Microsoft Surface review

Microsoft Surface review

Summary: Microsoft's ARM-based tablet has plenty of good points, but there are enough downsides to make caution advisable. The hardware platform and the Windows RT ecosystem will undoubtedly improve, so we'd suggest giving version 1.0 a miss unless you're an avid early adopter.

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  • Editors' rating:
    7.0
  • User rating:
    8.2
  • RRP:
    £559.00

Pros

  • Solidly built hardware
  • 'Modern' tile-based UI looks clean and works well with touchscreen
  • Useful add-on keyboard/covers (especially the Type Cover)
  • Full-size USB port
  • Office 2013 bundled with Windows RT operating system

Cons

  • Cannot run third-party desktop Windows applications
  • Vestigial desktop UI jars with its 'modern' successor
  • Kick-stand is not adjustable
  • Hard to use with Touch/Type Cover on the lap
  • Magnetic power connector is fiddly
  • Lacks mobile broadband, GPS and NFC

Microsoft's first own-brand tablet, announced in June 2012 and shipped on 26 October, is the Surface, a 10.6in. device running Windows RT — the Windows 8 version for ARM-based systems. It's a significant bit of kit because it's a showcase for Microsoft's new OS running on the same low-power processor platform as Apple's iPad and the many Android tablets; it's also a departure from x86-based Windows systems (including the upcoming Surface Pro tablet) in that only 'modern-style' (formerly Metro) applications can be installed, and only via the Microsoft-curated Windows Store.

The Wi-Fi-only Surface comes in 32GB and 64GB models, starting at US$499/UK£399; a 32GB model with a black Touch Cover keyboard/cover costs US$599/UK£479, while the 64GB model with a black Touch Cover costs US$699/UK£559. Touch Covers (with a touch keyboard) are available in different colours and cost US$119.99/UK£99.99; the alternative Type Cover, which only comes in black, has a 'proper' keyboard and costs US$119.99/UK£109.99. By comparison, a 32GB Wi-Fi-only iPad 4 costs US$599/UK£479, while the new Google Nexus 10 comes in at US$499/UK£389 for the 32GB model.

Design
The Surface is a 10.6in. tablet with a 'dark titanium'-coloured magnesium alloy (VaporMg) chassis measuring 27.46cm (10.81in.) wide by 17.2cm (6.77in.) deep by 0.94cm (0.37in.) thick and weighing 680g (1.5lb). It's not the lightest bigger-screen tablet around, but it feels solidly built, with an angular, chamfered design that looks smart and modern. Going round the system (held in landscape mode): the left-hand side has a volume rocker and a 3.5mm headphone jack; the top has the power/sleep button on the right-hand end; the right-hand side has a Micro-HDMI port, a full-size USB 2.0 port and a magnetic power connector; and the bottom has another magnetic connector, for the optional keyboard/cover units. At the back there's a spring-loaded kick-stand, underneath which lurks a MicroSD card slot, on the right-hand side.

surface-group
The Surface tablet with a black Type Cover attached; also shown is a blue Touch Cover, a pair of Micro-HDMI adapter cables and the AC adapter.

The magnetic keyboard dock attaches to either a Touch Cover or a Type Cover: the former is a flat touch keyboard, while the latter has proper (contiguous) keys and provides a much more satisfactory typing experience. There's a design problem here though, as the kick-stand has only one fairly upright position. That's not a big problem when you're just propping up the tablet — for viewing a movie, for example. However, you'll struggle to find a comfortable typing position for anything more than short bursts of productivity when sitting at a desk or a table — especially if you're of above-average height. Also, it's hard to type with the floppy-hinged, kick-stand-supported device on your lap.

surface-power
The magnetic power connector on the right-hand side is fiddly to locate, and the magnet isn't strong enough to snap it satisfyingly into place.

The other design feature that grates is the magnetic power connector, which is a slim strip on the right-hand side. It's difficult to locate the connector, especially in low light, and the magnet isn't strong enough to snap the power cable into place from any distance (unlike the keyboard connector). We regularly found ourselves having to peer closely at the tablet and cajole the cable into position. While we're on the subject of power, the only available battery life indicator on the 'modern' Start screen is an icon that appears when you activate the Charms by swiping from the right-hand side; to get a percentage figure, and access detailed power management settings, you have to visit the less-than-touch-friendly Windows desktop.

