Scratching The Surface

Not literally. ;)

2012 has been a pretty big year for Microsoft.

Hotmail got upgraded to Outlook.com. The company shifted focus from a software company to a devices and services organization. Multiple services (Live Mesh/Skydrive, Zune/XBox Music, etc) were streamlined down into single, more potent offerings. Skype was purchased. The next edition of their flagship operating system, Windows 8, was released. The upgrade to their phone operating system, Windows Phone 8, was released alongside a bevy of awesome handsets from Nokia, HTC, and Samsung. And in what might some consider the biggest surprise of the year, the technology giant released their own tablet – Microsoft Surface.

It was a move that got a lot of folks talking. Does this signify a shift away from partner hardware makers like Dell and Lenovo? How do those partners feel about Microsoft putting out their own product and taking away potential sales? Does this mean a Microsoft-produced phone is on the way?

Of course I have opinions on those topics and much more about Microsoft, but those will have to wait for another time and another blog entry.

But, being the unabashed Microsoft fan-boy that I am (I will certainly criticize when necessary, but come on, the company is doing some AMAZING things), I, too, turned 2012 into my own personal Year-Of-Microsoft.

I made the switch to Outlook.com. I’ve started doing much more in the cloud with Skydrive and Office web documents. I subscribed to a XBox Music Pass. I upgraded both my desktop and laptop to Windows 8 Pro on the day the OS was released. I purchased a Nokia Lumia 920 with Windows Phone 8, and – the whole purpose of this post – I bought a Microsoft Surface tablet.

So let me tell you all about it.

I wasn’t initially sure I would ever use a tablet. But then I realized there are times where I don’t want to go sit at my desk or keep my eyes on my laptop to watch Twitter or Facebook. I can sit in my big chair and have a tablet on the table next to me when I need it. I can take it into bed and watch Netflix without hauling a laptop in there and finding somewhere to plug it in and keep it afterwards. Basically, I could have something just to watch – to consume content on, whether it’s a movie or a Twitter stream – and not worry about *doing*.

When I ordered my Surface, I chose to get just the 32 GB tablet only version, with no keyboard. I decided that, like I said above, this would be a consumption device and if I wanted to do anything more than compose a quick Tweet or Facebook update or fire off a quick email, then I could go grab my laptop for those tasks that required a focus on typing or creating a graphic in Photoshop, or whatever the more complicated task would be.

Right now, I’m writing this on my laptop with my Surface right beside me so I can glance at it and keep an eye on my Twitter stream.

Here’s a quick rundown of the specs of the device.

Operating System/Included Software: Windows RT; Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 RT Preview (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote). Works exclusively with apps available in the Windows Store.

There are also included, dedicated apps for Mail, People, Calendar, Photos, Games, Maps, IE 10, and much more.

My thoughts: There has been mass confusion all over the industry about the purpose of Windows RT and that it’s not clear that it only runs apps from the Windows Store (and select Microsoft-provided applications on the desktop) but does not run regular desktop applications. I don’t know where this “confusion” comes from. It’s Windows 8 minus the desktop compatibility. I know Microsoft doesn’t want me drawing this conclusion, but when you see RT, think of this as the Microsoft version of the iPad – you access apps from the Store and install them onto the device.

The included Office preview has shown to be excellent so far, and it will be automatically upgraded to the full version when it is released. Some of the default applications (Mail, People, Calendar, etc) in some ways feel like they are feature incomplete, but this is entirely a Windows 8 issue than it is a Surface problem. These applications are a 1.0 version product and are immature at this point. They will be updated and improved on over time. That being said, it must be noted for users where their only exposure to Windows 8 is through a Surface tablet.

One thing that I thought was going to be a sticking point is the on-screen keyboard. The default size was too big for me to properly type while holding the device in my hands and using my thumbs as I would with a phone; however, you should know that the keyboard is resizable, and once I made it smaller my hands now fit the device perfectly and my typing speed is improving every time I use the device.

While just as excellent on a desktop or laptop, where Windows 8 really shines is on a tablet/touch device. When you  hold the Surface in your hands, all the touch gestures are right at your thumb tips and are fairly intuitive; switching between applications, bringing up search options or settings, as well as the menu bar for applications is quick and simple. The touch gestures are well integrated and designed; they work perfectly on a touch device.

OS/Software Score: 8.5/10

Windows 8 is excellent, but there are still some improvements to be made.

Device Exterior:

Size: 10.81 x 6.77 x 0.37in
Weight: 1.5lbs
VaporMg casing
Dark Titanium color
Volume and Power buttons
Dedicated Windows/Start button
Integrated Kickstand

My thoughts: The Surface feels vey good in my hands. It feels solid without being too heavy. The buttons are easily accessible without too much effort. The VaporMg casing and dark color look and feel FANTASTIC. The integrated kickstand is awesome, allowing you to look at the device while watching a movie or monitoring your Twitter feed without having to hold it all the time.

Device Score: 10/10

The device feels and looks great, and you can tell it has been excellently constructed. This is a home run.

