Gadgets

Microsoft’s Surface has tons of personality — and drawbacks

From afar, Microsoft’s Surface tablet looks like it means serious business. You won’t question its build quality, and with its straight lines and sharp angles, you (probably) won’t mistake it for an iPad.

It’s a computing device with a personality all its own — something that’s particularly shocking given that this is Microsoft’s first stab at building a computer. From the short time I’ve used it, the Surface feels like the perfect introduction to everything Microsoft is trying to carry out with Windows 8.

But it’s also clear that, until Microsoft attracts more apps to the Windows Store, it’ll be a mere curiosity for most consumers (many of whom are probably trying to get their hands on iPad minis this holiday season).

Today after Microsoft’s Windows 8 launch event, I got my hands on a Surface unit running Windows RT (provided by Microsoft for review) as well as a variety of its cases and accessories.

I’ll admit, the Surface feels plenty awkward the first time you pick it up. Since it features a wide 10.6-inch screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio, it’s a bit of a struggle to hold it in landscape mode with one hand. In portrait mode, it feels like you’re holding a high-tech legal pad.

But once you attach one of the covers and pop out the Surface’s kickstand, Microsoft’s vision becomes clear. As much as Microsoft is selling the Surface as a tablet, it seems most at home on a flat surface (yes, I know, hilarious). I received both the Touch Cover, which is reminiscent of Apple’s iPad Smart Covers with a flat touchable keyboard, and the Type Cover, which is a bit thicker and sports actual keys.

These covers aren’t just a way to protect your new Surface — they’re the entire crux of Microsoft’s plan. Windows 8 isn’t just Microsoft’s tablet strategy, it’s Microsoft’s everything strategy. And the Surface, with its detachable keyboard covers, is trying to be an everything machine.

I’ll need to spend more time with both of the covers before I can fully judge them. But after some initial pecking, I’m definitely a fan of the Type Cover. It’s not much thicker than the Touch variant, and the keys are infinitely better. For consumers who care about typing quickly, it’ll be the obvious choice.

What’s most surprising about the Surface is how solid it feels. Microsoft didn’t cut any corners, and its obsessive design (yes, which feels oddly Apple-like) is evident from every angle. It’s an appropriate companion for Windows 8 — a new type of computer for a new type of operating system.

The strong design, together with the innovative functionality of the covers, gives the Surface a distinct personality from its competition. You’ll definitely notice those brightly colored Touch Covers in the wild. Having personality is important — it’s something that most Android devices lack, and it’s also a big part of Apple’s success with the iPhone and iPad. As our devices become smaller and more personal, we also need to feel an emotional connection with them. The Surface manages that much.

When it comes to the software side of things, I easily synchronized my Gmail account as well as contacts and calendars (a simple process). Moving around the OS feels smooth, though I haven’t had a chance to really overwhelm the Surface with multiple apps. I had one hard crash inside of the New York Times app, which forced me to reboot the Surface (and didn’t show me any error message).

Mostly, I’m surprised that Microsoft is still missing some major app partners — in particular, Twitter and Facebook. Thankfully, FlipToast is a free app available on Windows 8; it aggregates social networks into a single interface. Geeks and power users will figure out ways to survive without their favorite programs and services, but mainstream consumers will likely just be confused. More apps will come, but the lack of important apps right now makes it hard to recommend a Surface at launch.

Check back for my full Surface review next week. For now, take a look at our hands-on pics of the Surface below.

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