The Surface is a mystery.
I'm not so sure Microsoft knows the answer. The Surface is a strange device, one that tries really hard to be everything at once, but never quite dazzling in one particular category.
The Surface isn't a bad product by any means. But it is certainly a first-generation attempt by Microsoft, and it feels that way. It's a shame, since the Surface is being launched in a world where the number one tablet just entered its fourth generation.
After spending several days with the Surface, I still can't land on a solid thesis. I love it. I hate it. It's beautiful. It's confusing.
The Surface runs a pared down version of Windows 8 called Windows RT, which is designed to only work on tablets. Windows RT is nearly identical to Windows 8, except you can't run older Windows programs on it. Instead, you're locked into whatever Microsoft offers in its app store. (More on that later.)
It also means Surface has the radical new Windows user interface, the same one that's been confusing a lot of first-time Windows 8/RT users.
The Surface was my first extended exposure to the new Windows, and after several days, I still haven't figured everything out. Windows RT is incredibly overwhelming when you first use it, and it's tedious and annoying for Microsoft to expect you to go through its suggested method of trial and error to figure out how everything works.
That said, I do have the basics down: closing apps, cycling between recently-used apps, adjusting settings, etc. There's a steep learning curve, but once I got past it, I found myself zipping through most tasks without a second thought. However, I still feel like I have a long way to go to master all the intricacies of the OS.
The Surface is full of neat little features that can only be accomplished by turning the classic Windows desktop on its head. I won't go into all of them, but my favorite is multitasking, which lets you run any two apps simultaneously on the same screen. You can "pull" a recently-used app by swiping from the left side of the screen and "snap" it into place in a separate window. That means you can watch a Netflix video while checking your email, or read an article in the New York Times app while updating your calendar. You get the idea. Other tablets like Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 have tried to nail multitasking on the tablet, but not with the success and polish of the Surface.
Then there are the Live Tiles, which you pin to the main menu so you can get real-time updates with news, weather, new messages, etc. Tapping a Live Tile launches the full app. (If you've ever used a Windows Phone, you're familiar with this concept.) I'm a big fan of Microsoft's Live Tiles. They're not as bulky and heavy as widgets in Android, yet they're dynamic enough to show you more information than the app icons in Apple's iOS. It's a beautiful compromise.
It's the little differences like multitasking and Live Tiles that make the Surface so intriguing. It's not going to be for everyone, but a lot of people will love it.Hardware, Design, And Performance
On the outside, the Surface's design isn't as inviting as the iPad's. Microsoft opted for an industrial look, with sharp edges and angles. You can mute the effect with one of the colorful keyboard covers, but it's clear Microsoft is trying to convey that the Surface is a serious machine inside and out.
The kickstand, as kitschy as it sounds, is actually pretty useful, even if you don't use the keyboard cover. It's very thin, so it doesn't add any bulk to the device. In fact, the back of the Surface is completely flush. My only beef with the kickstand is that you can't adjust the angle when the Surface is propped up on a table, making it annoying to use as a true laptop.//
The hardware performance is downright incredible. No matter how many apps you have open or how many tiles you have running on the Start menu, the Surface never chokes. Battery life is on par with other top-tier tablets; I was able to squeeze around eight hours of power with a single charge.
Further blurring the line between PC and tablet, Microsoft added a full-sized USB port to the side of the Surface, which means you can connect it to thumb drives, printers, and even an Xbox controller for gaming. There's also a Micro SD card slot hidden under the kickstand in case you want even more storage than the top-of-the-line 64 GB model offers. I didn't exactly find a need for all those extras, but I can see how some will appreciate having the option.The Keyboard
The Surface's optional keyboard cover is perhaps the most hyped and unique aspect of the tablet. It attaches to the bottom of the Surface with a satisfying snap, effectively turning the device into a laptop, mouse pad and all.
There are two types of keyboard covers for the Surface. The "touch" cover is almost completely flat, with the keys imprinted on a felt-like surface. It's more like typing on a touchscreen than a real keyboard. And it's incredibly accurate once you get used to it. Even the mouse pad responds to gestures just as well as any mousepad I've used on a regular laptop. While it's a bit odd at first to type on a keyboard without any real haptic feedback, I quickly adjusted and actually preferred it to the other "type" cover for the Surface that uses real keys.
The biggest problem with the keyboard cover isn't its functionality, but its price. If you want a touch cover shipped with your Surface, you need to pay an extra $100. That means the minimum you need to spend in order to get the complete Surface experience is $599, $100 more than the cheapest fourth-generation iPad. The touch cover comes included with the $699 64 GB model.
Some will argue that $100 is worth it to get the hybrid tablet/PC experience Microsoft touts. I disagree. The Surface is supposed to be a competitive product with the iPad and if its most distinguishing feature costs an extra $100 (or more in the case of the type cover), then it's going to turn a lot of people off.Apps
Windows RT suffers the same problem as the new Windows Phone 8 operating system. The apps just aren't there. Unlike the full version of Windows 8, Windows RT can't run older Windows programs, so you're limited to whatever you can find in Microsoft's app store. It's the same concept Apple uses with the iPad and iPhone: developers must submit their apps to Microsoft for approval before they can be used on Windows RT.
Despite the fact that developers have had several months to get ready for Windows RT, the app selection is still pretty dim. There's no Facebook. No Twitter. No Dropbox, Angry Birds, Spotify, or Pandora. And since the Windows RT user base is minuscule compared to the number of people using the iPad, developer interest is relatively low right now. Developers go where the users are, and there simply aren't enough people using Windows RT right now to draw them in. If the Surface and other Windows RT tablets take off, then this won't be a problem within a few months. But for now, Surface owners are going to miss out on the many of the latest and greatest tablet apps.
That's not to say the app store is completely empty. You'll still find Netflix, Hulu, Evernote, New York Times, and Skype. And each of those apps have stunning designs that perfectly complement Windows' new look.Should You Buy It?
The Surface is a mixed bag. As I alluded to above, there are a lot of elements scrambled into the device, but they don't all add up to a perfect product, especially when compared to other tablets out there.
The Surface is either a very decent tablet or just a so-so PC. But it's definitely not both. It almost feels ahead of its time, as if Microsoft has already jumped ahead to when people have completely abandoned laptops in favor of tablets and smartphones. I don't think the world is ready for that yet.
I wouldn't recommend the Surface for most people, but I know the early adopter crowd is going to go nuts for this thing.
As they should.
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