Review: Microsoft Surface
October 31, 2012 — by Per Christensson
It's Halloween 2012, and Apple just might be spooked. Microsoft released their new Surface tablet on Friday and its bag of treats pose a scary threat to the iPad. I recently bought a Surface and have been testing it out for the past few days. Below is my review of the Surface based on my experience so far.
The Surface is unique in that it is designed and engineered by Microsoft. While Microsoft has developed hardware products before, such as the Xbox and computer accessories, this is the first time Microsoft has developed an actual PC. (And yes, the surface is a PC. While it is primarily marketed as a "Windows tablet," both the Surface documentation and the Windows RT software included with the tablet consistently refer to the tablet as a PC.)
The Surface is designed with sharp attention to detail and feels extremely solid in your hands. An employee at the Microsoft Store said it was designed to be dropped on a hard floor on not break, though of course he didn't recommend trying it. Based on how rugged the enclosure feels, I don't doubt it would hold up. The solid and sleek design of the Surface puts most other tablets to shame.
One thing I love about the Surface is that it was designed to be used as a laptop as much as a tablet. Of course it has a touchscreen interface, but Microsoft has built a physical keyboard into the standard tablet cover, which connects magnetically to the tablet. The Surface also includes a built-in kickstand, which you can easily open with one finger, but it never opens unintentionally. The kickstand/keyboard combo immediately turns the Surface into a full-fledged laptop. I love it.
What I don't love, however, is the feel of the standard "touch keyboard," which are marketed in a wide variety of colors. I tried one at the Microsoft Store and it was just about as difficult as using the on-screen keyboard. So I got the "touch keyboard" ($129 extra), which feels great and is much more usable. The only problem with the touch keyboard is that when you flip it to the back of the Surface (when you aren't using it), you can feel the keys as you hold the tablet, which is kind of weird. At least the keyboard automatically deactivates when you flip it, which is pretty slick.
The Surface hardware is impressive, but the software is what truly makes it great. Microsoft's tablet comes with Windows RT, a lightweight and energy-efficient variation of Windows 8 designed to run on ARM processors (which is the type of CPU that powers the Surface). It includes the tile-based interface of Windows 8, which is great for touchscreen input, but it also provides access to the traditional Windows desktop. Simply click the Desktop icon on the Start screen and you'll enter the full-blown Windows interface.
In my opinion, the Windows interface makes the Surface a better product than the iPad. Why? Because you can actually be productive with it! You can create folders, save files, join networks, and download any type of application that runs on an ARM processor. Microsoft Office even comes pre-installed on the Surface, so you can create documents with it right out of the box. You can also connect wired peripherals using the built-in USB port or wireless devices via Bluetooth, which makes the Surface feel even more like a PC.
While Windows RT is designed primarily for touchscreen input, you can also control a cursor using a mouse or the trackpad built into the keyboard. This hybrid design is a major difference between the Surface and the iPad. While Apple has decided to separate their operating system interfaces (Mac OS X and iOS), Microsoft has integrated the traditional and touchscreen interfaces into one. I think Microsoft got it right.
While there is much to like about the Surface, Microsoft's initial entry into the tablet market isn't perfect. My biggest complaint is the screen, which has a resolution of only 1366x768 pixels, so text and images appear much fuzzier than they do on the iPad's retina display. Additionally, the horizontal viewable angle isn't great and the colors fade if you don't view the Surface straight-on.
The touch keyboard feels great when typing, but like I mentioned earlier, it feels strange when you flip it to the back of the device. I wish Microsoft would have created a hinge that allowed you to twist the keyboard 180° before flipping it back, so the keys were on the inside. While I am a big fan of the keyboard's trackpad, it isn't always as responsive as I would like and you have to press the buttons way too hard in order to left or right-click.
While the Surface includes a nice setup tutorial when you first turn it on, the process takes way too long. Once I entered my information, the Surface took about five minutes to configure itself and install applications. Five minutes may seem insignificant, but it's a long time to wait when you just want to start using the device.
Finally, I am not completely sold on the new Windows interface. The tile-based "Modern UI" (formerly called "Metro") is great, but the integration with the old Windows interface seems a bit choppy. I don't like how Microsoft removed the Start menu from the desktop and I found it difficult change common system settings. I am getting used to the gestures, but the responsiveness of the Surface is not as good as the iPad and many Android devices I have tried.
The Surface isn't flawless, but it is very a impressive tablet. While the Surface is a good consumer product, it is especially well-designed for business users. Unlike the iPad, the Surface can actually be a laptop replacement. Since it functions equally well as a tablet, there is no need to own two portable devices, as many Apple users do.
It makes me happy to see Microsoft innovating again. Even if the company didn't get everything right with the Surface, the device offers new capabilities other tablets simply can't match. As a business, it's better learn from your mistakes than from the success of others. The Surface shows that Microsoft is willing to take some risks and I think it's great.