Microsoft Surface review: A tale of two tablets

The world's biggest software company looks to make a splash with Windows hardware

Review
Microsoft Surface Market Share

Some time ago, top executives at Microsoft (MSFT) realized the company needed to make some major strategic changes to adapt in a marketplace that was in the early days of a huge shift. Many would argue that the decision came later than it should have, and they could present some solid arguments. Microsoft’s entry into the tablet space and re-entry into the smartphone arena indeed came late, and the company has paid the price for its mistakes thus far. From the look of things, however, this giant has legs.

UPDATE: Interested in the Windows 8 version of Microsoft’s tablet? Be sure to check out our Microsoft Surface Pro review!

Microsoft is pushing hard to reinvent Windows and on top of that daunting mission, the company is also in the process of reinventing itself. In this first act, Microsoft brings us the Surface.

The Surface tablet is the culmination of three years of development, and Microsoft sees it as the perfect stage for its new Windows platform. Windows 8/RT represents a departure from the Windows operating system that users are accustomed to, and more than a few feathers will be ruffled as a result. Windows 8 is a chimera of sorts, merging the tile-based user interface from Windows Phone and the standard user interface from Windows 7 into a single platform. Windows RT, the version of Microsoft’s new OS that powers this first version of the Surface tablet, drops nearly everything from the Windows 7 side of the equation and only the new look and functionality remains.

Before we get into the Surface itself, let’s clarify exactly what Windows RT is and is not. This is important, since Microsoft has not yet made clear exactly how it will accomplish this tricky task.

While speaking with Windows group president Steven Sinofsky at Microsoft’s headquarters last week, I asked how Microsoft planned to educate users about the important and confusing differences between Windows 8 and Windows RT. Some parts of his response were comforting. For example, Microsoft is devoting a tremendous amount of time and resources to training in-store staff and even more time and resources will be spent on marketing. A portion of the campaigns Microsoft has planned will apparently be devoted to making clear the differences between Windows 8 and Windows RT.

Some parts of Sinofsky’s response were disconcerting, however. At one point, he drew a parallel between Windows 8/RT and OS X/iOS on the iPad. Users don’t have much of a problem telling the OS on a MacBook apart from the OS on an iPad, so why should they have issues with the new Windows? Yikes.

Imagine booting up an iPad for the first time, seeing the OS X desktop exactly as it appears on a MacBook, and then finding out you cannot run any OS X software on the device. As odd as that scenario sounds, that is exactly the situation Microsoft is facing with the next-generation Windows OS.

Sinofsky was certainly right about one thing he said, though: This is a temporary issue.

As awkward as having the same interface on two very different operating systems sounds, it may be the case that it seems awkward simply because it is novel. Microsoft’s new tile-based user interface, which once bore the name “Metro,” is the new face of Microsoft. Smartphones will have it, tablets will have it, notebooks will have it, desktops will have it and TVs will have it thanks to the Xbox. Different branding may have helped make the learning curve less steep — Windows “Phone,” for example, makes it clear that you’re using a version of Windows built for phones — but in time, the differences between Windows 8 and Windows RT will be widely known and understood.

So, to put the differences as simply as possible, Windows RT is a brand new platform with a tile-based user interface. It cannot run x86 code like older versions of Windows can. Instead, it can only run applications built specifically for this new platform and distributed through Microsoft’s Windows Store.

Windows 8, on the other hand, is Windows RT combined with classic Windows. It can do everything Windows RT can do and it can run the aforementioned apps distributed in the Windows Store, but it also has a separate “Desktop.” The Desktop view looks exactly like Windows 7 minus the Start button and Start menu — though you can get them back if you want — and it can run x86 code. With a few inevitable unforeseen exceptions, Windows 8 can run all of the old Windows software you know and love like Outlook, QuickBooks, Photoshop and so on, and this software will look and act just like it did on Windows 7.

With that out of the way, let’s take a look at the Surface.

