All the Different Ways Microsoft's Surface Tablet Is Different

Just before Microsoft's Surface goes on sale tomorrow, the gadget professionals have spent time with the hybrid computer tablet, and while everyone is certain that it's different from anything out there, including the iPad, no one is sure that's really a good thing.

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Just before Microsoft's Surface goes on sale tomorrow, the gadget professionals have spent time with the hybrid computer tablet, and while everyone is certain that it's different from anything out there, including the iPad, no one is sure that's really a good thing.

A Different Type of Gadget

It's historically different, says AllThingsD's Walt Mossberg.

But the tablet I’m using is very different — historic, actually. It’s the first personal computer made by Microsoft, a company determined for decades to make only the software driving others’ computers.

It's puzzlingly different, adds Wired's Mat Honan.

It’s something completely new and different. It is, in some ways, better than an iPad. In some ways, worse. It’s brilliant, and yet it can be puzzling as well. Confoundingly so at times. It’s a tablet of both compromises and confusion. It is a true hybrid — neither fully a desktop nor mobile device.

It's disappointingly different, writes Gizmodo's Sam Biddle.

We hadn't looked forward to something this much in a long, long time. Now it's here. And it's been just as long a time since a gadget has been so disappointing. Surface is good, but Surface RT sure isn't the future. Not yet.

It's not-the-iPad differentnotes The New York Times's David Pogue.

Now, for the very first tablet it has ever manufactured (in fact, its very first computer), Microsoft could have just made another iPad ripoff. But it aimed much higher. It wanted to build a tablet that’s just as good at creating work as it is at organizing it.

Hardware: Beautifully Different

Handsome, says The Verge's Joshua Topolsky.

The Surface hardware is handsome indeed. The rectangular slab is a magnesium alloy forged from what Microsoft calls VaporMg, though it feels like thin, stiff aluminum to the touch. The device is wrapped edge-to-edge in the material, which is treated in a black (or nearly black) paint job.

Well designed, adds Honan.

This is one of the most exciting pieces of hardware I’ve ever used. It is extremely well-designed; meticulous even.

"A good looking slab," in the words of Ars Technica's Peter Bright.

It's a good looking slab. The shape is squarer and more angular than many competing products, which I enjoy. It's slim, at 0.37 inches (9.4mm), and light, at 1.5 lb (681g). Its front face is dominated by the 10.6-inch, 16:9, 1366×768, Gorilla Glass 2-covered IPS screen. Above the screen are a 720p camera and a little light that illuminates to show that the camera is in use. Below that sits a Windows logo that serves as a Start button.

Something from the future, adds TechCrunch's Matt Burns.

Physically, the Surface feels like it’s from the future. It employs just the right amount of neo-brutalist industrial design. The casing is made out of magnesium alloy, called VaporMg by Microsoft, which is more durable and scratch resistant than aluminum. The iPad feels pedestrian compared to the Surface. But the iPad is a different sort of device. Where the iPad is a tablet, the Surface is convertible PC.

Meticulously designed, writes Biddle.

The thing is designed to hell and back, and most of the time it shows. This means a lot of attention to detail—attention that sounds silly until you actually hear it—like the kickstand with an extra, custom-designed hinge to guarantee a satisfying chkkk every time it's snapped shut. Is that superficial? Only if you consider something you're going to potentially hear and touch multiple times every single day superficial. Otherwise, it's just damn thoughtful.

The Kickstand: Good Idea Different

"Designed to make you use it," explains Honan.

The backside kickstand can serve as a metaphor for the entire device. Close it, and it sits flush with the back of the tablet. It’s so tightly integrated, if you didn’t know it was there, you’d think it was just a seam for the battery compartment. It has three hinges — one of which is just to give it a satisfying sound when opening or closing. (Snap!) It’s designed to be like a car door. It’s designed to make you use it.

Something you'll end up using, adds Pogue.

A lesser kickstand would add weight, bulk or ugliness. But this one is razor-thin and disappears completely when you’re not using it.

You do use it, though — especially when you flip open the optional keyboard.

But not without flaws, writes Topolsky.

I do have some niggles with it — particularly the fact that its position can't be adjusted in any way, meaning you have to like the angle the screen is at and live with it (it was usually too upright in most scenarios I tried it in, but not unusable by any means). The kickstand also has extremely sharp metal edges, which caused it to scratch a couple of wooden surfaces I found myself placing the Surface on. It's also not very useful on your lap — unless you like to struggle. You could use the kickstand to put the Surface upright in portrait, though it's not terribly stable, and I wouldn't trust it to not fall over with the wrong kind of touch.

