It's not an easy feat to make a tablet that looks or feels different from those hundreds of slabs that have come before, yet this Surface is indeed quite distinctive on both fronts. It's genuinely hard to differentiate our visual impressions from our tactile ones.
The exterior of the slate is a cool, matte surface that looks dark and feels quite strong and durable.
The exterior of the slate is a cool, matte surface that looks dark and feels quite strong and durable. It's constructed using Microsoft's Vapor Mg process, which relies on vapor deposition to create this distinctive tactility, which we found ourselves quite drawn to. The material feels amazing in the hand and here it's used to create a structure that is quite complex, flat on the front and back of course but with the sides angling outward, connecting a facade slightly wider than the rear.
This inclination makes for a very reassuring feel when walking around carrying this tablet under one arm, and also gives room for a display that is slightly larger than your average 9.7- or 10.1-inch slates. In fact, its display clocks in at 10.6 inches, nearly a full notch greater than the new iPad, but its resolution is far lower, at just 1,366 x 768. As we saw when we got to go behind the scenes of the device's design and development, that 16:9 display and size were custom-crafted to make the most of Windows RT's ideal orientation and, as we'll detail in the next section, the quality of this panel mostly makes up for its relative lack of resolution.
That rim around the edge is perforated in many places, much more than your average tablet, including two new proprietary magnetic connectors. The first, and biggest, is on the bottom of the tablet. It has six contacts, providing power and data connectivity for Microsoft's first-party keyboard covers and, hopefully, more peripherals down the road. On the lower-right is another, similar but incompatible magnetic connector, this one with only five pins. It's here that the device's AC adapter plugs in, that custom plug meaning you'll have to bring it with you whenever you hit the road, but this does at least mean it pushes more juice through than your average USB connector and therefore charges faster. We do, though, wish that connector was a bit more grabby. With MagSafe it seems like if you get the plug anywhere near the connector the two pull themselves together. Microsoft's option requires a good bit more precision and doesn't hold nearly as tightly.
Following up the right edge the next port you'll find is a full-size USB 2.0 connector that's ready and waiting for thumb drives, keyboards, hubs, mice and anything else you can throw at it. We can't help but be slightly disappointed it isn't USB 3.0, but having this port is incredibly useful -- as is the micro-HDMI connector that sits above. Then comes the right speaker, with its mate to be found over on the other side. Up top you'll find a pair of microphones along with the power button, which can be found toward the right edge. On the left side is the 3.5mm headphone jack positioned just above a volume rocker. Finally, tucked behind the fold-out kickstand on the rear is a microSDXC port, which means near-infinitely expandable storage is just one tiny little chip away.
Fitting all those ports means this slate is on the large side, and not just because of the display. Full dimensions are 10.81 x 6.77 x 0.37 inches (275 x 172 x 9.4mm), considerably wider and taller than the new iPad, but only 0.2mm thicker -- not bad, considering you get that full-sized USB port out of the equation. Its 1.5 pounds means it hits the scales at 0.1 pounds greater than the latest iPad, but for some reason it feels heavier still.
When combined with either of the keyboards that Microsoft offers at launch, this becomes a surprisingly capable laptop replacement. Or surrogate, at least.
It's around the back that one of the most distinctive hardware features is found -- the kickstand. While useful, we typically find ourselves deriding the presence of such appendages when they spring out of phones and tablets. Here, though, it comprises a major part of the DNA of the device. Yes, it can be used to prop this thing up and watch a movie, but when combined with either of the keyboards that Microsoft offers at launch, the $120 Touch Cover or $130 Type Cover, this becomes a surprisingly capable laptop replacement. Or surrogate, at least. Its hinge is complex but feels durable, though we do wish Microsoft had put a notch on either side of the stand, instead of just the one on the left. Flipping it out with your right hand can be a little tricky at times.
And while we're focusing on look and feel, we'd be remiss if we didn't discuss the sounds of the device, too -- if only because Microsoft is making such a big deal out of the acoustic nature of the thing in its commercial. Indeed, the kickstand flips out with a very satisfying click and the Touch Cover magnetically pops on to the bottom with a reassuring "thunk." Reassuring, because that magnetic connection is strong enough to comfortably support the weight of the tablet dangling below -- though we wouldn't recommend swinging it around with too much verve.
When it comes to the other sounds this thing can make, those that you might actually want to listen to through the built-in stereo speakers, the Surface is merely adequate. Despite having twice as many speakers as the iPad, it actually can't match that product's maximum volume output. But, it does at least offer stereo separation, and overall audio quality is average for tablets -- that is to say, completely lacking in bass.