Features
The Windows RT-based Surface runs on an Nvidia Tegra 3 SoC with a 1.3GHz quad-core ARM Coretx-A9 CPU and a 500MHz ULP GeForce GPU. It's backed up with 2GB of RAM and 32GB or 64GB of internal storage (we had the 64GB model). Further storage can be added via the MicroSD card slot on the right-hand side, located somewhat inconveniently under the kick-stand.

The Surface's 10.6in. screen is billed by Microsoft as a 'ClearType HD Display', and it has a 16:9 resolution of 1,366 by 768 pixels. That gives it a pixel density (pixels per inch, or ppi) of just 148, which is less than half that of the Samsung-made Nexus 10's 300ppi. Despite the ppi numbers, we wouldn't say that the Nexus 10's screen is twice as good as the Surface's: with the brightness turned up full, Microsoft's tablet puts on a good display, with wide viewing angles, decent colours and readable type even at small sizes.

Connectivity options are on the sparse side: you get dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, but no mobile broadband, wired Ethernet, GPS or NFC support (location-based services get their positional data via the tablet's Wi-Fi connection, should it have one). The Surface does have an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a compass and an ambient light sensor.

Microsoft offers a couple of adapter cables for the Mini-HDMI connector on the right-hand side: one ends in a full-size HDMI port and the other caters for older VGA connections. Both of these accessories cost an extra US$39.99/UK£34.99.

The Surface has two 1-megapixel cameras, front and back, both billed as '720p LifeCams'. There's no LED flash, and no fancy photo-stitching camera apps provided as standard (in contrast to Google's impressive Nexus 10). As it stands, Microsoft's basic Camera app simply lets you choose between front and back cameras, set the resolution, apply a 3-second timer and choose between stills or video mode. Perhaps the Windows Store will fill in the gap in due course.

win-rt-start
The Windows RT Start screen, with Charms and the date panel (with wireless and power status icons) exposed by swiping from the right-hand edge.

Windows RT's touch-friendly tile-based 'modern' interface generally works well, although there are some jarring aspects to the overall user experience. The main one is the presence of the old-style Windows desktop (minus the Start button). This is there to run the bundled copy of Office 2013, which is a good thing, but it's likely to cause confusion because you can't install any third-party 'desktop' Windows applications (unlike on x86-based tablets running Windows 8). It also gives Microsoft the excuse to leave vestigial bits of non-touch-optimised interface lying about. We mentioned the battery percentage and power options example earlier: in fact, any time you're forced to use the desktop interface (safely removing a USB stick or accessing Task Manager are other examples), you'll have an experience akin to finding a hand-crank starter on an otherwise sleek and modern-looking automobile.

win-rt-desktop
Lurking in the background of Windows RT is the old-style desktop interface (minus the Start button). You'll have to navigate your way through this less touch-friendly UI to access power management settings, for example. The bundled Office 2013 (Home & Student) applications — Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote (plus a desktop version of IE10) — run here.

Of course, if it's "no Windows desktop, no Office 2013", then we'll put up with the desktop, but it's not clear why the Office suite couldn't have been ported to the modern UI — Microsoft has done it with OneNote, after all. Which brings us to another source of confusion: if you download the (free) modern-UI version of OneNote from the Windows Store, then you'll have two versions of the application on your system; the same goes for Internet Explorer 10, which comes in modern and desktop guises. Incidentally, although Flash is supported in both versions of IE10 for Windows RT, this only applies to Microsoft-approved sites.

So we're left with 'modern' apps from the Windows Store, which as of October 27 2012 had 5,738 — the majority of them (4,634) free. That's a very long way behind the number available for iOS (around 700,000 all told, with 275,000 optimised for the iPad, according to Wikipedia) and Android (around 700,000 in total, although only a small [unknown] proportion are optimised for larger-screen tablets). It's not just raw numbers, of course: if your favourite app isn't in the Windows Store (for us, Spotify looms large), then you're going to think twice about investing in the platform.

Although the Surface is primarily a consumer device, the presence of Office 2013 and the keyboard options means you can do real work on it if need be. However, it's the Home & Student version of Office, which doesn't include Outlook and comes with licence restrictions that may reduce its appeal to small businesses. Larger enterprises are likely to choose devices running the full x86 version of Windows 8 (if they choose Windows 8 at all) for its ability to run legacy desktop applications and greater manageability.