THE HARDWARE

At 1.5 pounds, the Surface’s weight falls very close to that of Apple’s (AAPL) iPad despite the tablet’s larger display, and Microsoft says that the 10.6-inch display size is perfect for a device that is as much about content creation as it is content consumption.

Of note, Microsoft uses the word “perfect” quite often when discussing its new tablet and it’s more than just marketing. During my trip to Redmond it was obvious from the start that Microsoft is incredibly proud of the Surface, and of the team that built it. “Great people make amazing products,” Sinofsky told reporters during a presentation. “Amazing products don’t make great people.”

One of the main factors in keeping the Surface at a manageable weight despite its above-average display size is the material Microsoft selected for the device’s case and many components.

The outer case, chassis and a number of internal parts are composed of a material Microsoft calls “VaporMg,” with Mg being the chemical symbol for magnesium. Without delving too deep into the process, Microsoft melts magnesium down to a molten state and then injection molds it at dimensions as thin as 0.65 millimeters. The result is remarkably strong and durable — know of any other tablets you can ride around like a skateboard? — but also light since less material is used.

Microsoft’s VaporMg is very durable and difficult to scratch. Maybe Apple should consider licensing it for future iPhones. The dark material does tend to pick up fingerprints very easily, but a few quick swipes with a cloth or on a T-shirt or pants leg cleans it right up.

The face of the Surface is also covered with Gorilla Glass 2, a thinner, lighter version of Corning’s most durable mass-market glass product. This further reduces the slate’s weight without compromising durability. Only one button, a capacitive Windows home button, is located on the front of the Surface below the screen and a front-facing HD camera sits above the display.

Small stereo speakers sit on either side of the display when the Surface is held in landscape mode, and they sound decent. Don’t expect much deep low-end out of these diminutive speakers, but they’re fine for listening to music while you work and they’ll also be more than adequate for video chats.

On the left side of the slate beneath the speaker sits a standard 3.5-millimeter audio jack and a volume toggle, and the right edge is home to an HD video-out port as well as a full-sized USB 2.0 port (it’s pretty awesome to be able to connect a standard USB flash drive or any regular accessory to the Surface without an adapter) and Microsoft’s proprietary magnetic power cable connector.

The top edge of the tablet holds a power button and dual microphones while Microsoft’s proprietary magnetic accessory connector sits on the bottom. Initially, Microsoft’s Touch Cover and Type Cover will be the only accessories that can make use of the connector but the company confirmed that third parties will soon be able to build compatible accessories. There are battery life implications with these accessories since the Surface powers anything connected to this port, so Microsoft wants to ensure that access by third parties is tightly controlled.

The smooth metal back of the Surface is blank for the most part, which I think enhances the look of the device. An area across the top of the back covers the tablet’s various antennas and houses a rear-facing HD camera, which is seated beneath its lens at an angle so that the user can hold the tablet normally while taking a picture instead of having to lift the tablet and hold it perpendicular to the subject. The only printing on the back of the device is a small Windows logo at the center of the kickstand.

The Surface’s kickstand is a key element that is crucial to the overall user experience. Where kickstands on smartphones are odd and unnecessary, a stand on a device of this size makes watching movies a joy compared to other tablets. When the kickstand is combined with a Touch Cover, Type Cover or Bluetooth keyboard, the tablet experience is instantly transformed into a notebook experience. The Surface sits at the perfect angle while propped up by the stand, and the device can comfortably be used on a lap, on a desk or on an airplane tray table.

The kickstand also covers a microSD card slot that is capable of reading cards up to 64GB, tripling the available storage on the entry-level Surface model and doubling it on the high-end version.

By nature, the most important part of any tablet is the display and Microsoft put a great deal of time and effort into crafting the panel on the Surface.

For better or worse, Microsoft came out swinging ahead of the Surface’s launch. Several Microsoft executives went on record in claiming that the display on its new tablet is sharper than the Retina panel on Apple’s third-generation iPad. This obviously confounded technology enthusiasts, who are used to comparing displays on paper using a single metric: resolution. How could Microsoft possibly state that the 1,366 x 768-pixel Surface display is superior in any way to the 2,048 x 1,536-pixel panel on Apple’s iPad?

