gyroscope, and digital compass — but no 3G or 4G radio options. The Surface has two microphones and a set of stereo speakers, which sound decent, though they sometimes distorted when I was playing back music or video. The battery in the Surface is a hefty 31.5 watt-hours — that's solid, but keep in mind the iPad is lighter and has a 42.5 watt-hour battery.
The device has two 720p cameras (one on the front and one on the back), which have surprisingly good low-light performance, but are otherwise grainy and unremarkable. You probably know how I feel about taking photos with a tablet, but for video conferencing the front-facing shooter is quite good, with a very wide field of view, making for group conversations that don't require sardine-like packing of participants.
The Surface has a fine set of specifications, but this isn't a speeds-and-feeds affair. In fact, the device is in some ways all about the opposite of biggest and baddest. Microsoft has made a big deal about squeezing Windows down to function on a more modest ARM chipset with less RAM on hand, and the Surface clearly shows off the realization of that work.
The display on the Surface is — as mentioned — a 16:9 screen, which means wide but not very tall. The display uses Microsoft's ClearType technology, which supposedly produces better looking graphics and typography, even against displays with a much higher resolution (hello new iPad). The colors and blacks on the 10.6-inch screen do look stunning, but all the technology in the world can't make up for pixels that aren't there. At the size of the Surface screen, 1366 x 768 resolution leaves much to be desired — and even though things are sharp, text and some of the starker elements of the Microsoft's new UI would clearly benefit from a higher res display.
On the other hand, touch response was mostly excellent, save for a few stalls and missed touches that I attribute to the software more than the hardware. Additionally, multitouch worked well on the display, though it's disappointing that the Surface only does five-point touch when competition like the iPad can handle 11 at a time.
Performance and battery life
Battery life was consistent and impressive
Overall performance on the Surface was a bit hit or miss. In terms of general UI responsiveness, touch response, speed and framerate of the tile interface, Windows desktop, and most basic OS functionality, the Surface felt incredibly speedy. Switching between apps was fast and fluid, organizing and navigating the Start screen felt snappy, and live tiles flipped and updated smoothly and as expected. Many of the first-party apps — particularly Internet Explorer in the new interface — felt good to me, but others left me wanting. The native email application, for instance, could be slow to update and unresponsive to touch on a regular basis. Other apps, both first and third-party, could be slow to open, then stall or crash altogether. Some 3D games, such as Rocket Riot, seemed fluid and natural, while others staggered along, seemingly struggling to pump out an acceptable frame rate.
When I was just dealing with the core OS, the Surface felt like a lively, sophisticated, fast-moving new system, but the deeper I got into apps and the more apps I opened, the more the device seemed to bog down. There were other issues too: video playback in the browser was a spotty experience. Flash content didn't fare too well in either the desktop or new browser, and some HTML5 playback stuttered and dropped frames during play.
I can't say for sure that the performance issues were due to a software problem, hardware deficiency, or some combination of the two — I only know that my experience wasn't 100 percent consistent. On the plus side, my general takeaway is that the Surface is a highly capable and highly enjoyable device to use most of the time, and is likely in need of some bug fixing and optimization. However, that seems like it should have been done prior to the release of the product to the public.
Battery life, on the other hand, was consistent and impressive on the Surface. Microsoft claims that users can nab somewhere in the vicinity of eight hours on a single charge in mixed use. My experience bore those numbers out, and then some. I was able to put the Surface through a full day of relatively heavy use (video playback and streaming, document editing, lots of web browsing, app downloads, game playing, email, Twitter, and more) and still had some charge left that evening... and into the next morning, without having plugged it in overnight. Battery life on the Surface seemed more akin to an iPad than a laptop — which makes sense given the ARM architecture. In the same way I never worry about whether I've charged the iPad recently, I found myself carelessly leaving the Surface off of the charger for extended periods. And I think that's a good thing.
Touch and Type Cover
It's time to type again
Microsoft isn't just introducing a new tablet — it's got a couple of novel accessories up its sleeve too. I'm speaking, of course, about the clever hybrid products that do double duty as protective covers and physical keyboards, called the Touch Cover and the Type Cover.
