Microsoft Surface review: first look

25 Oct 2012
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Microsoft-Surface-table_thumb.jpg

After the disappointment of the Windows 8 keynote, where very little was said that was either key or of note, Microsoft has struck back with a vengeance by delivering the Surface. And it is a staggeringly good device.

To explain this without making me sound like a Microsoft fanboi, I’ll dive into the kind of minutiae that PC Pro readers should appreciate.

Because I want to start with, yes, wireless reception. This boring topic is something that’s difficult to get people excited by, until they need to get internet access in an area of poor coverage. Then, suddenly, it’s all-important.

Microsoft has put a good deal of effort into wireless, including two MIMO aerials where most tablet makers opt for one. It was certainly a match for my Asus Ultrabook in the theatre, but to be sure I’d have to take it home with me (something the bulky security guard looking over my shoulder seemed less positive about than I did) and use it in the wireless-free areas that litter my lounge.

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Then there’s the magnetic mechanism that clamps the Touch Cover to the tablet. Unlike the iPad, you can hold the Surface by the cover and let it drop without fear the tablet will break off and smash to the ground. We also saw Panos Panay, the general manager of the Surface team at Microsoft, bravely drop it on stage during his demo and the machine carried on working (see the video below).

Will the Surface survive the drop?

At this point I’m unapologetically going to get more geeky and talk about how that mechanism works. The answer came quite unexpectedly when I started chatting to Ralf Groene, creative director of Surface, later on at the event.

The key point to understand is that magnets work extremely well when they’re directly aligned, but if they move out of position then the connection becomes weak. So, if you swing the cover around and the angle shifts, the connection will break and your tablet will fly off into the distance.

This was a problem that afflicted an early version of the Surface, until one of Groene’s team came up with the solution: two protrusions on the cover that would ensure it stayed perfectly aligned unless enough lateral force was applied. How much force? Roughly what you’d expect from a five-year-old.

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Now Microsoft claims that you can still touch-type on the Touch Cover and reach similar speeds to before, although Panos added the caveat that it takes 3-4 days to get used to it. In my experience, that could be a little optimistic: there’s a reason that keyboards with decent level of travel are people’s preferred choice.

What I can say with confidence is that within a few minutes I was typing far more quickly than I’ve ever managed with an on-screen keyboard (according to Microsoft’s internal tests, you should be able to reach around 80% of your natural speed). And, if typing is important to you, then there’s always the Type Cover.

This adds a little more girth and weight to the Surface, but not by much. And for anyone who does a lot of typing, the result is well worth it. It’s not the simple ability to be able to touch type, but the fact that, with a Type Cover, this machine can genuinely replace your laptop.

The 1.2mm of travel each key offers, while not generous, is just enough to make you feel like you haven’t made a sacrifice. You’ll look at your laptop, particularly if it’s more than 2kg, and start thinking of all the reasons why you can leave it behind on your desk.

Because, as with all Windows RT tablets, the Surface includes Word 2013, Excel 2013, PowerPoint 2013 and OneNote 2013. They are full applications, although note that you can’t run macros due to the RT’s lack of support for Visual Basic for Applications.

The other omission to note is Outlook 2013. Yes, there are Mail and Calendar apps built in to Windows RT, but I’m reserving judgement on exactly how I might replace Outlook if I do decide to replace my work laptop with the Surface (some third-party apps are already available, for example).

The only times that using Surface jars a little is when you slip into the old style of Windows interface; for example, when you click Personalize in the Settings menu. This is jarring and horrible, because you have to peck at a tiny X with your finger in a way that’s all too reminiscent of Windows Mobile before it became Windows Phone.

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But – and it’s a big but – there’s something about the Surface that makes you forgive these foibles. There’s the kickstand, shown in action above, which folds perfectly flat against the back of the Surface when not in use.

All the gestures seem to work so well that you’ll soon be flicking between applications (swipe in from the left) and jumping to the app’s hidden features (swipe in from the bottom).

It helps that it’s pretty light too: around 680g, or 1.5lbs. It feels well balanced, although just like the iPad you wouldn’t want to hold it one-handed for long.

There’s much more that could be said about the bright 10.6in screen, the clever webcam that films at exactly the right angle when you use the kick-out stand, the way it integrates with an Xbox so you can display films on your TV screen, the fact it includes a microSD card so you can expand storage – but if I carry on in that vein even I’ll start to believe I’ve drank the Microsoft Kool-Aid.

In short, we’ve seen very few Windows 8 tablets that would give Apple any cause for concern, but the Surface really should. It’s been designed with the same from-the-ground-up ethos that marks the iPad, and the end result will be hugely compelling to both home and business users.

And now I’m going to save this file to a USB thumbdrive because I’m being kicked out of the theatre – how handy that a USB slot is built in.

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