Without delving too deep into the science cited by Steven Bathiche, director of research for Microsoft’s Applied Sciences group, during my visit to Redmond and later on Reddit, the bottom line is that a number of different factors contribute to the perceived quality of a display panel and resolution is only one of them.

Resolution and pixel density both play big roles, as does the sub-pixel configuration, contrast and several other factors. Then there are also other things at play, such as the reflective qualities of the glass that covers a display and the touch-sensing elements beneath it. Just as processor clock speed and core count are among dozens of key elements that impact the performance of a PC or tablet, resolution and PPI are not the end of the story when it comes to display quality.

That’s all well and good in theory, but how does the Surface display stack up against Apple’s Retina-equipped iPad in practice? In my head-to-head tests, I have found that the answer isn’t cut and dry.

Where brightness, color saturation and contrast are concerned, the edge goes to the iPad. Looking at the same image or web page on both devices, I find that blacks are deeper, whites are brighter and colors are much more vibrant on Apple’s Retina panel then they are on the Surface.

In terms of clarity and sharpness, it’s a tough call. At normal usage distances between about 18 and 24 inches, my eyes can’t see much of a difference in many cases. For reading text though, I found that I definitely prefer the Surface. ClearType is great for displaying smooth characters, but Microsoft’s display is also much warmer than Apple’s and this has a significant impact while reading or doing almost anything for an extended period of time.

My eyes did not strain at all after using the Surface for hours on end (portions of this review were written on the Surface). The warmer tones help a great deal I’m sure, but I also found that using a panel with slightly less contrast is more comfortable over long periods of time. The exception is probably watching movies — the cooler tones and better contrast of Apple’s Retina display really make movies come to life compared to the more muted tones on the Surface.

Things definitely change when lighting is less than optimal.

Like modern OLED panels and even Apple’s own iPhone 5 display, Microsoft’s Surface utilizes an optically bonded screen, which the third-generation iPad does not (Apple’s fourth-generation iPad, which was announced on Tuesday, remedies this). It also utilizes in-cell touch technology.

Since the combination of these two technologies eliminates all air between the inside of the glass cover and the actual display panel, light is met with less resistance. In line with another one of Microsoft’s claims, I found that there is much less bothersome reflection coming off the Surface compared to the iPad, which makes a huge difference in many common lightning situations (like outside viewing, for example).

You’ll see reviews and various tests that include photos of each display panel examined under a microscope and while I can’t say which panel will win out in this scenario, I can say this: Unless you have microscopes in place of eyeballs, it doesn’t really matter.

The Touch Cover and Type Cover are the last pieces of the hardware puzzle that I’ll cover in this review.

Microsoft’s first TV commercial for the Surface — which was not well received by some members of the tech community — focuses almost entirely on the Touch Cover, and for good reason: It’s brilliant.

When Surface team members had the initial idea for a detectable book cover-like keyboard, they agreed that the accessory had to be no more than 4.2 millimeters thick to make the experience as good as possible. The end result is just 3 millimeters thick, and it’s awesome.

Microsoft’s Touch Cover is a polyurethane cover that is held in place magnetically and features an integrated soft-touch keyboard with a trackpad. I find it to be the perfect compromise between a traditional tablet typing experience (tapping on glass) and typing on a standard keyboard.

Because the Surface includes a 10.6-inch display, the device happens to be just wide enough to support a cover with a full-size keyboard. If you’re thinking that’s not a coincidence, you’re correct. By supporting an ultra-thin, feather-light full keyboard accessory, the Surface instantly becomes one of the best tablets on the planet in terms of productivity without adding any bulk. Typing on a soft polyurethane keypad is not the same as typing on a regular keyboard of course, but I got pretty good with it after a few days of practice.

