Microsoft Surface – promise bubbling under

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The software giant’s new tablet is a curiously unfocused device with one or two strengths but also some significant flaws, not least its horrendous back-end desktop mode –
it is not without potential, though

Even as I sit down to write this review, I still have no idea what market the Surface is aimed at.

Its advertising campaign suggests it’s a hip, indie kid-cool device that will change the way you use a tablet – an attempt to outdo Apple’s street cred. However, its exhausting game of 20 techie questions during set-up suggests that it is pointed at census takers who enjoy filling out forms.

The wonderful front end (no longer called the Metro interface, but we refer to it as such for the sake of simplicity), is countered by the inclusion of the counter-intuitive old Windows 7 desktop for some applications.

It is supposedly a tool for business, but its consumer-friendly front end is unrecognisable and unusable for anyone who actually wants to do some work.

Put simply, the Microsoft Surface is one of the most unfocused devices I have seen for a long time, while at the same time retaining huge potential.

Apple-esque body
The body of the Surface is a cool proprietary magnesium casing that Microsoft calls VaporMG. It feels tough and is very hard to scratch. It picks up fingerprints, but little else. Looking side on, its shaping is that of an upside-down trapezium, and it sits comfortably in the hand. It is just as thin as the iPad 4, at 9.4mm, and like that device the metallic back makes for a far more comfortable in-hand experience than most Android tablets’ plastic backs.

For tablet users looking to switch from Apple or Android alternatives (or looking to dive into the tablet market for the first time), the most striking observation is the screen, which has a 16:9 widescreen ratio as opposed to the more common 4:3 ratio seen on the iPad and its rivals.

This ratio is definitely much better for watching films, but on a tablet is awkward for just about everything else. The Surface is a landscape mode-focused device, and it reminds you of this constantly. Whereas the iPad’s ratio makes book and magazine reading ideal in portrait mode, the Surface feels like you are holding the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is long. It is skinny. It is also heavy and hard to hold in this position for long.

Heavy boy
The Surface is 680g to the iPad 3’s 650g. While that seems a minimal difference, as mentioned earlier the weight distribution is decentralised due to the device’s shape. When holding it in portrait, your arms will tire quickly.

Fortunate then that it comes with a kickstand, which means it can be used on a desk – in landscape mode – similar to any laptop. The kickstand is useless on the sofa or in bed but is a welcome addition for getting work done. Again, Microsoft wants you to know that this is a ‘proper’ computer, not a tablet.

As such it has included a selection of keyboard covers. As mentioned, the touch covers should be avoided, while the type cover is brilliant for typing, if overpriced. The keyboard integration was also a bit buggy – there were several situations (especially when waking the device) when the on-screen keyboard would stay live – blocking use of the attached keyboard. The only solution was to detach and reattach the keyboard – very annoying. This seemed to happen mostly to the type keyboard but was regular enough to be bothersome.

As a plus, the Surface does have a USB slot, a small addition that will please most, and a microSD slot which expands your storage options up to 64GB. This should be standard on every tablet – Apple take note.

Stuck in landscape mode
Games such as Cut the Rope (a portrait mode game on every other smartphone and tablet) here only runs in landscape – with a wastage of around a third to a half of the screen real estate. This is not modifiable.

The screen itself is something of a disappointment – for the same price as an iPad you are getting a screen with half the resolution, just 1,368 x 768 – a very poor 148 pixels per inch (ppi). That’s less than most modern smartphones. Most of the tablet competition has moved on to Retina-esque resolutions of 2,048 x 1,536, which makes photo viewing and especially the reading of text far easier. You can quite easily see the pixelation on the Surface. This is very apparent when playing games with polygons – it is extremely blocky and looks like a last-gen device.

Average screen at best
Compare this device with the iPad 3 and the Google Nexus 10 and there really is no competition. Websites, email and PDFs look far superior on rival devices. Microsoft doesn’t have much of a magazine/book store set up yet, but even comparing Kindle books across devices the Surface doesn’t hold up very well.

Colour reproduction is also somewhat dull. While the main metro screen looks good, colours are bland on photos and in games, the mesh of the low-resolution screen quite visible. It definitely doesn’t have the beautiful ‘pop’ of the Nokia Lumia 920 running Windows Phone 8.

