Microsoft Surface – Review and First Day Impressions
We got our pre-ordered Microsoft Surface RT yesterday. I had some experience using a Windows 8 on Samsung Series 7 tablets in the context of the Windows 8 applications we have been developing for sometime, but using the Surface RT as a consumer user is very different. It was worth the wait and standing in crazy long line in front of the Microsoft Store in the Bellevue Square Mall. Overall Microsoft has done an awesome job with the Surface. That’s a perfect option if you decided to sell CPU and replace it by a new one.
Surface hardware is way out of its league. Makes you think why didn’t Microsoft make mainstream hardware all this while. They certainly chose the perfect materials and made no compromises anywhere – it feels great to hold one in your hands. They have evenly balanced its weight by having multiple batteries through out the device rather than in one end. Surface also has around 200 internal parts that Microsoft custom designed to optimize weight, performance and overall feel.
Surface RT has an Nvidia Quadcore Tegra3 ARM chip for the processor and 2GB of RAM. Comes in 2 versions with 32GB and 64GB. Expandable up to 64GBs with a microSD card.
The 10.6″ ClearType HD display is bright, shows the gorgeous Modern UI of Windows 8 really well and the 5-point multi-touch works very well. The display is best in its class the closest tablet displays are about 10.1″. Stock resolution is 1366×768 pixels and aspect ratio of 16:9 – widescreen, so best suited for Landscape use, portrait is a bit odd.
The Touch Cover is very cool. I don’t know about you, but I end up typing a lot more than just usernames/ passwords when I use a tablet and quite uncomfortably so. Every time I type anything more than a short email on iPad, I nearly sprain my neck and strain my wrist – and unavoidably end up remembering Steve Jobs demoing iPad’s virtual keyboard and calling it a pleasure to type on!! The Surface touch cover is a polyeurethene cover that has felt material on either side and clicks into place magnetically just like you see in the Surface commercials (those commercials are great! aren’t they? The Surface Movement is particularly a favorite).
And it’s also an ultra thin, feather light, laser etched key board with a touchpad and two buttons. A black touch cover is bundled with the Surface for a $20 value. I had seen a TV channel review a couple days back complaining about the touch cover missing some key strokes if you typed fast. I don’t see that at all. It did take an hour or so to get used to typing on the flat surface, and the fake key stroke sound feedback helps! This Touch Cover is simply brilliant. The type cover on the other hand is a plastic key board with traditional stroke keys and most certainly the best portable alternative to a real desktop key board.
If you travel with an iPad for business you also would have backpack full of connector accessories – what a mess. Thankfully, Surface has a USB2.0 port – so you can connect a ton of devices all at once. It also has an HD video out (microHDMI) port and a micro SD port if you want to extend storage. Surface has 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. Supports a capacitive pen. Other devices inside are light sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass. Microsoft also has some uniquely designed connector accessories at the store which don’t cost an arm and a leg. Windows_Tab
Surface is priced at the same level as iPad and some top end Android tablets. 32GB Surface and 64GB Surface bundled with black touch cover cost $599 and $699 respectively. Without the touch cover the 32GB alone is a SKU priced at $499. It’s kinda stupid that you don’t have that option in the 64GB version – so if you don’t like the black touch cover, you have to buy touch cover of another color as an accessory. Price of Touch cover is $119.99 and the type cover is $129.99.
User Experience and Performance:
Surface setup was simple, quick and delightful. Surface did ask me for my Microsoft ID (used to be known as the Live ID before the much needed consolidation) credentials to set me up. Not sure if it’s mandatory to have a Microsoft ID or not – since I chose to enter my credentials. Soon after you power on the Surface, you can tell the UI is super snappy.
I saw a reviewer complaining about Word performance, so I tried it out. Word 2013 is not yet a Modern UI App but it’s very responsive. I am actually typing this post while I have open a Word 2013 document, Excel 2013 with Election Tracker app (yes, Office 2013 is all about apps), YouTube video in the background (yes it’s possible to run your video in the background – although this app doesn’t use this capability right) , Skype logged in, Photo app with an open picture, Internet Explorer with 7 open tabs. The performance is simply great! And with all this running Battery lasted 8 hours.
Overall Modern UI experience is the best on the Surface. The live tiles glow brilliantly. But you have to realize that Windows 8 experience is all about the apps. There is a lot of power in the Apps and that could be rather unfortunate if the apps don’t follow best practices and/or if they are not better policed before they get on the Store. Here are some examples
I notice that the touch pad two finger scroll doesn’t necessarily work when you are inside an app. My first real annoyance was with my video viewing experience. I looked for a HD TED Talks App on the store, found 3 and installed the one with best rating. First of all, this app did not have a way to search for a video I wanted and instead expected me to scroll and scroll through tens of screens full of video tiles. I gave up and started watching a random video in the list – only to be interrupted in a little over a couple minutes with a blank screen followed by a screen lock. The video would pause every time screen saving starts. Annoyed, I installed the next TED Talks App from the store. This was better in that you could search for the videos from the search in the charm, but again had the same viewing interruption due to screen saving. I thought YouTube Viewer should do this better and installed the top rated YouTube Viewer App. No luck here either and it’s even worse, YouTube app doesn’t even care to pause when you are seeing ScreenLock, but just keeps going!
You might be wondering how could Microsoft not offer this basic support for apps to be able to control screensaving? The truth is Win8RT APIs not only provide for it, but Microsoft documents it on DevCenter (on MSDN) in all its details and with code samples in all languages you can possibly write apps in. And I bet the Microsoft Video app for Windows 8 plays with no interruptions, although I only played the free short trailer clips on it. Dear video player app developers – if you have not bothered to search API documentation, please read this on DevCenter and fix it in your next app update.
Alright, that was an annoyance. Now listen to this. The WordPress app I used initially to write this post did not use the charm search or any search and had no option to save draft. The web app saves draft automatically and this did not do that either. The real horror was – it lost my near complete post ending me in retyping the entire post on the web version again.
There are not that many apps on the store yet, which is probably why Microsoft is being lenient in its app policing. For instance there is no Facebook app still.
Skype experience to most people is a make or break question for a tablet purchase deal. Surface has dual 720p cameras for HD chatting and photography. Skype was initially a big disappointment for me since it crashed consistently every time I switched camera from front to back. After an update it doesn’t crash anymore but switch to back camera seems still buggy. Barring that, Skype for Win8 is a huge improvement in usability, a lot simpler and less cluttered. The camera on the Surface is of very high quality. We started a Skype session on our MacBook pro since it used to be the best camera and then switched to Surface during the same conversation. My parents on the other end of the Skype session said it was world of difference. Not sure if Skype did any special optimizations for Surface, but my parents just love the video quality from Surface even on their low bandwidth connection.
One of the complaints from a reviewer was that the camera is misaligned for chat when Surface is resting on the kick-back stand unless you are Danny DeVito. I am 5’10” and it was actually fine for me, see the picture mine took when its on the kick-back stand. If you see all the space left above, you can imagine it’d be fine for those who are taller than average.
My overall rating from a day’s usage:
- Hardware – 4.5/5
- OS – 4.5/5
- Pricing – 4.0/5
- Performance – 4.5/5
- Apps – 2.5/5