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These days, the best gadgets on the market are all aiming at the same lofty goal: no compromises. Consider the most recent MacBook Pros, Sony’s NEX lineup of cameras (and similar mirrorless shooters), or Jawbone’s fantastic Jambox Big wireless speaker: These devices may have their minor flaws, but for the most part they work so well that you practically feel empowered by their capabilities.
Without compromises, these devices feel as if they were formed purely to accomplish a specific task well and never get in your way. In the end, isn’t that the the entire point of good technology?
From the moment Microsoft debuted the Surface tablet back in July, it’s seemed like the ideal no-compromise device. It’s far thinner than any ultraportable laptop could hope to be, and, with the innovative Touch and Type covers, it also has the potential to be a more productive tablet than Apple’s iPad (or any other tablet, for that matter). The Surface is also the best device in which to introduce Windows 8 and its newfangled touch interface to the world.
For all of these reasons, the Surface seemed like a major step towards the future of computing, and not just Microsoft’s attempt to copy the iPad. Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t live up to the Surface’s no-compromise promise.
After testing out the Surface (starting at $499, $599 with a touch cover) for almost a week, I found a lot to like about Microsoft’s first computer. But the heavy weight of compromise keeps it from living up to its massive potential as a revolutionary device.
The good: Microsoft’s best-designed product ever
The Surface is Microsoft’s first attempt at building its own computer — but you wouldn’t know that at first glance. With its solid construction, attractive lines, and satisfying “thunk” when popping out its kickstand, the Surface feels like the Windows PC equivalent of a luxury car. The Surface has an Apple-esque level of obsessive design. For example, that wonderful kickstand sound didn’t happen by accident; it required a custom hinge.
But Microsoft also manages to make its design noticeably different from Apple’s. After all, a device as important as this shouldn’t be easily mistaken for an iPad.
The Surface’s case is made out of a metal Microsoft calls VaporMG, which is incredibly durable while being three times lighter than aluminum, it says. VaporMG comes from a magnesium alloy, and it feels almost alien in your hands. It’s cool to the touch and will instantly make you forget any plastic Android tablet you’ve ever felt.
Windows 8 made real
In several ways, the Surface is Microsoft’s Windows 8 vision manifested in an actual piece of hardware. Its boxy design and bright keyboard covers evoke Windows 8’s expressive Live Tiles. The Surface eschews the friendly curves of the iPad. It’s all flat shapes and straight lines — it’s all “serious business.” And of course, it sits halfway between tablets and traditional laptops, the same line that Windows 8 straddles.
It’s tough to understand what Microsoft is getting at with Windows 8 when you upgrade your current laptop or desktop. A mouse and keyboard, or an older touchpad, simply doesn’t give you the same experience as a touchscreen. But with the Surface, the entire thought process behind Windows 8 just clicks (yes, like the lovely kickstand).
We had plenty of nice things to say about Windows 8 in our review, but the Surface actually runs a stripped-down version of the OS called Windows RT, which is for devices running mobile ARM processors. The two operating systems look essentially the same, but one big difference with RT is that you can’t run older Windows applications. Given the paucity of apps in the Windows Store, that could prove a problem for many consumers.
Microsoft will also release the Surface Pro in the next few months, which will be heavier and more expensive (no pricing details have been revealed yet), but it will have more horsepower and will run older Windows programs.
Who needs a cover when you can have a keyboard?
While it’s an intriguing device on its own, the Surface feels half-complete without one of the covers, which double as keyboards when unfolded. As a standalone tablet, a great deal is working against the Surface (more on that below). But as a device that can swap between being a tablet and laptop easily, it’s a wonder.
The Touch Cover ($120), which is touch-sensitive and doesn’t have real keys, feels remarkably thin and light at just 3.25 millimeters thick and 0.46 pounds. It’s basically like trying to touch-type on a flat table: It’s tricky at first, but you’ll get the hang of it quickly. Without the Touch Cover, the Surface would simply be yet another me-too tablet. With it, the Surface feels like it comes from the future, which is exactly the emotion Microsoft wants to convey.