And when it's time to reach out and get this thing online, as it is, of course, of limited use when disconnected, you have WiFi and... that's it. Microsoft is not offering a 3G- or LTE-equipped model, at least not yet, but you do get a comprehensive suite of 802.11 interconnects: a/b/g/n with 2x2 MIMO sending and receiving. There's Bluetooth 4.0, too.
As any digital camera aficionado will tell you, there's more to image quality than resolution.
Back when Surface for RT was first revealed, Microsoft shied away from confirming the tablet's screen resolution. We can now understand why: if people knew then that it had a 1,366 x 768 pixel count, they might have pooh-poohed it for not having a 1,920 x 1,200 panel, or better. And that would have been a shame; as any digital camera aficionado will tell you, there's more to image quality than resolution. For starters, Surface uses Microsoft's ClearType sub-pixel rendering technology to help smooth out jagged edges. Additionally, the Surface has an optically bonded display, in which the touch panel and LCD comprise a single layer, all protected behind Gorilla Glass. A technique already used in smartphone manufacturing, this allows for the panel to be thinner, and also creates fewer opportunities for light to refract. As a result, there are some pleasantly versatile viewing angles here.
It helps, too, that the screen has an impressively high 400-nit brightness rating; thanks to that spec, in particular, outdoor visibility won't be a problem. (And with such robust battery life, as you'll see below, you needn't worry about temporarily cranking up that brightness slider; you'll still have plenty of charge to spare.) Viewing angles are also world-class. You could watch a movie with this slate lying face-up on a table in front of you, but that kickstand means you'll probably have an easy time keeping it perpendicular to your gaze.
All told, the Surface's display stands up well against the competition. We still consider the new iPad panel to be the best on the market, but there is noticeably less glare on Microsoft's latest and, when placed side by side, the Surface also shows slightly deeper blacks. (The color temperature is generally cooler, too -- we're not sure that's good, per se, just different.)
That said, there's no escaping that this is indeed a lower-resolution tablet. In viewing an eye chart on the Surface and the new iPad, the smaller text elements (the ones you may find yourself squinting hopefully at while standing at the DMV) are noticeably cleaner on the iPad's 2,048 x 1,536 display. Still, since the iPad scales up all its content to match the older, lower-res tablets, much of that resolution is going to waste. In fact, load up the same webpage on both tablets and you'll see far more content on the Surface than the iPad, thanks at least in part to the 16:9 aspect ratio here.
You wouldn't think a 3mm-thick piece of polyurethane could make for a comfy keyboard, but the pressure-sensitive Touch Cover is a compelling companion to your written missives.
You wouldn't think a 3mm-thick piece of polyurethane could make for a comfy keyboard, but the pressure-sensitive Touch Cover is a compelling companion to your written missives. Just give yourself a little time to get used to it. Microsoft warns it could take four to five days to reach your peak touch-typing speed. That sounds about right to us, which is a bit unfortunate; you'll need to pay up to buy one before you know for sure whether you'll really like it, even if you get a chance to sample Surface at a Microsoft Store.
But, if you're on the fence, we'd recommend making the extra investment for the cover. The first 30 seconds or so will feel mighty disorienting, a sensation that evolves into uneasiness over the next few minutes as you figure out how to successfully insert an exclamation point and experiment with how much pressure is really necessary. It's also a matter of trust: think about how gingerly you used your first BlackBerry's keyboard, or how carefully you typed out text messages on your first touchscreen phone. It took time to figure those typing systems out, and there's another learning curve to ride here.
It's worth it, though. Within minutes we were typing at a brisk clip, making surprisingly few errors along the way. It helps that there are small indentations on the F and J keys just like a proper keyboard, marking the home position for each of your index fingers. The keys are also spaced well enough that you're unlikely to hit the wrong letter by mistake. It's no sweat if you do: the backspace and spacebar keys are easily found without looking down. In fact, as Microsoft was developing the product, it gradually widened the spacebar after some large-handed focus group testers found themselves mistakenly striking the touchpad instead.
We're inclined to think that touch typists will come to grips with the Touch Cover more quickly than with a more tactile keyboard on another tablet OS.
It's the familiar layout and functionality that's the best part of the Touch Cover. If you're a regular PC user you'll quickly and happily find that all your typical keyboard shortcuts work exactly as you'd expect them. Arrow keys make for quick and easy navigation through text files, like the one in which this review was written. We're inclined to think that touch typists will come to grips with the Touch Cover more quickly than with a more tactile keyboard on another tablet OS.
