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Microsoft Surface review: Innovative tablet stranded in an app desert

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The Good The Microsoft Surface's Metro interface is innovative, elegant, powerful, and versatile. The tablet feels strong and well-built, runs Office 2013, and includes rich video and music services. Its keyboard cover accessories are the best ways to type on a tablet, period.

The Bad The tablet's performance can be sluggish, its Windows Store is lacking, Metro takes getting used to, and the Desktop interface feels clunky and useless.

The Bottom Line If you're an early adopter willing to forget everything you know about navigating a computer, the Surface tablet could replace your laptop. Everyone else: wait for more apps.

7.0 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 6

Microsoft Surface is the best productivity tablet yet, and it had better be. As the only Microsoft-branded Windows RT hardware to launch with the new operating system (Windows 8 launches this week as well), the tablet serves as ambassador and flagship for the touch-focused, wildly risky Windows grand experiment. The Surface excels thanks to its thoughtful design, sensible implementation of its keyboard accessory, and the innovations brought about by the interface formerly known as Metro -- chief among them: the gesture-driven menu system, powerful search tool, and incredibly cool and versatile split-screen feature.

Unfortunately, there's a price to pay for doing things differently. I've spent a week with this soldier for the Windows cause, and I predict that some of you will find Metro's learning curve discouraging. Additionally, apps support is dismal, performance (especially when using IE10) is slow at times, and like the old guy in the club still hanging around after last call, the traditional Windows interface lingers on, feeling embarrassingly out of place.

The Surface isn't for everyone. Those looking for tons (or even several pounds) of apps should look elsewhere; however, it takes a legitimate swing at replacing your computer and comes closer to hitting the mark than any tablet before it.

Editors' note: The Surface 2 -- a new tablet running Windows RT (8.1 edition) -- is coming October 22 housing a Tegra 4 processor, with a thinner design, and a longer-lasting battery. Look for a full review of the Surface 2 soon.
Editors' note: To reflect the current state of tablet market performance and value, the Surface RT's overall rating has been lowered from its original 7.5 to 7.0.

On the Surface
So what keeps the Surface from looking like just another generic black tablet? Honestly, not that much, but the features and aesthetic details that do set it apart are significant, if not immediately apparent. For one, the Surface sports a 10.6-inch screen, which is only about 0.5 inch larger than most full-size, mainstream tablets' screens and 0.9 inch larger than the iPad's screen. However, this larger screen affords it a true 16:9 aspect ratio at a screen resolution of 1,366x768 pixels. This aspect ratio matches most movies and TV shows, eliminating the need for black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. While movies shot in Scope (2.35:1) will still display with black bars, they're not nearly as all-encompassing as when watching the same movies on an iPad with its 4:3 aspect ratio.

The Surface's unique 10.6-inch display in full effect. Josh Miller/CNET

Then there's the Surface's beveled back, which contributes to its sleek, somewhat industrial-looking metallic aesthetic. It looks practical without being cold, and just feels like a high-quality device that Microsoft cut few corners to make. Speaking of which, the corners are somewhat rounded, but do tend to dig into the palms a bit when you hold the tablet in both hands. The entire chassis is surrounded by a full magnesium (VaporMg, pronounced "Vapor Mag") outer casing that's supposedly both scratch- and wear-resistant, but scratches are already beginning to appear on my tablet.

Microsoft Surface Asus Transformer Tab Infinity TF700 Apple iPad (third generation) Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
Weight in pounds 1.5 1.32 1.44 1.32
Width in inches (landscape) 10.8 10.4 7.3 10.3
Height in inches 6.8 7.1 9.5 7.1
Depth in inches 0.37 0.33 0.37 0.35
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 0.81 0.8 0.87 0.9

In the top middle of the front bezel, next to an ambient light sensor, is the front-facing 720p-capable camera. Several inches below that on the bottom of the bezel sits the Windows home touch sensor, which takes you back to the Start screen or to the last app you had open if you're already at the Start screen.

