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surface 01 a

Microsoft Surface review: prepare for disappointment

Two things instantly irk me with Microsoft’s Surface, Windows RT version, the exceedingly sexy tablet/laptop/whatever. Firstly, the viewing angle when used as a laptop is shite. It’s angled too steeply, and my eyesight suffered accordingly. Secondly, the Touch keyboard is a waste, and I instantly swapped to the traditional Type keyboard for some reprieve. I’ve written the full review directly on the Surface, so excuse me if my bitterness overflows more than usual.

Steven Norris: grumpy curmudgeon
Steven Norris is a born writer, living in Tamboerskloof, Cape Town and educated in the ways of graphic design but destined to follow in the footsteps of... More

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Despite an initial negative reaction, Surface has some unique advantages over its competitors and these features shouldn’t be glossed over. Its design is fairly elegant, and it’s great to finally have an OS and tablet that are practically made for each other. It’s practically symbiotic. Yet still, an overwhelming set of niggling issues pushes the tablet into an uneasy situation. “Should I buy this?”, the answer is no. And here’s why.

Microsoft designed a very Rolls-Royce tablet — something that journalists, writers and students will love, but sadly, they won’t be able to afford it. And for those who can afford it, they’ll most likely only take it out on special occasions.

First party woes

It doesn’t take much to impress me. Give me a flirty look, shove a gadget in my face and say “Steven, this is the best piece of tech since, like, forever man!” and I’ll greet you with a warm smile, a handshake and a happy nod as I blankly stamp my approval on whatever tech is thrown at me (until I later tear it apart in a review). I love gadgets, almost too much. So it’s with no amount of pain that I declare the Surface to be both useless, and utterly necessary in the same breath. I’ve never been this torn with a gadget before.

Microsoft’s bravery, to actually release a first-party tablet in the same league as the iPad or Nexus 10.1, is honourable. It’s also misguided. To compete against Apple or Google, companies need to have that killer feature, a function so unique that it overshadows the iPad’s best efforts. The Nexus 10 has Jellybean at its very core, the Galaxy Note 10.1 has a pen and a massive screen, hell even the PlayBook has the upcoming BlackBerry 10 update which will leverage it out of irrelevancy. The Surface has a keyboard, good looks and not enough left to justify the US$499 price tag.

Comfort is key

Take the Surface challenge. Close your laptop, open Surface on a level table and start working. Boot up IE 10 — try not to vomit as it assaults your eyes — and load your Gmail. Feels cool, doesn’t it? With two keyboards, you’re pretty much spoilt for choice. There’s Touch, a membrane-like keyboard very much like the 30-year old ZX81, and Type, a more traditional keyboard that feels very IBM. Of the two, choose Type. Touch is a cool idea, but in practice it’s like hammering your fingers into a table. Without tactile feedback, it’s difficult to get into a typing rhythm a decent keyboard can produce.

Touch is on top of Type. I can see Touch becoming a very expensive coaster
And then there’s the casing. The VaporMg casing is “three times lighter” than aluminum and is “anti-fingerprint” according to Surface’s official site. Wrong. This picture was taken after five minutes of use.

I’m an exceptionally clean reviewer
So that’s a lie then. Kickstand, the metal hinge that flips out of the Surface is a wasted idea. Novel in execution, but stumbles when it comes to user-friendliness. The viewing angle is 22 degrees, and it’s fixed. So if your desk is too low, tough. If you want Surface to lay on any other angle, balance it on a stack of magazines. Now, 22 degrees is excellent for viewing content, using Surface as a photo frame or as a music player, but as a little laptop, it’s a joke. 45 degrees would have been ideal. Nitpicking it may be, but after dropping US$499 on this beast, I’d appreciate a comfortable viewing experience.

Bonus points to anyone who doesn’t snap the hinge off in rage
The design is fine. It’s very PlayBook in nature, but oddly enough it’s less pleasant to hold than BlackBerry’s effort. It’s the rubberized back on the PlayBook you see, it turns the tablet into a far friendlier device. I have nothing against this all-metal effort, but in some ways it feels like an unfinished product. As if there was a final piece of design that Microsoft left out. Ah well, I guess we’ll have to wait for Surface 2 to see what that was. Onwards.

