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Hands on: Microsoft Surface review

Update: We had more hands on time at the New York event – here's some further thoughts from UK Editor-in-Chief Patrick Goss.

Microsoft's Surface represents much more than merely a tablet to the company that carefully crafted this huge device.

It is the flagship device of its Windows 8 operating system – it represents the company's belated move to a touch interface and apps, and, most importantly, it represents the computer giant's decision to turn its back on decades of close partnerships in order to manufacture its first ever PC.

And from the off it's only fair to point out that Microsoft has clearly picked up a thing or two over the years – because Surface is a lovely piece of kit; beautifully crafted, packed full of innovation and a welcome alternative to the legions of Android devices and, of course, the all-conquering iPad.

With the beautiful but pricey physical keyboard cover (rather than the sexy but disappointing touch keyboard cover) and the desktop intact – this does truly offer a glimpse into a world where you can take a truly portable device that will be as cool for leisure as it is efficient for work.


Surface - a big deal


To balance that, Surface is also infuriatingly buggy, overly heavy, and not half as intuitive as it would like to be. That's largely down to the refreshingly different but occasionally jarring Windows RT that it runs, but also because of some design choices that will suit many but alienate others. Also, there's the price point that, once you include one of the clearly vital keyboard covers, puts it firmly in iPad's premium slate territory.

Indeed, the first thing that strikes you upon picking up the Surface is that this is a big tablet. The screen size is 10.6 inches in 16:9 ratio and sat next to a new iPad 3 you can see that Microsoft has taken a very different stance to Apple in the sizing of its device.

That size , to some, will be a major issue, namely weight. Microsoft insists that the balance of the device means that it feels lighter than its actual weight but, of course, this is just so much marketing talk.

The Surface weighs in at 1.5 pounds or 0.68 kg, which absolutely sits it in the portable category but fairly quickly becomes uncomfortable to hold with one hand. It's only slightly weightier than its Apple rival, but we criticised the new iPad for its bulk and the criticism is valid.


iPad v Surface


But the weight does play a part in making the Surface feel like a solid and well-built device. In fact, everything about the build quality of the Surface shouts about quality – the bevelled edges, the decision to go for more angles and less curve and the robust feeling physical keys included.

Microsoft's Panos Pany took a big risk by dropping his Surface on stage at the official unveiling – which illustrates the confidence that the company has in the product and that the Gorilla Glass 2 can take a bit of an impact.


The next note of import is the kickstand, which flips out of the back of the device to prop the screen up at a 22 degrees -– a decent angle that will feel comfortable more often than not. It has been fitted with hinges that make a satisfying clunk when you use them – it's a nice touch that confirms the details are being properly addressed by Microsoft.


Surface hands on


When the device is propped up the keyboards come into their own. Let's start by saying you would be entirely nuts to buy a Surface without paying extra for one of the two keyboard covers that frankly, feel pretty integral to the entire device.

The Touch Cover is certainly a looker, with magnets satisfyingly clicking into place when attached and, when folded, adding to the premium feel and sitting flat both open and closed.

As you would expect, the Touch Cover keyboard turns off when folded behind.

As a keyboard it's going to take some getting used to. The general consensus among the people we have spoken to is that when the adjustment is made, this is a perfectly okay cover. But, this is a little disappointing given the hefty price tag of $120/£100/$AU120.




On the bright side, the touch pad is responsive and the cover doesn't feel like it adds huge amounts of bulk to the device.

Surface's Type cover

Then you have the Type cover which gives you physical keys and, to our taste, is a phenomenal keyboard but at the cost of a little more bulk.

Again, the magnetic clips work well, although the keys do feel strange when folded behind, with the Touch having a distinctly nice feel when not in use.


Microsoft Surface review


But when you're using the keyboard, the Type is an absolute dream. For anyone doubting whether the Surface would be useable for work purposes we suggest you try it out for yourself – it's comparable and, to some tastes, preferable to most laptop keyboards.

Price wise, it's a tad more expensive than the Touch at $130, £110, $AU 130, so factor this into your buying decision.

