The Surface tablet is a flagship Microsoft product — its first foray into the tablet market as a hardware manufacturer. It’s almost as locked-down as the iPad – the only applications you can install and run being those that come from the Windows Store — yet you can also plug in a USB drive and have a full file manager at your disposal. Is the quirky Windows 8 interface truly better on a tablet? Are the touch gestures intuitive? Is there actually a desktop mode? All these questions and more will be answered; read on for the full MakeUseOf review and giveaway of the Microsoft Surface.
We purchased this 32GB Microsoft Surface with a black touch cover for $599 in order to prepare this review. And now, we’re giving it away to one lucky reader!
I’m going to refer to the user interface as Metro throughout this review because that’s what we’re all familiar with; I believe it’s actually called Modern UI at this point, but then you wouldn’t know what I’m talking about.
Introduction: Making use of the Microsoft Surface tablet
This is the first Surface branded product to be launched, to be followed later by Surface Pro. This (RT) model runs on an ARM based processor, and as such is incompatible with all existing Windows software; it will only run applications from the Windows 8 store, so in that respect it’s more similar to an iPad than anything else. The Pro model, which will be be launched later is a full Windows 8 tablet device running on x86 hardware.
In terms of competition, there are no other Windows RT devices on the market currently. At this size and price range, the iPad is the leading competitor. The 32GB Microsoft Surface tablet is $499; that’s $100 cheaper than a 32GB iPad. Purchased with the touch cover, the package price is $599, so this certainly isn’t a budget device. It also goes up against the newly released Google Nexus 10, a 10″ $499 (32GB version) Android tablet. I was impressed by the Nexus 7, so it’s safe to assume the Nexus 10 is also a solid device.
The packaging is sleek and alluring to the modern product it hides; the box features the same bezel as the device itself, a strong diagonal cut.
Included in the package is the keyboard, the device itself, a charging cable and adaptor – this model is shipped with a UK plug. The instruction manual is suitably sparse; there really is no need to read it.
Hardware and Specs
The Surface is an industrial design in gunmetal matt black. It feels incredibly solid – even the kickstand. At 0.68kg it’s actually not much heavier than the new iPad’s 0.66kg. The distinctively retro shape of the case is a sharp and welcome departure from an increasingly curved design world dominated by Apple. The Surface can certainly stand proud and unique amongst it’s fellow tablets, at least in terms of design.
The keyboard cover acts in much the same way as Apple’s smart cover; it snaps into place very easily with a satisfying clank that I imagine a Transformer must feel when it changes into something, while the magnet will wake and sleep the device automatically upon closing and opening. Since it’s a keyboard, it flips open from the top to the bottom – counter intuitive to a paper notepad, laptop, or iPad’s Smart Cover.
Sadly, the standard touch sensitive keyboard is horrendous. Because it’s a touch sensitive substrate with a layer of fabric over it, you can almost feel the slight gap between the two layers. Pressing down on one key results in the other side of the keyboard shifting upwards slightly, disconcertingly. It simply doesn’t feel good to type on – I found myself using the keyboard cover as just a cover; typing was faster and felt better with the on-screen keyboard. Though I don’t have one to test, I suspect the bulkier physical keyboard is much better.
The IPS screen is bright but clearly pixellated at times; you’ll only notice this if you have a more recent Android device or a Retina iPhone/iPad. The screen’s biggest issue for me is the size – it’s nearly twice as wide as it is tall (roughly 23cm x 13cm visible) with an aspect ratio of 16:9. While this feels great in landscape mode, it’s positively monstrous in portrait. Obviously this has great benefits when watching widescreen format movies, but if you’re more of a eBook reader then the odd size may take getting used to.
The kickstand has been touted as an outstanding feature of the Surface, but in reality it’s a mixed blessing. On the one hand, having a stand built-into the device is certainly convenient; it’s not a gimmicky plastic one either, but a solid metal part of the case that doesn’t feel like it’ll break easily.
On the other, it has a single fixed position, and there’s only one notch you can pull it out from on the let hand side. The fact that it’s solid metal means it can also scratch some tables.
The front camera is better than I expected – great quality for Skype calls (is there any other reason to use a front camera?)
Sadly, the rear camera is pathetic; I don’t know if this was due terrible low light performance (good luck getting a sunny day in England), but it was obviously grainy. The focus is also automatic (and not in a good, intelligent kind of way) – the only control you have is the shutter button. Given how good the camera is on an iPad, it’s frustrating that they didn’t include something better here.
