The early reviews are in for Microsoft’s much-hyped Surface Tablet. Most believe it is an interesting, well-executed device that ultimately falls short of reaching its true potential: the hardware is great, the software is confounding, the overall execution leaves one wanting.
The clock is ticking for Microsoft and nearly all the reviews have said the company came out swinging mightily, but ultimately hit a double when they needed a homerun. They may get there with Surface 2 or Surface 3, but will it matter by then?
Read on for various opinions of the new device.
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.
The Windows RT experience, in many senses, is clearly ahead of what many competitors offer in the tablet space today. Multitasking, task switching and the ability to have multiple applications active on the screen at once are all big advantages that Microsoft enjoys. For productivity workloads, Surface is without equal in the tablet space.
Content consumption is also great on the device. Surface’s display isn’t industry leading but it’s still good. Reading emails, browsing the web flipping through photos and watching videos are all good fits for the platform – just as good as competing solutions from Apple or Google.
And then there is the 3-millimeter-thin Touch Cover keyboard. Ever since Microsoft first unveiled the Surface, this has been a big question mark. Does it really snap on and off so easily? Is it usable? Does it even work? Yes. To everything. It’s actually quite fantastic. On this miniature keyboard, that has no actual physical keys, keystrokes fire as fast as you can type them. There is no lag. There is, however, a learning curve.
I struggled mightily with typos and finger placement for the first 24 hours. My left wrist hurt like hell. The pinkie and ring finger on my left hand were cramped. But by day three, my hands began to relax and I was typing quickly and, for the most part, accurately. After a week, I powered along at 90 words per minute. It’s not the same speed I hit on a full size keyboard, and I still have typos galore (though far fewer) but given how much I’ve improved in a week, it’s impressive.
Oddly, it is perhaps less effective as a cover than a keyboard. It folds over nicely, but doesn’t stay closed as well as I’d like. Several times, I opened my bag to a glow, like something out of Pulp Fiction, to find the Surface had lit up as the Touch Cover came open inside.
Still, there are rough edges to the Surface. The biggest is a paucity of apps for the new touch interface. At launch, Microsoft estimates there will be only about 10,000 third-party such apps available globally, of which about 5,000 will be available in the U.S. More important, many popular titles, like Facebook, will be missing. That’s a tiny number of apps compared with the 700,000 touch-operated apps that run on the iPad.
And there is more bad news about apps. This first edition of Surface uses a variant of Windows 8, called RT, that can’t run the vast array of traditional programs many Windows users rely upon daily, like Google Chrome, Adobe Photoshop, Apple iTunes or even Microsoft’s own Outlook. A second edition of the Surface, due in January, will run the full version of Windows 8, and most of these standard Windows programs. But it will be heavier.
Microsoft estimates that the battery life in mixed use is “up to eight hours.” That’s consistent with my own findings; sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less, with a workload of browsing and typing. In a more punishing test, playing video endlessly with the brightness and volume turned up all the way, it achieved exactly six-and-a-half hours.
The default power management settings are very aggressive, sleeping the machine after just two minutes of inactivity. I was disappointed that the system doesn’t provide an estimate of expected battery life. Although it tracks the percentage remaining, it doesn’t tell you how long it should actually last, given current usage patterns.
My understanding is that Windows needs certain information from the battery and power management subsystem to do this, and while most x86 laptops provide the information, it seems that the Surface does not. The Asus VivoTab RT is similarly deficient, so it’s possible that it’s going to be a Windows RT-wide gap. Having a percentage is all well and good, but I want a time estimate; I want to know “are you going to last to the end of this flight, or should I turn down the screen brightness a bit?”
The Surface RT packs two 1MP cameras: one on the front, one on the back. They’re a joke. The picture quality is horrible under any lighting condition and completely unacceptable for a $500 device.
We’re not there yet. Surface is a fantastic promise, and holds fantastic potential. But while potential is worth your attention, it’s not worth your paycheck. Surface RT gets so many things right, and pulls so many good things together into one package. But it is undercooked. For all Microsoft’s claims to hardware perfection and software revolution, Surface RT is undone by too many little annoyances, cracks, and flaws. After the initial delight of an evolved tablet wears off, you’ll groan—because Surface brings the appearance of unity, but it’s really just the worst of both worlds. Instead of trading in your laptop and tablet for Surface, a cocktail of compromises that fracture the whole endeavor, you’ll miss them both urgently.
The biggest problem, aside from the lack of apps, is that Microsoft can’t seem what sort of computing environment it wants by having both a traditional Windows desktop and the Metro interface co-mingling on the Surface.
In its desire to have both a tablet and a laptop, Microsoft ultimately delivered the worst of both types of devices and gave users an excuse to stick with their device of choice that does work.
Sometimes when you shoot for the stars you end up getting burned.