The Microsoft Surface sextuple meta-review

A heady, hearty blend of a half-dozen professional reviews of Microsoft's tablet-as-PC device

Did you wake up at 6 a.m. and read six full reviews of the Microsoft Surface RT tablet? Don’t worry, I did that for you, and I have them all open in browser tabs. Here’s what six web publications have to say about the Redmond firm’s home-baked, $500-and-up portable kinda-computer-and-tablet-too Surface, due out Friday.

Those Surface-reviewing publications are:

The most important thing to note about these reviews are that they are for the Surface RT, which is running Windows RT, which is not exactly Windows 8, but kind of similar. Melanie Pinola is more concise in explaining the difference between RT and 8. The very short version: Windows RT is a productive tablet that runs only apps from the Windows Store, while a full-fledged Windows 8 tablet will run traditional Windows apps and Store apps, too.

Now let’s hear it straight from the (edited, condensed, contextualize) horses’ mouths: what’s it like to use the Microsoft Surface RT tablet?

Look and feel of the Surface RT

Honan at Wired writes that the custom magnesium alloy (“VaporMg”) body and its shaping are a homerun. “The build quality … (is) excellent.” TechCrunch’s Burns says “the Surface feels like it’s from the future,” and that “the iPad feels pedestrian compared to the Surface.” Whew. Peter Bright at Ars Technica relates the Surface design to “the same kind of austere precision we find in German performance cars.” Gizmodo’s Biddle goes with a different (read: inscrutable) comparison: “It's a beautiful computer, in your hand or on a tabletop, its shifting angles clean and secure like a Danish prison.”

AnandTech sums up what makes the Surface design different, along with just good:

Microsoft’s perspective on tablets is a bit more utilitarian than Apple’s and Surface’s design reflects that reality. Where the iPad is curvy and without any I/O expansion, Surface is squared off with 22-degree beveled edges. The iPad features a light aluminum finish while Surface contrasts with its dark Magnesium surface. Not better or worse, just different.

Honan of Wired goes out of his way to complement the sturdy and unbreakable nature of the Surface’s distinctive “kickstand”:

The backside kickstand can serve as a metaphor for the entire device. Close it, and it sits flush with the back of the tablet. It’s so tightly integrated, if you didn’t know it was there, you’d think it was just a seam for the battery compartment. … We wanted to see how easy it was to break one. It’s very possible, but you have to really try. We did manage to break off the kickstand by gradually leaning onto it, but I had to put nearly my full weight onto the tablet before the kickstand snapped off.

So everyone with a Surface and a review embargo agrees: the Surface looks and feels like nothing we’ve ever seen from Redmond, or from anybody, in a good way. Moving on to the other half of the semi-laptop Surface:

The cover-as-keyboard: Touch Cover ($120) and Type Cover ($130)

The Surface Touch Cover options

The reviewers’ opinions on the feasibility of actually typing on the Touch Cover (3mm thick, with flat, pressure-sensitive keys) and the Type Cover (5.5mm thick, with actual “key travel”) are as varied as they were consolidated on the design.

Wired is out on an enthusiastic ledge. The Touch Cover, Honan writes, is “actually quite fantastic,” and the Type Cover “spectacular.” Both have a notable caveat:

I struggled mightily with typos and finger placement for the first 24 hours. My left wrist hurt like hell. The pinkie and ring finger on my left hand were cramped. But by day three, my hands began to relax and I was typing quickly and, for the most part, accurately.

TechCrunch likes the keyboards too, but also prefers the Type Cover, and has reservations about how deep and wide the Surface is, compared to other portable keyboard setups.

To summarize the other reviews: the Type is better than the Touch, both have a learning curve of a few days, and the trackpad on both Touch and Type is nothing great, or even good.