From left: A speaker grille, Micro-HDMI, and full-size USB 2.0 port. Josh Miller/CNET

Along the right edge, from the top, are a speaker grille, a Micro-HDMI port, a full USB 2.0 port, and the power port, which magnetically attaches the power cable. At the far right of the top edge is a lone power/sleep button. The left edge features an additional speaker grille, a headphone jack, and a satisfyingly tactile and clicky volume rocker. Seated toward the bottom of the left edge is an inch-long groove that allows you to easily pull out the built-in kickstand and prop the tablet up.

The microSD port, located under the kickstand, can be accessed, in a somewhat awkward fashion, once the stand is engaged. On the bottom edge is another array of magnets where the Touch and Type Cover keyboards connect.

The Surface's built-in kickstand tilts it back about 10 degrees. Josh Miller/CNET

The kickstand decisively locks into position when activated, reclining the tablet back about 10 degrees. I'm a huge fan of built-in kickstands on tablets and this is the best implementation I've seen so far. It's sturdy, easy to work, and, yes, delivers a satisfying sound and feeling when both engaged and disengaged.

The tablet weighs 1.5 pounds, but doesn't feel noticeably heavier than the iPad, at least not when held in the middle of the tablet. Held lightly on the edge, however, and the Surface's long body begins to work against it, as the unsupported weight dips at the free end. The Surface is a bit bulkier than most premium mainstream 10-inchers, and you can probably blame the kickstand's inclusion for that added girth. Microsoft did its best balancing the tablet's weight, and while I appreciate its wide screen, it feels a bit too long and awkward when held and works much better with its kickstand engaged.

The microSD port is hidden quite effectively by the disengaged kickstand. Only when it engages is the memory port revealed. Josh Miller/CNET

Touch Cover
It's a weird decision to not include the Touch Cover with the basic Surface package. Saying the cover has been prominent in Microsoft's Surface marketing campaign is an obvious understatement to anyone who's seen the first commercial. The cover is $120 if you buy the basic $349 Surface and comes packed in with the $449 and $549 packages.

After several days of use, it's clear to me that owning the Touch Cover (or Type Cover; see below) is essential to getting the complete Surface experience. The Touch Cover acts as both a screen cover and a physical keyboard. It connects magnetically to the bottom of the tablet with a very satisfying (and kind of addictive) "crunch" sound. Microsoft has admittedly spent a lot of time getting this sound right, and thanks to the same parts of our brains that won't let us stop eating those oh-so-crunchy Pringles once we've started, it's been largely successful.

The many colors of the Touch Cover. Josh Miller/CNET

The magnets keep the Surface adhered very firmly to the keyboard, allowing you to hold the connected device by just the keyboard itself, with the tablet dangling underneath. From this position you can even swing it around a bit (as long as you don't get too crazy) without the parts disconnecting, as they stay more strongly bonded than the iPad and its Touch Cover. Speaking of which, just as the Smart Cover does with the iPad, when the Touch Cover folds over the Surface's screen, it automatically puts the tablet to sleep.

Microsoft claims that it'll take most people four to five days to get used to typing on the Touch Cover. That's a fair estimate. The biggest issue I had was getting accustomed to its nearly flat keys, which don't depress when you strike them. After years of typing mostly on depressible keys, I found myself overcompensating here, which resulted in sore fingertips on my part. By the second day, however, the soreness was gone.

The Surface works fairly well on your lap; just make sure you don't lean over it. That kickstand will disengage in a flash. Josh Miller/CNET

Typing on my lap definitely took some getting used to. The cardboardlike feel of the Touch Cover is awkward at first, and if you're not careful -- and not wearing pants -- the corners of the kickstand will dig into your thighs. Also, if you tend to hunch over while you work, the tablet can easily tip back, disengaging the kickstand.

The Surface's wide body affords the Touch Cover a more spacious area to type on, which makes a significant difference in hand and wrist comfort. Simply put, your hands get to spread out a bit more compared with other tablet keyboards like the ones made for Asus' Transformer line as well as keyboard accessories for the iPad.