Connect me

There’s a bevy of connection options for Surface, and this is one of the highlights of the package. On the right is something practically unheard of, a USB input and it’s utterly fantastic. Hard drives, USB mice, plug-and-play penguins, whatever. Every USB device I plugged in was detected and worked without issue. Pleasingly, plugging in a USB keyboard pretty much turns Surface into a WebBook. Add in a USB hub (there’s only one port) and rock out with a mouse and keyboard for the best possible experience. But then guess what? You might as well use a PC for a third of the price. Still, I love the USB implementation, it’s a commendable feature and something I’ve dreamed of having in a tablet for years now.

The USB is in the middle
What else… there’s a microSD slot under the kickstand, an HD video-out port on top of the USB port and a headset jack on the left with the volume directly underneath. On top is a power button and on the right is the woefully designed, magnetic power clip. For sound, there are tiny stereo speakers on each side of Surface. Finally, there’s a row of metal studs that magnetically affixes to the keyboard.

Just a note on the magnetic power clip: maybe I’ve been spoilt by my MacBook Pro’s MagSafe connector, but this is not the magnetic power clip you’re looking for. This is because the sides are inverted slightly, and as such clipping the power cable in is a hit-and-miss affair. The magnet is simply not strong enough to draw the clip in. It has to be kind of wiggled into place. Again, not what I expect from a US$499 device.

Let’s dig into the remainder of the hardware features. Both cameras are 1.2MP, and both suck. The front facing camera, which displays at 720p is excellent for Skype and whatnot. The rear camera, which shoots 1080p video is woefully underpowered. But is a camera necessary on a tablet? That’s best left to another article. For now, it’s part of this package and a forgettable one at that. Also, the camera is strangely positioned. At first glance, it looks off-centre. At second glance, you discover that the camera is actually sunk downwards into the back of Surface. This is fine and dandy if Surface is at the 22 degree tilt it was intended for, but the image darkens if it’s held at any other angle. But who cares really, it’s a crappy camera and you’ll barely use it. Shame on you Microsoft. Here’s some horrible pictures, care of Surface.

Front camera:

The horror… the horror…
Rear camera:

front camera

The iPad Mini on my shoulder looks on in disgust
Screen fiend

The HD-ready screen (1366×768) is sturdy, colorful and has multi-finger touch which I’m sure will showcase itself later in Surface’s life. For now, there’s a bevy of multi-touch options associated with Windows RT. The pixels per inch (PPI) is unfortunately low and at 148ppi, pixels are highly visible, especially in desktop mode. HD video looks great though, and the Metro interface is a treat. But this is a low resolution screen and comparatively to the other 10 inchers, it’s lacking. iPad 4: 264ppi, Nexus 10.1: 299ppi. Loser: Surface. This is an important battle, and Surface hasn’t even got a sneaky blade to stab into the back of its competitors. A wasted opportunity.

It almost looks good, from a distance
It’s heavy as well and at 680g, we’ve got one of the weightiest tablets of the bunch. It’s that spiffy metal frame you see, it adds to the weight, despite it being “three times lighter than aluminium”. I’d hate to think how heavy it would be if it was actually aluminium. But I see now why the kickstand was employed. It’s simply too heavy to hold for long periods of time. This is just another example of Surface’s weird design flaws. A tablet that’s too heavy to hold? Come now, Microsoft. And yes, some of you may have Googled the weight of the iPad 4, which is 662g. That’s still lighter, and it’s infinitely more pleasing to hold from any angle.

The white line under my business card shows how much thinner the iPad 3 is
Keyboard killers 

I spoke briefly about the two keyboards, Touch and Type. What I didn’t mention is how satisfying the magnetic keyboard connector is. Unlike the power cable, the keyboards snap into place with the force of a thousand magnets. Tearing the keyboard off also feels weighty and natural. It’s an excellent job by Surface’s design team and I can tell that endless hours were poured into this. It’s a Steve Jobs level of care, something Apple would have done in its heyday.

Also worth a mention is how excellent the Type keyboard is. Microsoft has gone and created a solid keyboard here, with delightfully sturdy keys that resonate tactile harmony with each hammer of the button. After a bit of practice, my fingers flew over the keyboard with a natural, sturdy tempo. Well done team Surface, well done indeed. The Touch keyboard is a bit of an afterthought though and never quite feels right. But at least there’s two options, so kudos to team Surface for supplying a decent set of input options.

