Microsoft Surface: First Thoughts

Yesterday we took delivery of a 32Gb Surface with touch cover. It is a strange device in many respects.

The natural thing with which to compare it seems to be the 32Gb iPad with smart cover: they are most similar on paper. In reality the 16Gb iPad is a fairer comparator because it comes with about 14Gb of usable space and the Surface only has a little more at 15.5Gb. In use, the surface seems to be intermediate in speed between my iPad 1 and iPad 2; perhaps on the level of the iPad 3 (its retina screen really slows it down). Unfortunately the surface doesn’t have that extreme-resolution screen to use as an excuse.

I have to blame Windows RT for the slowness: on paper the Surface should be 160% faster as it has 4 cores at 1.3GHz rather than 2 at 1.0GHz. It also has 4 times as much RAM. Maybe Microsoft forgot to use an optimising compiler. Comparing the launch time of their respective maps apps after a cold boot, the iPad was showing me a map with my location around 5 seconds before the loading splash screen on the Surface was dismissed.

The closest Apple thing in my opinion is therefore the 16Gb iPad 2. The 32Gb surface with touch cover will cost you £480 whereas the 16Gb iPad 2 plus a smart cover will now set you back £290. So yeah, Surface is nor priced to compete with its competition.

Windows RT has Office exclusively but not a lot else you can’t get on iOS. iOS has GarageBand, iMovie and a whole bunch of third-party apps which are not (yet) available for Windows RT. The Apple iWork apps are a better tablet office than Office on Windows RT.

Physically the two devices are similar in thickness at the thickest point, but the iPad’s smoothly curved edge makes it feel a little smaller. The built-in stand on the surface is a much better solution than the fold-around smart-cover stand on the iPad 2, particularly on dirty surfaces; the part of the iPad smart cover which touches the surface it’s standing on is one of the segments which is in contact with the screen.

The touch cover keyboard seems like a good idea but is actually slightly more difficult to type on than the iPad onscreen keyboard. You need to use it rather than the on-screen one because the on-screen keyboard leaves very little space uncovered in landscape mode. The built-in trackpad thing works quite well, again you will need to use it because Windows RT does not make any other provision for precisely positioning the cursor in text fields.

The wider screen on the surface is better for watching widescreen movies and TV but makes the device essentially landscape-only; it is too weird in portrait. Reading books in portrait on iPad works really well. I can’t see myself using the surface standing up as a handheld device, which I frequently do with the iPad.

Appearance-wise I think the Surface is more stylish, at least until you put the touch cover on and cover the back with fingerprints.

Surface is slightly more readily expandable: it has a MicroSD card slot and a USB A port. To use either with iPad you need to use the camera connection kit, which is a little tedious. In either case you will need to connect a powered hub to plug in more than one thing or supply juice to high-draw devices.

Password entry fields on iPad show the character you just typed unobscured very briefly; this means you get to see whether you are typing accurately and realistically does not compromise security because anyone who can see it can also see where your fingers are anyway. Sadly Windows RT has not adopted this, instead giving you a button which briefly exposes your entire password in the clear. This is a terrible “solution” compared to the iPad mechanism: it does not help you discover mistakes, it only lets you confirm the mistakes you already think you made.

The battery life on the Surface seems worse than on iPad, but see elsewhere for scientific analysis. It is a pain in the arse to charge as well: you have to use its power brick in a wall outlet; with an iPad you can do that or plug it into a desktop’s USB port, which I find more convenient. The Surface power cord is very short as well, I cannot have it plugged in and use it at the same time in my living room.

The overall experience is quite disappointing, it seems like Windows RT is a port of desktop Windows from 10 years ago with a half-finished tablet shell bolted on the front of it. It does not take long before you tap something that dumps you into a Windows 2000-esque wizard; in my case it was importing the CA Certificate I use to secure this blog. As a side note, the wizard didn’t do as good a job as it used to and I had to run MMC and load two specific snap-ins to sort it out; most people would not have known how to do it. On iPad there is no old-school part which they can dump you into so they have had to solve all the problems properly (and they have, for the most part). I would have preferred to see Microsoft go the same route and produce a proper tablet version of Office rather than the rather lazy looking port they seem to have done: if you imagine the result of globally replacing the word “click” with “tap” and recompiling for ARM you’ve got the idea.

If you have a lot of investment in Windows you are better-off buying a Windows netbook than a Surface as it will run all your existing software. If you don’t, you are better-off buying an iPad 2 than a Surface.

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