Buttons and ports

Staying on the physical side of the tablet we move onto the button and ports. As already mentioned the buttons feel robust – although the Windows logo button is not clickable but a touch, which can feel a little non-satisfactory.


Microsoft Surface review


Ports wise, the Surface is going to be the envy of many of the tablets out there. First up, the micro SDXC slot means you can slide an extra 64GB of storage into your device – which is a major boon for those with big media collections.

The there's the full size USB 2.0, HD video port and cover port – all of which will be welcomed for both leisure and more serious work.

Onto the innards and the most important place to start is with the ARM designed Nvidia Tegra 3 processor and 2GB of RAM. The latter in particular puts this beyond many rival tablets, and the Windows RT running on ARM rather than the familiar Intel x86 platform brings benefits in terms of power usage.


Microsoft Surface review


The tablet certainly feels snappy enough, with the five point multi-touch not giving the device pause and the menus easy enough to zip through with no evidence of slowdown.

However, when flicking between desktop and modern touch user interface we did manage to crash the tablet twice and cause some rather strange bugs when we were putting two processes side by side.

You would hope that this is down to teething troubles, and certainly many of the apps that crashed out when on RT seem to be going through effective stability updates.


Microsoft Surface review


Dual interfaces

Windows 8's dual interfaces were always going to be a little jarring when transitioning between the two – but for those who wondered if RT was better off sticking to just the Modern touch interface, but the Office apps alone manage to have it make a little sense.

Saying that, there were some issues, such as not being able to click the too-small red x to close a folder and the fact that the modern IE10 browser did not save history for the desktop to use. That didn't do a lot to convince us that this isn't two UIs somewhat clumsily taped together.

The cameras are given big billing on the Surface, but we found the quality a little poor when we trialled both the front and rear offerings. The angles of the kickstand mean that this could be a really handy recording device, but low light performance was poor.


Microsoft Surface review


Much cooler was the way in which the USB port can be used to quickly put files and photos on the device where you can share them to your heart's content. It's a neat and elegant solution that again underlines the utility of the device.

And the inclusion of things like Xbox Music, films and an ecosystem that does not exclude other people's stores and subscription offerings make this a fine media device.

Imperfect but lovely

In summation, the Surface is not a perfect device, but it is a perfectly lovely one. It is never going to have the cool factor of the iPad – but it certainly brings a layer of utility that will make it a very attractive option.

In fact, we can see people who are keen to do more serious things deciding that the Surface is the tablet for them, and a fair few people who want the very fine leisure aspects but are not keen to wall themselves into Apple's garden.


Microsoft Surface review


So, well built, well-conceived and well-designed, but also large, pricey and with a few flaws to overcome.

Given the success of the Xbox, Microsoft's move into tablet hardware always made a lot of sense – and our early impressions are that the Surface will be a major player in the increasingly competitive tabloid market.

The pricing means that this is going to be compared to the iPad, but it will be the versatility and utility that mark Surface out as one to watch in the coming months and years.


Microsoft Surface review


Below is our original and early Hands on look at Surface.

Magnesium chassis, vapour deposition coating, cutaway edges, ClearType HD display; the design credentials and the specs for the Microsoft Surface Windows RT tablet are impressive.

In the flesh this is a delightful piece of hardware that looks good – and is practical too.

It's thin, it's light, it's comfortable to hold, it runs Windows RT as excellently as you'd expect, it makes you want to touch it but it's also designed so you can snap the magnetically attached cover into place – in no way similar to any competitor idea...


You can now order a Surface RT in Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, the United Kingdom and the United States and the Microsoft Surface release date is 26 October alongside the Windows 8 release date.

  • Are you wondering what the iPad rival to the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD is like? Check our hands on: iPad mini review to find out!

Windows RT is a specially modified version of the new Windows 8 platform, designed to run on devices sporting ARM processors, and you'll be able to pick up the base 32GB model from $US499/AUD$559/£399.