You’ll either love or hate the bolder color choices for the Touch Cover — cyan, magenta, and red (which looks more tangerine to me) — but it also has plain white and black variants if you want something subtler. The bright colors make the Surface stand out when sitting next to an iPad equipped with Apple’s Smart Case, something that I’m sure wasn’t accidental.
The Type Cover ($130), on the other hand, feels as good as any laptop’s keyboard I’ve ever used, including the MacBook Air. Since it features real keys, typing on it has less of a learning curve, and it quickly became my preferred Surface cover. It’s a bit thicker than the Touch Cover at 6 millimeters, and it’s a tenth of a pound heavier, but these are minor sacrifices for superior typing. (You also give up some of the futuristic vibe with the Type Cover, but it’s tough to complain when it feels so good.)
Both covers attach to the Surface magnetically with ease — I found it even simpler than attaching the iPad’s Smart Cover, and you hear a satisfying “Click” once the covers attach properly. Both also feature rudimentary touchpads, which was frustrating to use on the Touch Cover and adequate on the Type Cover. For the most part, you’ll be touching the screen to navigate the Surface, but I still found the touchpads necessary to deal with the Windows desktop interface.
Ideal for media
The Surface’s wide 10.6-inch screen is well suited for media. Widescreen movies typically fill the entire screen, and the display’s vibrant color makes photos shine. It’s nowhere near as sharp as the iPad’s Retina Display, but for most consumers it’ll do just fine. The Surface also sounds better than most tablets thanks to surprisingly loud stereo speakers.
At all of its prices, the Surface comes with about twice the memory of the iPad. That gives you plenty more room to store music and movies, in addition to all the media you’ll inevitably stream, as well as whatever the OS and apps take up, which is significant. I tested the 64 GB version of the Surface, and with only a few additional apps installed, I had just 42.3 GB free. The amount of free space will certainly be much lower if you get the 32 GB entry-level model.
You can also expand the Surface’s memory with tiny MicroSDXC cards, which are available in sizes up to 128 GB, and you can swap these in and out while the tablet is running. (The storage cards fit into an ingenious nook underneath the Surface’s kickstand — as if nothing should mar its beautiful exterior.)
Above: Windows head Steven Sinofsky seems surprised by his Surface. (Photo: James Pikover)
The Bad: Compromise abounds
You’d think that with a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor and 2 GB of RAM, the Surface would be ready to run Windows RT without much of a sweat. That’s true for the most part: navigating around the Start screen, launching apps, and jumping through multiple open programs generally felt silky smooth.
But things begin to slow down once you have too many apps open. And so, the compromises begin.
2 GB of RAM? What is this, 2005?
“Apps don’t slow down Surface, so you don’t need to close them,” Microsoft boasts on the Surface’s website. But in my experience, that wasn’t exactly true. Running several apps at once caused noticeable slowdown when playing games, switching between apps, or dealing with media. I often had to close Windows 8 apps entirely to reclaim some precious memory (within an app, you do this by swiping from the top of the screen to the bottom). Things get even more troublesome if you’re running multiple Office applications and Internet Explorer in the Desktop.
The Surface also has a hard time navigating Flash and video content on the web. It typically stutters a few times before playing a YouTube video, and the video itself usually takes a few seconds before it begins to play smoothly.
For the most part, I blame the Surface’s paltry RAM for the slowdowns. While 2 GB is a healthy amount of memory for most tablets, it’s fairly minimal for Windows PCs. Even with the memory optimizations made for Windows RT, it often feels like the Surface is gasping for breathing room. With multiple Internet Explorer tabs, Word, and several Windows 8 applications running at once, the Surface’s memory usage would often exceed 80 percent. Things could get better as Microsoft further optimizes the Surface’s firmware and Windows RT, but for now I’m left wishing that Microsoft pushed for 4 GB of RAM (like in the Surface Pro).
If anything, the memory limitations reveal exactly who Microsoft is aiming at with the Surface: A typical consumer who wants the convenience of a readily accessible keyboard but who doesn’t really do all that much at once. For geeks and power users, the Surface Pro is where it’s at.
