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Posted on October 25th, 2012 by Tim Danton

Microsoft Surface review: first look

Microsoft Surface table

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.

Microsoft Surface magnetic connector

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.

Microsoft Surface Touch Cover

Microsoft Surface Type CoverNow 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.

Microsoft Surface kick standBut – 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.

Microsoft Surface left-hand buttons

Microsoft Surface USB port

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Posted in: Hardware, Windows 8


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21 Responses to “ Microsoft Surface review: first look ”

  1. Steve Millar Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 9:31 am

    Starting to feel less anxious that I pre-ordered one now.

    I’m not usually one to jump in at the beginning, I like to get reviews & suchlike first, but I need to learn Windows 8 & trying the various previews on laptop & desktops wasn’t that great (for me anyway).

    Hopefully it will arrive today…

  2. Marko Von Richards Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 9:49 am

    How much, where from and when?

  3. Andrew Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 9:54 am

    What happens when you just want to use the tablet interface with touch?
    Does the keyboard cover fold round and get disabled or do you have to remove it from the tablet?

  4. VikArmo Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 10:12 am


    Just fold it back and it gets disabled.

  5. Kev Partner Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 10:17 am

    Despite myself, I am tempted by the Windows 8 RT tablets. I have no interest whatsoever in the more expensive full-fat Windows 8 devices but the RT versions look compelling. The only issue for me is price – if you include the decent keyboard cover the total cost is bit high to be good value, in my view. Presumably you could use any bluetooth keyboard?

  6. Perry Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Does it have microsoft word and how much is it

  7. James Bassett Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 10:23 am

    Marko – it is only available through Microsoft at the moment and starts at £399 without the cover or £479 with – although all the fancy colours are sold out so it is black only at the moment. And yes, Andrew, the cover folds around when you aren’t typing, just like an iPad. And I have no connection to Microsoft – I’ve just been using Win8 on my laptop for a few months and have been impressed enough to have been looking seriously into getting one of these as a replacement for the wife’s ancient Asus Eee 901 – but she wants the (sold out) Pink one!

  8. ryan Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 11:42 am

    what a load of bs, why do these reviews focus on the hardware, the software is what counts, and in tablets – there are no microsoft apps worth while buying

  9. Blasterinn Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 11:46 am

    I think the best will rear its head last. The pro is what i want and is what is able to run everything without the limitations the RT version suffers from.
    I am looking to replace my 17″ laptop and use the pro as my main PC, that depends on the price though…. and the price may kill the dream.

  10. hepnerd Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 12:53 pm

    This seems great as an iPad contender, but the pro is what really takes the gold. The possibility of playing all your PC games on a tablet sounds too good to be true,

  11. Grunthos Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    @Perry: Yes, it’s included free on the Surface. If you read the article Tim clearly says, Word, Excel and Powerpoint are all included.

  12. SH Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 1:42 pm

    Has anyone received an email from Microsoft confirming delivery yet ? Better still, has anyone actually received a unit yet ? Can’t seem to get a straight answer from Microsoft

  13. wittgenfrog Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    I’m afraid it looks like they’re SHIPPING pre-orders some time next week. They’re also NOT using express couriers, so end of next week looks like the likely date to receive existing pre-orders….

  14. Mark Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    Is there anywhere I can have a play with one of these before I buy? Just to be able lift if to feel it’s weight and the like.

  15. Robin Bull Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 4:17 pm

    Did I miss it or is there no GPS support?

  16. Zippy Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    £399 + 110 type cover + 65 for a 32gb microSD = 574 and then you are in the realm of good laptops. I would not replace my 1.3kg 13″ laptop with a 10 screen for that price and also too expensive for a tablet in my view.
    It looks a nice peice of kit but at £200 cheaper it might have tempted me.

  17. Jon Freedom Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    £399 perhaps that’s not too bad; I paid the same for my first BBC B Micro in 1982…

  18. George Says:
    October 26th, 2012 at 11:34 pm

    @Zippy Where are you buying your microsSD cards from, last 32G Sandisk MicrosSD I bought from Amazon was £16.

  19. AnonnyMuss Says:
    October 27th, 2012 at 9:24 am

    @Zippy – you are contriving a high price in order to make your point.

    I could just as easily say £479 for surface with black touch cover + £13 fro 32GB micro-SD = £492 for a tablet that includes Office and has 64GB of storage.

  20. James Says:
    November 1st, 2012 at 7:15 am

    Mine arrived yesterday and have to say I’m impressed. Basic keyboard better than on screen for note taking, more than fast enough, remote apps provide access to anything that will not run on RT. Only down sides, not convinced mail app is good as full outlook and wish it had at least 3G for when I’m out and about but apart from that my ipad will be gathering dust.

  21. Steve Campbell Says:
    November 1st, 2012 at 11:23 am

    The killer app for me is MS Office 2013. For RT to have all you could want (with the exception of outlook) is the final decider.

    And finally, well done MS for setting a high quality benchmark for tablet hardware running Win8/RT.


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