A few months ago Microsoft announced that, as a change to the norm, they would be releasing their own tablet, called the Surface. This would come in two iterations, a Pro version, running full Windows 8, but prior to that, an RT version running Windows RT. Preorders opened up for the Surface a fortnight prior to the Windows 8 launch, which also saw the launch of the Surface RT (or, perhaps, like Microsoft I should drop “the” and just say “Surface”). Surface is the first device to launch with Windows RT. Although it may look like Windows 8, the difference between them is quite significant. Windows RT runs on ARM processors only, which are commonly seen in mobile phones, they have benefits such as better battery life, but also means that no x86 programs will run on it. In other words, anything that you could install on Windows 7, won’t work on this. The only way to get more programs, or apps, is through the Microsoft store. As such, the Desktop function of Windows RT will only run what was already on Surface when you got it out of the box. Whether or not that is an issue, we will see. This review covers the Surface RT, but also the optional Touch Cover.
Microsoft have opted to use magnesium as their housing for Surface, or at least a magnesium alloy, which is something which, as far as I can see, is quite different to the plastics or aluminiums used by competitors. The result is a tough case with a good metallic feel. It comes in one colour, black, or dark titanium to be exact, but to brighten things up, the almost obligatory Touch Cover is available in a much more exciting array of options, in my case I opted for Cyan. Whether you’re looking at the front, back or side of Surface, there are nice clean lines. Disrupting this flow is a USB port, headphone socket and HDMI out, along with a volume and power button, a microphone array and some speakers. The power supply, however, uses a proprietary magnetic charger, along with the keyboard slot, so both have a more subtle magnetic strip waiting for their attachment.
When Ballmer first showed Surface to the various press teams, he did the unthinkable, and opened a stand built into it. Okay, perhaps using a stand isn't so revolutionary, but apart from the obvious use, it also allows all the legal notices to be stamped under it leaving an unblemished back. The stand does feel quite solid, on reaching its open or closed position you are notified with a satisfying sound, and you never feel as if holding Surface is too much for the flexible piece of metal. Also found under the stand are some hex screws keeping the case together, which I’m sure could have been hidden and are more of a design choice to put them there. This again, to me, adds a nice industrial touch, the reassurance that I’m holding something that has been engineered and not just made to look pretty. The MicroSD slot also sits out of the way under the stand. I did feel that Surface was quite heavy in my hand, although during its launch, Microsoft made the point of saying how the uniform weighting meant that Surface felt lighter than its competitors, and I have been told by friends with iPads that Surface does feel lighter, so I’ll have to take their word on that.
Although not actually part of Surface, I have to dedicate part of this review to the Touch Cover. It is amazingly thin - for a pressure sensitive keyboard. It has a rubberised feel, which you just know is going to attract dirt, but it feels like a substantial screen protector and well sized keyboard at the same time. Again, when it magnetically attaches itself to Surface, it just sounds right, with a satisfying click that lets you know it’s in the correct position – although it’s very difficult to get it wrong. Like the adverts, you can then suspend Surface from the Touch Cover, yet still snap it off with little force. Although I'm still not brave enough to do that over a hard floor.
All in all, there’s nothing I can really fault with the external design of Surface and its Touch Cover, it’s an attractive piece of kit, and Microsoft's claims that every aspect was considered with the design seems justified.
OS | Windows RT, Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 RT Preview
EXTERIOR | Dimensions: 274.7 x 172 x 9.3 mm • Weight: 676 grams • Casing: VaporMg • Color: Dark Titanium • Physical buttons: Volume, Power
STORAGE | 32 GB
DISPLAY | Screen: 10.6" ClearType HD Display • Resolution: 1366 x768 • Aspect Ratio: 16:9 (widescreen) • Touch: 5-point multi-touch
CPU | Chip: NVIDIA T30 • System memory: 2 GB RAM
WIRELESS | Wireless: Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n) • Bluetooth 4.0 technology
BATTERY | Up to 8 hours mixed activity • 7-15 days idle life
CAMERAS | Two 720p HD cameras, front and rear-facing
AUDIO | Stereo speakers • Two microphones
PORTS | Full-size USB 2.0 • microSDXC card reader • Headphone jack • HD video out port • Cover port
SENSORS | Ambient light sensor • Accelerometer • Gyroscope • Magnetometer
PRICE | £399 • Touch Cover £99.99 separate, or in Black for an additional £80 as a bundle
As can be seen, this is a widescreen, 10.6” tablet sporting what is referred to as a HD display. This isn’t the 1080p full HD which is quite commonplace these days, and generally what you would see on your shiny new TV, but instead the resolution is just a smidgeon better than the lesser 720p ‘HD ready’ displays.
