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

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.

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TOPICS: Tablets, Microsoft
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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

Ben Woods

About Ben Woods

With several years' experience covering everything in the world of telecoms and mobility, Ben's your man if it involves a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or any other piece of tech small enough to carry around with you.

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Talkback

274 comments
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  • Finally. Coherence and honesty.

    I enjoyed this review if simply for the honesty. I agree with your take as well. Wait for the Pro version and/or let the App market mature--it will be a great device and system.
    LetsReason
    • I agree, MS haters take note

      Note that while the conclusion is: I'm not buying this
      at least the review was a good one.

      Reviewers don't get slammed for suggesting that people hold off on this, they get slammed for giving stupid reasons.

      Great review Ben and while I disagree with the conclusion (I am so happy with my Surface RT) I'm really glad you posted this.
      toddbottom3
      • There are no MS haters; nobody cares that deeply

        Todd thinks hyperbole is fun and the amount of posting he does indicates either spamming comment boards is his job (going for the most converts bonus, Toddbottom?) or he has no job at all. The public looked at Surface and said meh; Sinofsky was shown the door; Microsofts stock tanked and all of this was chalked up to Apple-loving haters. Nice avatar Toddbottom; it does wonders for your credibility.
        gregv2k
        • gregv2k and don't forget the cracking key board

          Even Loverock Davidson hasn't come to Microsoft defense on that one......and the apps mail/maps do suck compared to a Thunderbird or Google Maps..............
          Over and Out
          • Hi!

            Hello there!!!
            Loverock Davidson-
          • New launch bugs, hmm where have I seen this before???

            Another hater? Do you ever own a Surface? A few keyboards have issues and Microsoft is taking care of the issue. At least Microsoft didn't pull an Apple and ignore their customers or try to reprogram the customer by telling them, "there is no problem". I have had a Surface since the first weekend and no issues. But I am glad those that have issues are being taken care of.
            135boom
          • In most cases Apple didn't acknowledge them because

            ... they were insignificant. Antennagate was a red herring--after three months nothing was ever heard of it again and Apple certainly didn't make any immediate changes to the phone. Maps, too, is a red herring--after using iOS 6 since its release Maps has yet to lead me wrong and has proven faster and more accurate than the earlier Google version. This isn't to say Apple was right every time, but even the "cracking case" on the Cube was purely a cosmetic thing that shouldn't have driven Apple to discontinue it. No, the Cube's problem was that nobody really saw it as a pro-grade computer and simply didn't buy it. Bring it out today and it would (and does) sell in the form of the Mac mini.
            DWFields
          • Re: In most cases Apple didn't acknowledge them

            Yes, because CR is a company that reports on petty insignificant problems. The problem went away, because Apple gave away bumpers and likely made a change on iPhones going forward.
            notsofast
        • There are no MS haters, gregv2k?

          Coming from you that's like the Mafia saying there's no such thing as the Mafia.
          William Farrel
        • Actually gregv2k, the Microsoft Haters DO Exist, and you are proof if it

          Sindofsky's approach to management took him out, not the product. Toxic personnel poisen great businesses. Think about this, it was planned months ago that he was going to be gone. He was not allowed to keynote the release of the Surface and had been kept around as a figurehead until product launch.
          Interestingly you failed to mention Apple's untimely departures that were tied to poor product performance AND a bad attitude.
          The Surface has done good but would have done better if not for the technical rags and web authors bashing a product they never touched. I laugh at some of the pre-sales articles that you can still read today. Face it, the bashing of the Surface was brutal and now those same people are either ignoring their prior position or continuing to be blind to their own bias against Microsoft.
          The Surface is an OUTSTANDING product and one that will continue to grow.
          135boom
          • 3 million iPads in 3 days

            Surfaces sold to consumers? "Modest" - Ballmer.
            gregv2k
          • Modest because of limited avaliability

            I read that a few places. You can't sell what you don't have.
            NoMore MicrosoftEver
          • Wrong

            He said there was "modest availability"
            Michael Alan Goff
          • Not really..

            The difference with the 3 million iPads sold in 3 days was that previous versions were out before then so people had a taste of what they were like. This is microsofts first tablet
            ibi2305
        • Actually, there are MS haters

          However, the majority of that hate is and was due more to the quality of the hardware carrying it AND to its more difficult approach to many otherwise simple tasks. I believe I can extend that Android will and does see the exact same kind of 'hate'.

          That said, the author clearly points out that Windows 8 is a great operating system despite the nay-saying of so many techies and points out that RT is capable as a mobile OS closely integrated with the full desktop version even though it lacks the ability to run the legacy Windows applications. What we're seeing in essence is a rebirth of the computing environment on much more compact devices which will over time completely replace desktop computing as we know it now; just as desktop computing replaced the mainframe/terminal environment 30 years ago.
          DWFields
      • It's not that I hate Microsoft

        It's that I don't like the not metro interface of Windows 8 for a desktop computer. But that's OK. I'll be voting for Apple with my wallet this holiday season.
        akaltman
      • PIPMS

        Everybody's picking on Poor Innocent Persecuted Microsoft, the most ethical company every to employ Steve Ballmer. And nobody has any better reason for doing so than envy!

        (sob/)
        John L. Ries
        • Here's a better idea

          Instead of whining about unfair we "haters" are being to MS (something pro-MS Talkbackers have been doing for at least 12 years), how about telling us why we're wrong?
          John L. Ries
          • I believe I've done so above

            Of course, you don't have to believe me if you don't want to.
            DWFields
          • Thanks

            I have no quarrel whatever with intelligent, reasoned defense/promotion of MS (in fact, I appreciate it); only with the people who whine about "hate", "bias", "just jealous", "everybody else does it too", etc, together with insinuations that people need an excuse not to do buy or use MS products, or that those who don't are making themselves unemployable (I used to hear that one a lot, but amazingly enough, I'm still employed in my chosen profession).

            And, no, you don't have to believe me either, only recognize my right to disagree and maybe address people's real reasons for MS-dislike and avoidance.
            John L. Ries