|Surface Introduction and Specifications|
They say hindsight is 20/20. Looking back, it’s now obvious that Microsoft had dropped a number of hints that the company would eventually offer its own tablet, which should have made their Surface announcement last summer much less of a surprise to industry insiders. It was way back in 2008 that Microsoft began showing off its similarly named Surface tabletop (now renamed PixelSense), hinting at the immense resources Microsoft was pouring into touch interfaces, gestures, and multi-touch input. It was at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2011 that Microsoft announced that Windows 8 would support system on a chip (SoC) architectures from ARM and over the next few months revealed more of Windows 8’s touch-optimized interface. Coincidentally, within a few hours of Microsoft’s announcement, NVIDIA announced that Microsoft’s demo at CES, which showed Excel and IE10 running on an ARM-based chip, was performed using a Tegra SoC. All the while, Apple had been disrupting the computing landscape with a couple of a wildly successful product lines, namely the iPhone and iPad.
In terms of its specifications, there’s nothing that really sets Microsoft’s Surface with Windows RT apart from other NVIDIA Tegra 3-based tablets and mobile devices. Surface sports NVIDIA’s T30 quad-core SoC (the fifth “battery saver” core is not available on Windows 8-based devices), 2GB of RAM, and either 32GB or 64GB of internal storage. Additional storage space can be added via a microSDXC slot, however. There are a pair of HD cameras on the Surface tablet (front and rear), an array of sensors including an Accelerometer, Gyroscope, and Compass, stereo speakers and microphones, and a 10.6” touch screen with 5-point multi-touch support. Wireless connectivity comes by way of a Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n) and Bluetooth 4.0, and everything all wrapped up in a package weighing right around 1.5lbs. There are some interesting aspects of the Surface’s design that we’ll talk about in a bit, but there isn’t much that stands out looking at its specifications alone.
|Surface With Windows RT Design|
We’re not going to sensationalize Surface and call it Microsoft’s bold entry into the hardware business like some others have, because quite frankly Microsoft has been making nice hardware for many years. At one point or another, Microsoft has made some of the best game controllers available, they’ve been offering a wide range of input devices nearly since the dawn of the GUI, and let’s not forget about the Xbox and Xbox 360 consoles, which are essentially full computers in their own right that have custom processors, GPUs, memory, storage, etc. Versions of Windows have even been available for ARM-based embedded devices, PDAs, and smartphones in the past as well, but they were based on a difference kernel and obviously not in the same class as Windows 8/RT. That’s a discussion for a different day, though.
With that said, what the Surface tablet does signify is a major shift in Microsoft’s relationship with its OEM hardware partners; Surface is the vehicle by which Microsoft is entering the PC business. The release of Surface marks the first time Microsoft has offered a computer that directly competes with its partners. And unfortunately for those partners, Redmond did one heck of a job designing the hardware in our opinion. In many respects, Surface with Windows RT outshines all of the other Windows RT-based tablets available or coming to market soon. We have yet to get our hands on a Surface Pro tablet running full-blown Windows 8, but that device may do the same thing.
Surface From the Front, Back and Sides
As we’ve mentioned, Surface with Windows RT is a tablet, which sports a 10.6” screen, or a ClearType HD Display as Microsoft calls it. The screen has a resolution of 1366x768, supports up to 5-point multi-touch, and is protected by a layer or Corning Gorilla Glass. Microsoft also employs an optical bonding technique to reduce the spaces between the panes of glass in the display, which helps minimize light refraction and glare. Since much of the tablet experience is conveyed to end-used through the screen, so it’s important that it offer high-quality imagery, responsive touch, and simply feel good, and we can say Surface delivers on all fronts. The screen may not have the high resolution of some of its competitors in the Apple in the Android camps, but contrast, saturation, and sharpness are excellent.
If you take a tour around the Surface tablet, you’ll find that the front of the device is all screen, with only a single capacitive Windows button at the bottom, which will return users right to the Start screen and a front facing camera at the top (alongside an ambient light sensor). The left side of the device is home to one of its stereo speaks, a headphone jack and volume rocker. The right side of Surface houses the second stereo speaker, a display output, a full-sized USB port, and the power jack. We should point out that the USB port supports millions of devices and printers and can also be used to charge other mobile devices, like a smartphone, for example.
