Microsoft seems to have gotten the design and form factor right with its
new Surface tablet computer. But the user interface, not so much.
That's an odd conclusion to make about a device from a software company
that usually lets others do the manufacturing.
Still, that's how I
felt after feeling the heft of the device, examining it from all sides
and making a few swipes at the screen. The Surface has a touch keyboard
cover that feels great and, to me, is a big step forward for tablets.
The tablet's software interface, however, seems non-intuitive and
Microsoft is clearly straddling the uncomfortable divide
between the old world of mice and keyboards, where it dominates, and a
future ruled by touch screens, where Apple and Android devices prevail.
the Surface won't go on sale until this fall, I had the chance to spend
a few minutes with some devices in a group demonstration after
Microsoft unveiled them in Los Angeles on Monday.
cover comes across as a takeoff of Apple Inc.'s Smart Cover. Both snap
into place perfectly with magnets. But instead of sporting foldable
sections, Microsoft's cover is rigidly flat and has a full keyboard
imprinted on it. Microsoft's cover seems central to the Surface
experience, although it's not clear if it'll be sold separately. Apple
sells Smart Cover separately starting at $39.
The cover is thin -
about a tenth of an inch, or 3 millimeters. When covering the screen,
its spine covers one edge and its outer fabric makes the whole package
feel like a soft book. Where it attaches to the tablet, it's completely
floppy, so it can be whipped around to close over the screen or folded
back like a magazine.
The keyboard is imprinted on the inside of
the cover, facing the screen. So when you open it, you can lay the cover
on a table and use it to type. The letters are separated by little
ridges, allowing you to feel around somewhat as you type. I have found
that typing doesn't feel right on the iPad's glass.
is covered with synthetic material that feels like a tennis racket
handle or a high school running track, but not as grippy.
themselves don't depress as you type. Rather, there are seven layers of
metal and other material inside that sense pressure and speed. When the
cover is folded open entirely, covering the back, the keys stop being
sensitive to touch.
Demonstrators from Microsoft told us they
could type upwards of 50 words per minute, but I didn't have access to
the device long enough to test my ability to input "The quick brown fox
jumped over the lazy dog."
There was another keyboard accessory
with depressible keys that was 5.5 millimeters thick, or nearly twice
the regular cover. It felt more comfortable for typing but didn't seem
revolutionary. You can also type on the screen, the way you can on an
Running the length of the Surface is a thin, 0.7-millimeter
metal flap called the kickstand. This is what transforms the device from
a tablet that you can grip to a computer you can type at while sitting
at a desk or table.
Microsoft made much of the fact that the sides
of this thin device are cut at 22 degree angles. It's no big deal until
you realize that the kickstand positions the tablet to lean back at 22
degrees, making the bottom edge flush with a flat surface.
front-facing camera looks up at you, while the back camera is angled so
that it points straight forward when the kickstand is extended. The back
camera angle also should make it easier to shoot video or take pictures
while looking down at the screen held at an angle.
As I said earlier, the tablet's software is what disappoints.
detected a lag when swiping, which just seems wrong on a touch screen.
After all, you can see exactly where your finger is touching. If the
image doesn't come along in real time, that's noticeable. Apple's iPad
and iPhone may still have Microsoft's Surface beat in this regard.
upcoming Windows 8 operating system and its Windows RT counterpart for
low-power chips are supposed to bridge the gap between touch devices and
But the company has made a perplexing design
choice by hiding crucial navigation items off the screen. Finding them
requires swiping in from the sides. I would need a tutorial on what
actions lead to what results. Let's just say it is not readily apparent.
who have tested the software on personal computers have reported not
being able to find the "Start" menu. The Surface seems to address this
by putting a permanent Windows icon in the middle of the device below
the screen. The icon causes a vibration when touched, which helps
because it's not a physical button.
Who would use this device?
the announcement on Monday, CEO Steve Ballmer pounded home the message
that this tablet will be as good as a PC for creating documents in a way
that the iPad never was. It's true that the iPad has such shortcomings
as an inability to run multiple programs side by side, the way you can
on a regular computer. Surface can run at least two at a time.
So, users would seem to be professionals who want a tablet they can use for work and play.
find that proposition appealing, especially after lugging my heavy
laptop to the press conference and having to keep a watchful eye on the
dwindling battery life. (Speaking of which, Microsoft still hasn't said
anything about the Surface's expected battery life.)
said the low-power version using Nvidia chips will cost about the same
as other tablets, while a version that runs Windows 8 Pro will cost
about the same as other ultrabooks with Intel processors. The Pro
version will have a stylus that allows users to make handwritten notes
on documents such as PDF files. It also has an Intel processor and the
option for more memory.
Surface splits the difference between a
standard tablet and super-light laptops such as Apple's MacBook Air or
ultrabooks that run Windows. But typing on the Surface's keyboard cover
seems to require just that, a surface. I'm not sure how I would manage
the cover keyboard and a kickstand on my lap.
challenge seems to be making sure that all the programs on my current
laptop - including its range of Office software - can run smoothly on
Surface. It's not clear yet whether it can deliver on that vision.