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.

  • Editors' rating:
    7.0
  • User rating:
    7.4
  • RRP:
    GBP £399.00

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

Display
Touchscreen Multi-Touch
Features ClearType HD
Processor
Processor NVIDIA Tegra 3
Processor Clock Speed 1.3 GHz
Number of Cores Quad-Core
Memory
Storage 64 GB
Supported Flash Memory Cards microSDHC
Communications
Wireless Connectivity Bluetooth 4.0 EDR
Camera
Rear-facing Camera 0.9 Megapixel
HD Video Recording 720p
Multimedia
Audio Two microphones , stereo speakers
Software
Preloaded Software Windows Mail and Messaging
Expansion and Connectivity
Expansion Slots 1 x microSDXC
Interfaces 1 x USB 2.0
1 x headset
1 x Micro-HDMI
1 x dock
Battery
Capacity 31.5 Wh
Run Time 8 sec
Standby Time 168 - 360 h
Miscellaneous
Color dark titanium
Sensors ambient light sensor
Features Expandable storage, Front camera, Rear camera, Micro HDMI, Full USB
Dimensions & Weight
Width 10.8 in
Depth 0.4 in
Height 6.8 in
Weight 24 oz

Topics: Tablets, Microsoft, Mobility, Reviews, Windows

About

Hello, I'm the Reviews Editor at ZDNet UK. My experience with computers started at London's Imperial College, where I studied Zoology and then Environmental Technology. This was sufficiently long ago (mid-1970s) that Fortran, IBM punched-card machines and mainframes were involved, followed by green-screen terminals and eventually the pers... Full Bio

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