In tablets, the big guns have big names. Apple has its iPad 4 and Google has the Nexus 10. And, if Microsoft is to take on the might of Apple and Google in the tablet space with Windows 8, it needs a big name of its own.
So welcome Microsoft Surface. The new tablet isn’t just the big poster boy for Windows 8, but for Windows RT too, the brand-new version of Windows 8 designed for ARM.
Creating a flagship brand for Windows 8 is a clever move, no doubt a tactic learned from the success of the Samsung Galaxy Nexus that heralded Ice Cream Sandwich, the Google Nexus 7 for Jelly Bean, and more recently, the Nexus 10 for the completely anonymous Android 4.2.
However, there’s no danger of Surface being branded as a clone of rival 10-inch tablets.
It boasts a distinctive design, helped by those unmistakable keyboard covers, enjoys a 10.6-inch widescreen display, and runs Windows 8, the most popular operating system on the planet. But there’s a crippling caveat which might be its undoing.
Windows RT won’t run old PC programs, so any trip to the internet to download legacy programs such as VLC Player, or even big-name offerings like Photoshop Elements, just won’t work.
It has the potential to cause mass confusion and the power to sink Microsoft’s figurehead before it’s even taken off.
On picking up the Surface one single sentiment falls from the mouth of every man, woman or child without fail: “It’s thicker than I thought.”
That is factually nonsense. At 9.4mm thick, it’s exactly the same thickness as the iPad 4, except that instead of masking its true girth with tapered edges, Surface’s design looks as if it’s been chiseled from a slab of slate.
It’s square and boxy, but fresh looking and the magnesium ‘VaporMg’ coating gives it a cool finish.
At 690g Microsoft Surface is noticeably heavier than its rivals. The iPad 4 weighs 650g due to shedding an inch of screen, but Surface feels richer for the extra space.
The 16:9 screen is suited to Windows, it enables you to multitask apps and ‘snap’ them literally side by side. It feels like you’re using a laptop and that’s a big leap towards a genuine hybrid experience.
Of course, the rear kickstand is an iconic part of Surface. It’s also made of metal, and does a good job of propping up your tablet – to an angle of 22 degrees – even when on your lap.
However, we’d have liked it to be more adjustable – at the moment it has just one position – and a button release would also be handy as you need nimble fingers to pull out the stand.
It’s not going to win any awards for screen vibrancy, and certainly never going to challenge Retina, but it’s good enough – and helps Microsoft keep the price down to a reasonable level.
A keyboard-less 32GB Surface costs £399, the same as an iPad 4 with half the storage.
Under the hood is an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, with the ARM technology that drives this new Windows RT operating system. It’s the same you’ll find in high flying Android tablets such as the Asus Transformer Prime andGoogle Nexus 7. There’s also 2GB of RAM.
We’d love to say that it walked through every task that we threw at it, but in all honesty, we feel that Tegra struggles in Windows.
The system felt responsive to navigate but apps lingered on their splash screens for uncomfortable periods, seconds longer than they should.
There was no jerkiness or hangs, just a lethargy that frustrates when you’re in a hurry.
We tested the 64GB Microsoft Surface, which offers plenty of storage, and even a Micro SDSX port hidden under the kickstand, which enables you to boost storage by another 64GB.
That makes Surface a great deal when you consider that you can get nearly 100GB of storage for the same price as the 16GB iPad. That’s also not including the USB port for connecting USB storage, as well as traditional Windows peripherals.
Being able to plug in a memory stick in is especially refreshing, and makes Surface a genuine alternative to the iPad.
There’s currently no 3G option for Surface, and with no dongles compatible with Windows RT at present, that’s not an option right now.
Of course, one of the headline features is the Touch Cover, the clip-on keyboard that enables you to use your Surface as either a tablet or laptop. It feels shockingly light, as if it’s made of cardboard.
Typing takes some getting used to, and the click sound that’s used to denote a successful key press is essential to effective typing, as the lack of tactile feedback can be disorientating.
However, the keys are sensitive and speed typing is certainly possible with a few hours of practice.
What’s more, despite the flat keyboard feeling like it’s been hewn from old egg boxes, it features a multi-touch trackpad, should you want to use a mouse while in the traditional Windows interface.
The Touch Cover maybe a triumph of design but we would heartily recommend investing in the Type Cover for comfortable typing.
This offers a much more natural typing experience, and is one of the most spacious tablet keyboard accessories we’ve used.
It’s much more comfortable and can easily be used for longer periods, but it does have an annoying flex in the middle, so the keys tend to bounce if you’re a heavy typist.
We’d still recommend it, but it will cost you: the Type Cover costs an extra £110, rather than £80 for the Touch Cover.
This review first appeared on Techradar.com and is published with permission. Continue the full review here.