Microsoft Corp.’s new Surface is a finely crafted machine that offers a top tablet experience an optional work functionality in a sleek, stylish package that is hard to resist despite a few visible dents.
Surface is built tough with VaporMg, a magnesium composition that relays a durable yet lightweight quality to the device. A sharp 10.6-inch Gorilla Glass 2 screen is wrapped with a flat grey metal finish and edges that taper in with finesse. On the sides are useful ports, including a full USB 2.0 slot and micro HDMI out. The built-in kickstand is brilliantly thin yet pops out with confidence. A press back into the device presents a light click comparable to the clasp of a nice watch. The entire device, which also includes an ARM-based 1.3Ghz Quad-Core Nvidia Tegra 3 and 2GB of RAM, feels very solid and weighs a mere 1.5 pounds.
The Surface Touch Cover and Type Cover is a stand-out keyboard innovation that deftly includes a keyboard layout on the inside. The Touch Cover, which is pressure-sensitive and made of polyurethane, works incredibly well. When fingers rest on the device keys are never accidentally fired unlike glass. Yet only a small press is required activate any key. The Type Cover works equally well as a standard keyboard. Keys hold less travel but offer tactile functionality for the conventional user. Each cover magnetically attaches to the bottom of Surface with a strong bond that doesn’t miss.
Windows RT, a variant of Windows 8, is included with each Surface sold. It is limited to new downloadable Windows Store applications and will not run legacy Windows applications, a caveat that may deter professional users from a purchase. However, the software includes a full copy of Office Home & Student 2013 for Word, Excel, Powerpoint and OneNote for a capable work suite suitable for corporate or education-based consumers.
The included Bing application suite, which includes Bing News, Finance, Sports, and Travel, are remarkable for information junkies and relay a bevy of live updates to the Start Screen with information curated from leading news sources. Bing apps all conform to the new Modern UI for magazine-style reading throughout that is crisp, clear, and customizable.
Internet Explorer 10, which can be used in the Desktop or Modern UI, performs well, but is typically a tad behind the iPad in speed and video loading.
New applications can be downloaded at the Windows Store. Current offerings include staples like Netflix, Hulu Plus, Kindle, The New York Times, and Angry Birds Space. Though favorites like Twitter and Facebook have yet to become available.
As a notebook, Surface is no slouch. Pop out the kickstand, lay down the Touch or Type Cover, and the Surface converts into an ultra-portable work station. The USB port allows users to add a mouse, hard drive, or a printer that will likely be recognized by a long list of Windows legacy drivers. The included Office 13 offers the latest in work productivity and users can enable a touch mode to deploy gestures rather than standard mouse movements for cursor placement, highlighting, and executing commands.
Surface isn’t perfect and there will be small software issues that users will have to combat.
Windows RT and Windows 8 are flanked by the new Start Menu Modern UI and a traditional Desktop that both need to be utilized in order to set a custom task.
For example, the Modern UI includes a System Update functionality to nab the latest software updates for the device. However, it won’t show or offer to download Optional Updates. Users must trudge back into Desktop mode, Computer, System Properties, System Update, then view a list of optional updates. A crucial optional download which updates the included Office 13 Preview to the full version, can only be found in the Desktop System Update.
Another example of Desktop and Modern UI reliance is Picture opening. Open a picture in Desktop mode and it will open in the Modern UI Pictures application rather than simply open another Window to view the picture in Desktop mode.
Overall, Windows RT is quick to scroll and multitask through various open apps. However, most applications take longer-than-expected to load, or at least longer than the competition. Expect apps to take five or more seconds to boot and a few more seconds to retrieve their latest update. This doesn’t seem to be a hardware issue, as a test of Windows 8 on Intel-based Core i5 machines yielded similar results. A system update down the road is likely to refine the experience.
Surface is a remarkable achievement for Microsoft. As a hardware piece, the device was built with a stunning attention to detail for tablet and work functionality. As a mobile software platform, Windows RT and Office deliver a near full Windows 8 experience. The required back and forth between the Modern UI and Desktop, and somewhat sluggish apps can fumble the experience. But as a first entry for the brand, Surface can certainly stand on its own.