Seven days with the Microsoft Surface: The good and the bad

Summary:I spent a week using a Microsoft Surface running Windows RT - here's my personal take on what the tablet gets right - and wrong.

I've been using a Windows 8-based tablet as my main PC for a few months now, so I'm pretty well acquainted with how the touch-friendly OS works. But I was still keen to get my hands on a Surface to see what Microsoft could deliver with its latest adventure into the world of hardware. So here's my take on the Surface with Windows RT, after a week of using it.

The Surface itself has a 10.6-inch display, making it a little larger than the current generation iPad. I was pleased to find that the screen itself was very responsive and scrolled and zoomed with no problems, but while the 1366 x 768 resolution is generally good enough for everyday tasks, it doesn't provide the same level of clarity or brightness as the Retina displays on Apple products.

SurfaceRT-front

Although it's not the lightest tablet in the world at 689 grams (and make no mistake, it would get heavy if you were holding it in one hand like, well, a tablet) I do like the integrated kickstand on the rear and the keyboard, even though it's a bit of a pain that you cannot change the angle it stands at. The keyboard is particularly easy to attach and detach, which is not true of all its competitors.

I recently wrote about  the good and the bad of the Lumia 920 , and there are parallels that can be drawn between the Lumia and the Surface. Both weigh more than some competitors, neither are the slimmest in their categories, but both feel well made and solid - a reassuring feeling after you've handed over a not insignificant amount of cash for something sold as a premium product.

Touch Cover vs Type Cover

The Surface came out of the box with a Touch Cover and a Type Cover keyboard which meant that I could get a good comparison of how the two performed.

I thought I'd prefer the Type Cover keyboard, but after a little use, I actually decided that I'd be happy to stick with the Touch Cover. While the Type Cover keyboard provides actual key travel and the 'proper' clicking sensation of typing, I found touch typing faster on the Touch Cover.

That said, if you need to use the arrow keys a lot or liked the idea of having the touchpad (for some reason), then forget about the Touch Cover; it's pretty poor in these areas.

Microsoft was smart not to skimp on the hardware; the integrated forward-facing 720p webcam is perfectly adequate for decent quality video calls, although of course quality will also be dictated by how good your connection is.

There's also a camera on the rear of the device, but I didn't use it for anything (other than to check it worked), but in all honesty, I've never really understood why people use tablets to take photos. The mini HDMI out and full-size USB port both came in handy various times, and while I didn't need to use the microSD expansion slot, if it was my tablet to keep, I'd be glad it was there.

The quad-core Tegra 3 processor and 2GB of RAM kept things ticking along smoothly without a freeze or Blue Screen Of Death in sight.

Despite the impressive array of hardware features, and an ever-growing number of Wi-Fi hotspots, I really would have liked to see some sort of 3G/4G data options available for the device.

Moving on to the software, it's also no secret that I like Windows 8 and think Microsoft was right to remove the Start button and, effectively, replace it with a Start screen. Search is the new Start, and once you realise that, finding what you want and getting around becomes second nature.

However, just because I like Windows 8, that doesn't mean there aren't a number of niggling problems with it - like inconsistent display or functionality on some websites in IE10, exacerbated by the fact that the browser won't run plug-ins, and alternative browsers aren't really an option.

I like the 'Metro' design too. But the very real and very obvious limitation of Windows RT - built for ARM processors - is that none of your existing Windows 7 (or earlier) apps will work on your shiny new tablet.

SurfaceRT_depth_Lumia_920
The depth of the Surface (right) compared to a Nokia Lumia 920. Image Credit: Ben Woods/ZDNet

That's quite a limitation, but not the end of the world if you only intend to use your tablet for native apps (a little limited in supply, but not terrible) and some web browsing. After all, the same is true for the iPad and a lack of legacy app support doesn't seem to have dented its popularity.

That 'problem' is hardly news, of course. But what surprised me is that the Surface has one of the least tablet-like experiences going, for a tablet.

Not once did it occur to me that it would be better (or even that I could) use it in portrait mode rather than in landscape. And even if you were to do that, one of the things that sets it apart from other tablets - the keyboard - becomes unusable.

There are some other minor hardware foibles too: the first few times I plugged it in to charge, I found connecting it more tricky than expected. That said, once it was charged I was reasonably happy with the battery life, which was extended considerably by turning down the screen brightness from maximum.

Overall, the Surface is an impressive piece of hardware. To my eyes it's a well-designed and stylish device with a reassuring quality feel, but the lack of native apps is an obvious drawback. If you don't think this would bother you and you're keen to get your hands on a Windows 8 tablet right now, then give it a test-drive. But to me the device could be considered closer to an ultra-portable laptop than a tablet — it's certainly when it performs best.

One small surprise - there's also a bit of buzz around having a Surface, at least right now. One dedicated iOS users came up to me and showed an interest in having a play with it because he was "just so bored with the Apple interface".

Rarely is the default option the most interesting one , and Microsoft's Surface tablet certainly isn't the default option. 

Would I buy a Surface RT right now? Probably not. If it was my cash, I'd be inclined to wait for the Surface Pro, but then that's because I use tablets like a laptop replacement (where it's not appropriate or convenient to use a full-size device) rather than as a companion device or for gaming.

Given some time for the Windows 8 app store to mature and fill out with the essential apps, the Surface will be a real contender for devices like the iPad or Galaxy Tabs.

Topics: Tablets, Microsoft

About

With a psychology degree under his belt, Ben set off on a four-year sojourn as a professional online poker player, but as the draw of the gambling life began to wane his attentions turned to more wholesome employment.With several years' experience covering everything in the world of telecoms and mobility, Ben's your man if it involves a s... Full Bio

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