Pretty but awkward
Despite the overall excellence of the Surface’s hardware, I still found some things to be annoying. For one, at 1.5 pounds with a widescreen display, the Surface is almost impossible to use with one hand for very long. I’ve never been a big fan of large tablets, but the Surface feels egregiously awkward in one hand, no matter how you hold it. Instead of being a convenient handheld computer, I mostly rested the Surface on my leg in tablet mode.
And then there’s the kickstand. I love the design, but it’s not very stable when used on your lap or any non-flat surface. I don’t think we should ever have to worry about balancing our computers on our laps — that’s something notebook makers pretty much mastered several years ago.
Slow down there, fast typer
As much as I liked the design and theory behind the Surface’s covers, actually using them to type for prolonged periods was a major headache. Both the Touch and Type keyboards would often miss characters, and sometimes entire words, if I typed too quickly. If I slowed down to about half my typing speed, things generally worked fine.
Apparently, Microsoft is aware of this issue, and I’ve been told a software fix is coming soon. (If it were a hardware issue, the Surface would be doomed.) But it doesn’t make the best first impression for a device that’s supposed to represent the future of computing. Heck, even DOS on a 386 was able to keep up with speedy typing!
Windows RT: A decent, but barren, start
While Windows 8 is getting most of the hype right now, it’s Windows RT that may truly determine Microsoft’s future. It’s the first version of Windows built for a chip architecture outside of x86 processors, so it won’t run on Intel or AMD chips. And due to its lightweight nature, Windows RT could potentially run on devices with very compact and low-power CPUs, which could enable those devices to be even smaller and thinner than the Surface.
But as it stands now, Windows RT still needs to grow quite a bit before I’m satisfied with it. It takes the Surface around 25 seconds to boot to the login screen, compared to about 10 seconds on my Windows 7 desktop and around 8 seconds on my MacBook Air.
And then you’ve got the app problem.
Since Windows 8 and RT are still very young, it has a notable lack of good apps in the Windows Store, especially from major companies like Twitter and Facebook. In comparison, the iPad now has more than 275,000 apps, and it can also run (albeit in an ugly, blown-up screen) every other iOS app.
This will certainly change over time, but for now the Surface’s app deficiency is going to just disappoint and confuse consumers. (It’s also one of the reasons I think this week’s Build developer conference is the most important event Microsoft has ever run.)
Microsoft certainly has its work cut out for it with developers. We heard from Facebook that it’s waiting on Microsoft to build a Windows 8 Facebook app — clearly it’s not a priority for the social networking giant.
What’s truly strange about Windows RT is that, even though it’s dependent on new Windows Store apps, it still features a traditional Windows desktop. So far, you can use Internet Explorer and some touch-friendly Office apps in the desktop environment. But try to install any other Windows application, which I’m sure many consumers will, and you’ll get an error message.
Aside from helping out occasionally with multitasking, the Windows desktop on the Surface mostly feels like an oddity, like a vestigial tail inexplicably forgotten by evolution.
Above: Windows head Steven Sinofsky turned a Surface into a skateboard. (Photo: Sean Ludwig)
The Verdict: Look, adore — but don’t buy (yet)
The Surface may be our first look at what most PCs will look like in a decade, but as it stands today, it’s more like a concept device. If you’ve ever seen a concept car, you’ll get the idea — the Surface is meant to make an impression, but it isn’t yet ready for consumers.
If I have one major takeaway from the Surface, it’s the surprising revelation that I actually like touching its screen when it’s in laptop form. We’re already seeing some Ultrabooks with touchscreens right now, but eventually it’ll be something that all ultraportable computers (including the MacBook Air) will have to support.
Most of you shouldn’t buy this Surface. Wait for the Surface Pro, or if you can, wait for Microsoft’s next Surface RT model. At the very least, wait for this Surface (and its keyboards) to drop in price and get more apps.
It will only get better, and at some point, the Surface may finally evolve into the no-compromise machine it has the potential to be.