Arguably, the most intriguing (and important) device to come out this year was Microsoft's Surface RT. And, in turn, it's perhaps one of the more difficult products to review. The expectations surrounding this now famous hybrid are immense, especially given the circumstances. Not only are some truly amazing tablets already on the market—the best we've ever seen — but, along with the release of Windows Phone 8, this marks the beginning of Microsoft's big public reinvention.
Make no mistake, the Surface is a groundbreaking achievement, something that should be recognized and applauded. Rather than offer something that's indistinguishable from every other tablet available, Microsoft bravely developed a device that aims to usher in a new segment altogether. So does it succeed? It does—mostly.
What It's Like…
Immediately following Microsoft's surprise Los Angeles announcement this summer, the Surface was the hottest ticket in town, and it was still months away from release. People gossiped, the media went wild with adoration. Suddenly the iPad looked boring. This was hype encapsulated—a result of Microsoft's perfectly executed event (even if Sinofsky had to exchange tablets mid-presentation).
As far as product reveals go, Microsoft—in front of an elated and somewhat addled crowd—confidently stepped into the ring, grinned, and delivered a knockout punch. Press didn't even get to use demo units (or they did for a very, very short period), further adding to the device's allure. Look, but don't touch. For how much time the company spent describing, in painstaking detail, how it approached the Surface's design, it was like sticking a steak in front of a starving carnivore and asking it not to eat.
So when the time finally came—months later—to actually touch it, hold it, and see it face-to-face, without limitations, handling it was beyond words. All that talk about peerless design, thoughtful construction; I was holding the result. It's a lot like uncovering a pristine, precious artifact—as if, just like at Microsoft's Los Angeles event, it was only meant to be seen. But my hands were all over it. When you handle 75 percent of the tablets on the market, the Surface RT promptly feels different—in a class only occupied by a few elite companies.
There's something to be said about its magnesium alloy build, that incredibly satisfying click of the kickstand, and that too-insane-to-be-believed touch keyboard. When you inspect the Surface from corner-to-corner, it's obvious Microsoft went to great lengths to create something truly unique—this easily rivals Apple's iPad ingenuity. That achievement in its own right, years into the tablet form factor, should be celebrated. It's not absolutely perfect, but it's definitely hovering in that Goldilocks Zone.
So when the time finally came—months later—to actually touch it, hold it, and see it face-to-face, without limitations, handling it was beyond words.
…to Touch the Future
That said, Microsoft's Surface RT was designed to be used in a very specific way. As in, anything other than landscape and you're doing it wrong. That really isn't an issue when performing the exact functions Surface was built to perform—creating, rather than consuming. But when you want to hold it in portrait, with one hand, it feels incredibly awkward and just plain wrong. And suddenly the design feels cumbersome, confusing.
For that matter, it has to be said that the Surface's screen just isn't up to par up against the bigger names available. It perfectly projects the brightness of Windows RT and live tiles, and videos look absolutely fine—no complaints—but text is noticeably bland, pixelated. When you have no reference (like if this is your first tablet, and you haven't seen the iPad with Retina in person), the lower-res screen is not an issue. But it certainly must be noted.
Additionally, the kickstand, while bellowing a satisfying click, can be an annoyance on occasion. It's a masterfully crafted and thoughtful inclusion to the device, but it can be frustrating because it cannot be adjusted, meaning if you're not sitting at just the right position, at a table, you'll have to compromise and adjust, or maybe awkwardly lean in. Further, setting it on your lap to use and type is straight impossible with the kickstand set up.
Tablets have been built with an end game to consume; the Surface has that same focus, but takes it one step further. It's a combination of things, not just the thoughtful hardware and immaculate Touch keyboard. The guts running the Surface are such that, on paper, this thing will burn through apps and games without issue. For the most part, that's the case. But there is some noticeable hesitation on occasion—I'm not sure if that was just my experience, or consistent across the board.
Windows RT itself snaps and zips through swipes without breaking a sweat. But when you start digging deeper, opening up apps, even some core ones (like email) take forever and a day to load. Microsoft assuages these situations with fancy animations—the OS's bright colors really are mesmerizing—but you suddenly notice that you're just sitting there, waiting. And waiting.