Performance & battery life
In the absence of cross-platform benchmarks for comparing Windows RT to iOS and Android devices, we're left with browser benchmarks to give some indication of comparative performance. The picture is mixed, with the Surface showing up well in the Sunspider JavaScript test, but lagging behind its rivals in Rightware's broader-based BrowserMark and Microsoft's Fishbowl HTML5 test:

surface-sunspider
surface-browsermark
surface-fishbowl

Microsoft claims 'up to 8 hours' life for the Surface's 31.5Wh battery, which suggests an average power draw of around 4 watts. To test this we used a Voltcraft VC940 Plus multimeter to measure the tablet's power draw when idling at the Start screen and performing a workload (the Fishbowl test, above), with the screen at 100 percent and 50 percent brightness. Dividing the average power draw into the 31.5Wh battery rating gives the expected battery life in hours for each scenario:

surface-battery-life

These results suggest that if the tablet is working rather than idling, and you're using a high screen brightness setting, you can expect around four hours' life on battery power.

Conclusion
For a first outing, Microsoft's ARM-based Surface running Windows RT isn't bad at all, but it is a real curate's egg — both in terms of the hardware and the software.

The tablet's build quality is generally good, but there are annoyances, mostly to do with ergonomics. The fixed-angle kick-stand is a deal-breaker for me as far as keyboard-based productivity is concerned, for example. The keyboards themselves — especially the basic Type Cover — are on the pricey side, too. Also, we'd like to see a snappier magnetic power connector next time around.

As far as the Windows RT experience is concerned, we have no problem with the 'modern' tile-based UI and clean-looking touch-friendly Windows Store apps. The vestigial Windows desktop, however, is another matter. It's there to accommodate the bundled Office 2013 suite (which we appreciate), but only serves to confuse because you can't install any other 'legacy' Windows applications. The only place you can get Windows RT apps, Microsoft's Windows Store, is currently a long way behind rival platforms in terms of the number of apps available.

This is a decent tablet with plenty of good points, but there are enough downsides to make caution advisable. The hardware platform and the Windows RT ecosystem will undoubtedly improve, so we'd suggest giving version 1.0 a miss unless you're an avid early adopter.

Specifications

General
Dimensions (W x H x D) 27.46 x 0.94 x 17.2 cm
Manufacturer's specification http://www.microsoft.com/Surface/en-GB/surface-with-windows-rt/specifications
Weight 0.68 kg
OS & software
Software included Windows RT, Internet Explorer 10, Office 2012 Home & Student
Processor & memory
Clock speed 1.3 GHz
Processor model Nvidia Tegra 3
RAM 2048 MB
Display
Display size 10.6 in
Native resolution 1366x768 pixels
Connections
Ports Micro-HDMI, USB 2.0, audio out
Slots MicroSD
Wireless
Wi-Fi 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n
Short range Bluetooth 4.0
Input devices
Keyboard Yes
Stylus No
Touchscreen Yes
Camera
2nd camera front
Flash No
Main camera rear
2nd camera resolution 1 megapixels
Main camera resolution 1 megapixels
Power
Removable battery No
Number of batteries 1
Miscellaneous
Accessories AC adapter, Touch Cover, Type Cover, Micro-HDMI-to-HDMI adapter, Micro-HDMI-to-VGA adapter
Solid-state drive
Capacity 64 GB
Expand

Prices

Price
Price GBP 559
Price USD 699

Topics: Tablets, Microsoft, Mobility, Reviews, Windows

About

Charles has been in tech publishing since the late 1980s, starting with Reed's Practical Computing, then moving to Ziff-Davis to help launch the UK version of PC Magazine in 1992. ZDNet came looking for a Reviews Editor in 2000, and he's been here ever since.

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Talkback

99 comments
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  • I used to wish for

    5.0

    a kickstand on tablets and integrated keyboards but with the surface, the reality of why you haven't really seen much of that now becomes apparent. No angle adjustment and you can't really use it in your lap. Who is going to sit at a desk with the thing? I'd rather have a full blown desktop pc with huge monitor if I am going to do that. Sure it seems kinda cool at first, but this is a total novelty that will wear off.
    deathjazz
    • Agreed

      7.0

      Agree about the lap thing. I'd read you could use surface on your lap, but when I tried it turns out that's B.S.

      OTOH, I was VERY impressed by the "Touch" keyboard that comes with it. I'm not a typing wiz by any means, but it did an excellent job of keeping up with my typing speed. Yeah, it would take a little getting used to a keyboard with zero key travel, but all in all it was an impressive device.