Finally, the speaker is rather quiet. For comparison, I’ve filmed Netflix running on both the iPad and the RT – you can clearly hear the difference. This was done in complete silence; when there was a small amount of background noise, the Surface playback became completely inaudible.
Connectivity and Storage
The model we’re giving away comes with 32GB of storage (reported at 26GB in real terms), though only 14GB of that is useable. A 64GB version is also available. There’s also a MicroSD port, though you’d be forgiven for not being able to find it (hidden under the kickstand), so the lack of space on the internal drive shouldn’t be a huge problem – though it is odd that a cut-down version of Windows and Office would together take up that much space.
Rejoice, for the Surface has a USB port – this is what you always wanted in a tablet, right? If you have a video or presentation you need to open, you can just plug it in, copy it across and do all that nitty gritty file management that Windows users so enjoy. If you’re on the go a lot, this will be invaluable to you; as someone who mainly uses a tablet at home with a home network, the prospect isn’t quite as tantalising for me.
There is no 3G or LTE capabilties, though it’s feasible that a 3G dongle could made specifically for the Surface in future.
Also on the topic of connectivity; if you have an Xbox 360, the Surface has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Firstly, you can play your own media directly to a TV, via an Xbox 360. This doesn’t work with Netflix protected content (nor would you want it to, given that there is a Netflix 360 app anyway) — but I was able to pop in a USB key with a few home movies on, and play them simply and easily to the Xbox. However, given that the Surface can’t handle .mkv files, it seems to be somewhat limited. Hopefully some apps capable of transcoding media like Plex, or apps that are able to play any media format like VLC will appear in the Windows Store soon, but for now its use is limited in that regard.
Secondly, the Surface can act as a SmartGlass controller; in supported games (Dance Central 3, Forza Horizon, Halo 4) and apps (Netflix, HBO Go, ESPN and a few others), the tablet displays additonal information or functionality. In Dance Central 3’s party mode for example, the Surface can choose which songs to add to the playlist while people are still dancing, preventing the downtime you usually get between playing.
You can also use the Surface to launch games, apps, and videos from the dashboard. Note that the Smart Glass functionality is also available on all Windows 8 devices (desktop and laptops), iPhone, iPad and Android – so that alone isn’t a particular compelling reason to choose the Surface.
For those who are still adamant that the Surface RT doesn’t even come with a desktop mode – it does. It’s very much the desktop as you and I know it; you have the file explorer, and a desktop version of IE, and some apps pinned to the taskbar. However, that’s where the similarities end — you cannot install desktop applications. The included preview build of Office for RT runs on the desktop though.
If this is confusing you, then I completely understand. Frankly, the inclusion of a desktop mode on the Surface running Windows RT seems insane: why not just make a competant file manager app for Metro and be done with the desktop completely? Since Office has a fullscreen mode, presumably it doesn’t actually need the desktop either, and could equally be Metro only? Why tease people with an otherwise non-functional desktop? Why disjoint the Metro experience?
Here’s a brief rundown of my experience with some of the core apps you’ll find on the Surface.
Internet Explorer: I hope you like Internet Explorer because there isn’t an alternative. You can however run either in Metro mode, which I found frustrating when trying to switch between tabs, or in desktop mode, as a traditional browser.
Mail App: Oh dear, where do I start? Both of my Gmail accounts aren’t syncing right; I’ll read them on the Surface only to find they’re still showing as unread on my desktop and mobiles. This isn’t something I’ve had a problem with between Apple and Android. Second, the inbox isn’t unified; if you’re dealing with 5 or 6 email accounts, it can get ridiculous. You can work around it by adding them all to single Gmail account, but that’s not a real solution and you shouldn’t have to. Thirdly, I’m having a really hard time adjusting to way it displays emails and switches between threads; as soon I click a thread, it will expand in place, shifting the rest of the email list and resulting in a disorienting experience; Gmail and Apple Mail both display threads within the email view, not the list view. Either way, this is not a nice way to browse email, and I won’t be using it.
People: The main People app has been automatically populated with names and emails I’ve predominantly never heard of, yet attempting to reply to an email and typing in the most commonly emailed contact (my boss) resulting in no suggested recipients; I clicked the “add people” button to find him manually, but the number of contacts had mysteriously dropped to a sum total of 10, 8 of which I had never heard of. Not a great start. I noticed there’s a section for “social updates” in the people app, so I tried adding my Facebook account. I authenticated, and it said it was successful, and then nothing. Tried again. This time it said I would need to add my account via the Settings panel; so I pull across the charms and try again. Without authenticating, this time it said “you may need to wait a few minutes while we set things up”. I wait half hour, play with some other apps; nothing.
