Sunday, October 28, 2012

Microsoft Surface Tablet: Hands-On, First Impressions

 It's time for another tablet to enter the market. This week the Microfot Surface launched, along with Windows RT. You've been seeing bits and pieces of the new Microsoft era in the revamped, the brave if stunted entry of Windows phones, and now finally  in Windows 8 and RT. It seems familiar... and not. Familiar in that it has entered our consciousness over the year and unfamiliar in that you won't know how to navigate it coming from Windows 7. The new OS is gorgeous, but I have little to say about it for now. Everything that you've read about it taking some getting used to is true. It's more ambitious than iOS, way swipes and gestures work sort of reminds you of the Blackberry Playbook OS, but in a more sophisticated way and with better graphics. Underneath it all is Windows and there are ways of getting to that familiar way of working with things, but this is a device that will take some getting used to. Overall, I like the Metro-esque era for Windows, the new colorful word is so not 50 shades of grey. Very refreshing coming from the pristine and austere world of iOS.

The screen resolution is 1366 x768, which has been maligned somewhat by the Retina Screen and Nexus10 fanboys, but pixels aside, the display is crisp and very readable. As we say in cameras, it's not just the number of pixels, but also the quality, and the Surface has good quality pixels. Screen crispness matters to me more than screen resolution, since eyestrain is a personal problem for me now that documents are no longer printed out and everything is read in electronically. In any case, the lower resolution count gets put to better use when you add the Touch Cover keyboard, as a virtual keyboard wouldn't be intruding into your visual space.

Aside from the requisite front and back cameras, there is also Bluetooth, WiFi, microSD card expansion and a video out connector. For whatever reason Microsoft can't call it HDMI, but it is essentially compatible with a microHDMI cable. If you want, Microsoft will sell you their own brand of cable... The tablet itself feels a bit more stout than an iPad, partly because of the more metallic feel of the case. The keyboard cover adds a bit of heft too, but overall, it's not objectionable, tablet + cover is about 13mm thick. Overall, the build quality is excellent, if a bit industrial. The design is certainly a bit more sober than the iPad, and much more so than your typical Android tablet. There's a metal kickstand on the back that flips out to let you prop the tablet up on a desk, ostensibly when you want to use the keyboard cover. The stand is amazingly solid, you would think that it would have gotten some neglect, but it feels more engineered than it should. When you are not using it, it sits flush against the back of the tablet.

The Touch Cover trumps Apple's Smart Cover. There is also a cover with physical keys as well, the Type Cover. The touch version is a bit thicker than the iPad cover, but it's a whole lot more functional. The device works like a capacitive screen, so typing on it is like typing on a touch screen, if the touch screen was made of fabric. To be honest, it feels like a touchscreen scaled up, lacking in the tactie feel of a real keyboard... so if you find typing on an iPad in landscape mode not to your liking, you might not like the Microsoft keyboard cover either. However, what does work well is that the keyboard cover frees up screen real estate for something over than a keyboard. For now, this is the product's unique selling proposition, but you can see how easily it can be copied by the other tablet makers.

That said, the Microsoft Surface is probably the only tablet that actually needs the keyboard. Without it, the Surface doesn't make a case for itself. All of the other tablets are consumption devices, and have poor ecosystems for producing work, especially the kind of work that pays the bills.
  • Playbook: A very competent, if narrowly focused email client
  • Android: Hacker's plaything
  • iPad: Electronic media consumption device
  • Kindle: Doing to books what the MP3 player did to CD's
The Surface tablet does almost none of these was well, thanks to a complete dearth of applications. Except for one: Office RT. The versions that you are seeing now with Office 2013 RT are shipping with a preview version that will upgrade once you connect to the internet. In that sense, nothing has changed; it will probably remind you of  the steady flow of updates that you are getting on your desktop Windows already. For the most part, this is an incarnation of Office as you know it, except that there is no MS Access, macros won't work in Word, and Excel losses some of the data analysis functions. File compatibility is a given, but the lack of macros will grind somebody's gears; on a mobile device, you want to lighten the workload as much as possible. The other thing missing is Outlook. More to say about that later. I've heard it said that the "professional" version of Office RT will have more functionality.

