It's clear at first glance: Microsoft Surface is a special device and entirely different from all other tablets we have seen before, including those that work with earlier versions of Windows. Anyone pondering the thought of acquiring a 10-inch tablet should at least consider it.
While it is natural to see the iPad and tablets with Android OS as blown-up smartphones, the Surface is rather a shrunk-down notebook, even the Windows RT version. The features that make it so are the ones that distance it the most from its rivals, and these will be key for this device's success.
The Microsoft Surface RT is a 10.6-inch tablet which comes with a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor running a 1.3GHz clock, 2GB of RAM, and 32 or 64GB of data storage which can be expanded with microSD cards. It sports exceptionally convincing performance, a modern and already-recognizable design, supreme features, an average display, as well as an entirely different user experience provided by Windows RT and the optional Touch Cover (or Type Cover) keyboard. The latter will play a critical role in determining the fate of Surface.
Build and Design
Microsoft rarely ventures into designing and producing hardware, but when it does, the result is quite impressive engineering-wise. This is true of the Surface, as its magnesium-alloy body seems extremely robust, modern, solid and convincing. Being 9.4 millimeters thick, the tablet has almost the same width as the fourth-generation iPad, but its edges are not rounded - they are squared and almost sharp and slightly slanted towards the back. Weighing 690 grams, the Surface is somewhat heavier than the iPad 4, which weighs 650 grams. The tablet's overall dimensions are 274.6 x 172 x 9.4 mm.
The back of the device includes a foldable kickstand so that it can be set on a desk or in a lap in a naturally angled position - a highly practical innovation. The kickstand can be easily unfolded by pressing the area where fingernail slots are located, which facilitates access when it is assembled, and it can be unfolded with even more ease due to magnets that hold it in the cradle.
Microsoft's first tablet comes with a 10.6-inch screen, which has a 16:9 ratio and a resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels. This results in a humble pixel density of 148 ppi. The IPS display covered in Gorilla Glass 2 offers exceptionally contrasting imaging with highly saturated colors, which leaves a very good impression, especially with the already strongly contrasting Windows RT user interface. This generally leaves me feeling I am working with a display with above average quality for a 10-inch tablet.
Despite using Microsoft's ClearType technology, low pixel density is obvious in practice, especially while reading text in a finer and slimmer font normally found on most web sites and Office and PDF documents. In this situation. the impression of great display sharpness is significantly lost because of the jagged slanted lines on letters and objects on the screen, which is rather annoying. Many current 10-inch tablets offer a significantly greater pixel density - especially the iPads with Retina displays, and the difference between Surface's screen and their screen is very obvious.
It is a shame that Microsoft has not decided on a greater resolution for this device, given that it will offer a higher pixel density with the Surface Pro, a device of the same dimensions as this tablet. Offering a significantly lower resolution than the one provided by the iPad, at almost the same cost, and trying to justify it with the fact that, due to the scalability of the interface on the Windows RT, it will look the same on all resolutions is a risk Microsoft might pay for dearly.
This is one of the cons that make the Surface look like a notebook and not a big smartphone, no matter how paradoxical this may be, as we've come to expect tablets to have better pixel densities than laptops.
The Surface can be used with an on-screen keyboard, with an external keyboard connected via USB, or with two keyboards especially created for this device that can be bought separately -- the Type Cover and Touch Cover.
I tested the Surface version with the Touch Cover, given that it is slimmer and lighter than the Type Cover. Basically, the difference between the Touch Cover and the Type Cover is that the latter includes 'real' physical keys, which have travel and 'click', while the Touch Cover has some type of 'capacitive' keys, like keys on a screen.
The Touch Cover is not the best solution. It takes several days to get accustomed to using the right amount of pressure that will register as typing, i.e. the right amount of pressure while resting the fingers and the hand against the keyboard in order for it not to be registered as typing. In time, a greater typing speed can be accomplished than with a screen keyboard - without typing errors. With that said, most users will have a hard time typing on the Touch Cover at the same speed as they do on an actual physical keyboard.
This makes using the Touch Cover frustrating, given that it costs $100 dollars (or $120 if you want it in a specific color). This is too great a price for something that is far more than just a cover and far less than a functional keyboard. Furthermore, if Microsoft was not aware that the Touch Cover was not a very good keyboard, it never would have offered the more functional, yet slightly less cool Type Cover.
The Touch Cover also has some other shortcomings. The function keys, for example, are not marked at all, while the upper edge (the one that connects to the tablet) can often ruffle up over the very edge of the tablet, which leaves the impression of the product not being polished-up. Even Microsoft admitted to being aware of this problem and has offered to replace the damaged Touch Covers free of charge.
On the other hand, the excellent touchpad on the Touch Cover is praise-worthy -- it is better and more precise than many touchpads that come with real notebooks, and while working with Windows RT offers priceless practical value. Also, the 'click' you hear as the Touch Cover connects to the tablet, familiar from Microsoft's ad for Surface, is really highly impressionable and recognizable.
Other Buttons and Ports
In addition to a 720p camera for Skyping, the front of the tablet includes a Windows key under the display (doubling as the home key on all other tablets and smartphones), while the left side has a volume control switch and a 3.5 mm headphones slot. The right side is much more interesting - it includes a USB 2.0 port and a micro-HDMI video-out slot, thanks to which Surface can be connected to a TV set and used as an extended desktop.
Although a USB 3.0 port would be much better, it is undisputed that this is a highly useful addition for the tablet, the kind that most direct competitors lack. A whole line of peripheral devices can be connected, like keyboards, mice, or printers. Thus, direct printing is enabled on any printer available on the market today, something which can't be said about the iPad or devices with Android OS.
Furthermore, a USB hub (with external power) can be connected to Surface, which enables connecting several peripherals at the same time. All in all, the USB slot is one of the biggest advantages of this tablet and one of the details making it seem a small notebook rather than a blown-up smartphone, despite the ARM processor and the modified version of Windows.
There is a microSD card slot under the kickstand, which expands memory storage by an additional generous 64GB.
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