It may look clean at first glance, but there is a lot happening on the back of the Surface tablet. At the top you’ll find the tablet’s rear-facing camera and on the bottom, the device’s built-in kickstand. The kickstand confidently pops out with just a flick and is plenty strong. It is a thin piece of metal held in place with relatively small hinges, and can obviously be bent if mishandled, but it most certainly not flimsy. The kickstand is a great addition to the device and something that Microsoft should get some credit for; Surface’s kickstand is functional, strong, and looks good too.
|Microsoft Surface Accessories|
Two of the key differentiators, and a major component of the Surface experience as Microsoft sees it, are Surface’s Touch and Type keyboard cover accessories. Virtually all of the advertisements and branding you’re likely to see regarding Surface will also feature one, or both, of the keyboard options.
Although they may look similar at first glance, the Touch and Type covers are quite different. The Touch Cover is available in a variety of colors (as shown above), and although it’s a fully functional keyboard, there are no moving parts whatsoever. They keyboard is laid out on a rubbery / felt-like material and features capacitive key switch technology. When pressed, the keys don’t actually move, but there are pressure sensors that can detect the user’s input.
We have to say, the touch cover is a very well-engineered and thought out piece of kit. You’d think the device would be prone to phantom key presses when resting your fingers on the home-row, or be inaccurate or uncomfortable to use, but the Touch cover works very well and is infinitely better than typing on glass in our opinion. It’s not as good as a real keyboard obviously, but you can be productive with it should the need arise. Also note that using the Touch cover frees up screen real estate that would normally be taken up by the on-scree keyboard, which is another plus. The cover is “smart” enough to know when it’s been flipped all the way around to the back of Surface as well, at which point key presses are disabled, and it’s spill resistant too.
The Type cover is a totally different animal. In lieu of capacitive buttons, the Type cover has actual key switches, like a laptop keyboard. If you can’t get used to typing on glass or using the Touch cover, the Type cover is obviously the way to go. It’s not quite as nice as some better laptop keyboards, but the Type cover is still plenty good and we found that we were less prone to typing errors on the Type cover, especially when typing out longer documents. The only downside is the thickness. Whereas the Touch cover is 3mm thick, the Type cover adds another few millimeters, bringing the thickness to about 6mm total.
Connecting either of the keyboards requires the same procedure. Simply hove the keyboard cover near its dock on the bottom of Surface and an array of magnets will automatically align the cover and secure it in place with a satisfying “click”.
|Windows RT Impressions|
If you’ve already made the move to Windows 8 or have experimented with any of the release candidates that were made available during the latter part of the OS’s development, Windows RT will feel quite familiar. In fact, Windows RT might as well have been called Windows 8 for ARM because the experience is virtually identical to Windows 8 when running on an x86 processor.
The biggest change if you haven’t make the switch just yet is the colorful and over-active Start screen. The tried and true Start menu of old is gone, replaced with a full screen of live tiles and giant icons (relatively speaking). Like Windows Phone, the Live Tiles present on the Windows 8/RT Start screen are constantly updated with information streamed from the web, regarding your friends from social networking sites, e-mail, weather, news, and the like. Although Live Tiles can be useful, they can make the Start screen look rather busy. Of course, opinions will vary. With that said, we still feel the new Start screen is somewhat unappealing visually, but we have found it to be faster and easier to use than the old Start menu, especially when digging for application shortcuts that you don’t have pinned to the taskbar in desktop mode.
As for the actual selection of apps, however, there is still much to be desired. The fact of the matter is, the Windows Store is still in its relative infancy versus Apple’s App store or Google Play. We fully expect developers to embrace Windows 8 apps, but it’s going to take some time before the selection of apps in the Windows Store even come close to approaching what’s offered on competing platforms. We will say, however, that the quality of the apps available in the Windows Store generally seems high and the visual appeal is there. The Store is also easy to navigate, although we’d like an easy way to sort apps by certain criteria, like price or rating.
When you’re not spending time on the Start screen perusing your Live Tiles or running Windows 8-style apps, Surface and Windows RT offer a desktop mode, which looks just like the Windows 8 desktop. Please be aware though, that Windows RT is NOT compatible with standard desktop application developed for full-fledged Windows. As we’ve mentioned, Windows RT is designed to run on ARM processors, not x86 processors, and as such it is incompatible with standard Windows applications. Surface Pro and tablets built around Intel’s or AMD’s processors will be compatible with all Windows apps, however.
One of the main appeals of Surface with Windows RT is its inclusion of Microsoft Office. Surface with Windows RT comes with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and One Note, right out of the box. And although they’re running on a different processor architecture, they look and function just like their true desktop counterparts.
|Performance: Web-based Testing|
Test Methodology: Unfortunately, this page may seem a bit barren if you're used to digesting page upon page of performance benchmarks in our typical articles. The fact of the matter is, there aren't many ways of benchmarking performance on a Windows RT device currently, other than a couple of web browser-based metrics. We're certain this will change over time, but for now browser-based tests and manual timings are it as far as Windows RT benchmarks go.