Still, that tactility is something to overcome. The biggest challenge we had in acclimating to the Touch Cover was learning just how much pressure to apply. Use it for a few minutes and you'll realize you can tap the "keys" lightly and quickly while watching as full, perfectly spelled sentences flow onto the screen. Get too cavalier, though, and a letter will fail to register, forcing you to back up and try again with a little more force. Again, though, you'll likely overcome such missteps after practicing for the prescribed business week.
Because the Touch Cover is so photogenic -- it is available in five colors, after all -- you might not have known about the Surface's other keyboard, the Type Cover, so named for its tactile, conventional-looking keys. Here, too, there's a slight learning curve, though perhaps gentler than the Touch Cover's. Once again, we found we could type quickly with a low error rate, though we never totally got used to the closeness of the keys -- they're packed very tightly and feature flat caps, meaning they very nearly bleed into one another. We wouldn't be surprised if you came to prefer the Touch Cover once you got used to it -- provided, of course, you were willing to spend an extra $130 on a spare keyboard for comparison's sake. It's a bit of a shame that there aren't more Microsoft Stores: the ideal solution would be to wander in, play with both keyboards and see if you're a more of a Touch or a Type fan.
In either case, you'll find a small elf of a touchpad sitting beneath the spacebar. Our prediction: you won't bother with it much. It comes in handy if you're working in a desktop app like Explorer or Microsoft Word and need the kind of precision finger input can't offer. Most of the time, though, we followed our intuition and just tapped on the far more responsive touchscreen. The trackpad does support two-finger scrolls, which you might use if you're looking at a website and don't want to get your finger in the way while you're reading -- or if you're a stickler for staying as close to the home row as possible. Just don't expect such gestures to be recognized in the smoothest of manners.
And, in case you were wondering, closing either cover will disable the display on the Surface, much like the magnetic iPad covers from Apple. But, we were rather disappointed by the lag here. There's a good three-second wait before the display pops back on after flipping open the cover. That compares unfavorably to the one second or less time on Apple's option. Not the end of the world, but a bit annoying if you're just flipping it open to take a quick peek at something.
Performance and battery life
Under the hood, the Surface purrs along on 2GB of RAM and a quad-core NVIDIA Tegra T30 chip, the same SoC powering other Windows RT tablets, like the ASUS VivoTab RT. Since we're not yet aware of any benchmarks tailored to this operating system, we'll stand on this: Tegra 3 is more than capable of handling Windows RT's Live Tiles and Modern UI. The tablet cold-boots in just under 25 seconds and launches apps briskly. It responds smoothly to taps and swipes, and we also found that the tablet is quick to respond if you open an app, change your mind and hit the home button before the app is finished loading.
That said, we did notice some occasional pauses when quickly swiping the left side of the screen to toggle between open apps. To be clear, it didn't matter how many apps we had open: in fact, we frequently lost count of how many were running. We rarely bothered to manually close any and the machine never seemed to suffer for it. In short, the performance has a few limitations, but overall, Surface is fast, responsive and stable.
You caught the part earlier where we said this thing has robust battery life, right? How does nearly 10 hours sound? In our standard battery rundown test for tablets, which involves looping a locally stored video with WiFi on and brightness fixed at 50 percent, the Surface's 31.5 watt-hour battery held out nine hours and 36 minutes, which puts it just short of the new iPad (9:52) and just ahead of ASUS' high-end Transformer Pad Infinity (9:25).
We're still a little unclear on how Microsoft plans to educate consumers on the difference between Windows RT and Windows 8.
We'll be honest: we're still a little unclear on how Microsoft plans to educate consumers on the difference between Windows RT (for ARM-based devices) and Windows 8 (for full x86 machines), especially since there's going to be a whole lot of similar-looking tablet / laptop hybrids running Windows 8. Case-in-point? The Surface with Windows Professional, which comes out in a few months and will cost a bunch more than the RT, but looks nigh-identical, both on the outside and in the OS.
So, it might be useful, then, to start by addressing some common misconceptions about Windows RT. First of all, contrary to what some readers might believe, it does, indeed, have a desktop, just like regular Windows. Pinned to the Taskbar are various apps from Office Home & Student 2013 RT: Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.
That said, you won't be spending much time down here on the desktop, since Windows RT can't run legacy programs written for traditional, x86-based Windows systems. In other words, while you can install an app like Photoshop on a full Windows 8 machine, you can't do it here, nor any other Windows application written since the dawn of the OS. Additionally, we have our doubts about whether anyone going forward will bother to write desktop apps versus those more optimized for running in the de facto Live Tile interface.
It really is lovely to plug in a USB drive and start dragging and dropping files.
