Microsoft Surface review: Microsoft Surface

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CNET Editors' Rating

3.5 stars Very good
Review Date:
Updated on:

The Good Pretty Metro interface; Useful keyboard cover; Office comes pre-installed; Great build quality; Expandable storage.

The Bad Not cheap; Desktop mode is confusing and clunky; Lower-resolution screen than competitors; Office doesn't work brilliantly with touch.

The Bottom Line Microsoft's Surface is for people who really need Office in their life -- the combination of kickstand and Touch Cover works well, although Office hasn't been terribly well adapted for a touchscreen. If you don't need Office, you can get higher-performance, less expensive Android tablets.

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It's been over two years since the iPad first arrived on the scene, during which time Apple has well and truly dominated the growing tablet market -- even launching a new, smaller slate, the iPad mini . Finally, its long-standing rival Microsoft is ready to try its hand with the Microsoft Surface, a 10.6-inch Windows 8 tablet.

The Surface is available now, starting at £399 for the 32GB model without the touch-sensitive keyboard cover. £479 bags you a 32GB Surface with the keyboard cover. The higher-capacity 64GB option will set you back a considerable £559, though that does get you the attachable cover too. The optional typing cover is an extra £109.

Should I buy the Microsoft Surface?

If all you want in your life is a 10-inch tablet for swiping around the Internet and poking at colourful apps, then no, you shouldn't buy the Surface. Instead, look towards the iPad or cheaper Android slates such as the Google Nexus 10.

It's not a bad product at all. The tablet itself is very sturdy, has a decent -- although slightly low-resolution -- screen and packs plenty of power for the essentials. Windows 8 is colourful, fun and fairly easy to get to grips with.

It's the tablet-centric RT version though, so you can only use software from the Marketplace app store, which is missing many big-name apps and is currently a low priority for most developers, although that's likely to change in time.

The main draw is Microsoft's Office suite, which is on board as standard. Word, PowerPoint and Excel are in there, making it more useful for work for many people than its iOS or Android rivals. Sadly, Word's interface is fiddly to use, so you'll have to rely on a detachable keyboard, which raises the price significantly.

If you can't wait to get to grips with Windows 8 for work use and you want to join the swiping, poking masses with a new tablet, the Surface is a fair, if expensive, option. The main advantage it offers over its 10-inch rivals is the Office software -- but as that's clunky at best, your money could be better spent elsewhere.

If you particularly want a tablet, the £319 16GB Nexus 10 is a genuine bargain. If Windows 8 is your sole desire, you can find traditional laptops for much less than the £479 you'll have to shell out for the Surface tablet and keyboard.

Design and build quality

Microsoft's gone for a chunky look with the Surface, ignoring the sleek, rounded design present on many slates. Hard angled corners, and a sloped, industrial feel to the sides define this device. It's worlds apart from Apple's iPad or the rounded corners of Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 or Google Nexus 10.

Microsoft Surface kickstand
The nifty kickstand is a technologically more advanced way of watching films on your tablet than propping it up on a cushion.

Around the back is a fold-out kickstand, so you can prop the Surface up for watching movies or for more comfortable typing using the magnetic keyboard cover. Flaps are usually embarrassing pieces of tat that snap off within weeks -- I've never found a flap that puts up with any kind of abuse.

Thankfully though, the Surface's flap has more strength, bending only a little when open and closing firmly with a satisfying snap. I put quite a bit of effort into trying to damage the flap -- even accidentally sitting on it when open -- and it put up with all attacks well. I'm sure if you put enough force into it you could take it clean off, but it will put up with most day-to-day abuse without question.

The Surface is a tad heavier than the iPad. While Apple's Wi-Fi-only tablet weighs 652g, Microsoft's tablet is a touch portlier at 676g, but it doesn't feel noticeably heavier. It's ever-so-slightly thinner though at 9.3mm, compared with the new iPad's 9.4mm.

Microsoft Surface width
At 9.3mm, it's almost exactly the same width as the big iPad.

Flappy stand aside, build quality seems extremely high. The chassis is made from a piece of some kind of metal alloy that offers no bending or creaking under my presses. It's strong enough in fact that former Microsoft executive Steven Sinofsky even attached some wheels and used it as a skateboard.

I wasn't brave enough to try that in my own testing, but it seems more than capable of putting up with a rough and tumble life on the road.

 

Microsoft Surface colours
At least the covers brighten up the utilitarian grey slate.

While the keyboard cover comes in a variety of colours, the Surface comes only in a grey-ish hue. It's not exactly the most fashionable of designs, but it's at least functional and will likely appeal to those of you with a preference for stark, industrial aesthetics.

Touch Cover and Type Cover

Microsoft's made two magnetic covers, which snap onto the sides of the Surface like Apple's Smart Cover. Unlike Apple's, these folding flaps flaunt functional keyboards. Like Apple's, you have to pay extra for them.

The £80 3mm Touch Cover has a touch-sensitive keyboard, which means you can rattle off missives without coming into contact with the screen. Deployed in conjunction with the Surface's kickstand, this makes for a comfortable typing position.

The flipside is that because the Touch Cover is basically flat, you won't get any tactile feedback as you type, meaning you hit the keys harder than necessary. It's much more akin to typing on a touchscreen than a regular keyboard, but the recessed dividers between the keys goes some way to improving the experience.

Microsoft Surface back
Typing on the Touch Cover takes some getting used to but works really well with Office.

I found I got used to the feeling fairly quickly and it's certainly an improvement on the on-screen keyboard -- not least because half the screen isn't taken up by letters. If I was planning on typing for hours on end, I'd certainly prefer to use the Type Cover.

The £109 Type Cover is a step up. At 5mm thick, it's a little thicker than the Touch, but has real depressible keys. They're very similar to using a standard laptop keyboard and make long periods of typing much more comfortable. If you can afford the £29 extra, it makes the Surface much easier to use as a work machine.

Both models click into place with a satisfying magnetic 'snap' and are held firmly in place. They also both feature small trackpads -- the Type Cover's is clickable -- which helps navigate the cursor to the places your finger just can't reach.

As our buddies at ZDNet have reported, some early Surface adopters have suggested that the Touch Cover is liable to split. While this is certainly something to be wary of, I didn't find this to be the case on any of my review samples. If you do find this on your model, contact Microsoft for a replacement.

Hardware

Powered by a 1.3GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 chip, Surface has a few ports peppered around its edges, notably a USB 2.0 socket and a microSD card slot. This is a major advantage -- neither the Google Nexus 7 nor any iPad offer expandable storage.

It means you're able to expand the built-in storage by up to 128GB. That's going to come in very handy if you opt for the cheapest 32GB model, as almost half of that storage is taken up by the operating system itself. Sadly you aren't able to install apps to the card, but you can keep all your photos, videos and other media on it, keeping all the internal space free for your apps.

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Where to Buy

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

Part Number: 9JR-00007

Typical Price: £399.00

See manufacturer website for availability.

Quick Specifications See All

  • Wireless Connectivity IEEE 802.11n
  • Type Microsoft Windows RT
  • RAM 2 GB
  • Weight 680 g
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