On the Surface

Last Friday, I took a trip to the Microsoft Store at the Domain here in Austin to pick up a new toy: The Surface RT from Microsoft. After having spent the weekend and a few work days with it, I’m finally ready to type out a few impressions.

First off, let me preface this by saying that I’m bought into the Microsoft ecosystem so getting a Surface over an iPad or an Android tablet was a no-brainer. I’ve had an Xbox for ages, and do the bulk of my gaming on my 360. I’ve owned both a Zune 30 and a Zune HD (Still use it almost every day!), and have had a Zune Pass for several years. And of course, I’ve been a Windows Phone user since WP7 launched in the tail end of 2010. So when I started looking into getting a tablet, neither an iPad nor an Android tablet made sense. That said, I jumped on the Surface RT as soon as I could.

Hardware wise, the Surface is incredible. I think its a bit heavier than other tablets, but it has a good “heft” to it. It feels really solid, and I’ll take solid over light every day. The VaporMg case gives it a very premium feel. The display is nice and crisp, though not as high-res as the newest iPads. So far, that hasn’t been an issue, and I doubt it will be. It’s a 16:9 display, so movies aren’t distorted or letterboxed in any way. Also, Surface works well in both landscape or portrait mode (minus a few odd apps). I find myself using portrait mode quite a bit for reading websites and such.

Unfortunately there does seem to be some kind of defect (Or maybe its intentional?) in the glass on a few (Maybe all?) Surfaces. They appear to have some kind of warping near the bottom, in two spots right next to the capacitive Start button, and right above the magnets that connect the Touch/TypeCover. I posted more about this issue over on The Verge, and the verdict so far seems to be that it isn’t that common.

Surface has a built in USB 2.0 port, a mini-HDMI port, and a microSD card slot. That means you can plug in a flash drive/keyboard/mouse/whatever (As long as it’s listed as “compatible” here), connect to an external monitor, and add up to 64GB of SD storage. The USB port alone takes it a long way towards replacing a “traditional” computer like a laptop. Also, Surface is WiFi only. You won’t be able to pop a SIM card in to jump on a cellular network, though you could connect to a cell-based WiFi hotspot if you have one.

I can’t comment on the innovative TouchCover or TypeCover, since I didn’t purchase either. I did use each of them briefly while in the store, and they’re perfectly capable keyboards. If you want to use the Surface as a laptop replacement or plan to regularly use it for serious typing, get one.

Personally, I’m using my Surface as a tablet, and if I need a keyboard I’ll use a USB or Bluetooth one. No need for a keyboard to follow me everywhere. However, I do hope that we see more “click in” accessories in the future.

Battery life on the Surface is excellent. In fact, I’ve currently clocked about 36 hours of “normal” (Not constant, but a bit of music here, video there, note taking, web browsing, etc.) use and I’ve still got about 5% battery life. Not too shabby!

The last relevant bit about the hardware of the Surface is the kickstand, which I find myself using more often than I though I would. It is locked to the “ideal” angle as determined by Microsoft, so you won’t be adjusting it based on how you’re sitting. So far though, I haven’t felt the need to try and adjust the angle, even though I’d like to have the freedom to.

Software wise, the Surface is… interesting. It runs Windows RT, which is effectively Windows 8 but without the ability to install “old” applications. That means you won’t be able to install Steam, Photoshop, iTunes, Firefox, etc, on your desktop like you used to. You can ONLY get apps via the Windows Store, and those run in the new “Metro” interface. The desktop mode is essentially just for the File Explorer, and a few pre-installed programs.

The only issue I could see this causing for most people is when it comes to buying Surface RT as a laptop replacement and trying to manage your iPhone. Since you can’t install iTunes, you’re out of luck, because I’m 99.9% sure that Apple won’t write a Windows Store iTunes app. Those people would need to wait for the Surface Pro, which has full Windows 8 and the ability to install other “old” programs.

Surface RT DOES come pre-loaded with a version of Microsoft Office 2013 that includes Word, Powerpoint, Excel (No macros), and OneNote. These have also been optimized for touch, so you can navigate just fine without a keyboard and mouse.

So far, the apps I’ve downloaded from the Windows Store are very well designed. I can’t really complain about anything, except for the fact that an odd one here or there doesn’t work in portrait mode. Unless there was recently an update, the Windows Store app itself doesn’t work in portrait, which doesn’t make a lot of sense. I assume that portrait capability isn’t a certification requirement, so kudos to the devs that are putting it in there.

The only drawback to the Windows Store is the selection. Yes, the big hitters like Netflix, Hulu, Angry Birds, Kindle, etc, are there. However, it remains to be seen if apps will be released in a timely manner. For example, when Rovio comes out with a new game, will it hit Windows 8/RT at the same time it does the iPad? We’ll just have to wait and see. In theory, RT should draw developers because they can cross-develop for Win8 and RT and reach that many more people. But much like Windows Phone, the app story remains “wait and see”

All in all, I love my Surface, but you might not. It isn’t for everyone. I would seriously recommend looking into Surface if you fit into one of about three different groups.

1: You’re bought into the Microsoft ecosystem (Xbox, Zune, Windows Phone, etc) and want a tablet. This is a no-brainer.

2: You want a tablet but need something that can get more work done than an iPad. With full Office and the ability to use a “traditional” Windows environment, you’ll be able to use Surface RT like a laptop.

3: You want to replace an aging desktop/laptop but don’t want to spend a ton of money, and you’re okay with not being able to install some programs.

Are those very specific categories? Yes. But that’s who the Surface is for right now.

It isn’t a better premium tablet than an iPad, but its better than many of the Android offerings out there and more flexible than the iPad.

It isn’t a better budget tablet than a Kindle Fire, but it is more capable.

It isn’t a better computer than a laptop, but it is more portable and cheaper.

Surface fits into an odd niche that I just happen to be sitting squarely in. For me, it couldn’t be more perfect. For others, it really depends.

I’ll be interested to see what happens with Surface down the line. In a few months, Microsoft will release the Surface Pro, which is a slightly beefier Surface that runs an Intel Core i7 chip, full Windows 8 (With a fully functional “old” desktop), has pen input, and has more storage. They say they’re going to price it competitively with Ultrabooks (Around $1000) instead of competitive with the iPad (Like Surface RT). I’d be much more likely to recommend that to people than I would RT, simply because it’ll be a true laptop replacement. As for the future of Surface, I assume we’ll see a “Surface 2” with cellular connections and maybe even an Intel CloverTrail (Intel’s low-power x86 SoC that should compete with ARM chips) version.

To sum up, as Microsoft’s first real foray into making premium hardware, the Surface is a winner. As a tablet competing against the iPad, the Surface is a contender but not an outright winner. If the app ecosystem evolves as it should, then Surface (And other Windows 8/RT tablets) have a real chance to go toe to toe with the iPad, and outright kill Android tablets. Only time will tell!

One comment

  1. Alexander Agabon says:

    Have you tried using it with your Xbox yet?

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