Still, the desktop can be a godsend in certain situations. For one, that USB port is a perfect match for Windows RT. Though this isn't "full" Windows, per se, it's still compatible with almost any USB-powered storage device or peripheral that you'd normally use with a Windows machine, a massive pile of legacy devices. It really is lovely to plug in a USB drive and start dragging and dropping files. Or, feel free to connect that comfortable keyboard you've been using for a decade, or that old tank of an HP LaserJet that's still doing the business after all these years. These are the sorts of luxuries you might take for granted but will appreciate more as you start comparing the Surface to other tablets. In short, that USB connection isn't just a spec or a talking point: it means you can use this Windows tablet like a PC, whenever it's convenient for you.
Other than the fact that Windows RT can't run legacy apps, it looks and feels like Windows 8. As you probably know, there's no Start button, and the Start Menu is comprised of Windows Phone-esque Live Tiles. Here, you'll find all the usual native apps, such as Mail, Calendar, People, Camera and Internet Explorer 10. (There are two versions of IE, by the way: one on the desktop, and a more touch-friendly one that exists as a Live Tile. They do, at least, share bookmarks now.) The desktop, too, is an app unto itself on the Start screen. What's more, all the same gestures apply: swipe from the right to expose the Charm Bar, which contains options for searching content and adjusting system settings. Swipe from the left to toggle apps, and swipe from the top or bottom to view certain app-specific options, like playing a movie on loop. That these options are all hidden means there is a bit of learning users will have to do before making the best use of their tablets, but once mastered you'll find options and commands are usually just a few taps away.
From the Start Screen, you can just start typing to begin a search for something -- a trick you can use on the Windows Store home screen, too. On the desktop, windows have a flatter, two-dimensional feel, meaning the old transparent bordering is a thing of the past. Things are, by default, a bit more finger-friendly than your average Windows desktop, with bigger buttons and menu options.
There's nothing stopping you from downloading legacy apps from the browser, but none will run on Windows RT.
Video playback support is rather limited at this point. The system will play WMV and MK4 files, but the system has no idea what to do with MKV files by default, and even an old AVI file we tried to play failed miserably. So, if you were hoping this machine would be as adept at playing back video files in any 'ol format you throw at it, like the x86 version of Windows is, you're bound for disappointment. At least, until someone ports VLC over to ARM.
When they do, you'll have to download it from the Windows Store. In fact, you'll be getting everything from the Windows Store. Mind you, there's nothing stopping you from downloading legacy apps from the browser, but none will run on Windows RT. As we discovered, you can go so far as to create desktop shortcuts for apps. But when you try and load them, a banner will stretch across the screen, telling you the app won't run on your device. As for apps you can run, the selection is small, but growing. Netflix, for instance, just arrived in the Windows Store, and we expect plenty more soon (including our own app). So far, there's a comforting group of heavy hitters, including Skitch, Box.net, Associated Press, Evernote, eBay, StumbleUpon, Pandora and Slacker Radio. We'd like to believe that bodes well for other major apps that still haven't arrived on the platform.
There is, at least, a Kindle app, but it's decidedly less than optimal at this point. Page-turning is sometimes done very quickly, sometimes met with five seconds of a spinning progress indicator. Voice playback (and, therefore, Whispersync for Voice) are unsupported and we got an error whenever we tried to open a comic, and what's the point of having such a nice display if you can't read Watchmen?
We searched on for other popular apps, more often than not coming up empty-handed. Notables we're still waiting for include: Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Dropbox, Mint, PageOnce, TripIt, NPR,
NYTimes, Angry Birds, Draw Something, Words with Friends, Temple Run, Spotify, Springpad, Remember the Milk, Amazon, Instapaper, Pocket (formerly Read it Later), Flipboard, Steam, Instagram, Nook, Zinio and Rdio. You can't even install Microsoft's own Silverlight browser plugin, which should be the final nail in that platform's coffin.
We also couldn't find any airline apps. Now, we can't make any guarantees, but it seems to us that Twitter, Foursquare and Rovio would be nuts not to develop for Windows RT and Windows 8. This is, basically, a new ecosystem and it will certainly grow -- we're just advising patience if you insist on buying the Surface as an early adopter.
The Surface has dual 720p cameras, but unless you're in the mood for video chatting, you probably won't be using them much. Even by tablet standards, the image quality here is pretty poor. Our full-res, 1,280 x 720 shots look awfully pixelated, even in brightly lit environments that shouldn't have yielded any noise. You'll also notice a good deal of color saturation (take a look at those fire-engine-red peppers in the sample gallery to see what we mean). As for the Surface's 720p video recording, we noticed some motion blur, but we were pleasantly surprised by how gentle the audio rendering was. Too often, our clips taken with tablets have a buzzing, distorted quality. In this case, the tablet didn't pick up any stray gusts of wind that might have otherwise spoiled our recording.