Microsoft Surface Review

I bought a Microsoft Surface RT on launch day last year and, after about 4 months of full time use, I feel like I’m qualified to write a fair and honest review about what the device does well and what its shortcomings are.

Hardware

The first thing I noticed about the Surface is how different it looks and feels compared to the other leading tablets on the market: the Apple iPad and Google Nexus 7. This may be a huge turnoff for some people, but I love it. The slightly angled edges look great. The smooth matte black case of the Surface make me feel like I’m using a device meant more for work than play.

In terms of weight, the Surface is definitely heavier then either of the previous two tablets I’ve used, but I feel like it is balanced better. I can hold the device in front of me for a substantial period of time without tiring.

The screen is decent. Colors are vibrant and the screen can get really bright in a dark room. I wish the resolution was higher so I could watch full HD video, but it is adequate for everything you would want to do on a tablet.

The best two aspects of the Surface hardware are definitely the kickstand and cover. They go hand in hand and really make the device stand out from other devices on the market. The kickstand flares out from the back of the device, angling it up when you’re doing things like document processing and email. When closed, the kickstand sits flush with the rest of the Surface’s case, making you forget it is there until you need it.

The cover (that you currently have to buy separately but should come bundled with the device) is awesome when used in conjunction with the kickstand. Whether you get the touch cover (my choice) or the type cover, it is great having a full keyboard to work on. This solved a serious problem I had when using my iPad – I could see the emails I was getting but hated responding to them because it was a chore to type on the digital keyboard. I’ve seen some speculation that you wouldn’t be able to seriously type on the cover, but my typing speeds are about 80-90% of what I normally get with a full desktop sized keyboard. One thing about the cover that I don’t understand is the tiny little trackpad under the spacebar. I feel like it has next to no use when you can just reach up and tap the screen. Maybe some people use it, but I know that I never will.

Software

I think the best way to discuss the Software on the Surface is to divide it into three main categories: the base operating system (Windows 8), 1st party apps (like Mail, People and Messaging) and 3rd party apps that you can get from the store.

Windows 8

Let’s just get this out of the way – I love Windows 8. I’ve been running it since the release candidate went out on all of my computers. It is, in my opinion, an excellent operating system with great performance, amazing hardware compatibility and a lot going for it. I think that the Windows UI start screen is awesome, especially for a tablet like the Surface.

For me, the best thing about Windows 8 on a tablet is the connectivity it provides to the rest of my home network. I can connect to my HomeGroup with ease, sharing documents, videos, pictures and more. I can Remote Desktop into my main development PC or my development laptop to do something that requires the processing power of a machine like that. I can share printers, storage and more the same way I can with any other machine on my network. It is wonderful.

Another great thing about Windows 8 is the consistency it provides in terms of UI for actions you’d want to perform. Swipe in from the left, right, top or bottom and you’ll get appropriate context specific actions. It feels like magic.

Finally, with Windows 8 you’re free to build your own machine and then install the operating system as an addition. I love building systems so this is a huge selling point for me.

Native Apps

The native apps are kind of a mixed bag. I think that IE10 running in Windows UI mode is the best web browser on the market right now. There’s no chrome to get in the way of your browsing experience and you can do everything you’d expect to be able to do when surfing the web.

Other than IE, the highlights probably include Calendar, Messaging and Music. Music is a really interesting one, especially if you sign up for the Xbox Music Pass ($100 a year) which basically lets you stream and/or download any song in existence to any connected device.

Unfortunately, the rest of the native apps don’t really shine. It is admirable that the People app attempts to collect all your contacts in one place, but it is slow and somewhat buggy when you’re just trying to check out the latest tweets from your stream. The mail interface could use an overhaul (although it is adequate for light email management) and the Video app is basically a marketplace to sell you movies and TV shows.

The worst example of a native app, though, has to be the Store app. It is almost unbelievable in my mind that Store is so bad because you’d think it would be a main selling point of the operating system as a whole. Here are some things that I’ve experienced:

  • Store tells me there is no internet connection even when I know there is
  • I’m told there are updates for installed apps and when I tap them, there’s nothing there
  • Search is ridiculously slow at times for seemingly no reason
  • I select to install or update something and then go back to the app and am greeted with a blank screen

I don’t know what is wrong with the Store app but sometimes it is awesome and sometimes it is awful and it seems like there is no rhyme or reason to which will happen.

3rd Party Apps

To be quite honest, I don’t use a bunch of 3rd party apps. The ones that I do use are really well crafted and provide an integrated experience with the rest of the operating system. The two best examples are probably the ESPN app (which is absolutely fantastic) and Maximum PC for Windows 8. Both are great, follow the Windows UI design patterns and let me get straight to my content without any excessive chrome.

Just a little side commentary – I’m not sure why people get so caught up in the number of apps available for a platform. When I used an iPad, I primarily used 4 things: Safari, Mail, Twitter and Facebook. I also read some magazines on there. I don’t really feel like I’m missing anything on Windows 8.

Performance

This is where I’m not quite as happy with the Surface RT as I think I could be. The performance is just not up to par with what I expect given everything else that is great about the device. A lot of things that are super snappy on my desktop or laptop Windows 8 device perform really poorly on the tablet. I just don’t think the device’s processor is as fast as it needs to be to drive the thing. I’ve heard this is very specific to the Surface RT and that the Surface Pro is awesome in terms of performance. That kind of makes me wish I had waited for it.

Conclusions

I’m really happy, overall, with the Microsoft Surface. I’ve never been tempted to go back to the iPad for daily use since I picked it up. Do I think everyone would like the Surface as much as I do? No, I really don’t. I think people who enjoy the UI paradigm pushed by Apple for the last few years would hate it because it would be so different to them.

If you’re already running Windows PCs in the rest of your house, though, and you want to watch movies, play games and do productivity stuff in full versions of the Microsoft Office suite, the Surface might be perfect for you. I encourage you to go to your local Best Buy or Microsoft Store and check it out, at least. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

One caveat: I highly recommend getting the Surface Pro instead of RT for performance reasons. If there was a trade in program, I’d go tomorrow to my local Microsoft store and take advantage of it without any questions.

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