The Touch Cover has been more visible in Microsoft's advertising of the Surface, and rightfully so. Not only is it a very new kind of product for tablets, but the company is offering it in a variety of bright colors that are extremely eye catching. While both the Touch and Type Cover snap onto the bottom of the tablet using a set of pogo connectors and a strong magnet, the Touch Cover is unique in that it's a physical keyboard with no moving parts. Instead, there is a set of raised keys on the soft, material-like surface. And not just keys, but a fully functional multitouch trackpad with two buttons.
On a desk or other flat surface, the Touch Cover works reasonably well. It doesn't come close to replicating a physical, tactile keyboard, but it does do a good job of reminding you where your fingers need to be. I was surprised that it often took a little more pressure on the keys to get input to register, but once I figured out the appropriate heaviness, it wasn't too much of an issue. My typing rate seemed to increase as I used the cover more, though I found myself mistyping and having to correct (and re-correct) errors I had made. It might be a matter of adjustment, but it wasn't a completely pain-free experience.
The Touch Cover feels excellent on the device from a screen protection standpoint, and it feels good when you wrap it over the back of the device (as you'd fold back a magazine or book). The Surface has a way of sensing what position the cover is in using its accelerometer, though I did experience a few glitches where the cover was on the back of the Surface, but still sending chaotic key presses to the device. Luckily this issue was few and far between.
The Type Cover is another story altogether — it's one of the best portable keyboards I've ever used. Like the Touch Cover, it functions as a screen protector, but unlike the Touch Cover, it has a full complement of great-feeling, tactile keys. Typing on it was akin to working on my MacBook Air, and I rarely made mistakes because of the size of the keyboard or the positioning of the keys. It really was a joy to use.
I do have two issues with the accessory, however. The first is that it's a bit uncomfortable to use when it's wrapped around the back of the device; feeling keys under your fingers is just not reassuring. Secondly, a handful of times I had keys pop up slightly off of their retainer, making for missed presses and the need to realign and replace the key where it should have been. It's not a huge deal, and it's certainly something that happens on laptop keyboards from time to time, but with all of the action this accessory will see, it is a little worrisome.
Both covers are relatively expensive ($119 for the Touch Cover and $129 for the Type Cover), and both have plusses and minuses — but I do think they make the Surface a more attractive device, and I think it's somewhat incomplete without at least one of them. Microsoft seems to agree, hence its $599 bundle that includes the Touch Cover. One caveat — you don't get to pick your color, so you might want to spend that extra $20, buy the pieces separately, and show off your wild side.
Traditional Windows is only a small piece of the story
I'm not going to cover every aspect of Windows 8 here, partially because Windows RT and Windows 8 are very different beasts, but also because we have a big, in-depth review of the software right over here.
Going into this write-up, I tried to look at the Surface with Windows RT as a different kind of device — one with a future yet to come. A brand new tablet with a new OS, aimed at competing with (and, Microsoft hopes) besting the current tablets that are on the market, while offering a lot of what makes a PC powerful. This isn't a device that imitates your current laptop, or tries to act exactly like a pure Windows machine. Even though the core of this OS is based on Windows, it's not just a Windows PC. Legacy software can't be used, and Microsoft has expressly forbidden developers from creating applications for the windowed, desktop environment. There are really only five full applications that can be used in that space — Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Internet Explorer. Yes, Notepad and Paint are here as well, but they're little more than glorified utilities in Windows RT. In that sense, the Windows environment you know is only a small piece of the story of the Surface.
So let's start by getting this out of the way: unless you are a heavy, professional user of Office, you probably won't spend that much time in the "Windows" part of the Surface OS. The vast majority of your time, for good reason, will be lived inside the new tiled interface of this operating system (modern UI, or Metro, the Start menu, or whatever it is we're calling it today). That is the OS, and I suspect it will be the only thing you see on a device like this come Windows 9 time. And there is no confusion. You don't accidentally enter the traditional desktop by accident. You have to want to be there, and you have to be trying to accomplish specific tasks. This is not a bad thing. It's a very good thing.