Another limitation of this low 720p screen resolution is that the Surface can’t watch 1080p full HD movies – surprising for a supposed premium device.

Powerhouse under the hood
Where the Surface does shine is in its processing guts. Its 1.3GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra T30 is much more powerful than its iPad rivals on paper. When running the Metro interface, opening apps, sending emails and typing it performed flawlessly. The 2GB of RAM included no doubt helps. I don’t think I ever saw any lag or shuddering of the interface, even with several apps running simultaneously. How much of that raw CPU power is being used up running Windows RT is unknown, but the front-end experience is excellent. There aren’t enough high-end games to push the device yet, so its hard to know where it stands running games such as Infinity Blade 2 or Sky Gamblers.

Serious cost-cutting
The main camera on the Surface is very poor, only 1.2MP. Personally, I don’t find this much of a problem as these cameras are superfluous on tablets. The front-facing camera is also 1.2MP, which is fine for Skype. Colours are muddy, though, and the images are very grainy and noisy. It is unusable for photographic purposes.

Microsoft has also made the Surface Wi-Fi only, so no 3G or 4G. This is a disappointment, given the poor quality of Wi-Fi access in the UK. This limits the device’s usability outside of coffee shops, the office and the home.

Like most of its rivals, the Surface includes a TV out, which means users can run an HDMI cable straight into their TVs. Once Smartglass launches properly (which wireless syncs movies across Windows Phone, Windows 8 and Xbox devices), this feature will be made redundant.

Battery life is also around average, running at around eight hours for high usage – using email, surfing the net, Skyping and playing games.

Shoddy showcase
As many users know, the Surface has been designed as the showcase for the Windows 8 platform. A proof of concept if you will. This is where it becomes a frustrating endeavour.

The front-end Metro interface is very good (modelled on the excellent Windows Phone 7/8 model) – it just feels so natural and brilliant on this device. The live tiles and the left-to-right reading/sliding structure of the interface is a wonderful change from Apple’s stilted, icon-heavy UI with endless sub-screens. I suspect many of Microsoft’s great ideas will be ripped off soon enough.

It is infuriating then that the company hasn’t had the guts to make it the entire operating system. It has opted to fall back on the ugly mouse and keyboard-focused Windows 7/8 desktop. It seems that when Microsoft couldn’t figure out how to ‘Metro’ something, they simply dumped the old Windows on us.

While that UI works fine on a desktop, it has no place on any tablet, and is a shocking failure by the company. Cutting and pasting, trying to click on tiny folders or closing windows with the (tiny) red X button is an exercise in frustration with chubby fingers on a touch screen.

This is especially so for casual users, many of whom bought a tablet specifically to get away from this kind of computing experience.

Apps remain a problem
The main problem with this generation of Microsoft products is the same with all new entrants in the mobile sphere – the app store is limited. Like Windows Phone 8, it will take a while for app developers to jump on board. Microsoft has a few basics in there – Skype is to be integrated into the operating system (eventually) and Microsoft Office is there for free, but otherwise there are very limited options, especially for gamers.

Laptop or tablet?
Tablets, in their current incarnation, are devices of simplicity. They are designed to do the simplest parts of computing quickly, efficiently and simply. They are toys, web browsers, e-readers and creative tools rolled into one.

Whether consumers are going to be happy being charged £399 for a pretty case and good system specs (despite a poor screen), a new interface and an empty app store is up for debate.

The Surface seems more to be an attempt by Microsoft to ‘correct’ users’ behaviour – that is, force them to use a tablet in a way that suits Microsoft’s existing business models – namely as a laptop. The sad thing is Metro UI is that modern solution screaming to get out. We have seen how brilliant Metro is on Windows Phone 8 devices. Why not do that here too?

The Surface feels like a lost opportunity. If Microsoft had gone all in with Metro, scrapped the back-end Windows 7 nonsense and thrown in a decent hi-res screen, this device could have been an iPad killer. As it stands, tinkerers and boffins may enjoy it, but it is not a device for the mainstream. Disappointing.

Verdict
The Surface feels like a lost opportunity. If Microsoft had gone all in with Metro, scrapped the back-end Windows 7 nonsense and thrown in a decent hi-res screen, this device could have been an iPad killer. As it stands, tinkerers and boffins may enjoy it, but it is not a device for the mainstream. Disappointing.

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