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Microsoft’s Surface – so close to being a winner!              22-01-2013

by  Alan Zisman (c) 2013

When Microsoft first demoed its Surface and Surface Pro tablets in June 2012 a lot of the media was wowed by the slick hardware with fit and finish that seemed to match or beat Apple’s best-selling iPad. A pair of innovative keyboards that snapped on, adding hardly any bulk or weight to the tablet experience while providing a big improvement to typing on-screen. Attention to details like the power supply and a kickstand that holds the tablet up at the perfect angle for landscape-mode viewing.

At the same time, there was some surprise. Microsoft has sold hardware before – it has sold well-regarded mice and keyboards for a long time and has had success with its Xbox game console systems – but it hadn’t marketed PCs in competition with the companies which license Microsoft’s Windows operating system for their hardware. The Surface and Surface Pro tablets would be competing with tablets from these same companies.

I recently had loan for a week of a Surface tablet, which was released – along with its Windows RT operating system at the end of November 2012. Canadian pricing is $519 for a Surface tablet with 32 GB of solid-state storage; add $100 for the Touch Cover keyboard. A version with 64 GB storage and the Touch Cover is $719.

I haven’t yet had use of the Surface Pro – which has just had a US and Canadian February 9 release date announced with prices starting at US$899 for a 64 GB version.

 The multiple versions of Surface-family tablet – along with multiple versions of the Windows 8/RT operating system are causing some confusion – particularly as both will look pretty much identical sitting side by side on a store shelf. Here are some points to consider:

-    The Surface tablet (non-Pro) uses ARM processors - the same family of processors used in most smartphones and in tablets including Apple’s iPad and the various Android tablets. The Surface Pro will use Intel’s Core i5 processor, which is widely used in many Mac and Windows notebook and desktop computes. The ARM processors offer better battery life while the Core i5 models offer more power.

-    In order to support these two differing families of processors, Microsoft developed two new versions of Windows. Windows RT runs on the ARM processor used in the Surface (and in ARM-powered tablets that might be offered by other manufacturers). Windows 8 powers the Surface Pro along with new and old notebook and desktop models (and some tablets) from the wide range of PC manufacturers. Some have taken to referring to the Surface model that runs Windows RT as 'Surface RT' to better differentiate it from the Windows 8-powered Surface Pro.

-    Both Windows RT and Windows 8 look identical, starting up with a new Start Screen user interface and running new-style full-screen apps available for free or paid download from Microsoft’s new online app store. Windows 8 also offers backwards compatibility to the large number of applications developed for earlier versions of Windows – so-called ‘desktop applications’. Windows RT includes a limited desktop mode, which can be used with special version of Microsoft Office 2013 and Internet Explorer 10, but can’t be used (at least not without a lot of effort) with legacy Windows applications.

-    The Surface Pro is a bit thicker (13.5 mm vs 9.3 mm) and heavier (2 lbs vs 1.5 lbs) than the Surface and comes with a higher-resolution screen. While both have a 10.6” widescreen display, the Surface has 1366x768 pixels compared to the Pro’s 1920x1080 resolution – identical to a 1080p hi-definition TV.

My loaner Surface came with both of Microsoft’s snap-on keyboards: the Touch Cover (CDN$129 - available in several colours) and the Type Cover (CDN$139 – black only). For the first several days I left the keyboards off, using it as a ‘pure tablet.’ Later I tried it with each keyboard model.

I’ve been using tablets since mid-2010 when Apple’s iPad was first released in Canada – first with an iPad and since mid-2012 Google’s Nexus 7. I use one or the other for most of my day-to-day connected computer use: email, web-browsing, social networking and news-reading.

I’ve also used the new Windows on a number of traditional keyboard/mouse systems – this was the first time I’d been able to use it on a finger-friendly touchscreen system. (See my report on Windows 8 for Business in Vancouver).

In general, I found the Surface quite usable as a tablet; the new Windows operating system generally was easier to use by fingertip than with a mouse. Some things, though, were more awkward. The new Start Screen (which replaces the Start Menu) is made up of rectangular tiles – these can be rearranged or resized after selecting a tile. In Apple’s iOS or Android icons are selected with a ‘long press’. In the new Windows it takes a long press and then a little pull down. I had to Google to discover that.

With a mouse or track pad right-click selects.

In Android 4.x there’s an on-screen button that brings up a list of running programs – pulling one to the right shuts it down. In the new Windows, a little pull from the left-edge of the screen brings up a similar list. Right clicking on a program’s icon with the mouse enables it to be shut down. Is there a way to do that with finger alone? If there is, I haven’t discovered it.

I mostly use iPad and Android tablets in vertical (portrait) mode, only using them horizontally (landscape mode) for watching videos. The Surface, however, seemed to want me to use it in horizontally for just about everything – even with no physical keyboard connected something about it just felt more ‘right’, whether held in my hands or on my lap.