The Touch Keyboard: Too Different?

It takes getting used to, notes Honan.

I struggled mightily with typos and finger placement for the first 24 hours. My left wrist hurt like hell. The pinkie and ring finger on my left hand were cramped. But by day three, my hands began to relax and I was typing quickly and, for the most part, accurately. After a week, I powered along at 90 words per minute. It’s not the same speed I hit on a full size keyboard, and I still have typos galore (though far fewer) but given how much I’ve improved in a week, it’s impressive.

Too slick, adds Pogue.

It’s an incredibly slick idea, but the keys don’t move. You’re pounding a flat surface. If you type too fast, the keyboard skips letters. (“If you type 80 words a minute on a keyboard and 20-30 on glass, you should be in the 50s on the Touch Cover,” says a Microsoft representative.)

It's not enough of a keyboard, writes Biddle.

Sorry, the Touch Cover is a letdown. It's a phenomenal engineering effort, and the most terrifically-integrated mobile keyboard ever. It doesn't compare to the junky Bluetooth options you can slap against your iPad. Microsoft's keyboard cover is perfectly integrated with the device, and touch typing on it is actually possible ... But it only approximates a real keyboard—the buttons are pressure activated, barely buttons at all, and spaced in such a way that typos are inevitable and constant.

Software and Apps: Bad Different

The app selection is sad, Pogue points out.

Instead, it requires all new apps. They’re available exclusively from the online Windows App Store, and there aren’t many to choose from; for example, there’s no Facebook, Spotify, Angry Birds, Instagram, Draw Something or New York Times app. The total in the United States is about 3,500 apps so far; many are bare-bones or junky.

Windows RT is confusing, writes Burns.

No matter how good the hardware is, the operating system makes or breaks the device. As it sits right now, at the launch of Windows 8/RT, the experience is a mish-mash of interfaces and the experience is poor.

At launch, Windows 8 feels like a brand-new playground built in an affluent retirement complex. It’s pretty, full of bold colors, seemingly fun, but built for a different generation.

It just doesn't work that well, adds Biddle.

It's Windows on Surface RT that's the greatest letdown of all, the lethal letdown, because it's not Windows 8, but Windows RT. You can't tell the difference by looking at them, but you certainly will once you use it. Windows RT is underpowered (everything opens and syncs slightly too slowly), under-functional (you cannot install a single app that's not available through the Windows RT app store, which offers a paltry selection), and under-planned (the built-in apps can't feel like Lite versions of something better).

Bottom Line: Overly Different

Not worth buying, writes Biddle.

Should you buy it?


A let down, says Topolsky.

Maybe I say this too often, but I wanted to love this device. Actually, I wanted to love the Surface when I first saw it, before I even got my hands on the review unit. It made Windows 8 make sense in a way other products had not, and I could see a world where this kind of device was the only one I carried with me. Once I did get the review unit, I wanted to love it even more. And truth be told, there is a lot here to love. Plenty — but not enough for me right now. 

A technology that needs to mature, adds Pogue.

In time, maybe the Windows RT apps will come. Maybe the snags will get fixed. Maybe people will solve the superimposed puzzle of Windows RT and Windows 8. Until then, the Surface is a brilliantly conceived machine whose hardware will take your breath away — but whose software will take away your patience.

Not without compromise, Mossberg points out.

Microsoft’s Surface is a tablet with some pluses: The major Office apps and nice optional keyboards. If you can live with its tiny number of third-party apps and somewhat disappointing battery life, it may give you the productivity some miss in other tablets.

Still a "viable alternative to the iPad," counters Honan.

This is a great device. It is a new thing, in a new space, and likely to confuse many of Microsoft’s longtime customers. People will have problems with applications — especially when they encounter them online and are given an option by Internet Explorer to run them, only to discover this won’t work. But overall it’s quite good; certainly better than any full-size Android tablet on the market. And once the application ecosystem fleshes out, it’s a viable alternative to the iPad as well.

Still not worth it, adds Burns.

Should you buy the Surface RT? No.

The Surface RT is a product of unfortunate timing. The hardware is great. The Type Cover turns it into a small convertible tablet powered by a promising OS in Windows RT. That said, there are simply more mature options available right now.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.