But you won't be able to get its big brother, the Intel Core i5 Surface for Windows 8 Pro, for another three months. Quite why is anybody's guess, but we reckon Microsoft wants to give its partners a little chance to breathe with their own Windows 8 tablets first.

If you fancy more storage, the 64GB model is listed at $US699/AUD$789/£599, and comes with a black Microsoft Surface Touch Cover bundled with the tablet.


Microsoft Surface


If you fancy a Touch Cover with the 32GB Surface tablet, then you can save yourself a whole $US19.99 (£20/AUD$20) and get the bundle at $US599/AUD$679/£479.


Microsoft Surface - Touch Cover


The Touch Cover can also be purchased separately for $US119.99/AUD$139.99,£100, while the Type Cover is priced at the princely sum of $US129.99/AUD$149.99/£110.

If you're not familiar with the differences between the two, the Touch Cover features capacitive 'touch' keys, while the Type Cover, as you may have guessed, has the more familiar physical keys – similar to those found on a traditional QWERTY keyboard.


Microsoft Surface - Type Cover


The Surface is clearly creeping in on new iPad territory. The positive note is that the Surface is still cheaper than the iPad in the US and UK for the amount of memory you get (although not in Australia), with the 32GB Apple equivalent setting you back $US599 (AU$539) - plus it does have the performance and specifications to seriously challenge the Cupertino-based firm.

Microsoft Surface Design

The design of the Surface for Windows RT (and the similar Surface for Windows 8 Pro that we didn't see in as much detail) is understated.


Microsoft Surface tablet review


The front is sleek black glass, precision bonded to the magnesium alloy chassis ("we squeezed all the air out," as Microsoft hardware expert Stevie Battiche told TechRadar), with only a Windows logo visible – the word Microsoft doesn't show up on the case anywhere.

Turn it on and the 10.6" screen fills most of the Surface's front display, but the four edges have half an inch of bezel so you can hold it comfortably.


Microsoft Surface tablet review


The Windows logo isn't just for show; it's a touch button that gives you the Start screen when you tap on it, plus the whole bezel is touch-aware so you can swipe across it to bring up the App bar or the switching pane (depending on which way round it is).


Microsoft Surface tablet review


The Surface is light and comfortable to hold; the edges are sloped to give you a comfortable grip (although the edge with the cover connector isn't quite as ergonomic until you connect the cover).

The magnesium alloy chassis is covered with a soft coating that feels durable and expensive (that's the vapour deposition bit; it's chemically bonded rather than just painted on).


Microsoft Surface tablet review


If you don't want to hold it, there's a built-in stand that's like a large hinge running across the entire back of the Surface, with another Windows logo in a slightly matte finish.

The hinge is usually held in place by an array of magnets so it doesn't fall out if you shake the Surface around; on the left there's a little cutout in the edge of the hinge to make it easier to flip out.


Microsoft Surface tablet review


If you've seen Apple's SmartCover on the new iPad, then this method of connection won't be a surprise – it's another move that shows Microsoft is intending to go toe-to-toe with the Cupertino brand in the tablet arena.

The Surface tablet also balances well on the hinge, which has two long rubber feet to stabilise it.

With the Touch Cover on, we were able to balance the Surface on a lap for typing like a notebook without it falling forward or tipping over backwards; compare this to the Asus Transformer Prime which always wants to fall backwards, and you'll appreciate this weighting.


Microsoft Surface tablet review


Microsoft has included the fewest ports it could get away with; the bottom edge is filled with the magnetic keyboard connector, the top has the power button and the sides have two speakers, dual microphones, microSD, one USB 2.0 port (USB 3.0 for the Surface Pro) and Micro HDMI (on the surface Pro that's mini DisplayPort), plus a magnetic power connector.


Microsoft Surface tablet review


The magnesium alloy chassis and the precision design give the Surface RT a sturdy feel. Lift it by the corners and twist and there's no flexing at all; we tried the same thing with the frame of a chassis that hadn't been assembled and even without the glass and back it barely moved.