But truth be told, I found myself wondering why that environment exists at all in this OS. Surely Microsoft could have made cleaner and robust versions of its Office suite for the new UI — why choose to force users out into a less intuitive, jarring interface? If I had to bet, I would say the company didn't have the time to properly convert the full-featured apps to the new UI. But that's just a guess.
Yes, for the Windows hardcore, this is also Windows. You have a full file explorer, control panels, media viewers, a command line (if you want it), access to USB devices, external storage, etc. This acts and feels like Windows — but a Windows with no apps. I believe Microsoft could have wrapped all of this functionality in a cleaner and more user-friendly interface, thus keeping the user from shifting between two extremes. Why the company chose to go the route it went is a mystery perhaps only Steve Ballmer himself could unravel.
But my biggest fear about the Surface has proven unfounded — that is, the fear that you would be constantly caught between two worlds. You really do spend the majority of your time in the modern, tile-based interface. The other world is more like a memory, a half-remembered dream you slip into and out of.
The new user experience
The actual interface — the tiled environment — is a joy to use. It's really, really cool. I found myself legitimately delighted by some of its functionality, particularly its multitasking and side-by-side apps concept.
If you don't know how it works, it's really simple. Upon booting up and signing into the Surface (which was a relatively painless process), you're presented with a list of colorful tiles representing apps either by square icons, or rectangular "live" spaces. Those spaces are also shortcuts to apps, but they display information like recent messages or tweets to you, weather conditions, calendar events, and so on. Widgets, basically. The list of tiles can be scrolled left to right, and you can make as many groupings of tiles as you want. You can pinch to zoom out and see an overview of tiles, though I hardly every used this functionality. These tiles encompass the new Windows Start menu.
The tiles are your main mode of travel, but there are sets of hidden menus and actions which can be activated through gestures. Swiping from the right edge of the tablet to the left brings up a "charms" bar, which gives you options to search, share, access devices (like printers), change settings, or get back to your homescreen. Many of the options in this menu are context aware, meaning that settings for all apps, sharing options, and search will always be accessible from this same spot. It works very well once you get the hang of it.
If you swipe down from the top or up from the bottom of the Surface display, you get a context menu for in-app options or functions (this is context aware based on what part of the app you're in). If you swipe down all the way from the top to the bottom, you quit the app (like throwing it away). Flicking your finger quickly on the left edge of the screen (towards the right) will flip through apps you have open (this is multitasking), while swiping slowly and then pulling back will bring up a list of all the apps you have currently open. Finally, you can pull an open app into either side of the app you're currently in and run that application side-by-side with another, kind of like a smartphone display next to a larger tablet display. This is especially useful for things like Twitter, mail, or music apps.
All these gestures may sound complex, but in ten minutes it feels completely natural. They're good ideas, and they feel fresh, useful, and intuitive. Windows RT certainly isn't as basic or immediately understandable as iOS, but it is extremely clever and charming in its own right. I truly enjoyed using it.
Details, the devil
As delightful as the new interface is, it doesn't mean Microsoft got this thing exactly right. The fact that the strongest and most useful (and notably, most responsive) applications are relegated to the old environment gives me pause. Add to that the fact that many of the new apps seem incomplete or buggy — and you've got a problem. Microsoft wants to compete with the iPad (and presumably any Android tablet that has any kind of foothold), but it's not necessarily offering a better experience than other devices on the market.
Even though this platform seems powerful, I found myself frustrated with small things more often than I should have. I already mentioned the mail app issues, but it goes deeper than just some stuttering or crashing. Microsoft's implementation of Exchange syncing on the Surface (and Windows Phone, notably) has an odd and bad way of handling threaded messages, using only the subject as guidance for what to group. That means that if you've got three threads to different people with the subject "hey" (which I do, often), they suddenly are grouped together in an annoying and confusing manner. The mail app also formats your emails in rich text, with no say in the matter. It won't show pictures inline in messages, rather it forces you to tap on every image you want to see.
In truth, I actively avoided using the mail app if at all possible. It was so touchy in testing that I was worried I would accidentally delete or misplace an email if I wasn't careful.