      That said, if I do decide to buy an RT device, it'll probably be something like ASUS' hybrid. That's a device you can definitely use in your lap (like I use my Transformer TF300)
      dsf3g
    • Agree

      I would much rather have an 11" Ultrabook/Chromebook AND a 7" tablet. I think MS's attempt is still focused on ramming Windows into the tablet/mobile market and is a solution in search of a problem. IMHO it will not gain mass market adoption - ever.
      D.T.Long
    • OK, I'll disagree...

      6.0

      I don't see the kickstand or keyboard as problems - having them available doesn't take anything away, and you can have them if you want them.

      In the case of the Surface, just like any other tablet, you can buy it without a keyboard, and buy one later if you want it, and it doesn't have to be the Touch- or Type-cover versions from Microsoft. Clearly many people feel it's helpful to have a keyboard for their tablets, and just like any other tablet, you have a choice.

      On the Surface, you really can't tell the kickstand is there until you look for it and pop it out, so it's not like it's taking anything away by being there, yet you have it if you want it. I find that on a table top, it works quite well. I don't really see a down side to having it there. If it drove up the cost, or kept the tablet from being able to do something, I could see not liking it, but as far as I can tell it's done neither of those things, so what's the big deal of it being there?
      brble
      • Good points

        But then you are basically back to a regular 10" tablet. Now that the iPad Mini is out, there are a lot of posters admitting that the 10" iPad is just too big and heavy and that they prefer the 7" version, despite its somewhat inferior screen.

        I think MS may have missed the mark with this product for large volume adoption, but time will tell.
        D.T.Long
        • Why do they prefer 7" iPad?

          10.0

          Because the 10" iPad turned out to suck so much as a content creation device that they figured if they were going to be forced to use a laptop for content creation and a tablet for content consumption, they might as well go down to something that was lighter.

          Don't confuse the rejection of the 10" iPad with rejection of the 10" tablet. People are rejecting the 10" tablet because no one had made a good one before the Surface.
          toddbottom3
          • 3 million plus sold in a few days

            you have an odd definition of rejection.
            baggins_z
          • D.T. Long was the one who said it

            10.0

            He is thrilled that the 10" tablet is basically dead which is one of his arguments for why the 10" Surface is a fail.

            "I think MS may have missed the mark with this product for large volume adoption"

            So you should ask D.T. Long why he believes that 3+ million sales is "small volume adoption".
            toddbottom3
          • Stand back and try to develop some perspective

            It takes a few product iterations for both producers and consumers to figure out how to get the most out of a new product category. The iPad was a quality, revolutionary product that took off like wildfire. That whole market is now more mature and my view is that the 7" tablet is close to optimal for MOST consumers.

            I think the success of the 10" iPad AND MS's desired to differentiate its products AND still try to dominate this new product category with Windows (Windows, Windows) led it to make the decisions it made resulting in the product being released.

            I happen to believe it will be proven to have been the wrong decision for MASS MARKET ADOPTION and large volume sales.

            As I do not have a crystal ball, time will tell.
            D.T.Long
          • Baggins_z why?

            5.0

            Why so you keep making that claim when you know it isn't true?

            3 Million was for both Tablets and if Apple were confident they would have split them. Reality is, they do not want to list the sales and the reviews are not stellar, the screen stinks and mine is gong back ASAP!
            slickjim
          • You are correct that it was both tablets

            yet you ignore the fact that even weeks after the Surface RT was release MS refuses to provide any sales figures, guess they have more to worry about than Apple. Also, I think you have your reviews mixed up. The reviews for the Mini were on average fairly glowing while also pointing out the lower quality of the display but the initial reviews of the Surface we not so positive. Of course I wouldn't believe for a second that you actually purchased a Mini. Too each their own, buy what works best for you but don't lie about the others.
            non-biased
          • content creation

            Apparently, my content is different than your content. If I can create content on a tablet, that doesn't necessarily mean you can too. Besides, I would not care what the tablet is, in creating my content, as long as it does the job and I don't feel like complete idiot (i.e. know another tablet does it better).

            An personal advice from me: change the script. The "content creation" mantra makes your statements sound just silly.