Each keyboard has Windows RT/Pro specific shortcuts. Search, Share, Devices and Settings, as well as volume control keys. I would have appreciated a screen brightness option, but tech writers can’t be choosers. A final note on the Type keyboard: the miniature touchpad is horrendous, it feels rough to the touch and the mouse-click function is both cheap and unwieldy.

A visually pleasing, yet undercooked OS

Up to now, you’re thinking that I’m a dickhead who hates on “rad” devices from Microsoft. Here’s the thing though, despite the hardware being woefully undercooked, the OS it supports is a treat and produces one of the most symbiotic experiences known to tech-kind.

I’m not going to go into details, as we’ve already reviewed Windows RT in depth. I will add though, that Metro and its Live Tiles were made for a touch screen, like no other OS before it. It’s fantastically quick and deeply intuitive.

Don’t be fooled. Desktop mode is severely lacking
Desktop mode seems tacked on though, and is simply a shell that covers an empty experience. Since Windows RT is ARM-based, I can’t just pop an executable file on a flash drive and install it. No sir, it must be made for Windows RT. When I get the Windows Pro Surface, I’m sure I’ll gain a more cohesive experience.

Failure is not an option

It’s a tough choice. Get a Windows 8 ultrabook for almost the same price, or stick with Surface RT and enjoy one of the prettiest, heaviest and most awkward tablets currently available. My decision though, is no. I just can’t recommend Microsoft’s Surface. It’s not based on price, or weak specs. It’s based on the fact that its unique selling point is useless. The keyboard and tablet combo is bad, and Microsoft should feel bad.

Beautiful to look at, uncomfortable to use, and without the keyboard it’s just another tablet. All be it a tablet with a full and unpleasant desktop experience built into it. Microsoft has placed its eggs into one basket, and the gamble hasn’t paid off.

Thank you to Wantitall.co.za for supplying the Microsoft Surface for review.


  • srinivas

    The keyboard is not a membrane… from there on I figured there is no point in reading this rubbish article… moving on.

  • Roy

    I do not agree with this review. My surface has been wonderful, it is just lacking apps, that will get better though!

  • Mark

    Definitely do not agree with this review either, touch keyboard is fantastic and the viewing angles, regardless of where I am looking at it from are very good.

  • http://www.bluebugle.org/ Lenin VJ Nair

    Only a few things to mention:

    touch keyboard is not bad, it is easier to use and good.
    Kickstand is good but the design should have been different it makes surface heavier.
    Camera: I would say surface needn’t have that 1 mp camera. worthless indeed.
    screen ppi ratio: I agree completely.

    antifingerprint coating: It’s for screen , not for vaporMg back. I suppose that was a mistake duplicated in a number of sources.

    apps: I accept surface has too few apps as compared to ios and android. However, 8 pro surface will work with your regular windows apps.
    viewing angle: may be its an issue with your eye??
    OS: windows RT is not extremely powerful, but it is workable. not a disappointment. Also, being the premier provider of computing for a number of organizations and government bodies, MS cannot make radical changes to its interface. at least, they could innovate on a much better scale on mobile devices. I think.

  • idlelimey

    The Desktop is only required to run Office 2013. The Office 2013 that you have not mentioned once. While other tablets have to make do with Google Docs (don’t make me laugh) Surface blows them out of the water for office productivity.

    I’m not sure why you’ve dumped on the Surface to the degree you have. It’s a fantastic device. And where you hand it a compliment you quickly slap it in the face. Twice.

    I agree, it’s not perfect – it could be a little faster at times, the touch keyboard takes a bit of getting used to (I would recommend the type cover which overcomes this) – but none of it’s downsides are deal breakers and none of its competition are flawless either.

    Finally, what does this mean:
    “Boot up IE 10 — try not to vomit as it assaults your eyes”

    What is wrong with IE10? Why am I trying not to vomit? How is it assaulting my eyes? I use IE10 a lot on Surface and it hasn’t been anything other than excellent. In fact, I’d like to see how it stacks up against other tablet browsers in usability tests.

  • http://www.facebook.com/eric.julien.3367 Eric Julien

    Read this review: prepare for disappointment
    An another FOS reviews !