I wouldn't say that the hiccups mar the entire package, because for what it is, it performs admirably. But it certainly has an affect that can take Surface's ambitions as a work device down a few pegs. And further, as a general use device, too. Still, the ease of turning this thing on, flicking the kickstand out, and shooting off an email, or working with a Word document, is exciting. You start to look at tablets in a different way, and you wonder what else is possible. The Surface RT is giving us a taste of the future.
What I actually found particularly impressive was Surface's battery, which easily lasted through a full day of typical use: movies, Web browsing, games, email, etc. In fact, it managed to last through a day and further on into the next. There's something special about devices that don't conjure up battery anxiety. Thankfully, the Surface RT has fantastic marathon stamina. Don't worry about forgetting to charge it overnight, because it'll be fine the next day. And probably the next, too.
Windows RT itself snaps and zips through swipes without breaking a sweat. But when you start digging deeper, opening up apps, even some core ones (like email) take forever and a day to load.
The Surface isn't really a complete device, not the way Microsoft wants it to be, without the Touch Cover. So when you attach one, stand the tablet upright, and rest your fingers across the satisfying felt-like material, you begin to get it—that effable sensation of perfect gadget unity. That, yes, this is a phenomenally engineered piece of hardware, even if it is merely an accessory. Never have we seen a tablet add-on so wonderfully integrated with a device like the Surface's Touch Cover. It's certainly jarring at first, and takes plenty of time to get used to, but it heightens the experience tremendously.
To be clear, first using it is a lot like first learning to type. This is definitely something that's unfamiliar, especially when keyboards have more or less been the same since the typewriter kicked the bucket. You'll always make mistakes. Even after a week, typos were there in almost every other sentence. That's either a result of my own clumsy fingers (which are pretty thin), or the Touch Cover just isn't quite there yet. A lot of times I thought I pressed a key, but it didn't register. You'll certainly get better with practice—lots of it—but there's a steep learning curve.
The mousepad is actually astonishingly responsive in my experience, and makes smaller, more precise touches simple and easy. It's probably not something you'll use too often when all you need to do is reach over and press on the screen with your finger. But it's impressive how, in just a matter of millimeters, Microsoft stuffed an entire keyboard into a protectant cover. As a cover, though, it's a bit of a double-edged sword.
When you flip it over and hold the Surface with two hands, it feels off, like the cover doesn't belong there. In fairness, it doesn't. But you're not always in situations where you can just take the cover off and leave it for later. That said, the cover doesn't act as a stand, which I suppose isn't the biggest deal seeing as there's one built right into the tablet.
And there's the price. Microsoft has a price bundle of $599 that includes the Touch Cover, which is a pretty hefty price to get in bed with such a new, unknown device. The accessory alone goes for $119 which, again, is a high asking price, especially when you consider that the Surface basically requires the Touch Cover to be a complete device. Like I said, it definitely improves the experience overall. Microsoft is touting the Surface to be much more than just a regular old tablet, and getting one without the cover is almost like getting a bike with one wheel.
The Microsoft Surface RT runs, as its name implies, Windows RT. That means it's not running Microsoft's full-fledged Windows 8 operating system, and this is actually a big deal. You can only run applications that were developed specifically for the Surface RT, or web apps, and there aren't a whole lot to choose from right now. There aren't official apps for Facebook or Twitter just yet, for example, which is bizarre for any mobile platform. Still, you can visit either website and enjoy the Web experience. There are, thankfully, third-party apps for those social networks and plenty of other applications, but it's nowhere near the experience that you would see on an Android tablet or from the iPad.
The Metro UI (we're still calling it that, even though Microsoft has adopted a new "Windows UI" moniker) is colorful and a breeze to use. You can quickly swipe through applications in a horizontal manner, and information is at your fingertips much like it is on Windows Phone 8. There are notifications for email, for example, or alerts for news on the news live tile. Our biggest complaint is that the live tiles aren't always up to date in real time. Sometimes they'll update on a delay, which is super frustrating. We could discuss live tiles all day: there are designated ones for sports, your email, news, and much more. We love that it makes the whole interface feel alive, but prefer Microsoft's standard desktop option in Windows 8, which isn't an option here.