Storage:

The Surface comes in 32 GB and 64 GB configurations. You can also add up to 64 GB more through the included microSD card slot.   There has been a bit of an uproar about the Surface’s storage – if you buy a 32 GB version as I have, Windows 8 and the included applications and Office 2013 RT take up half the available storage space (I’ve even read more on some sites).

Ok, first off… people, this isn’t rocket surgery. If you have a fixed chunk of storage, and you put “stuff” on it right off the bat, you’re going to be left with less storage than you started with. Put it this way, you have an empty garage and tons of room, but when you put your car in it, you have significantly less room.

I don’t know why there’s such an outrage about this; I think one thing that might be making it tough, is that the space taken up by Windows and a core subset of applications just isn’t noticed when you have a 500 or 750 GB or 1 TB (or larger) hard drive in your laptop or desktop computer. But, when you start with a significantly smaller piece of storage, that initial bite actually looks really big. Microsoft is very clear about this, so if this is an issue for you, purchase the 64 GB version – or buy a microSD card to expand. The included microSD slot is a great option to deal with this.

For the record, my 32 GB Surface showed 16.9 GB free storage after initial setup, which is more than has been reported.

Storage score: 9/10

Microsoft provides similar storage options to the iPad, and the microSD slot is a great touch.

Display:

10.6″ ClearType HD Display
Resolution: 1366×768 pixels
Aspect Ratio: 16:9 (widescreen)
5-point multi-touch

The Surface offers a bigger display than iPad (9.7″), and it flat out looks amazing. Text is crisp and very readable and colors are sharp. The display also is very responsive and fluid.

Display Score: 10/10

CPU:

Quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 with 2GB RAM

CPU Score: 9/10

The Surface blisters through Windows Store applications; switching between them is fast and responsive. Games also appear not to tax the system, but the only negative I’ve found is that desktop applications (Office, Windows system utilities) seem to lag just a little bit. It’s not enough to be annoying or to be a deal breaker, but it is noticeable.

Wireless/Connectivity:

Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n)
Bluetooth 4.0 technology

Score: 9/10

Not much to say here; both the WiFi and Bluetooth work as expected. The WiFi is abundantly fast. The only thing I would have liked to see here to really get under Apple’s skin is a version with 3G/4G cellular connectivity as well for on-the-go use. There’s enough WiFi out there to get the job done, but it’s just one of those features that could have really put the Surface over the top.

Battery:

31.5 W-h

I’ve read and heard others talk about 8-9 hours of battery life, but I have not been able to put this to the test yet. I was out over the weekend and had my Surface on, and was using Twitter and email on and off, as well as playing some games, and total usage was about 6 hours and my last check before I turned off the device was 57% battery remaining. This was by no means *heavy* usage, but the end game here is that the device more than adequately lasted a significant period off of power and did everything I needed it to do and there was a whole ton more in the tank.

Battery score: 10/10

Even if the reported 8-9 hours is correct, that’s one heck of a job and more than enough for my usage habits and is competitive with the iPad.

Cameras/Audio/Video:

Two 720p HD LifeCams, front- and rear-facing
Two microphones
Stereo speakers

Cameras/Audio/Video Score: 8/10

All the audio/video hardware appears to be adequate for every day use. Skype calls have been clean and sound good. The two negatives I’ve found is that the cameras do not do seem to do well in low-light situations, and the volume of the speakers could be a little bit louder. I’m especially critical of the cameras (maybe a little too critical) as I’ve seen what Nokia can do with their cameras in low-light so maybe my Lumia 920 has spoiled me. There is also a headphone jack to help compensate with the sound. That being said, the hardware will get you through most daily use.

Ports:

Full-size USB 2.0
microSDXC card slot
Headset jack
HD video out port
Cover port

Ports Score: 9/10

There is not much to say here; you can connect virtually any device through USB, and the included headphone jack and microSD slot are added bonuses. I would have liked to see full-blown USB 3.0 but I also understand there has to be feature separation between the RT and Pro versions of the tablet. If you’re a power user though, this may be a sticking point for you.

Power Supply:

24W power supply

Power Supply Score: 9/10

There’s a great bonus with the Surface’s power supply, and that is that it’s magnetic and doesn’t have to be physically inserted into the device. This saves you tripping over it and dragging your device all over the place, or if you drop it you don’t have to worry about dropping it and ruining the port, device, or power supply. The one negative to it is that the magnetic piece that connects to the Surface is a slightly awkward configuration and you have to pay attention to make sure it’s connected properly.

Surface Overall Score: 91.5/100

Final thoughts:

Microsoft’s Surface is an excellent device; the look, feel, and performance of the device are all good to excellent. It’s a beautiful device, and you can tell that its construction is top-notch; both of these are great for a first-generation model. While there are a few items as I’ve pointed out throughout this article that can be done to make it reach that elite level, I think the Surface is a home run. I showed it to a friend, who, after using it for an hour, proclaimed: “Trying a Win8 Surface… sold. iPad can suck it.”

I don’t think I can put it any better than that. If you’re looking for a tablet, the Surface is an excellent contender.