Bear in mind, there is definitely a learning curve. Here’s what happened the first time I sat down with the Surface and pecked away on the Touch Cover:

I am typing on the Microsoft Surface’s Touch Cover. I’m actually doing just as well here ss I would on a normsl keyboard. Not really, but it’spretty close. Ok, not really.

For wjatever reason, I find myself missingthe “A” a lot. It’s prettyannoying. I’m also missing the spacebar s bit now.

The bottom line, though, is that I’m typing much faster here thsn I do on glass. I can also see the entire display, which is great. Nothing else on the market offers sn experience anything like this, so I’m sure it will tske some time to get used to.

I’ll stick with it and circle bsck next week. But seriously, why can’t I type a damn “A”?

It took a few days, but I got used to the $120 accessory and I can now type much quicker on the Touch Cover than on any glass tablet display. I would say I can type between 60% and 70% as fast as I can on the Logitech diNovo Edge keyboard I use on a daily basis, which isn’t bad at all.

And yes, I can type a damn “A” now.

For those who prefer a more standard typing experience, $130 gets you a Type Cover, which basically transforms the Surface into a legitimate notebook computer. It’s a little more than twice as thick as the Touch Cover, but it includes a real full-size plastic keyboard and it works well. The cover itself has a soft-touch rubber feel on the top that is very comfortable to rest your wrists on, and the bottom is a nice gray felt material.

And yes, by the way, the covers click into place just like they do in Microsoft’s commercial.

THE SOFTWARE

One look at a picture of the Microsoft Surface online, and you get a pretty good idea that we’re dealing with some terrific hardware. The software, however, is a bit of a mystery.

Windows 8 and Windows RT are Microsoft’s big gamble. The company has managed to amass a 92% share of the global PC market according to Net Applications’ September numbers, and both familiarity and consistency have played big roles in Microsoft’s success. Now, the familiar face of Windows has been pushed aside and replaced with something that is completely unfamiliar to anyone who hasn’t used a Windows Phone. And considering Windows Phone’s current position in the smartphone market, that means this new look is unfamiliar to just about everyone.

It’s easy to be melodramatic and freak out about Windows’ new look. It is jarring, without question. Windows itself was pretty jarring when people made the transition from MS-DOS, but I think they got over it.

I wrote about Windows 8 and its new UI in some detail back in February, and at that time I saw a lot of promise in this risky operating system. I still do. People are creatures of habit and there is no doubt that it will take some time for the PC-using public to familiarize themselves with the new interface. There will be plenty of complaints voiced in the coming months (and years, even) but I think people will come around. When you get over the shocking realization that, yes, Windows is now different, you begin to realize that the new home screen makes a lot of sense.

It’s simple, really. Your new Windows home screen is an array of tiles, not files. Say it with me: “Tiles, not files.”

The days of cluttered, disorganized desktops are over and done on Windows RT. In its place is a grid of tiles that represent various apps installed on the Surface. And yes, for those who never quite grasped the concept of the Windows desktop and scattered various files all over their home screens, Windows RT’s tiles can also link directly to individual files of your choosing.

I should note that the standard Windows desktop we’re all familiar with is alive and well, but it is no longer the Windows “home screen.” Regardless, feel free to clutter it up all you want.

Apps themselves have a new look as well. Windows software has historically been anything but consistent. Graphics and interfaces varied from program to program, and few guidelines existed for the purpose of creating similar experiences across different apps. Windows RT is a different story entirely.

While Windows 8 will run all of the legacy Windows software you know and love (and hate), Windows RT will only run new applications built specifically for the Windows Store. These apps all share a common user interface characterized by tiles, clean lines, side-scrolling and a very minimal look overall. As is the case with Windows Phone on a smaller scale, some people will like this new look, some will hate it and some will shift from one group to the other over time. Personally, I like the new interface but there are some categories of apps where I would prefer a more standard experience.

This takes us to an interesting problem that has historically never been an issue for Windows but has always been an issue for Windows Phone.

