Microsoft Surface review: Innovative tablet stranded in an app desert

And finally, Settings accesses the basic wireless, volume, and screen brightness, as well the settings for the currently opened app. Also available from this menu is PC settings. While most of the options here are self-explanatory, some are just poorly organized. For example, the General list feels too cluttered, and most of what's found there would feel much more appropriate in a separate "Keyboard" or "Typing" settings list.

Also, settings like screen timeout, which is usually easily accessible in most tablet interfaces, are instead located in a Windows Desktop control panel here. This wouldn't be so bad if the Windows Desktop had somehow been redesigned and optimized for touch. As it stands now, navigating through a traditional Windows interface can be a frustrating experience.

I shouldn't have to access the Desktop's control panels to change these options. They should be integrated into the Metro interface. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Also, some Windows features are completely useless. The control panel Programs and Features, for example, serve no purpose here. Since no programs can be installed on the Desktop, there's no reason for a list of installed programs. And to a finer point, why is Desktop mode necessary at all? Couldn't Office run through the Metro environment instead?

I think it could, and I'd love to see Microsoft move even further away from the traditional Windows environment. The Surface and other ARM-based Windows tablets would be better for it.

That's not very tabletlike
Other than it requiring you to access a Windows Control panel in order to set the screen timeout options, there were a number of other very untabletlike things I noticed. They're ultimately minor infractions, but are worth mentioning. If you're attempting to edit a Google Drive Web document without a hardware keyboard connected, the software keyboard fails to pop up automatically. Instead, you'll have to go into settings and engage it manually.

No automatic keyboard pop-up for you! Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Also, after downloading an app, there is no way to open the app from its app store page. You'll have to exit the app first and find its tile on the Start screen. It's a small detail, but just one of those small conveniences that illustrates the Windows Store's immaturity compared with Google Play and Apple's App Store.

Also, there's no confirmation prompt when holding down the power button to shut the tablet down. The tablet simply shuts off. Lastly, there's no battery meter on the Start screen. It appears on the lock screen and when the Charms menu is engaged, but still has no actual percentage information surfaced. Once again, you'll need to access the Windows Desktop to get this information.

Tapping on Games brings you here and not to a list of games in your tablet's library as it should. A clearer distinction between games from the Windows Store and Xbox games would be nice. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Apps
Personally, I believe apps are the fuel tablets run on, and without a steady supply of quality entries, a tablet can get boring pretty quickly. However, some people just want a portable device to watch movies on, check e-mail with, or possibly get some work done on when away from their actual workstations.

While I'm sure Windows Store app support will deepen in time, right now it's appallingly shallow. Those looking for a platform supported with thousands of quality apps should look first to the iPad and then at Android tablets after that.

So far, the most useful apps are included with the Surface and all Windows RT tablets. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Video and music
Xbox Video includes a wide selection of movies and TV shows in HD and SD for both rental and purchase. In price they're comparable to the same content on iTunes, Google Play, and Amazon Prime.

If your Xbox is synced with the Surface, instead of playing a video on the tablet you can elect instead to play it on the Xbox; however, while HD video looked crisp and clean on the tablet, the same video looks a bit grainy on a 40-inch screen.

As with most digital video libraries, both SD and HD versions are available. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Xbox Music allows you to stream free music from a library of 30 million songs. Of course you'll be expected to listen to the occasional ad unless you're willing to pay $9.99 per month for the ad-free version. You can also purchase songs and stream to the Surface or on your Xbox.

I was impressed by Xbox Music's vast library and the speed at which it skipped to the next track while streaming songs. I'm still testing out the service, however, so expect a deeper dive soon.

Internet Explorer
There are two versions of Internet Explorer in Windows RT: the Desktop version and the Metro version. The Desktop version looks the same as IE9 currently does in Windows 7, with a similar-looking interface and options. The Metro version is only available in Windows RT and Windows 8.

IE10 Metro has a slightly different look than most browsers. For one, its address bar appears at the bottom of the screen as opposed to the top and both it and any open tabs disappear unless summoned with a swipe from the top or bottom bezel. It also includes a cool feature called Flip Ahead, giving the user the capability to swipe through a multipage story on a Web site without having to click any links.

Unless a site has been greenlit by Microsoft for Flash on IE10, you won't see it. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Speedwise, IE10 definitely felt sluggish, especially when pitted directly against the iPad using Safari. When loading sites like Collider.com, Fox.com, and Comicbookmovie.com, the iPad was up to 9 seconds faster; however, there were times when the tablets loaded pages like NBC.com identically fast. My overall impression of IE10's browser speed was that it was sometimes fast enough, but I usually felt like I was waiting around longer than I would have liked to. Also, until a page is loaded completely, visible links are disabled and you can't scroll down the page. This can be infuriating if you've already been waiting around a bit just to link to the page initially.

One recent RT change worth mentioning however is that Windows RT's version of Internet Explorer 10 now supports Flash out of the box. Previously, only Microsoft-approved sites were allowed to use Flash, but the shackles have now been removed and the vast majority of sites are now Flash-capable under IE10.

Microsoft Surface Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 Apple iPad (third generation) Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
CNET.com load (in seconds) 10.43 7.87 4.18 4.72
Comicbookmovie.com load (in seconds) 7.12 8.45 6.74 6.52

Performance
The Surface sports an extremely bright IPS screen with impressively wide viewing angles and a noticeably high contrast. However, its colors looked muted compared with those on the iPad and Transformer Infinity when looking at the same Web site.

