Here at Padvance, we like to take our time with things. It would have been easy to write a Surface review based on a couple of hours with the machine, but a cursory glance over the specifications would have given you the same amount of information in a couple of seconds. Instead, I’ve spent the last week and a bit living with Microsoft’s first tablet.
To give the Surface a fair trial, for the last 12 days it’s replaced my iPad as my go-to 10 inch tablet. Where I’d normally grab my iPad for some web surfing or video watching, instead I’ve been reaching for the 64GB Surface RT.
Build-wise, everything about the tablet feels solid and slick. The pop out stand at the back has a nice click to it, and all the buttons feel well put together. This is a tablet that you can easily tell apart from the crowd as well, with its more rectangular shape setting it out from most of the other devices on the market.
The Surface is a well built slab of metal and plastic, that’s for sure
One thing is clear as soon as you boot up your Surface for the first play – this isn’t an iPad. Where Android tablets have followed the same blueprint that Apple laid down with the first generation of their tablet, Microsoft has ploughed its own furrow. And sometimes that new, fresh thinking works. Other times it really doesn’t.
The biggest difference is the RT operating system. The Modern UI, which is the part of the system you’re probably going to be using most, is slick and distinct. It’s easy to lose half an hour just rearranging the live tiles to get a layout that suits you. Customising your tablet should be fun, and swiping and resizing the app icons is a real joy.
There’s plenty of space to fill with new apps and tiles, letting you build a home screen experience that’s tailored to how you use your device. Compared to the stringent block of icons you get with an iPad, it’s a breath of fresh air, and part of me wishes that Microsoft hadn’t bothered including the other half of the RT experience.
That other half is a Windows 8 lite desktop accessed with a tap from the Modern UI. You’ll be taken out here when you’re using certain programs, mainly the preview of Office 2013 that comes pre-installed on the Surface. Where the Modern side of the UI is fresh and exciting, the Desktop feels old and unwieldy, especially if you’re trying to navigate it with the touch screen.
It can be frustrating too. If you’ve not got the Smart Cover attached, for example, you need to manually bring the software keyboard up when you tap in a text box. Opening Internet Explorer on the Desktop view opens a different Internet Explorer to the one you have open in the Modern view as well, reinforcing the feeling that there are two separate operating systems vying for your attention.
Performance can sometimes be sluggish too, and quite often the tablet will disconnect from the internet for no reason, leaving you staring frustrated at a screen that refuses to load.
And then there’s the apps.
Right now, the Surface is severely lacking in the app department. There are a few notable exceptions, like Skype for example, but there’s no official Facebook app, no official Twitter app, no IMDB app. The list goes on. There’s certainly a base to be built on, and the Microsoft Store feels more intuitive than the clumsy old App Store, but there’s nothing to discover just yet.
There are signs of life, but the Surface never quite fires on all cylinders
The Surface is very much a first attempt at something new, and there are times when you can see how impressive it could and should have been, but it often feels like in their haste to not be an iPad clone, Microsoft has lost focus on what a tablet should be. The apps will come in time, that’s for certain, but the dichotomy at the heart of the Surface seems a little more ingrained.
I understand Microsoft wanted to create a device that’s equally useful at work and play, but the way they’ve gone about it appears to be by jamming two disparate parts together and hoping they’d stick. I could quite happily have done without Desktop view, and while the Smart Cover might appeal to some, typing on it doesn’t feel as nice as on a real keyboard or on a touch screen. In fact, the software keyboard in RT is probably the best I’ve ever used.
Had Microsoft developed RT as a separate OS focused on tablets, it could have created something really special with the Surface. Instead, you’re left with a device that’s in the middle of an identity crisis.
As a day to day tablet, there are just too many niggles, too many frustrations, and too many bugs, for the Surface to usurp the iPad at the top of the pile. And that’s a great shame, because I really wanted to love the sleek device.
The Surface is a tale of what could have been – indeed, it’s a tale of what might still be. But right now, in the present, it’s a little too incoherent, a little too scattergun, and a little too unsure of itself. This is a baffling, occasionally brilliant, often frustrating tablet that, with a heavy heart, I just can’t recommend.