As big as Microsoft is and as massive as the Windows user base is, Microsoft gets to embark on this all-too-critical journey from the same position as other newcomers to the tablet space: On the ground floor with precious few apps.

The Surface doesn’t have a 1password app so logging in to all of my accounts is a huge hassle. It doesn’t have an HBO GO app — and the stripped down version of Internet Explorer for Windows RT doesn’t support Flash, which is needed to play videos on the HBO GO website — so I can’t watch several of my favorite shows and I can’t stream new movies. It doesn’t support Google’s (GOOG) Chrome browser or Firefox so I can’t easily access all of my bookmarks or sync open tabs between devices. It doesn’t have a (usable) Twitter app so I have to make do with Twitter’s awful website. It doesn’t have a Spotify app so I don’t have access to much of my music collection. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the idea.

On the flip side of the coin, the Surface ships with full versions of Microsoft Word 2013, Excel 2013, PowerPoint 2013 and OneNote 2013, and these apps provide the best productivity experience I have ever seen on a tablet.

The issue of third-party Windows RT apps may or may not be resolved over time. If users embrace this new look and patronize the new Windows app store, developers will take heed. On the other hand, if developers fail to see promise or don’t find success with this new breed of Windows apps, they may dictate the success or failure of Windows RT.

Microsoft has created a scenario where developers do not have to embrace this new platform in order to remain active in the Windows ecosystem. Instead, they can address Windows 8 by building x86 software just as they have for years, and they will still have access to hundreds of millions of Windows users. Windows 8 — the “full” Windows experience — will likely proliferate much more quickly in the early days since it will ship on laptops and desktops from a wide range of vendors, while very few Windows RT devices will be available at launch. Developers can also continue to build Web apps, some of which will work in Microsoft’s new Windows RT browser and all of which will be accessible in the full version of Internet Explorer in Windows 8.

And yes, both browsers still share the same name.

Despite the Surface’s quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 chipset and 2GB of RAM, Windows RT is not always as smooth as I would like. Apps sometimes take a few extra beats to open, and in some cases opening an application on the Surface is much more like launching an app on an old Windows PC than on a modern tablet. Mail is an example of an app that often takes its time to open, and it also doesn’t seem to be in any rush to load new mail — anyone used to Outlook as their email client will feel right at home.

The good news, though, is that Windows RT was built for multitasking. Commonly used apps can and should be left open, and switching between apps is as easy as swiping in from the left side with a finger or touching a mouse cursor to the top- or bottom-left corner of the display. Open apps come back to life instantly, and the animations that transition the user from one app to another are quick and smooth. Apps can also be placed side by side in split screen mode, and they can be resized by simply dragging an edge.

Third-party apps are a mixed bag. While the situation will hopefully improve as developers gain experience with the platform, I have played with a number of apps that were downright painful to use. Well-made apps perform quite well though, and scrolling through them or tapping from screen to screen is nice and fast.

I should also note that I also ran into some problems during my initial setup. The Windows Store found 15 app updates for me as soon as I finished my initial configuration of the Surface. The initial Windows RT setup, by the way, is fantastically simple compared to earlier versions of Windows and it takes just a couple of minutes to complete.

When I chose to install these updates, Windows tore through the first 10 in no time. On the eleventh app, it hung. After about five minutes with no progress, I canceled the downloads and returned to my home screen only to find that my Mail, People (contacts) and Calendar apps were no longer pinned. “Pinning,” by the way, is the term for creating a tile on the home screen for a specific app, bookmark or file.

So I hit the search key — Windows 8 and RT have a great new universal search function — and could not find any of these apps on the device. I was also not able to reinstall them because the Store indicated that they were already present on my system. When a reboot did nothing, I chose to reset the machine and start over. This wasn’t a big inconvenience since I had not yet started using anything on the Surface and the reset process takes only a few minutes. Had this issue presented itself a few days, weeks or months into my usage, I would not have been a happy camper.

As a whole, though, the Windows RT experience on the Surface is a good one and I have not run into real any problems since that initial snag.