            In my opinion, if (and this is a big IF) Microsoft can survive the Windows RT experiment, some next iteration of the Surface will be reasonable device. Especially when they manage to program all their Office stuff in WinRT and get rid of win32 and the absurd "desktop mode". Unfortunately, they might just decide to abandon it, as has happened with a lot of other neat ideas at Microsoft.
            danbi
          • Nice hatchet job by the author of this article

            1.0

            I will be nice.
            I can think of no conceivable reason to use a keyboard with the tablet on your lap with a 10 inch device. Did you try using the kickstand on your lap?
            This device is near perfect for the average user. I no longer use my ipad or my laptop.
            When I first started using W8 I was angry because it was not like my ipad,, but this is not an ipad clone. After using it for 2 days, I see the genius of W8 and would not go back.
            It is fast, intuitive, extremely easy to get around in.
            Great screen, perfect video playback.
            Word works great.
            IE is a joy to use now (for once).
            The screen size is perfect movies, Word, and browsing.
            AND IT DOES NOT FREEZE LIKE THE IPAD.
            I thought the ipad could not be beat- it has.
            Keep up the negative hype and the blind devotion to Steve Job's ghost,
            it will only undermine your credibility in the future.
            When people can no longer trust you to provide an unbiased review,
            they have no reason to read what you write.
            obdoc2001
          • I agree

            5.0

            I have the Surface and use it for typing on my lap quite often. I actually use the kickstand over the knee and can adjust the angle that way. Works great. Easier than the Iconia I have that is too top heavy and rocks a lot on it's keyboard.

            I don't get how the kickstand not being adjustable can be a negative, when just having a kickstand is a positive. Would the author have put "does not have a kickstand" as a negative if it didn't have one?

            I agree the power connector needs tweaking and it could use GPS. I prefer not to pay for 3g/4g features since I don't intend to use them. I have a phone that can act as a hotspot when I need it and the cost is less that way. Also, the camera is subpar. Other than that I think the hardware is excellent, especially the touch cover.

            I find myself spending a lot more time on the Surface than my desktop now.
            nick@...
          • That's what you took away from this?

            It wasn't a 100% this is a perfect devices so he has to have a blind devotion to Steve Jobs? Come on, pull you head out of your a$$. So you like the Surface, great I hope you get to enjoy it for years to come, to each their own but once you go to the "AND IT DOES NOT FREEZE LIKE THE IPAD" I realized there was a bias in your review as well and wonder if you have ever touched an iPad, let alone owned one. Not saying an iPad can't freeze (have had it happen myself once in two years) but have never met anybody who has had it constantly happen.
            non-biased
          • OMG, imagine that

            Bottom feeder got it completely wrong, what a surprise. Sorry to burst your bubble but there are two major flaws in your post, which is actually a low figure for your posts. First, not matter how much you dream of it happening there is not rejection of the full size iPad happening at this time. Seems to be it would be more accurate to say there was rejection of the Surface than the full size iPad. Second, as pointed out to you many times in the past just because your shortcomings prevent you from being able to create content on the iPad does not mean that everyone else is as inept as you.
            non-biased
        • Sorry, I wasn't addressing your post

          I had clicked to reply to willyampz, and I guess it just sorted it below yours by response order, giving the impression I was responding to your post.

          On the 7" vs 10", most tech reviewers I've read aren't overly impressed with the iPad Mini. I think a big reason so many other tablets come out in a 7" size, especially early on, was to make it cheaper, not so much for portability.

          I bought the first gen Color Nook, and also had a Vizio 8" tablet, and I was not happy with that screen size and wanted a larger one to better read some tech manuals I had on PDF, plus videos and web surfing in general. That's why I bought the 10" Toshiba, and it made a big difference in those areas for me.

          I don't see much of a difference in what I need to do to put a 7" tablet in my carry-on luggage vs. a 10.5" tablet. Neither can fit in any of my pants or shirt pockets, or in any sort of reasonably sized belt case. Plus, most people are going to get some sort of case for them to protect the screen, etc., and at that point the 7" tablets are even larger.

          I think 7" works better for reading books (novels, etc.), but that's just one factor, and of course everyone should buy based on their own needs. With the number of larger tablets being sold, I wouldn't say people are giving up on them, and certainly MS can get a 7" tablet out later if they need to. As you say, time will tell.
          brble
          • It looks like ...

            a 10" tablet may be the best choice for you. You may still be in a relative minority.
            D.T.Long
          • Considering the fact that

            just the full size iPad, without including all the other full size tablets, still outsells the smaller tablets I wouldn't say he is in a minority of any kind.
            non-biased
      • Good points

        7.0

        I think I have made up my mind to give up my aging Windows slate and Android tablet and get one Windows Pro device. 90% of the time that I am using my laptop it is on my lap so at first I wasn't on board with surface but I have been going back and forth trying to decide if I choose my laptop at times over my tablet because it has a full keyboard or just because it runs some applications not available on my tablet.

        I have time to decide. Windows 8 works surprisingly well on my Toshiba Portage gigantic brick of a machine.
        redhaven