Microsoft made quite a splash in the tech press when it released the Microsoft Surface. A tablet designed to compete directly with Apple and play it at its own game. Unfortunately, so far that splash doesn't seem to have been noticed by the general public who, in spite of a loud and colourful advertising campaign, don't seem to know what the Surface is.
To be honest, neither does the technology press, nor even perhaps Microsoft. Is it a tablet? Well yes, but it's a tablet that's next to useless without the (optional, essential, expensive) keyboard cover - and the moment that it's connected it rather looks like a laptop. Is it one or the other? Or both?
Perhaps that explains why sales have been disappointing so far. The ad-campaign looked to show off the very clever keyboard cover, but might have perhaps missed the mark a touch by focussing on the chunky clicking noise the strong magnet makes when the connection between cover and tablet is made, rather than the very real advantages it offers over the iPad say, where keyboard covers are only sold by third parties and none to date are is innovative as this.
Although this isn't the first time we've seen a Microsoft operating system on a tablet, they've been around since 2003 (no one bought them at all), it's the first to actually be a contender. Windows 7 didn't suit tablets and the few I had a go with felt like laptops where the screen had been snapped off and passed to me. There was nothing nice about the hardware or the software.
With the Microsoft Surface, there is a lot to like. Unboxing the Microsoft Surface is made an experience all of its own and the solid industrial design and feel of the tablet itself immediately impresses. Depending on what your usual gadget of choice is, you'll either decide it's really heavy or very light indeed. I showed it to many colleagues in my department and everyone was surprised, but with opposite conclusions! To me, it's not a light device, but it's ergonomic and portable enough to be lost in a bag, which is what matters.
Number geeks were dismayed to discover that the screen is only a 720p panel. This means on paper that the screen is far inferior to an iPad's, with its lovely retina display. And it is inferior, but not by far. Colours are natural, contrast is excellent and everything is smooth and clear, like the best of current laptop panels if you like a comparison.
Comparison with laptops is something other tablets shy away from, but this is where Microsoft with its computing heritage has played an interesting card. Whilst the keyboard covers are sold separately, the Microsoft Surface is designed from the ground up to have one. The reason they're optional I think, is because you have a choice of two. The first is a 'touch' based keyboard cover in which the full 'QWERTY' keyboard and mousepad is woven into a fabric cover and the other is of the more traditional, albeit very slim, mechanical variety.
As I'm drawn to the novel, I opted for the touch keyboard which I was determined to love. Alas, I never got further than friendship, maybe not even that. Before I tried one, I thought that Microsoft had hit it out of the park with this keyboard. The target audience is definitely me! The kind of person who spends a significant proportion of their time creating information on a tablet as well as consuming it. I have a great keyboard for my iPad, but this cover is just there, all the time, out of the way when I'm not thinking about it, ready to go when I am!
In practice I didn't totally fall for it for two reasons. Firstly, at a table, the keyboard is there in front of you, so, like a laptop, you start to use it for everything. Secondly, it just isn't very good. If you are the sort of typist who uses one finger on each hand to hunt-and-peck and your keyboard, I think it's entirely possible that you'll be happy, but if you're a touch typist, the lack of feedback and small size make it impossible to achieve your normal typing speed and this becomes irritiating. With practice, I certainly reduced my error rate, but it always crept back up after I had been working at my full sized keyboard for a few hours. I'd certainly recommend going for the mechanical keyboard in most cases. That said, I couldn't really fault the mouse touchpad and the built in stand is welcome.
So what of the experience of using Windows 8 RT on a tablet? Well, the industrial, functional design extends from the hardware into the software, as the initially very simple and very plain tiles based interface pop up. Whilst it's hard to say it's beautiful, my first impression (ugh!) was improved upon in practice.
I sort of wonder why the tiles weren't called 'Windows' as they are effectively windows into the apps they represent. Apps with 'Live Tiles' show you useful information coming from the app without having to open the full app. For example, your calendar will show part of your day's agenda, your messaging window shows recent messages. Given that you can fit quite a few tiles onto the screen at once, this means you can get a lot more info at a glance than you can on either the iPad or Android based tablets like the Nexus 10. Yes, Android's widgets can be a lot prettier, but for pure function, Windows 8 RT takes things forward.
The included apps, for example mail, calendar and web-browsing all work very well, but a visit to the app store is like a supermarket when snow is forcast, the shelves are bare. Microsoft can hardly be blamed for this given that it's a brand new product, but it's a price they're paying for being years late to the tablet party. It's important to note that this tablet wont run traditional Windows applications, only apps from the store. I'm sure the big apps will come and perhaps the knowledge that customers will have not only a touchscreen, but a keyboard and mouse will lead to some interesting original content too.
In the land of traditional Windows computing, there is one application suite that enjoys massive clout across almost all business and has a sizable amount of home PCs covered too. Microsoft Office. If English is the official language of business, Microsoft Office is the official software, and it's installed on the Surface.
This is significant as it may well help the Surface carve a place in the corporate world and maybe leak out into the land of consumers that way too.
In practice, Microsoft made a slight pudding of getting it to run on the Surface. Tap on MS Word for example and you're taken out of the new user interface and thrown into a traditional Windows desktop whose sole reason for existance is to run Office, Windows Explorer and Internet Explorer. It's all very Windows 7.
From a corporate 'tool' point of view, none of this is a bad thing. Workers are familiar with the interface and the desktop version of Internet Explorer is essential if the Surface is going to be able to access corporate applications (which often have browser based interfaces). However, consumers may find it jarring and confusing, especially as a simpler touch-based version of IE exists in the new interface too. The desktop apps are certainly no friend to the touchscreen, that keyboard and mouse is now essential as you poke and prod at tiny icons you're more used to pressing on big monitors these days. Don't get me wrong, it's nice to have MS Office, but I think a more tablet optimised experience would have retained some of the polish that has been lost here.
Reading back through what I've written, it all sounds like it hangs together well, but at the same time there is little enthusiasm for anything that the Surface achieves and I think that sums this device up a lot.
As competition for the iPad, the Surface falls short of most consumers expectations. The social media fan is better served by mature, fully functional apps which aren't yet available on Surface. The gamer is far far better served and although the chipset in the Microsoft Surface is a bit of a beast, its gaming performance has been a massive disappointment. But what of the content producer? Well, if Office 2013 is an absolute must, then I think there is more to like here. You get ultraportable laptop form with tablet battery-life and general performance for the price of a budget laptop (including such conveniences as a USB socket) - but if not, then third party apps will get you working whether you opt for an Android or Apple tablet instead and both of those offer better hardware with a far bigger library of software for the same money. The Surface is not a write-off, it's a good gadget, but perhaps a 'see if work will buy you one' device rather than a pleasure to share the sofa with.