The Microsoft team showing off the tablets weren't cradling them protectively; at one point Battiche tossed a tablet to a colleague. Even without the cover, the Surface should stand up to some punishment.

Microsoft Surface Touch Cover and Type Cover

The Touch Cover is the ultra-thin touch keyboard for those that value portability; the Type Cover is the slightly thicker keyboard with physical buttons for those that want keys that actually move rather than just the audio feedback of the Touch Cover.

Both have the same connection and they snap into the magnetic latch easily but firmly; little latches fit into the Surface itself, which is why it stays in place even if you're holding the cover and letting the keyboard drop under its own weight.


Microsoft Surface tablet review


Snap either cover in place and instead of the sharp edge on one side, you have a comfortable grip that feels like the edge of a magazine or a thin hardback book – it's equally comfortable to hold whether the cover is closed to protect a screen that doesn't really need protection or folded back.

As soon as you fold the cover forward against the screen it turns the Surface off (putting it into Connected Standby – we're wondering if Apple's patent lawyers are rubbing their hands with glee at more work); when you fold it back against the hinge the accelerometer turns the keyboard off automatically so you're not typing while you hold it.


Microsoft Surface tablet review


That's the same feature as on Lenovo's Yoga notebook, but with a much thinner keyboard to fold back.

The Touch Cover looks more like a picture of a keyboard than an actual keyboard; it's the same multitouch sensors Microsoft used inside the Sidewinder keyboard.

They're very thin but they're also very accurate so they pick up your typing well. The keys are a good size with a little spacing between them; the touchpad underneath is a little small but it has left and right buttons – and you have the whole touch screen for larger gestures.


Microsoft Surface tablet review


You'll use the touchpad when you want the precision of placing the mouse cursor inside a word.

The Touch Cover comes in five colours: white, black, red plus cyan and magenta versions that will match Nokia's cyan and magenta Lumia range nicely.

Typing on the Touch Cover is a little odd at first because the keys don't move under your fingers; but they don't pick up typing until you actually hit the keys so just resting your hand on the keyboard or even putting your fingers in place on the keyboard while you think about what to say doesn't generate stray characters.


Microsoft Surface tablet review


The soft surface is more comfortable and less slippery than typing on a screen – not to mention being at the right angle.

It is harder on your fingers than typing on a keyboard with physical keys that give as you type, so if you type a lot there's the Type Cover.

This has the same strokeable soft feel as the Surface chassis itself and the keys go down a surprising distance for a keyboard that's still so thin.


Microsoft Surface tablet review


As well as all the usual keys, down to backslash, pipe and a nicely arranged set of four arrow keys, the top row of keys has the volume, media playback and navigation keys you'd expect – and that's Home, End, Page Up, Page Down and Delete but not the irritating Insert key that does nothing but make Word type over what you've already written.

Between them are four keys you won't have seen before but will recognise from the Windows 8 interface; they're the Search, Share, Devices and Settings buttons from the Charm bar so you can get at them without having to take your hands of the keyboard to swipe across the screen.

The Type Cover has those keys labelled as function keys as well; the Function lock button is on the Touch Cover as well so you can use F7 in Word to start spell check of Shift F3 to change case if you want to.

Presumably, Microsoft believes that if you know what function keys are you can find them by the number keys in the row below.


Microsoft Surface tablet review


The back of the keyboard covers (and the front of the Touch Cover) are a tough microfibre fleece made especially for Microsoft; it's soft to the touch, comfortable and gives you a good grip.

Microsoft Surface Interface

The super-thin keyboard cover and the satisfying-sounding hinge are all well and good, but what's the Surface tablet actually like to use?

At this stage Microsoft is being very cagey and no-one has had much time using Surface RT yet, but from our experience of trying it out, Microsoft has done exactly what it set out to do.

This is a Windows tablet designed first and foremost to run Windows – and especially the Metro Start screen and Metro-style apps with touch controls – and it does it very well.