In the People app, contacts weren't matching for me during the review period, meaning I had duplicate contacts from my multiple accounts. The only way around seeing all of these doubles or triples in my list was to turn off the visibility of some of the accounts — and the duplicates still showed up when I searched for a contact elsewhere (it should be noted that another editor testing Windows 8 did not have the contact matching issue). And believe it or not, some of the buggy, "disappearing list" scrolling I saw lots of in early versions of Windows Phone 7 reared its head while I was zooming through my contacts — meaning the info momentarily blanked out and I lost my place.
There were, of course, plenty of good experiences to be had in the bundled apps. Internet Explorer in the new UI is a terrific browser that displayed pages quickly, and made navigating even complex websites easy. Through I had some issues with video playback, most content loaded perfectly, and scrolling and zooming was unflinchingly fast. I was really surprised by how good it is. And Xbox Music, while a little difficult to understand at first, is a great example of how playful and fresh this version of Windows can be. I particularly liked docking the player alongside another app and having full access to my library.
A handful of third-party apps worked really well and showed the promise of Microsoft's platform, like the new versions of Skype and Hulu Plus — both of which cleverly take advantage of the unique user interface concepts in Windows 8 and RT. But other third-party efforts were surprisingly amateur — a case of Microsoft not putting its best foot forward. Some well known apps, such as Cut The Rope, felt sluggish on the Surface (a problem I came across with a number of games). The Twitter app MetroTwit strangely stopped issuing notifications after I had left the app for a short period of time (though I did have better luck with Tweetro). The Amazon Kindle application had an extremely annoying bug which showed a jarring flash of a book graphic every time I turned a page, and would sometimes have to load for absurd amounts of time between page turns. Nearly every app I tried crashed completely at least once while I was testing the tablet, third and first-party.
One by one, these problems might not seem like a big deal, but together they undermine much of the good work done in RT and the Surface. This product is supposed to represent the future of Windows and Microsoft, so why did I feel so frustrated so often while using it?
Who is this for? What is it supposed to be?
Let me put it this way: the Surface does not seem like a better tablet than the iPad or the Nexus 7 (the two best products in the category as of this writing). Even though it has a very unique and useful interface, and lots of hooks into Microsoft's ecosystem, it still lacks the polish and apps of those two devices. Is the mail client better here than the native mail client on the iPad or Nexus? No. Is the browser superior? Well, it's an excellent browser, one of the best I've ever used on a mobile device — but it's not wildly better than the iPad or Nexus 7 offerings. Is the interface so much easier to use or so much more powerful that it would tip the hand of an average buyer? Not in my opinion. Is the app selection better or more robust in some way? Not by a long shot, and there's no clear sign it will be anytime soon.
And I must ask — how is it possible that in launching a massively important device like this, Microsoft couldn't muster up a single killer game title to pull in the Xbox fanbase? Halo: Surface Edition, anyone?
The whole thing is honestly perplexing. If this device is not as good as (or better than) the best tablet, and not a complete alternative to a laptop — who is this for? What is it supposed to be?
Instead of being no-compromise, it often feels like more-compromise
Maybe I say this too often, but I wanted to love this device. Actually, I wanted to love the Surface when I first saw it, before I even got my hands on the review unit. It made Windows 8 make sense in a way other products had not, and I could see a world where this kind of device was the only one I carried with me. Once I did get the review unit, I wanted to love it even more. And truth be told, there is a lot here to love. Plenty — but not enough for me right now.
The promise of the Surface was that it could deliver a best-in-class tablet experience, but then transform into the PC you needed when heavier lifting was required. Instead of putting down my tablet and picking up my laptop, I would just snap on my keyboard and get my work done. But that's not what the Surface offers, at least not in my experience. It does the job of a tablet and the job of a laptop half as well as other devices on the market, and it often makes that job harder, not easier. Instead of being a no-compromise device, it often feels like a more-compromise one.
There may be a time in the future when all the bugs have been fixed, the third-party app support has arrived, and some very smart engineers in Redmond have ironed out the physical kinks in this type of product which prevent it from being all that it can be. But that time isn't right now — and unfortunately for Microsoft, the clock is ticking.