FOLLOW US

Review: Microsoft Surface

Allan Swann
December 5, 2012

A curiously unfocused tablet, but full of potential

E
ven as I sit down to write this review, I still have no idea what market the Surface is aimed at.  

Its advertising campaign suggests its a hip, indie-kid cool device that will change the way you use a tablet ‘ an attempt to out-do Apple’s ‘street cred’. However, Its exhausting game of techie 20 questions during set up suggest that it is pointed at census takers who enjoy filling out forms.

The wonderful front end (no longer called the Metro interface, but we refer to it as such for the sake of simplicity), is countered by the inclusion of the counter-intuitive old Windows 7 desktop for some applications.

It is supposedly a tool for business, but its consumer-friendly front end is unrecognisable and unusable for anyone who actually want to do some work.

Put simply, the Microsoft Surface is one of the most unfocused devices I have seen for a long time, while retaining huge potential.

AN APPLE-ESQUE BODY

The body of the Surface is a nice cool proprietary magnesium casing Microsoft calls VaporMG. It feels nice and tough, and is very hard to scratch. It picks up finger prints, but little else. Looking side on, its shaping is that of an upside down trapezium, and it sits comfortably in the hand. It is just as thin as the iPad 4, at 9.4mm, and like that device the metallic back makes for a far more comfortable in-hand experience than most Android tablets’ plastic backs.

Microsoft Surface + Kickstand + touch keyboard

Microsoft Surface + Kickstand + touch keyboard

 

For tablet users looking to switch from Apple or Android alternatives (or looking to dive into the tablet market for the first time) the most striking observation is its screen, which has a 16:9 widescreen ratio, as opposed to the more common 4:3 ratio seen on the iPad and its rivals.

16:9 is definitely much better for watching films, but on a tablet is awkward for just about everything else. The Surface is a landscape mode focused device, and it reminds you of this constantly. Whereas the iPad’s ratio makes book and magazine reading ideal in portrait mode, the Surface feels like you are holding the 2001: A Space Odyssey’s monolith. It is long. It is skinny. It is also heavy, and hard to hold in this position for long.

A HEAVY BOY

It is 680g, to the iPad 3’s 650g. While that seems a minimal difference, as mentioned earlier the weight distribution is decentralised due to the device’s shape. When holding it in portrait, your arms will tire quickly.

Fortunate then that it comes with a kickstand, which means it can be used on a desk – in landscape mode. – similar to any laptop. The kickstand is useless on the couch or in bed, but is a welcome addition for getting work done. Again, Microsoft wants you to know that this is a ‘proper’ computer, not a tablet.

KEYBOARD CASE CONFUSION

Microsoft has gone out of its way to offer as many permutations of its Surface case as possible, in a nod to Apple’s own accessory cash machine.

Microsofts Type Cover + Touch Covers

Microsofts Type Cover + Touch Covers

Touch Cover £99

(also available in bundle options)
The main touch cover is a very poor device, priced at a truly extortionate £99 pounds. This product functions as a cover sure enough, but as a keyboard is more useless than the onscreen keyboard. It has no force feedback or any other way of telling if you’ve hit the key correctly (and most of the time it doesn’t work), and simply feels like tapping your fingers on a rug. At least the onscreen keyboard lights up when a button is pressed. For work, this keyboard is a disaster ‘ you can’t touch type at all. You will need to watch your fingers as you type, completely defeating the purpose. To be honest this should’ve been included for free with the device, or priced at no more than £20. As a cover it wears, and the back connector frays. Consumers are advised to buy a better cover.

Type Cover £109
Vastly superior when compared to the Touch Cover, actually has a proper keyboard with recessing keys. Really the only option here. I do worry about its plasticky build and fragility, but it has stood up to What Mobile’s tests so far. Again, shockingly expensive for what you get.

Best option
Like any tablet, it can connect to any bluetooth keyboard. The Microsoft Wedge bluetooth keyboard is half the price, and comes with a case, proper buttons and a lush metal frame.

The keyboard integration with these covers was a bit buggy ‘ there were several situations (especially when waking the device) when the onscreen keyboard would stay live ‘ blocking use of the attached keyboard. The only solution was to detach and reattach the keyboard ‘ very annoying. This seemed to happen mostly to the type keyboard, but was regular enough to be bothersome.

As a plus, the Surface does have a USB slot, a small addition that will please most, and a MicroSD slot, which expands your storage options up to 64GB ‘ this should be standard on every tablet ‘ Apple take note.

STUCK IN LANDSCAPE MODE

Games such as Cut the Rope (a portrait mode game on every other smartphone and tablet) here only runs in landscape ‘ with a wastage of around a third to a half of the screen real estate. This is not modifiable.