One of the things that seemed to scare early reviewers most when discussing Windows 8 and Windows RT was the manner in which Microsoft chose to reinvent common functions. We’ve all seen the video of an elderly gentleman fumbling around the new OS and struggling to perform even the most basic of tasks. While the video is certainly amusing, it’s also misleading.

For one thing, this man did not watch the short intro displayed during the initial Windows setup that outlines the few simple mouse or touch gestures needed to navigate the new interface. And I know my generation doesn’t have the best memory, but try to dig deep into the recesses of your minds and recall what teaching your parents and grandparents to use a Windows machine was like many years ago.

To ensure you don’t run into the same problem as this poor man, let’s look at all of the scary new things you need to remember:

  • Swipe up on the lock screen to input your password and unlock Windows. On a non-touch device or when using a mouse and keyboard, simply tapping any key will bring you to the login screen.
  • Swipe in from the right side or touch your mouse cursor to the top- or bottom-right corner of the display to access Search, Share, the Windows start button, Device controls and system settings.
  • Swipe in from the left side or click your mouse on the top-left corner of the screen to open the previous app.
  • Swipe in from the left and then back to the edge of the screen to open a visual representation of all recent apps, and tap one to open it. The same can be done by touching your mouse cursor to the bottom-left corner and moving up, or to the top-left corner and moving down.
  • Inside an app, swiping up from the bottom or down from the top will open the app menu. The same can be done with a mouse by simply right-clicking in any open space on the screen.
  • Closing an app completely instead of leaving it open in the background has confused some people, but it really couldn’t be easier. Simply move your mouse cursor to the top of the display where your pointer icon will become a hand, click and hold to grab the window, and then drag it down to the bottom of the screen to close the app. Actually, I suppose it could be easier — on devices that support touch like the Surface tablet, one quick swipe starting off the display at the top and continuing down the bottom of the screen will do the trick.

I think most of us can handle that, and those who can’t will learn over time just as they did when they first started using Windows years ago. And any time you get tripped up, simply start typing “H E L P” right on the home screen and universal search will pop up with a link to Microsoft’s online support site.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Microsoft is the biggest software company in the world, but its first piece of Windows hardware is a beauty.

The company sought to reinvent the PC with the Surface, and to “bring all that goodness to the kind of device you can carry with you at all times,” according to Windows boss Steven Sinofsky. In this regard, Microsoft has accomplished its goal. The Surface is light and portable, and the battery gave me a full day of usage without a problem. Functions such as streaming video will obviously cut into battery life, but you’ll still go longer in between charges than you would with any popular Windows or Mac laptop.

Oh and by the way, there is absolutely no bloatware, crapware or whatever else you want to call it on the Surface, which is yet another point in Microsoft’s favor as it enters the Windows hardware market and competes against the very vendors that perfected the practice of ruining user experiences with unwanted garbage.

While Windows 8 is the version of Microsoft’s new OS that has split personality disorder, the Windows RT-powered Surface truly is a tale of two tablets. On one hand, it is an engineering feat with a design that is novel and functional. It really is the perfect combination of a tablet and a notebook thanks to the Touch Cover and the Type Cover, and I felt right at home with the Surface the moment I turned it on. On the other hand, the software experience does not feel like home. It’s new, and for many it will be scary.

But we are not Luddites. We can handle this.

The move to separate Windows 8 and Windows RT this way was a necessary one in the context of Microsoft’s interface unification strategy. And in order to build a lighter-weight OS that could power less expensive devices and compete with the likes of Apple’s iPad, Microsoft needed a “Windows Lite” solution. Some concessions could certainly have been made in order to better distinguish Windows RT and Windows 8, but this is the path Microsoft chose.

Windows RT has a lot of growing to do. The faster Microsoft can get developers on board, the better — and the early days will be slow-going in some respects as a result of this lack of apps. But even as it stands today, the Surface provides a terrific experience right out of the box and it will only get better over time.

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