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1603971880 Howard Abraham

    I bought the Surface on launch day and have used it daily since then. As a WP7/WP8/360/Windows devotee, I had already invested in the Microsoft ecosystem. I bought the Surface for apps, browsing, and content consumption. But what surprised me was the killer app is Office 2013. Having Office on a 1.5lb package.turns otherwise wasted time into productive time.

    I am using my Surface to write a book with Word 2013. While I find the touch keyboard really cool and fine for casual use (such as Facebook and email) when it’s time to get work done I pull out the touch keyboard and I use a Bluetooth mouse. One cannot understate the value of Office 2013 + SkyDrive.

    Something that I feel must be said is that WinRT is a very connected experience to the point where you feel crippled without WiFi access. I use the HTC 8X and have subscribed to the mobile hot spot plan so that I’m always connected.

    I wish the SD card support was more seamless. I would like the ability to provision it as part of the standard libraries as soon as you insert it. As it is, I advise you to buy the largest memory models.

    The on-board speakers are nearly worthless unless you are in a silent room.

    The app store is a mess. App discovery is a broken process. It is best if you know what you seek and do a search for it.

    The native mail client is terrible. You are much better off with the web clients. This isn’t the worst thing, since I believe IE10 to be quite good, but web clients don’t create live tiles for you, thus you lose notifications which is kind of the point for WinRT.

    As a Windows Phone user I sometimes wonder why some of the features seem better on the phone than they do on the tablet. Yes, they are completely different operating systems, but WP should be the baseline, right?

    But please don’t interpret my comments as anything other than constructive criticism. I love my Surface RT for what it is and what it will be. Microsoft has been rolling out patches on a regular basis since launch and it keeps getting better. I have given a lot of thought about what I plan to do in January when the Surface Pro comes out. Do I buy the Pro for pen support, 10-point multi-touch, 1080P, and legacy app support or do I keep the Surface RT with its long battery life, lightweight package, and bundled Office 2013? There have only been a handful of times when WinRT fell short, so it’s not an easy decision.

  • http://twitter.com/gearburn gearburn

    Excellent comment. Well thought out and informative. Thank you Howard.

  • http://www.facebook.com/adelquadro Andrew DelQuadro

    Really not a review of the devices workings or functions. Just your opinion which consumers universally seem to disagree with. Its also been an ongoing trend that bloggers give negative feedback on the Surface. It is easily the best tablet for productivity and enterntainment made to date.

  • http://www.facebook.com/adelquadro Andrew DelQuadro

    Some very valid points about the app store. It seems to be getting better in the last week I have been using it though. For the mail client, it took some getting use to, but I prefer it over logging into Gmail now. Overall I think its easily the best tablet made to date. I have not touched my ipad or android tablets since I got this and have given them to my kids instead. It will be interesting to see if Apple can put OSX on a tablet in the next release.

  • D

    I agree with this review. I sold my surface on eBay after being disappointed with the screen resolution, lack of apps and slow speeds.

  • flyboy76

    I only agree with a few things in your review, you seem to be going a
    little bit too hard on the surface. The things I agree on is yes, it does take
    a bit of time getting used to the touch keyboard. But I can tell you this, I
    can be literally (something that is tangible) be 100 times more productive on a
    surface because I can type 100 times faster than on my iPad. Also the view
    angle, I agree, I wish they made this so you could adjust the angle. The app
    store sure, it doesn’t have nearly the apps that android or apple has but it is
    definitely accelerating. And who really cares about “apps” anyways I
    want Applications, things like word, one note, excel, powerpoint. Also you say
    the browse makes you want to vomit? really? IE for Surface is the best browsing
    experience I’ve had on any tablet and I’ve used iPad, Android and playbook. The
    way tabs work is awesome, its practically the same browser experience on a
    window desktop (win 7) the fact flash actually works is a HUGE
    plus (albeit only for approved sites) but I haven’t found a site that
    didn’t get this approval yet… Also the fingerprints? Serious? What did you
    eat before using your surface a greasy KFC dinner with some pizza? Geeze. Give
    me a break. I haven’t had to wipe mine since I got it 2 weeks ago. Your iPad is
    “hiding” over your shoulder going “oh oh”… My 2 cents…