With its lower screen resolution, the Surface's text clarity was only marginally lower than the other two tablets. If you looked closely enough for differences, you'd find them, but Microsoft did a great job optimizing the display as it has no problem delivering crisp images.

Tested spec Microsoft Surface Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700 Apple iPad (third generation) Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
Maximum brightness IPS mode (Super IPS) 391 cd/m2 422 cd/m2 (644 cd/m2) 455 cd/m2 411 cd/m2
Default brightness 148 cd/m2 112 cd/m2 160 cd/m2 175 cd/m2
Maximum black level, IPS mode (Super IPS) 0.27 cd/m2 0.34 cd/m2 (0.53 cd/m2) 0.49 cd/m2 0.47 cd/m2
Default black level 0.10 cd/m2 0.10 cd/m2 0.17 cd/m2 0.22 cd/m2
Default contrast ratio 1,480:1 933:1 941:1 874:1
Maximum contrast ratio, IPS mode (Super IPS) 1,448:1 1,241:1, (1,215:1) 939:1 795:1

There were many times, while attempting to simply swipe past an app, that I inadvertently launched the app instead, but other than that annoying, all-too-frequent infraction, the screen generally swipes when commanded. Also, successfully pressing the home button elicits a vibration confirmation, but it sometimes required an additional press before the command was actually applied.

App loading takes a bit longer than I'm used to and could definitely use some optimizations. Also, on my unit I did experience a few performance bugs where changes made to settings wouldn't apply until I restarted the tablet. There was also an instance of severe lag that included a disappearing cursor, which required a restart as well.

Firmware update
Microsoft released a firmware update for Surface in November 2012. As yet, I've not noticed any performance improvements in app, Web page load times, or general navigation. As I said originally, apps on Surface take longer to load compared with what I'm used to on other top tablets and IE10 performance in particular was lacking compared with the same tablets running their default browsers. This latest firmware update has not addressed these issues as far as I can tell. I compared the speeds of two Surface tablets, one with the update and one without, and didn't notice a difference in performance at all while performing some anecdotal testing.

I also tested app and Web site loading speeds compared with both the fourth-generation iPad and Google's Nexus 10. The Angry Birds Star Wars test began when I tapped the game icon and ended when the loading screen disappeared. The Giantbomb.com test was conducted after clearing the cache or history and quitting the browser app. The results you below are the averages of three iterations that scored within 5 percent of each other.

Surface RT iPad (4th gen) Nexus 10
Angry Birds Star Wars load time (in seconds) 11.5 5 5
Giantbomb.com load time 13 (Start version of IE10) 6 (Safari) 9 (Chrome)

I used Hydro Thunder to test 3D performance. While the game delivers Riptide GP-like screen-splashing effects, its frame rate seemed to max out at around 25 frames per second (fps), lower than the average Riptide frame rate on Android tablets with Tegra 3 processors. Still, until we can see the same games running on each platform, it's difficult to fairly compare performance capability.

It's no Riptide GP, but I guess it'll have to suffice. Screenshot by Eric Franklin

Front and back cameras were fine at capturing video and pictures. They weren't impressive by any means, but they got the job done.

The Surface's back camera captures fine images of monster statues. Josh Miller/CNET

The battery seemed to drain fairly quickly, even at only 33 percent brightness when under several hours of fairly heavy use. Here are our official CNET Labs-tested battery life results. More tablet testing results can be found here.

Video battery life (in hours)
Microsoft Surface RT 8.9

Conclusion
Is the Surface worth its price? I think a more useful question is this: if on a business trip, could I replace my laptop with the Surface? The short answer is no. The longer answer is also no, but these are the reasons why. The overall sluggishness and bugginess in the interface, especially when using IE10, are disappointing. Flash support for IE10 is currently lackluster. Also, more pointedly, IE10 isn't yet compatible with CNET's content management system (the tool we use to publish articles). There aren't nearly enough apps to support my entertainment social-networking needs when I'm not actually working.

Until Microsoft addresses these issues, the Surface isn't quite ready to take over as my one and only device. Your needs may be different, though. Paired with a keyboard cover, the Surface is an excellent Office productivity tool (the best in tablet form) and if your entertainment needs don't go far beyond movies, TV shows, music, and the occasional simple game, you're covered there as well. Especially if you like to multitask; the split-screen feature is incredibly useful and cool.

App fiends will want to keep their distance, however. The Windows Store currently looks like a ghost town after the apocalypse. Also, though I've come to really dig the interface and appreciate its elegance, there's a tough learning curve here if you're used to iOS and Android. Also, a few tablet-y features you may currently take for granted on other devices are either missing or hidden deep in the bowels of an archaic Windows interface that's not optimized for touch.

Six months from now, the Windows Store app landscape may look brighter and more hopeful; however, right now both it and the Surface's wonky performance keep a useful productivity device from reaching true tablet greatness.

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Microsoft Surface RT - tablet - Windows RT - 64 GB - 10.6" - with Black Touch Cover

Part Number: 9JR-00002
Low Price: $699.95 See all prices

Quick Specifications See All

  • Wireless Connectivity IEEE 802.11n
  • Weight 24 oz
  • Type Microsoft Windows RT
  • Storage 64 GB
  • Processor NVIDIA Tegra 3
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