By now, I’m sick of notifications and screens like the one below — it’s both patronising, depressing, unhelpful, and arty all at the same time. If you’re doing something, let the user know the progress, or notify them – just, do something, ok?
Only after restarting does it start to show me anything.
Office: This is a killer feature, according to some pundits. I loaded up Word and was instantly kicked to a desktop; it’s disorienting, and I was under the impression there was an Office version for Metro, but clearly this isn’t it. The bugs began as soon as I attempted to open a template and edit it, which you can see on the video below. This is technically only a preview release, but if this is a big selling point, perhaps it would have been better to have it fully working before the release of the tablet.
Other than a few initial bugs, Office apps seemed to work as expected. I’m not a heavy Office user though so I didn’t test extensively. If you’ve had a chance to play with Office 2013 and you really like it, then I expect you’ll easily forgive these early bugs and really like a Surface tablet.
The gesture system is functional after getting used to it, but it’s far from intuitive. If you’ve used the desktop version of Windows 8 — like I have been — you’ll be used to a few hot corners by now, such as the bottom left for a start menu, top left for task switching; these still work with the trackpad on the Surface. If you’re touching the screen, you might instinctively try to drag from a corner, into a corner, or just hover over a corner; this does nothing. Task switching by touch alone is done by pulling in from the left side to reveal the last used app, then pushing back again to morph it into the task list. It’s a silly gesture that I couldn’t find documented anywhere. I’m not an idiot, but this made absoutely zero sense and was just inconsistent with what you can do with a mouse or trackpad. I thoroughly recommend downloading our recently published cheat sheet to help you with this.
It may take you a while to figure out how to uninstall apps from your home screen too; you need to touch them, then pull a little down, but not so much as to actually move the tile, just enough so that a checkmark will appear. Again, this took me a good 30 minutes to try and figure out.
Though the touch display is responsive, I still find a week later that I’m getting unwanted touch events, or performing a gesture just a little further than I wanted to, resulting in the wrong action completely.
Microsoft claims 8 hours of video playback under optimal conditions; though in reality you probably won’t bother turning off Bluetooth and Wifi, so expect around 6 hours of heavy usage. Standby is good though, so light users should be alright with a charge once every few days. With a Magsafe-style charging adaptor, I found snapping the power cord on to recharge easy, unlike the fiddly mini-USB charger that my phone has. Par for the course with the battery, then.
Should you buy the Microsoft Surface tablet?
I began my Windows 8 experience on a 24″ widescreen desktop, thinking that it had clearly been designed for a tablet. Having now played with the Surface, I’m not convinced it’s been designed for that either. Though the hardware is beautiful (and perhaps quirky in its choice of screen size and fixed kickstand) – the software is best described as pre-release alpha. When the Surface is supposed be a flagship device that shows off Windows 8 to its best, I’m simply disappointed.
I honestly can’t begin to list all the bugs I found while basic testing the Surface; very little worked correctly, or if it did, the experience was terribly designed and it must have felt like a bug. Blank screens with no feedback whatsoever, no guidance on progress or no indication that an error had even occurred – were common. It was a case of trial and error a lot of the time; frantic tapping on random things to see if it would fix it; restarting the device; switching back and forth through apps, and accidentally launching things I didn’t mean to. I do this kind of thing for a living; imagine how much frustration grandma would feel.
I admire what Microsoft is doing; truly I do. It’s a valiant stand, taking the stage next to Apple with a bold new direction, proclaiming, “We can do hardware, and the software, all in one single ecosystem, just like you can! We can sell apps, we can sell videos, and we can do music!” — it’s brave, but it just isn’t there yet. I’ve actually started to like — well perhaps, tolerate — Metro on my desktop computer. As a media center, it does work nicely, and when Plex, VLC or XBMC release a Metro app, it’ll be perfect. I’m also confident that the Surface Pro will address a lot of the issues found in this device.
Microsoft has proved to us that they can make an attractive piece of kit; but like most first generation products, this one is plagued by an untested interface, quirks, bugs and lack of compelling software. These are of course, all things that Microsoft can and will fix in time. For now though, this tablet isn’t ready to tackle the big boys — despite it’s big boy pricing.