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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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