I was able to do the same set of standard activities – email, web browsing, and more – as on my other tablets. But on those other tablets I tend to use specialized apps – for web mail, for Facebook and Twitter, for Google Reader news reading. On the Surface I was more likely to use the web browser (a full-screen version of Internet Explorer 10). In some cases that was because there was no specialized app available. There are several third-party Google Reader apps in the Microsoft Store – but I didn’t like either of the ones I tried. Nicely, it’s easy to set a webpage as a tile on the Start Screen.

The $129 Touch Cover magnetically snaps into place and provides a thin cover for the tablet screen, flopping down to provide what is a minor miracle of hardware design, a real physical keyboard and track pad despite having no physical keys. Because there are no keys to depress, however, I found myself making the same sorts of mistakes I make using an on-screen virtual keyboard.

I found I preferred the somewhat bulkier $139 Type Cover – its added thickness makes it possible to have ‘real’ keys which made it feel more like a ‘real’ keyboard.

Adding either keyboard makes the Surface feel more like a small laptop – you’ve pretty much got to use it in horizontal/landscape mode.  But unlike a standard laptop I could use it lying on a couch with the tablet and keyboard both flat on my legs. Nice!

Using one of the keyboard/trackpad covers also makes it possible to make use of the Microsoft Office version bundled with the Surface – these are so-called ‘Desktop’ programs; when you click on the Microsoft Word tile on the Start Screen Windows shifts from its new-style look and feel to something like Windows 7 – something that is not at all finger friendly. (Note that Microsoft Outlook is not included in the version of MS Office pre-installed on the Surface).

Nice feature – a real USB port and a real ‘micro’ SD-card port (hidden under the kickstand). That means that unlike some other tablets you can access and store files on a standard memory stick or external hard drive or phone memory card.

Microsoft advertised the Surface widely on TV and through other media but sales in the holiday season were apparently modest. While Microsoft has not released official sales figures, there were published estimates of sales around 1 million – perhaps 1/40th of sales of Apple’s iPad in the same period. For much of that period, a potential customer wanting to buy a Surface would have had to go to a Microsoft Store – and these were few and far between. More recently, the Surface can be found at some big-name retailers.

More problematic perhaps is that the Surface is trying to fill the gap between what we expect from a tablet and what we expect from a notebook. With the inclusion of Microsoft Office, Microsoft hopes that users will consider it as more capable of ‘content creation’ than iPad or Android tablets – stereotyped as just useful for ‘content consumption’. Note that using the Office programs requires one of the keyboard covers (or presumably a third-party Bluetooth keyboard) – an added-cost add-on. And it’s important for potential content-creators to realize that the Surface is not compatible with other standard Windows applications. Want to run Photoshop? Forget about it!

Something else to be aware of – compared to Android or iOS, Windows RT (including the bundled MS Office) is bulky. If you buy the entry-level 32 GB Surface, expect to find about half of that taken up with the pre-installed operating system and software. By comparison, my Nexus 7 came with about 3 GB of its storage in use.

All in all, the Surface is a bit of a puzzle – it’s great hardware and even without a lot of apps it’s a pretty good tablet. With a keyboard Microsoft wants you to think it could replace a notebook – but it’s really not very good at that, partly because it can’t run most of the programs you might have on your current notebook computer.

With its standard Intel Core i5 processor, the soon-to-be-released Surface Pro will be able to run all those standard Windows applications. That ought to make it a better laptop replacement. But because of the greater power use of the Intel processor, battery life is expected to be much lower – like a typical notebook. The result, I suspect, is that it will be less useful as a tablet.

Microsoft’s Surface is a well-built, innovative piece of hardware, but its acceptance is being hampered by Windows 8/RT trying to be an operating system for tablets and traditional PCs at the same time – and being somewhat awkward at both. At the same time, Microsoft is trying to position the Surface as both a tablet and an ultra-light notebook, and again doing neither as well as it might.

While more traditional manufacturers are rushing to compete with the Intel-powered Surface Pro with a range of tablets, touch screen notebooks, and devices that can convert from clamshell notebook to tablet, there doesn't seem to be much interest in building devices (tablets or what-have-you) based on ARM processors and running Windows RT; instead, manufacturers have released several lower-cost systems using the lower-power Intel Atom processors (last seen on low cost netbooks). These are able to run backwards-compatible Windows 8 rather than RT. Infoworld goes so far as to suggest that Windows RT is 'hurtling towards disaster'.

(For those with a bit of tech history, it's reminiscent of the early 1990s - when Microsoft's Windows NT was new the company developed versions for a variety of processors then used on powerful workstations: MIPS, PowerPC and DEC Alpha as well as the familiar Intel x86 processors used on garden-variety PCs. Less software ran on those other versions, and one by one Microsoft dropped supporting them until only the standard version of NT - and its descendants Windows 2000, XP, and so on - was left).

Perhaps if Microsoft had focused on making Surface best-in-class tablet – with both hardware and software – the it might have been a contender. But as it is…

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About This Blog...

I've been writing about computers, software, Internet and the rest of technology since 1992, including a 17 year (1995-2012) stint as 'High Tech Office' columnist for Business in Vancouver. This blog includes thoughts on technology, society, and anything else that might interest me. Comments, emailed to are welcome - and may be published in whole or part. You can follow me on Twitter for notice of new blog postings
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