However, because Office RT is bundled, that means that Surface has PowerPoint right from the outset, making it probably one of the best equipped presentation tablets right out of the box. Built-in HDMI capabilities are another plus in this category. This is an immeasurable strength for anybody who depends on presentations for a living, and if done properly, should be a big strength for Surface if it finds the right audience. Think real estate agents, architects, etc.

One thing I find intriguing is the use of mall Kiosks to launch the Surface. The one that I stopped by generated quite a lot of interest. Kiosks have been traditionally used to give a price point to vendors who can't afford to lease a full unit, but in this case, it makes sense, since this the Surface tablet is a one product offering, and it's not likely that Microsoft will need the Kiosks forever. It also highlights the uncertainty of the new Windows 8/RT era; you can judge that Apple feels a measure of certainty about it's future by the investment that it has placed in storefronts. Compared to this, the Microsoft presence is miniscule, and by it's nature transitory. However, this is a new side of Microsoft that the public is not going to be used to. Microsoft has come down from the mountain, and is reaching out to the people. It never had to do that when Windows was per-installed on every desktop and lap and it was a given that any productive work would be done with the Office suite. I have to say, as a consumer, I really like this side of Microsoft, because I found their kiosk staff to be extremely well prepared and knowledgeable. They weren't just prepared with knowledge about the new tablet, they could answer rather in-depth questions about porting sophisticated MS Office documents back and forth between the tablet and a desktop machine. Bravo, Microsoft, very well done.

This isn't a cheap device, but the hardware and software, put together, really deserve a chance. Whether or not the market gives that chance remains to be seen. In a world where Apple and Amazon have grabbed all of the content and Android has filled in the low-cost niche, it's hard to say where the Surface fits in... if yu are only concerned about media consumption. However, Surface was designed to be integrated into Windows from the outset, and this, more than the Touch Cover, is the unique selling proposition. The price (base is $519 CDN at launch) seems high upon first impression, but you are getting an (almost) full version of MS Office, which adds more functionality than your typical tablet software.

When you think about it, the Surface doesn't compete against other tablets: it competes against your laptop. If you needed to bring real work with you, it's very unlikely that you wold bring it on a tablet. You simply can't perform a decent volume of work without a dedicated keyboard and the full version of your productivity programs. With the Surface, you can do that... sort of. Like I said, it does feel like an ambitious operating system. This still makes it an awkward sell. The Surface gives you the portability of a tablet, with the capabilities of MS Office on a laptop... but you won't have the media content like an iPad, nor will you be able to wok as fast as on a laptop. The lack of Outlook is a bother, since it's the default email client for almost all of the business world, and to be honest, a darn good one at that.

The use of a microSD card is good, but is also a bother since most desktops come with full-sized SD card readers. In this aspect, it seems as thoguh they were aping what the other tablet makers were doing without thinking about the implications. Android doesn't play well with Windows; it connects, but that's about all. Windows RT ought to connect seamlessly with Windows in all aspects, and the microSD card is a little bit of fraction to that. Thankfully, it comes with a full-sized USB port as well, so you can shuffle files by sneaker-net if you so wish. (This happens a lot more in the working world than you realize, wired an wireless networks notwithstanding).

That said, I really do hope that the Surface does well, since it is intrinsically well done. If you follow the tech blogs, you'll probably find that a few of them are trying to 'get it'. That's usually the case with work/corporate focused devices. Blackberry suffers from this enormously since the blog writers don't get to write about the 'fun' side of a device like the Playbook. However, like the Playbook, the lack of third party software and an incompatibility with legacy Windows programs is a concern. If you were to follow the internet chatter, you'd think that Appl and Google have sewn up the tablet world. However, there are a lot of people who have yet to step into tablets. If you have a smartphone and a laptop, it's hard to find a rational reason to squeeze a tablet in, since the other two cover much of what the tablet does.Your iPad, even though it's great at reading magazines, is not so good at spreadsheets, and duplicates the email and messaging functions of your phone. Chances are that if you have both a laptop and a tablet, the table was bought on a luxury basis.

However, the Surface could potentially squeeze into this neither-nor space in a way that the other tablets can't, but it will depend on how much better it is at content production compared to the other tablets. It also wouldn't hurt to have somethig fun like Angry Birds, but you can see where the Skype acquisition is going to help with the Surface. With a bit of luck and  lot of hard work on Microsoft's part, it could work, but the tablet market gets more difficult with each passing day.

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