The processor is the Quad Core NVidia Tegra 3 at 1.3GHz, how that compares to your standard Intel or AMD computers, I’m not so sure, but it sounds like a lot of processing power. And although it may seem lacking when compared to the latest Android phones, it at least matches Google’s Nexus 7 and you very much suspect Microsoft would have picked the right processor for the job.
The rest of the specs, although impressive, aren’t going to keep most people interested, there’s 2GB of RAM, the WiFi is a dual MIMO, there’s a MicroSD card slot and a full sized USB port. What it lacks in this area, however, is NFC, which is a shame, the latest WP8 handsets have it, and integration between the two would have been nice.
There is also a 64GB version available, which will set you back a cool £579 - but that does come with the Touch Cover, and no option to purchase it without it.
Switching on Surface reminded me of using Windows Phone for the first time. There was no awkward point where you needed that extra know how, if you didn’t have an internet connection, it wasn’t a problem, if you didn’t have a Microsoft ID, you could just leave that, before you knew it, it was setting itself up for first time use and you were launched into the world of Windows RT.
Microsoft have stressed that with their Clear Type technology, a high resolution screen isn’t necessary, and certainly whilst using apps, or reading email, I don’t notice the lower than normal resolution. But when reading text on a webpage, there is a clear pixilation compared to 1080p desktop monitor. It’s not enough to hinder your experience, but you know it’s there and not as crisp as it could be. That being said, I’m typing this on a laptop with the same resolution, and have never thought about the display, I suppose for such a premium feeling product like Surface, the display lets it down by just being normal.
The processor, particularly the performance when using Surface and the apps, is something which I was concerned about. I had a Sony P Series with an Atom, and it could become a painful experience at times, but there is none of this with the NVidia Tegra. It eats up multiple programs, apps, games, video and doesn’t miss a beat. The only time I’ve seen any stutter is in some animation within games, but I suspect that’s more to do with porting from another OS, than stressing the processing power.
This covers a multitude of topics, but I can summarise it up by saying that it all works. You pop your MicroSD card in, loaded with films, and they are there. You put a USB memory stick in, and you can open it. The WiFi connection is good, in fact I was able to start watching a film on Surface, pressed the share button and there was an option to view it to the Xbox, so then I finished watching the film on the Xbox, whilst using Surface for other things – and this was a film off an SD card, so Surface was doing all the work. The only port that invariably troubles me is the magnetic power cord. It just doesn’t click in as nicely as everything else. I too often find myself fiddling to get it to sit in the recess, but on the other hand, I’ve picked it up a few times with it still plugged in, and it detaches itself with no drama, so that’s a nice feature to have.
There's both a front and rear facing camera on Surface. As a person who finds it difficult to control the urge to smack people in the face who use an iPad as a camera, I'm pretty sure that Microsoft share the same thoughts with me, because:
1) The rear camera is angled so it will produce a level photo when the stand is deployed. This means that if you're holding Surface then you'll have to tilt it forward to get the photo, and that looks silly.
2) The example they gave of the camera in the Surface launch, was a student filming a lecture, whilst taking notes in Word.
3) The camera is pretty pants. It's fine if you want to do a bit of video, but it's certainly no contender for even a camera phone. You're not going to be filming your summer holiday on a Surface.
The front facer gives about the same performance, but it's clear enough to beam your head through Skype, if you're into that.
The Battery Life
I haven’t done a stress test with it to see how this battery lasts, but for my usage, it just keeps going. For some occasional games, checking email, surfing the net, and back into standby, it will last for days. In fact the battery is yet to run out on me. You can shut it down, like you would with your home computer, so that would probably help to save power if you were a heavy user, but for what I use it for, it needs much less charging than my phone. Whether or not Surface has been charged is just not a consideration for me yet, it's just always got enough steam to get on with its task.
