I am writing this paragraph on a tablet in a coffee shop. That’s no big deal. As I look around, I see several people working on Apple iPads. 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.
With this device, called Surface, Microsoft is adopting the model of its longtime rival, Apple, which has always believed that the better way to deliver digital products is to build them end-to-end, including hardware, operating system and core apps, and an ecosystem of downloadable apps and content. That is what Microsoft is doing now with the Surface tablet, two and a half years after the iPad was born.
I have been testing the Surface almost daily for three weeks and I like it. It’s beautifully and solidly built and it’s the purest expression of Microsoft’s new Windows 8 touchscreen operating system which, like the Surface, goes on sale on Friday. The new operating system also works on laptops and desktops. It can be operated with a mouse or touch pad, but its dramatically different, touch-optimized user interface begs to be used on a touchscreen tablet.
This isn’t a cheap iPad knockoff. It’s a unique tablet, made of a type of magnesium with a feeling of quality and care. The Surface starts at the same $499 base price as the large iPad, albeit with 32 gigabytes of storage, twice Apple’s entry offering. Other versions cost $599 and $699. Unlike the iPad, the Surface is Wi-Fi only. It lacks a cellular-data option.
The Surface tablet with the Touch Cover — which uses molded keys, comes in bright colors and costs $120 — has a sturdy kickstand for typing on a desk.
Office and Keyboards
As fluid as the Surface is with touch and the tablet-like touch apps Windows 8 supports, Microsoft has given the tablet the ability to behave like a familiar Windows PC, at least in some scenarios. It comes with full versions of standard Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint. The three programs worked fine, in creating documents and in editing ones from older versions of the software.
Microsoft has designed two clever, very thin, optional keyboards that snap on magnetically and double as covers. These are better than any of the add-on keyboards I’ve seen for the iPad. And Microsoft has built in a standard USB port and a sturdy kickstand for typing on a desk. One keyboard, the Touch Cover, uses molded keys, comes in bright colors and costs $120. It’s bundled with the costlier models. The second, a rigid, black version with movable keys called the Type Cover, costs $130.
There is a downside to these keyboards: They are almost useless on your lap. There is no hinge to keep the screen upright and the kickstand works poorly on your legs. Despite that, these features make the Surface better for traditional productivity tasks than any tablet I’ve tested.
A Paucity of Apps
Still, there are rough edges to the Surface. The biggest is a paucity of apps for the new touch interface. At launch, Microsoft estimates there will be only about 10,000 third-party such apps available globally, of which about 5,000 will be available in the U.S. More important, many popular titles, like Facebook, will be missing. That’s a tiny number of apps compared with the 700,000 touch-operated apps that run on the iPad.
And there is more bad news about apps. This first edition of Surface uses a variant of Windows 8, called RT, that can’t run the vast array of traditional programs many Windows users rely upon daily, like Google Chrome, Adobe Photoshop, Apple iTunes or even Microsoft’s own Outlook. A second edition of the Surface, due in January, will run the full version of Windows 8, and most of these standard Windows programs. But it will be heavier.
Mediocre Battery Life
Surface, which is about as thin, but a bit heavier, than the full-size iPad, displayed much weaker battery life in my tests — about seven hours versus 10 for the iPad. That’s better than many Android tablets, but not what you’d expect from Microsoft’s pride and joy.
I tested the battery life using the same test I use on all tablets. I set the screen to 75 percent brightness, leave on the Wi-Fi to collect email in the background, and play videos back to back until the battery dies.
Screen and Cameras
The screen on the Surface is 10.6 inches, larger and skinnier than the big iPad’s. It was sharp and vivid in my tests, but inferior to the Retina display on the third-generation Apple tablet, which has much higher resolution. The cameras were a disappointment. They took only fair pictures. The rear camera has a mere 1 megapixel in resolution. Microsoft says it tuned the camera more for video, but in my tests videos were only okay.
The touch keyboard is fast and easy to use. It can be switched among several styles — a standard configuration, a more cramped one with an added top row of number keys, and a split style, as on the iPad, for thumb typing. You can also summon a panel for handwriting input, though Microsoft doesn’t include a stylus.
Surface has the same built-in new-style apps as every Windows 8 PC, and the same app store. Like other Windows 8 machines, the Surface starts up in the new, radically different, tile-based Start screen.
The built-in apps include a touch version of Internet Explorer, an email program, and programs for social networking, instant messaging, photos, maps, videos, music and more. In addition, while Surface doesn’t run most old-style Windows apps, it includes some standard old Windows programs like the calculator, notepad and file explorer.
All of the built-in apps worked fine for me, except Mail, which lacks common features like a unified inbox, and an unread-mail folder. It also doesn’t support one of the two common types of consumer email systems, called POP. Microsoft concedes the Mail app needs to be improved.
On the other hand, the Music app, called Xbox Music, holds great promise. It lets users download songs like iTunes, organize them into “stations” like Pandora does, and stream them free like Spotify.
Third-party apps sometimes showed problems. Evernote took a long time to synchronize my account, and the Kindle app had to stop every few pages to fetch the next section of a book, even if the book had been downloaded. It also messed up some pages.
I ran into a number of bugs while testing, some serious. All but one notable one were resolved by the time I wrote this review. It involves the inability of the Surface to authenticate with Microsoft services, like the app store, with some kinds of broadband modems and routers. Microsoft concedes this bug is known, but is still investigating. In my tests, this bug affected me in only one of my several test locations, but one is too many.
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.
Write to Walt at email@example.com.