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  • Jason Brown

    Obviously an Apple fanboy writing this review…

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Hite/586070138 David Hite

    I actually really love mine. I am not sure what makes it work so well for me, but I just love the multitasking function….I really love it. I have not been able to use an ipad or android in a multitasking manner the way I can use the surface. Swipe my finger and boom my game is paused and I am writing a word doc. Swipe my finger again an boom I am at my web browser with tabs and all. Very intuitive. My complaints are sound, and the lack of certain apps. I know the apps will come, and the sound is only an issue when in loud places where earphones make sense. I would of course like to see it cheaper, but I would like to see the ipad cheaper and the Nexus cheaper. I would like to see everything cheaper! I really just disagree about not recommending it. I would recommend the surface, and I have already.

  • Carls Mosher

    Whoa…this has to be one of the most biased reviews I’ve ever read. I own an iPad, iPhone and iMac…this sort of obviously twisted commentary gives apple enthusiasts a bad name. Embarrassing.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_QH25RVNTUIAU7HT6DQ7CONEO2U havasu46

    Very anoying and nitpicking review. I haven’t bought a Surface RT yet but have used one quite a bit and compared it to lots of W7 and W8 devices. The ONLY problem I have with the Surface RT is the price. It’s really hard to spend $599, tablet plus keyboard, for a small 10″ device when that same amount can but a 15″ W8 notebook without a touch screen. You’ll have to add $200-300 to get the touch screen on the note book and it’s just not worth it. It you travel then the Surface RT or Pro would be great yet expensive. An ultrabook with W8 and touch screen is a much better device. If you want a W8 iPad then buy the Surface as a complement to your Windows ecosystem. Price the Surface at $399 no keyboard, $499 with keyboard and they’ll sell a lot faster.

  • kent ma

    I was add Bellevue wa MS store and spent about an hour there on Dec 23 and Dec 24betwenn 12 – 1 pm, I saw 12 surface sold to 7 individual within first hour then I stepped out for 5 min came back and the next half hour they sold 10 to 6 individual. I know it is Xmas and people buy gift but selling 22/hr one store, isn’t that bad at all. What I am saying is I. Spite of all the bad reports they are actually selling well

  • Patrick

    your an idiot ! I love my surface and also my nokia lumia 920 work great together, maybe you should go back to crayons and get a another job or even better a hobby, I wrote this from my surface.

  • Sunny

    This is the most biased review i have gone through.
    Totally without a an open mindset

    Firstly i dont understand surface is compared to a laptop or a tablet.
    for pricing it is compared to a laptop and for functionality to a tablet

    Next point, ipad weights 662 grams and this one 680. Whoa, that means a difference of whopping 18 grams. that sure feels a lot heavy.

    Using touch keyboard, feels like smashing on the surface of table, i never knew ipad and other tablet screens had a real keyboard build on the screens with tactical feedback.

    “Might use a PC for 1/3rd of price”. Right and carry it every day to office and back

    I agree it has some disadvantages like low ppi and not enough apps, but it doesn’t mean the it is overall that bad.

    Please write reviews with an open mind.

  • mattyharibo

    This smacks of Apple fanboy. I’ll admit that I’ve only had my Surface two days but most of the problems you mention are not really problems. The fact you can actually out it on a desk is surely only a bonus? I’ll agree it isn’t always perfect but at least you have the option. It is certainly no harder to hold than most other tablets. If you’re going to try and argue that the extra 18g over an iPad is too much to hold then realistically you need to hit the weights- that’s an irrelevant point. There are undoubtedly flaws but I don’t think any tablet has been perfected yet and you’ll put people off even just trying a Surface with this review. I personally like being able to use it as a mini laptop and there are others who might have felt the same but to be put off by your review- nothing wrong with an opinion as long as it smacks of some sort of sense

  • http://www.facebook.com/dean.swiatek Dean Swiatek

    Disagree. The Surface takes the tablet to an entirely new level, and the Pro is the next step from there. The only thing you can really complain about is the screen resolution — and it’s not really all that big of a deal on a screen below 17″ either no matter how much you try too make it out to be.

  • blinkdt

    yeah, that 18g difference is a real deal breaker for me. Not. Which pretty much speaks to the rest of this “article.”

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