Cut the rope - stuck in landscape mode on the Microsoft Surface

Cut the rope – a huge waste of screen space in landscape mode

The screen itself is something of a disappointment, for the same price as an iPad you are getting a screen with half the resolution, just 1368×768 ‘ a very poor 148 pixels per inch (PPI). That’s less than most modern smartphones. Most of the tablet competition has moved on to Retina-esque resolutions of 2048×1536, which makes photo viewing and especially the reading of text far, far easier. You can quite easily see the pixellation on the Surface. This is very apparent when playing games with polygons, it is extremely blocky and looks like a last gen device.

AN AVERAGE AT BEST SCREEN

Compare this device side by side with the iPad 3 and the Google Nexus 10 and there really is no competition. Websites, email and PDFs look far superior on rival devices. Microsoft doesn’t have much of a magazine/book store set up yet, but even comparing Kindle books across devices, the Surface doesn’t hold up very well.

Colour reproduction is also somewhat dull. While the main metro screen looks good, colours are bland on photos and in games, the mesh of the low resolution screen quite visible. It definitely doesn’t have the beautiful ‘pop’ of the Nokia Lumia 920 running Windows Phone 8 (reviewed here)

Another limitation of this low 720P screen resolution is that the Surface can’t watch 1080P full HD movies, surprising for a supposed premium device.

A POWERHOUSE UNDER THE HOOD

Where the surface does shine is in its processing guts. Its 1.3GHz quad core Nvidia Tegra T30 is, on paper, much more powerful than its iPad rivals. When running the Metro interface, opening apps, sending emails and typing it performed flawlessly. The 2GB of RAM included no doubt helps. I don’t think I ever saw any lag or shuddering of the interface, even with several apps running simultaneously. How much of that raw CPU power is being used up running Windows RT is unknown, but the front end experience is excellent. There aren’t enough high-end games to push the device yet, so its hard to know where it stands running games such as Infinity Blade 2 or Sky Gamblers.

SOME COSTCUTTING

The main camera on the Surface is   very poor, only 1.2MP. Personally, I don’t find this much of a problem, as these cameras are superfluous on tablets. The front facing camera is also 1.2MP, which is fine for Skype. Colours are muddy, the images are very grainy and noisy. It is unusable for photographic purposes.

Microsoft has also made the Surface Wi-Fi only, so no 3G or 4G. This is a disappointment, given the poor quality of wi-fi access in the UK. This limits the device’s usability outside of coffee shops, the office and the home.

Like most of its rivals, it includes a TV out, which means users can run an HDMI cable straight into their TVs. Once Smartglass launches properly (which wireless synchs movies across Windows Phone, Windows 8 and Xbox devices), this feature will be made redundant.

Battery life is also around average, running at around 8 hours for high usage – using email, surfing the net, skyping and playing games.

WINDOWS RT – A GLORIOUS MESS

As many users know, the Surface has been designed as the showcase for the Windows 8/RT platform. A proof of concept if you will. This is where it becomes a frustrating endeavour.

The front end Metro interface is damn good (modelled on the excellent Windows Phone 7/8 model); it just feels so natural and brilliant on this device. The live tiles and the left to right reading/sliding structure of the interface is a wonderful change from Apple’s stilted icon heavy UI with endless subscreens.

I suspect many of Microsoft’s great ideas will be ripped off soon enough.

It is then infuriating that the company hasn’t had the guts to make it the entire operating system. It has opted to fall back on the ugly, mouse and keyboard focused Windows 7/8 desktop. It seems that when Microsoft couldn’t figure out how to ‘Metro’ something, they simply dumped the old Windows on us.

Make up your mind Microsoft

Make up your mind Microsoft – Metro or desktop?

While that UI works fine on a desktop, it has no place on any tablet, and is a shocking failure by the company. Cutting/pasting, trying to click on tiny folders, or closing windows with the (tiny) red X button is an exercise in frustration with chubby fingers on a touch screen.

This is especially so for casual users, many of whom bought a tablet specifically to get away from this kind of computing experience.

I consider myself to be a power user, yet RT still presents me with a multitude of needlessly complex menus, options and outcomes that would infuriate even a desktop user. It seems like Microsoft’s solution to any complexities is not to reduce said complexity, but to provide a video tutorial of obnoxious condescension ‘ these remind me of the famous Office Paperclip from the 90s.

I suspect the mainstream tablet audience Apple and Google have pleased in the past few years won’t put up with this kind of nonsense. Here are a few small samples of a wider problem:

Case 1:

 

Microsoft Surface asking for a Windows reinstall

Microsoft Surface asking for a Windows reinstall

 

During the exhaustive set up process (how many questions on security do you feel like being asked?) the Surface crashed twice before even getting to the home screen. The display stated: ‘An error has occurred. Please reinstall Windows’. I actually laughed out loud – this is truly something a comedian would’ve come up with. How am I supposed to reinstall Windows? It came preinstalled on the device (and that’s the only way Windows RT is being made available).   Third time reboot (and re-filling out said exhaustive forms) I got lucky. Not the best start. This is part of why Microsoft has faded in the last decade.