The screen

Jon Phillips at PC World with a good summary:

I won't mince words: Surface RT's 10.6-inch, 1366-by-768-pixel display doesn't match the clarity and beauty of the iPad's so-called Retina display. Microsoft has provided excruciatingly detailed data that explains why a great tablet display doesn't need a resolution of 2048 by 1536, but my eyes don't lie.

Peter Bright at Ars, explaining exactly how the newer iPads win out:

There are certainly situations where Microsoft's screen looks better than Apple's—and these situations might even be commonplace if we were comparing laptops—as a tablet screen it would be better served with more resolution.

Wired ran a series of blind side-by-side screen tests with staffers, and found that videos were hard to tell apart, but showing a New York Times page, with different fonts and text weights, gave the clear advantage to the iPad.

The Surface doesn’t look bad, per se, but it’s not optimal for actual tablet use. Moving on.

The front and back cameras

They are, in every review, by all modern standards, pretty bad. Usable for video chats with low expectations, but otherwise nothing you’d use to record important things or moments.

Using Windows RT for work and fun

The Surface as an actual PC

And here we have come to the heart of the matter. As noted earlier, Windows RT runs almost exclusively on apps from the Windows Store. Almost exclusively, that is, because there is a “Desktop” included in Windows RT that serves mostly to remind you that Windows RT can’t actually run desktop Windows applications. Every reviewer I’ve read thinks the “Desktop” needs to die a quick death.

One consensus point is that Microsoft has done some rather remarkable work in creating a cohesive touch-based interface, when you’re holding the Surface as a tablet and using your fingers. TechCrunch’s Burns thinks Windows RT is a “smooth, versatile, and smart take on a mobile tablet OS,” but seeing apps that launch in traditional Windows-style windows makes it seem as though Microsoft “didn’t fully commit” to touch.

The other agreement is that the Surface tablet can feel a tad underpowered, or at least not as “smooth,” but the custom tuning and requirement for all apps to work well with ARM and Nvidia chips means the battery life is very, very good.

As for productivity: Honan at Wired believes the Surface RT hits the mark Microsoft called out. You can use it as a “real PC,” if you don’t rely on Outlook too much, but do need Office apps:

Yes, you can use it as your only computer. I would never have made that claim about an iPad or Android tablet. But if you only need to live in Microsoft Office and the web and e-mail, and use your computer for media consumption, you’ll do great with this. I used it as my primary computer for several days. There were applications I missed, and I would never want it to be my only computer (the keyboard and screen are just too small) but it worked. I was fine.

Biddle at Gizmodo has pretty much the opposite take:

There's no Twitter or Facebook app, and the most popular third-party client breaks often. The Kindle app is completely unusable. There's no image editing software. A People app is supposed to give you all the social media access you'd ever need, but It's impossible to write on someone's Facebook wall through the People app, Surface's social hub; the only workaround is to load Internet Explorer. Blech. Something as simple as loading a video requires a jumbled process of USB importing, dipping in and out of the stripped-down desktop mode, opening a Video app, importing, going back into the Video app, and then playing. What. … The app selection, overall, is worse than the already pathetic Windows Phone app fare, looking like the software equivalent to a barren Soviet grocery store.

Sam Biddle thinks about totalitarian institutions quite often, it seems, when regarding Microsoft products.

To sum it all up

Surface, as an entrant in the tablet market, is very strong. It’s a well-made device, it has an interesting keyboard approach, and the touch interface is all kinds of inventive.

Surface, as a device you’re buying right now for $500-ish dollars (assuming you won’t go without one of the two keyboard covers, which are basically required) is a tough call. As a tablet alone, it’s not beating the iPad at that price. As an “actual PC,” it has its problems, and the big one is the Windows Store selection.

You would be better served waiting to see if the ecosystem matures a bit, or if the promised Surface running “Windows 8 Pro,” with legacy Windows applications, garners more consistent praise. Of course, if very few buy a Surface early on, developers won’t work very hard to get into the Window Store. And so the tablet wheel turns.

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