Soft and smooth is the bottom of the Touch Cover. Soft, smooth...and soft. Josh Miller/CNET

On most tablets, before even striking my first key, I turn off that annoyingly shrill tablet keyboard typing sound effect. Thankfully, the Surface's typing sound effect is less like glass breaking and more like small, rhythmic bongo drums. Since its keys don't depress, that bongo sound is the only feedback you get and is therefore essential to becoming accustomed to typing on the unique-feeling keyboard. After a few days, though, your skills may grow beyond the need of drum sounds.

The Touch Cover has enough smarts built into it to know when it's been flipped under the tablet and its buttons will cease functioning in order to prevent any unwanted typing. Flip it back to its normal position and it begins functioning again in less than a second, without missing a beat. The bottom of the default black (it also comes in red, pink, blue, and white) Touch Cover is a soft, feltlike material that covers the screen when folded over it. As a cover, it doesn't necessarily look appropriate for a high-end, sturdily built tech device, but definitely feels right when you're carrying it in your hands.

They actually remained attached, despite the power of gravity. Josh Miller/CNET

The Touch Cover is an incredibly useful and capable accessory that feels as essential to the Surface experience as the kickstand, but given the choice, I'd recommend most buyers spring for the $130 Type Cover keyboard instead. It's all the best things about the Touch Cover but with very comfortable, wide, depressible keys. It is a bit thicker than the Touch Cover, but not by much. If you're looking to make use of the Surface's capability as a productivity machine, you'll definitely want to spring for one of these cover keyboards.

Hardware features
The Surface houses a 1.3GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 CPU as its brains and comes in both 32GB and 64GB varieties. Its microSD card slot supports up to 128GB cards, and the tablet includes 2GB of RAM. It has 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi support, Bluetooth 4.0, a gyroscope, an accelerometer, and a built-in compass, but no GPS.

The Surface does not house a GPS. So why am I outside using it? And why does it look like Italy? Josh Miller/CNET

'Metro'...I mean, 'Start.' Wait, what is this interface called again?
The Surface runs on Windows RT. The Surface Pro is coming early next year and will run on a full version of Windows 8. Windows RT is split between two different interfaces: a tile-based interface (formerly known as Metro) that includes the Start screen and a somewhat traditional Windows interface called Desktop. Desktop includes most control panels and settings one would expect on a Windows operating system, in addition to a skinned version of Internet Explorer 10 made to look like IE9 and a free copy of Office 2013 Preview. No additional apps can be added to the Desktop interface, however.

Though Microsoft no longer calls its new interface Metro (and has not given it a new name), for the sake of clarity, I'm going to continue calling it Metro here. If you own an Xbox 360, you'll already be very familiar with Metro's look. Each app is represented by a tile and each can be arranged into different groups. Groups can further be zoomed out and named as you see fit. Tiles can also be made smaller or larger.

The Charms bar delivers context info and options for the app you have open at the time. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Swiping inward from the right bezel brings up the Charms menu, which consists of Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. This menu is context-sensitive so depending on which app you have open, selecting Settings, for example, will deliver you the settings for that particular app.

Swiping from the left bezel into the screen launches the most recent app, and if you swipe right then left, you'll get a list of recent apps. Swiping from the top or bottom bezel reveals additional app options at the bottom of the screen, and finally, swiping from the top bezel to the bottom closes an app.

The split-screen features lead to true productivity. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

This is obviously different from other tablet interfaces, and it's a lot of new stuff to learn. Some users will be discouraged by the unfamiliarity of things (I know I was), but those who stick with it will discover that's it's actually an elegant tablet interface.

Selecting search from the Charms menu allows you to search within the current primary app. Share allows you to quickly e-mail information from the current app or share it via social networks using the People social app, which integrates Twitter and Facebook. Start toggles between home and the last app that was opened. Devices is a list of hardware you currently have networked with the tablet that can interact with the current app, including microSD cards and printers.

Your Metro global settings are called PC settings. More options here and fewer in Desktop would be nice. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

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.

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