Micrsoft Surface tablet


Surface Pro is an Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge tablet; it's fast enough for demanding programs like Adobe Lightroom and the touchpad on the keyboard cover means you get the precision of a mouse for fiddly interfaces.

But Surface RT is an ARM tablet, running Microsoft's first version of Windows for RT and the company's first real tablet-friendly operating system.

The good news is that Windows RT feels just like Windows 8 – and it works well on a touchscreen.

The icons of the Start screen and the screens of apps like News scroll smoothly as you swipe across the screen (what Microsoft calls fast and fluid).


Microsoft Surface Tablet


Semantic zoom is equally fast and smooth; you can get through a lot of movies in the preview Netflix app to find the one you want and tap to start playing it full screen.

Snapping two applications side by side, so you can read Mail and enjoy photos or Web sites in the 4:3 aspect ratio looks great (apart from widescreen windows) and is also smooth and fast; drag an application from the side and drop it on the side of the screen where you want to see it.

Swiping up from the edge of the Surface tablet's bezel to see the app bar in Metro applications or swiping in from the side of the screen to get the Charm bar is fluid too - you don't have to swipe slowly the way you do on older touchscreen PCs.


Microsoft Surface tablet


Surface RT runs any Metro application, so that's anything in the Windows Store at this point, plus the Windows desktop – but only for desktop IE and the Office applications.

For working with the desktop, touch is fine for dragging windows around and scrolling through documents and Web pages, but if you're working in Excel or one of the other Office 2013 RT Home and Student programs included with Surface RT you'll probably want the touchpad (you probably want the keyboard anyway of course).

Microsoft Surface tablet - portrait mode

Turn Surface RT sideways and it flips the screen instantly and smoothly, although it's not too sensitive – so it doesn't flip back and forth if you angle the screen a little to show it someone.


Microsoft Surface tablet


There's no gratuitous animation as it rotates; you just get the same Start screen or app interface, only in portrait layout.

That works well for the Start screen, because the tiles just rearrange themselves into taller, narrower groups. And documents and Web pages all work well because you can see a full page on screen at once.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Surface RT and Windows RT is how unremarkable they feel.

This is Windows 8 and (some of) the Windows desktop.

If you're at all familiar with Windows 8, Surface RT feels like a nice, fast Windows 8 PC that just happens to have an ARM processor.

We need to try it with more apps and different peripherals to see how far that feeling goes, but so far, using Surface RT is using Windows 8 – with all its strengths and foibles.

Surface Pro has some extras above and beyond the Intel processor and the ability to run all your Windows programs.

The Ivy Bridge Core i5 still needs cooling, so there's a groove around the edge; it's 4mm thicker and 227g heavier and the screen resolution is what Microsoft cryptically calls ClearType Full HD.

It's got DisplayPort instead of HDMI and as well as the two keyboard covers it also comes with an active pen.


Microsoft Surface tablet review


This clips onto the side using the same magnets as the power cable, so it doesn't get in the way of the keyboard connections.

In your hands though, Surface Pro looks and feels very much the same – and the Touch Cover and Type Cover fit both interchangeably.

Early verdict

It's a surprise that Microsoft created its own tablet, but it's done a more than decent job of it; far more creative and polished than many Android tablets.

Microsoft has to get the price right – the current thinking is comparable with iPad and 10-inch Android tablets for Surface RT rather than with the 7-inch Kindle Fire – and battery life has to be good.

Surface doesn't feel like an iPad in your hands; it feels like a well-designed Windows tablet crammed with clever touches that make it practical.

But this is the first hurdle in a number to come in the tablet race – sure, the design and construction of the Microsoft Surface tablet is great and in a blind test would fare well against the best the tablet world has to offer.

The next stage is convincing the world that Windows 8 is a comparable tablet OS to iOS and Android, and making it competitive on cost too.

But the first move is a good one – giving choice, an excellent array of hardware and a well-designed tablet range to those that are still unsure whether the current crop of slates can match their needs.

It also sends a message to Microsoft's hardware partners: this is the standard for Windows 8 tablets should adhere to, unless you're going to get seriously competitive on price.