Microsoft Surface RT Review (and some thoughts on the future of computing)

Surface; Cyan Touch Cover

I have, in the past, tried to wax philosophical about the Microsoft Surface. Given its interesting in-between position between laptop and tablet, I have been intrigued by not only its multi-functionality, but the idea of a device that changes ‘in nature’ depending on how you use it.

Having had one to test out for a few weeks, I think it’s safe to say that, in its current form at least, Microsoft’s first attempt at a tablet is not the perfect genre-bending product I had hoped it would be. That said, it is very interesting—which is saying something for a consumer tech product—and it’s also a lot better and more practical than a lot of the more negative reviews would have you believe. More to the point, though, the Surface almost succeeds at the impossible feat Microsoft had challenged itself with: forcing you to reconsider what you want from either a tablet or a laptop—or indeed, if you really need two separate devices.

At this point so long after its release, there seems little point over the well-worn details too much. The Surface RT runs a version of Windows 8 that only contains the Metro interface, with the exception of a fully functional Microsoft Office and more familiar desktop Internet Explorer. The build quality is excellent, and yes the kickstand is great. The battery lasts about 8-9 hours, which is good. The type cover, the touch-sensitive keyboard that doubles as a cover, works much better than you would expect it to, and careful, reasonably fast touch-typing is surprisingly an option. I know, I didn’t believe it either. The type cover, which has actual keys that depress is obviously better, though slightly thicker as a cover, and is almost as good as a regular laptop keyboard.

In fact, it’s that dimension of the Surface that I find most intriguing. Since the arrival of the iPad, Macbook Air and Ultrabook, we’ve come to accept a new orthodoxy in computing: tablets are good for reading and quick online experiences like email, banking etc etc. Small laptops are excellent for travelers, and Ultrabooks and Macbook Pros etc are versatile if expensive all-rounders. (As for desktops, though I still swear by them, for most people they are not terribly useful.)

The Surface, though, sits in this weird in between position. At first, all you notice is how it cannot do anything as well as an task-specific product. As a tablet, it’s significantly worse than an iPad. It has far less apps, is heavier, and simply has the wrong form factor; a widescreen tablet just doesn’t work for portrait reading. It certainly doesn’t help that it isn’t as fast, either. The apps thing will improve over time, but for there to be not one good Twitter or Facebook app tells you the lay of land as it stands now.

As a laptop, it is of course missing hundreds of thousands of Windows programs from the last decade, and is small and underpowered to boot. The kind of easy multifunctionality of, say, running Rdio in one window, a browser in another and Word and a Twitter client and so on is impossible. This is not a laptop replacement as it is (I do, however, have some thoughts about the potential benefits of this).

All that said, the inclusion of Office really does make it feel practical in a way that most tablets do not. It’s oddly refreshing to be able to take the thing you were just using to read on the couch and then type out ‘real work’ on it. And that sense of ‘huh, this is pretty practical’ actually grows on you over time. I’m typing this on it right now using the type cover, and even though I have a Bluetooth keyboard, I’d never dream of doing this on my iPad for the simple reason that complex websites are just bad on tablets you control only with your finger. I also have a wireless mouse plugged in which recognized instantly. The ability to cut and paste using a mouse—not to mention all those finicky clicks on a site like WordPress—just makes the Surface better at being productive than other tablets. For all its various flaws, the more you use it, the more its benefits become clear.

As, I’ve said, overall the product is far from perfect. At the same time, I can’t help but think that Surface has laid the ground for a very interesting shift. While for ‘core users’ its downsides may be too great, for many who simply want to read the news or check movie times on a tablet, and then occasionally surf and write with a laptop, the price, practicality  and portability of the Surface might actually be worth it, and if that’s not true now, it almost certainly will be in an updated model.

The point is that its capacity to function conveniently as both a consumption device and a productivity device is a model that, once refined and perfected, may seems as obvious and as natural as a laptop once did. After all, laptops once entailed serious compromises compared to the power and reliability of a desktop, a difference that has all but vanished now. What will be interesting to see is how the Surface evolves, and whether or not consumers at large will or will not embrace the idea that all you need is one, adaptable device. I for one was pleasantly surprised.

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