And of course Android and iOS-based benchmarks are a no-go on Windows RT as well. With that in mind, we can still run a couple of basic tests, like SunSpider and Rightware BrowserMark to quantify performance somwhat.
Whether using the Modern UI / Windows 8 version (a.k.a. Metro version) of Internet Explorer 10 or the desktop edition, the Microsoft Surface tablet finishes near the top of the charts in the SunSpider benchmark. It's interesting to note that Modern UI version of the browser slightly outperforms is desktop counterpart here.
Things take a turn for the worse in Rightware's BrowserMark, where Surface significantly trails competing offerings, regardless of which version of the browser is used.
|Camera Performance, Battery Life|
As we’ve mentioned, the Microsoft Surface Tablet with Windows RT is outfitted with a pair of front and rear 720P cameras capable of capturing images/video. Unfortunately, neither camera captures images that are of particularly good quality as you can see in the samples below.
Taking snapshots with Surface is possible, but the device will not be replacing your point-and-shoot camera or smartphone anytime soon. The images are somewhat washed out and of a relatively low resolution (the full-sized pop-up images are unresized / unretouched). In bright light, the images captured by Surface are somewhat under-saturated, although contrast between bright and dark colors is decent.
The cameras on Surface are fairly good for video conferencing, however. Using Skype was a pleasurable experience, with decent video quality and smooth frame rates.
In an attempt to quantitatively measure the Microsoft Surface with Windows RT's battery life in a controlled benchmark environment, we ran a test in which we set up a webpage with a mix of graphics, Flash media and text. The page automatically refreshes every three minutes. This is a simple baseline test that measures up time while web browsing. For this test, we set the Surface tablet's display to 50% brightness, which is still plenty bright and easy on the eyes, and connected to the web via an 802.11n wireless network.
As you can see, the Microsoft Surface Tablet with Windows RT offered excellent battery life, finishing just shy of the 10-hour mark. The only devices that offered longer battery life were the Galaxy Tab 10.1, which has a lower-resolution screen, and the docked Asus Transformer Pad 300, which had the added benefit of a secondary battery.
|Our Summary and Conclusion|
Microsoft’s first stab at building a premium tablet was a very good one in our opinion. Microsoft still has a lot of work to do to build out the Windows 8/RT app ecosystem and consumers in general still seem to be apprehensive about Windows 8’s radical new interface, but the Surface tablet itself and its array of accessories are excellent. Microsoft has proven that they can hang with the best of them in terms of hardware design and manufacturing.
With that said, Surface (and Windows 8) is in for one heck of an uphill battle. The fact that parts of Windows RT are best used with a keyboard and touchpad is sure to put off some consumers. To get the most out of Surface consider one of the $120-$130 keyboard accessories a must. Add that investment on top of a $499 (32GB) or $599 (64GB) tablet, and you’re talking about $520 to $630 for a product that doesn’t offer nearly the number of apps that its competition from Apple or Android, with screen that’s potentially lower-resolution screen as well. Surface is a premium product, no doubt, but it faces some stiff, already well entrenched competition at similar or lower price points. What Surface does offer that no one else can is Microsoft Office. The inclusion of Office with Windows RT alone may be enough to sway some consumers to give Surface a chance.
When the dust settles though, we think Microsoft is onto something. Having switched to Windows 8 a few months ago, I am now a big fan of Windows 8 and the new interface, even on desktop systems . The new UI and Start Screen isn’t very visually attractive, but it is faster and easier to navigate than the old Start menu and the OS itself has many underlying improvements that are worth the upgrade. I will never consider going back to Windows 7. Windows Phone 8 and its associated devices are also generating a lot of buzz. Windows Phone hasn’t gained much of a foothold yet, but now that Microsoft and its partners will be offering a more robust and feature rich mobile OS on devices that compete favorably, and even surpass, much of the competition in terms of specifications, Windows Phone 8 could finally be poised for some serious growth. And then there’s the synergy with the Xbox 360 to consider. When you roll that all up, Microsoft is uniquely positioned to offer seamless integration and a consistent interface across desktops, laptops, mobile devices, and even the living room. It’s going to take a monumental effort and consumers are going to have to warm up to the idea, but Microsoft has now laid the foundation for growth in a world increasingly dominated by mobile computing devices and touch interfaces. It remains to be seen whether they’ll be successful or not, and it may be years before we have an answer, but Microsoft is making some bold moves that can’t be ignored. To think the battle between Microsoft, Apple and Google is already over is just plain foolish.