Case 2:

 

Who wants this kind of user experience on a tablet?

Who wants this kind of user experience on a tablet?

When opening Office from Metro, it stops, drops into Windows 7 mode and asks what file formats I want to use – XML or ODF (in a giant wordy box explaining both cases). Most casual users don’t know what this means, hell, even regular Office users may not know. What was wrong with letting users save their documents in a chosen format AFTER they finished writing ‘ you know, like Microsoft Office does on every other system? Or why not just default to Microsoft’s own .DOC files, and let power users change settings to suit?

Case 3:

Some basic interface issues: Control+W will shut a window in desktop mode ‘ but won’t in Metro. Alt-tab works across the whole system. Where is the consistency?

Case 4:

Copying files. I still have no idea how to copy files, such as pictures, using Metro to an SD card or USB stick. I ended up emailing them to my other computer or using Skydrive. To do this manually, you will have to use the old Windows interface. Try explaining this to an older familymember over the phone: “Drop back to the desktop, open Windows Explorer by clicking the folder icon, choose C: drive, then click Users, then your name, then my pictures, then the camera folder. Then copy it to your USB stick, drive F:”. Yes it works. But is this really the future of touch screen computing?  Or an attempt to force us back to old Windows 7 habits?  I ended up quitting and using a mouse.

 A STEEP LEARNING CURVE

Unfortunately, the Metro UI cuts Microsoft back the other way too ‘ business users will be frightened off by the ‘toy-ish’ Metro front end, which is obviously designed for consumers, and is useless for productivity.

Windows RT feels like a user interface developed by committee; an unfinished beta or demo version of an OS. The rest of the market has worked hard at making user experiences intuitive for their users. Microsoft thinks you should just learn to do things their way, no matter how obscure.

APPS REMAIN A PROBLEM

The main problem with this generation of Microsoft products is the same with all new entrants in the mobile sphere ‘ the app store is limited. Like Windows Phone 8, it will take a while for app developers to jump on board. Microsoft has a few basics in there, Skype is to be integrated into the operating system (eventually), and Microsoft Office is there for free, but otherwise there are very limited options, especially for gamers.

A LAPTOP OR TABLET?

Tablets, in their current incarnation, are devices of simplicity. They are designed to do the simplest parts of computing, quickly, efficiently and simply. They are toys, web browsers, e-readers and creative tools rolled into one.

Whether consumers are going to be happy being charged £399 for a pretty case and good system specs (despite a poor screen), a new interface,   and an empty app store is up for debate.

The Surface seems more to be an attempt by Microsoft to ‘correct’ users’ behaviour; that is, force them to use a tablet in a way that suits Microsoft’s existing business models ‘ namely as a laptop. The sad thing is, Metro UI is that modern solution screaming to get out. We have seen how brilliant Metro is on Windows Phone 8 devices. Why not do that here too?

PLUS
+ Front end of Windows RT ‘ Metro ‘ is brilliant
+ Casing and kickstand is nice
+ Proper USB and MicroSD welcome

MINUS
‘ Back end ‘dekstop mode’ is horrific
‘ Poor screen
‘ Heavy and awkward to hold in portrait mode

PERFORMANCE – 4 Stars
DESIGN – 3 Stars
USABILITY – 3 Stars
FEATURES – 3 Stars

OVERALL – 3 Stars

VERDICT
The Surface feels like a lost opportunity. If Microsoft had gone all in with Metro, scrapped the back end Windows 7 nonsense, and thrown in a decent hi-res screen, this device could’ve been an iPad killer. As it stands, tinkerers and boffins may enjoy it, but it is not a device for the mainstream. Disappointing.

TECH SPECS
Networks:
None, Wi-Fi only
Dimensions 275 x 172 x 9.4mm
Weight 680g
OS Windows RT
Screen TFT capacitive touchscreen, 16M colors
Resolution 1366 x 768 ‘ 148 pixels per inch density
Processor Nvidia T30 quad core at 1.3GHz
Memory 2GB of RAM
GPU GeForce ULP
Storage 32GB/64GB, MicroSD slot expandable to 64GB
Camera Front and back 1.2MP. Video 720P
Wireless Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, Wi-Fi Direct, dual-band
Ports 3.5mm audio out jack, USB2.0, proprietary power connector, mini-HDMI out, cover connector port, MicroSD
Battery life 8 hours claimed ‘ accurate

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

Share this article