The Touch Cover
I’m fairly certain some witchcraft has gone into this product because it just works so well. I wasn’t going to get one at first, I was happy with just a tablet, but people were really raving about this cover, and along with a £50 voucher I had for the MS store, I thought it wouldn’t do any harm. And I’m glad I made this choice. For a keyboard, which needs pressure to register a keystroke, it’s just so thin, but it doesn’t stop there: the keyboard won’t register a keypress when I don’t want it to, so if it’s folded back, I can’t accidentally press anything, but when I need it, it works. I'm not sure at which point the accelerometer knows that it's in a position where the keys should be activated, so I think it may actually be directly connected to my brain. As for actually typing on it, hammering out an email on the Touch Cover is very easy, I won’t say it’s as easy to use a proper keyboard, you need to look at the keys a lot more since there is no feedback as to whether you hit the key in the centre or not, but if this is an issue, there is also a thicker Type Cover, which more resembles a traditional keyboard feel.
I could talk a lot about the software experience on Surface, but any Windows 8 review will give you a much better perspective. What I can say is that the Touch experience with Windows RT is different to that of a mouse and keyboard, but not necessarily better or worse, it’s just something to get used to. I’m now snapping apps next to each other with fluid movements on Surface and it feels right. I would say that Windows RT does have some simplified features that are annoying at times, but then I can always drop into the Desktop mode and open a real file explorer, or find out more details about the Windows Updates although this is rarely necessary. In fact, the primary reason I use the Desktop mode is when running the preinstalled Office programs, since they will only operate in this mode.
What is lacking a bit is the Marketplace, this is the only place where you can install more programs for Windows RT. Although apps are appearing fast, and it’s not so much that I’m lacking anything, I just think that in some cases a dedicated app may be better than navigating to whatever webpage I use – it would be nice to have that option. This being said, the Web Browser, IE10 is definitely up to the task, there about complaints about the quirky version of flash it uses, but I haven’t encountered too many real life browsing situations which has been hindered by the RT version of IE10. And, of course, I can always drop into the Desktop version of Internet Explorer if I did encounter any difficulties - although that still wouldn't let me watch the F1 live timings, but then again, that would be ideal for an app.
There was little doubt that Microsoft would ensure Surface was a good product, too much depended on it, and indeed, this is a quality tablet, with a good spec, it’s an iPad competitor. The software is also a whole new concept to consumers, but it works very well with Surface and it's clear that they have been designed with the other in mind. But Microsoft did produce an equally impressive product in the Zune player, and that never achieved any significant market penetration, so whether Surface succeeds, I cannot say, what is clear is that they have got the product right.
Where Microsoft may suffer, is that Surface is only available directly from Microsoft, you can’t pop down to Dixons to see the product before buying it, because it’s not there, it’s almost as if, in Europe at least, you need to go out of your way to get Surface, it’s never going to be an impulse buy. Where many consumers will encounter Windows RT is not in Surface, but from devices from other manufacturers that they can pick up in their local electronics store. But there is discontent from tablet and laptop OEMs, who don’t like the idea of MS producing its own hardware, so perhaps the lack of availability is a way to placate these companies. In addition, this could be the reason why the price of Surface is a sticking point for some, it’s been set a bit lower than an iPad, $100 lower, but the iPad is expensive to begin with. Would a lower priced Surface have upset manufacturers even more? Acer have already shown signs of their demonstration by official statements and delaying the launch of their Windows RT device.
But these politics aside, Surface is a good device. It certainly ticks all the requirements of a tablet, and then goes a little further with smart hardware, like the keyboard, and useful software, like Office. Windows 8(RT) is different, but it's Windows, so is also familiar, and it really works so well on Surface that it, at no point, hinders your tablet experience. And at least in my case, Microsoft have finally invented for me the tablet which I have wanted for so long.
+ Full USB
+ Great design
+ Touch Cover is very impressive
+ Windows RT is actually good
- That screen is a let down
- A premium price
- Currently a quiet marketplace
- Difference between RT and Windows 8 could confuse some
Surface Review, case closed - hohoho, oh nevermind...