Well, we take that back a bit. You can access the full desktop, but it isn't populated with applications. It's basically a wasteland of sorts, a small reminder of what you could have if you had Windows 8 installed. It almost feels like netbooks that ran on Intel Atom processors were more powerful. After all, we could install thousands of applications that are already available for PCs on a netbook, but we can't do that on the Surface RT. We do love that you can easily adjust the theme to match your color tastes. Microsoft included several compelling backgrounds, but you can also stick to a plain dark gray background and a multitude of colors to accent the live tilesa.
The email client on the Surface RT seems like it was designed for children to use, too. It's incredibly simple, which isn't a bad thing, but I prefer more powerful user interfaces in Microsoft's Outlook email client. Plus, it takes forever to load.
Speaking of email, the on-screen keyboard is fantastic and easy to use, although I found that holding the tablet while typing was nearly impossible. You'll want to stick to using the Touch Cover or, better yet, the more traditional Type Cover that offers actual keys with feedback.
We really wish that Microsoft implemented a way for Windows Phone 8 to work seamlessly with Windows RT. Imagine if you could simply tap your Windows Phone to the Surface RT to transfer photos and videos through NFC? It seems like a natural progression, but it's not an option yet. Speaking of integration, however, there is a bit if you include cloud-based solutions. Microsoft includes Sky Drive on the surface, which provides quick access to any files you've stored from your PC or Windows Phone 8 device. We appreciate the ability to see any picture shot with our phone right on the home screen in the gallery. And if you want to write a bit in Word or use Excel on the Surface RT, you can save the file to your Sky Drive to access on other devices at a later point. It's fantastic, and the Office experience is actually really useful for everyday light users.
For that reason, the Surface RT may be a go-to solution for business users instead of general consumers. Anyone who uses Excel or Word at the office daily will appreciate being to pop open the Surface RT on the train and continue where they left off. If you want to make some quick tweaks, you can do so from a Windows Phone, too.
Internet Explorer is solid and fast. I didn't have any major issues with it, and like that there's an option to swipe across the screen to return back to the last web site you visited. This was particularly useful while browsing forums. We could quickly enter a thread, and then back out of it with the swipe of a finger to the forum index. It's also a breeze to open and visit multiple open windows, which appear as small thumbnails. Flash isn't supported, but that's not really a deal breaker anymore.
Overall, the software experience is fine, but limited. We're really looking forward to the Surface Pro with Windows 8 so that we can run the full gamut of apps that were designed for x86-based processors. If you dig cloud-based computing and want a quick and easy device for surfing the web and editing Office documents, the Surface RT does the job well.
You can access the full desktop, but it isn't populated with applications. It's basically a wasteland of sorts, a small reminder of what you could have if you had Windows 8 installed. It almost feels like netbooks that ran on Intel Atom processors were more powerful.
Microsoft Surface RT Software Tour
In June, Microsoft pegged the Surface RT as a promise, one with potential to go beyond the usual tablet experience. And it does—mostly. It's certainly a half-step in the right direction—that new, exciting frontier of tablet technology. But it's an imperfect one, and unfortunately the experience isn't as flushed out as Microsoft hoped.
Still, Microsoft has expertly displayed a level of engineering prowess we haven't seen in some time. The existence of the Surface RT—it's construction—is a supreme example of thoughtful consideration and attention to detail. We wish the same could be said for Windows RT. Maybe down the road, when the software is more developed, it will get to that point.
For now, Microsoft will have to go back to the drawing board and really focus on achieving that special marriage between hardware and software. This was meant to fit into a segment that no company has gotten right, and Microsoft is no different. But, for the first time, a company is finally on the precipice of offering something that's straight out of the future, that space outside of the traditional tablet experience. We're excited to see how the Surface Pro with Windows 8 performs, especially since it will offer a more traditional PC experience. That, we think, is where the Surface brand will shine.
We hope so.