First Look: Microsoft Surface with Windows RT

Here’s a quick take on the Surface while I start working on my video review of the new tablet from Microsoft.

Build quality, as widely reported, is excellent.  I’m not a huge fan of the angular design.  It’s not that it’s not ergonomic, more that I find myself tracing the sharp edges with my fingers distractedly, admiring the quality of construction.  So while it is well designed and built, the design is actually a bit distracting, whereas something with smoother lines might just “disappear” in your hand.  I’m sure this distractedness will fade with familiarity, though.

While the weight is about the same as the latest iPad, it just feels heavier.  I think it’s due to the incredibly solid feeling of the molded  magnesium chassis combined with the angular design.  The design is reminiscent of a large, flat ingot of some grey-black metal and your mind immediately equates that with a dense, heavy object.

A big part of the marketing of the design of the Surface is the flip-out kickstand on the back of the device.  It’s a great feature that works well in concert with a Touch or Type cover (more on the Touch Cover later), but all the noise about the attention to detail in the design of the kickstand and how an extra hinge was added just to make it “thunk” like an expensive car’s door when closing it is a bunch of marketing hooey.  It works well enough and is absolutely well constructed, but the sound it makes is nothing to get excited about.  I’d say it’s more of a hollow, metallic “snick” than a heavy, satisfying “thunk.” As a nervous fidgeter, color me disappointed.

Speaking of design, the widescreen design of the device is interesting.  At first, looking at it, it looks quite strange, so much longer and skinnier than an iPad.  After a few hours of using the device, you really see how Windows 8/RT were designed for a widescreen display. You find yourself holding the device in a landscape orientation all the time.  It turns out this is quite nice.  Remember before tablets were a thing, when you saw a character on a spaceship in a scifi movie or show holding some sort of touchscreen computing device?  They usually held it with their fingers wrapped around one short side of the device, then the rest of the device resting on their forearm.  Holding the Surface when poking and tapping and swiping is like this, and it works.  It distributes the weight across your forearm so your fingers and wrist don’t get tired.  Then you bring in another hand and grip it on both sides to type using the onscreen keyboard.  It’s different, but it works.

As for the screen itself, all the “ClearType” marketing in the world can’t make it better than an Apple device with Retina display for text.  No contest.  However, it is a very nice screen otherwise and Windows 8/RT’s colorful live tiles really pop on screen.  Additionally, the widescreen orientation of the device blows any iPad out of the water for watching HD video.

So far, the star of the show for me is the Touch Cover.  This thing just rocks.  It looks like a cover, not unlike an iPad Smart Cover, but it holds an almost fullsize keyboard on the inside.  A few minutes after orienting my figers on it and deducing the proper amount of pressure required for keystrokes to be registered, and I was banging out emails at a clip many times faster than I could with an onscreen keyboard.  The only things I don’t like about it is that the touchpad isn’t great (small, buttons are too close to the edge of the cover) and I didn’t have a choice of color when buying the bundled 32GB Surface Touch Cover.  It was only offered in black, which is black on the keyboard side, but a soft cloth-like charcoal grey on the outside.  It reminds me more of a sweater than a piece of tech. I really would have liked one of those cyan ones instead.  Oh well.

The cover and the kickstand are 2 parts that really help to make this a totally new type of device.  These, in concert with the support for standard mice (via the full-size USB port or Bluetooth) and the micro-HDMI out, and you’ve got a really full-featured computing device in an incredibly small package.  In a few seconds, I paired up a Bluetooth mouse and connected a 24″ HDMI monitor as a secondary monitor.  With this setup, I had mail & browser running on the Surface’s screen side by side, while I ran Word 2013 on my big monitor to punch out this blog entry, which I then copied and pasted into our blog site’s editor…and, well, now you’re reading it.  Unfortunately, my home printer does not (yet?) have drivers for Windows RT, so I couldnt’ test printing support.  But, the actual number of printers supported by Windows RT is multiple orders of magnitude more than iPad Airprint enabled printers.

I feel like a lot of reviewers will find the Surface to be a sort of in-between device.  A bit more complicated than your usual tablet, but not quite as functional as a full-fledged notebook computer.  This is probably due to the fact that right now there aren’t many apps available in the Windows Store for Windows 8/RT’s “Modern UI” interface, so there will be much ado about flipping back and forth between the more traditional Windows desktop and the Modern UI.  I personally think that the apps situation will round out in the coming months and we’ll find that working exclusively in the Modern UI is the norm.

After a few days with the Surface, I’m really enjoying using it for both work and play.  I think that we’ll see some really cool things with Windows 8 and RT, and likely some typically Microsoftian problems, frustrations, and conflicts.  Please stay tuned for a more in-depth video review coming soon.