Michael Gartenberg: Looking beneath the Surface

The physical keyboard and inclusion of Office are differentiators that make a straight-up comparison with iPads and Android tablets impossible

After taking a look at Windows 8 last month, I spent a few weeks using it on a Microsoft Surface. Surface is one of the first Windows 8-optimized devices, one of the first Windows RT devices and the very first computer to come directly from Microsoft.

Surface is neither a traditional PC nor a traditional tablet. Microsoft sees the tablet and PC experience as something that can be embodied in one device, not two separate devices or platforms. So Surface was designed for more traditional PC tasks but with the ability to function as a tablet as well, meaning it works well for both content creation and consumption. It is a new category of device unto itself that embodies Microsoft's vision for the next generation of personal computing and one that leverages Microsoft's PC heritage.

Microsoft says Surface is meant as a "stage for Windows 8," and that's as good a way as any to describe what it has delivered. The hardware is a sleek metal tablet that's built with a material that Microsoft calls VaporMG. It's solid and feels good in the hand and very durable.

Surface starts to be differentiated from other tablets with its unique kickstand feature, which keeps the tablet propped up at a great angle for typing or viewing videos. Typing, you ask? Yes. It's another differentiator: Microsoft sells a cover for the Surface. It attaches to the device magnetically, and when you prop your Surface up on its kickstand so that the cover lies on the tabletop, it serves as a keyboard. The cover comes in two versions. The Touch cover is a thin membrane with flat keys that respond to pressure. The Type cover is a bit thicker and has mechanical keys. My preference is for the Type cover, which provides something akin to a traditional typing experience, but the Touch cover worked for me as well with a little practice. My advice is to try both before you buy. But my stronger advice if you buy a Surface is to spring for one of these two covers. They definitely set the Surface apart from other tablets.

Surface has a single USB port and a mini HDMI cable input. Both of those things sound minor, but they make Surface a lot more useful than you might imagine. For part of my review period, I used a stock Bluetooth keyboard and mouse while Surface was connected to the large screen in my office. (By the way, no configuration was needed; it just worked.) And when I wanted to add documents to the Surface, I simply connected a standard USB hard drive and dragged and dropped. These are simple things that you can't do on an iPad or an Android tablet.

Surface is powered by the version of Windows 8 that it calls Windows RT, and that's the source of some of the strengths and the weaknesses of Surface. Windows RT runs on ARM processors, whereas Windows 8 runs on Intel processors. The great thing about ARM processors is that they give you phenomenal battery life. I easily was able to work for at least 10 hours per charge. But because you've left the old Wintel architecture behind, you can't run any legacy applications. In the Windows RT world, you are restricted to applications from Microsoft's store or Web-based applications. If you need to run legacy applications, you can either wait for Microsoft's Surface Pro, due later this year, or bypass Surface altogether and look for a PC that runs some version of Windows 8.

As I write this, Microsoft's application store is pretty sparsely stocked, but most of the table-stakes apps that many users use are there. Hulu and Netflix are available. Some Twitter clients are also in the store, but there's no native Twitter app. Also notably missing is a Facebook application, although the standard Facebook website works just fine on the Surface.

Flash support is limited and whitelisted on a site-by-site basis. Some sites worked flawlessly for me, but others did not work at all. This is another try-before-you-buy situation, especially if you rely on a site that's Flash-based.

What ultimately helps balance the application story for Surface is Microsoft Office. Every Surface comes with a built-in copy of Office that includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and One Note. There's no Outlook (the native mail, calendar and people apps all work with Exchange). And this is no watered-down version of Office; with a few exceptions, all features are present and accounted for, and they work with the standard Windows desktop for file management and manipulation.

No other tablet offers anything remotely like Office, and by itself, its inclusion changes the nature of what Surface is and who the target audience might be. This is why I say Microsoft has approached Surface with a completely different vision of computing, and it's why it's not really possible to make a straight comparison between Surface and the iPad and Android tablets.

It's too early to say whether Surface will be a commercial success. But Surface does clearly articulate Microsoft's vision of Windows 8 and how that vision is embodied by hardware. And it serves as notice that Microsoft recognizes that in a world driven by computing ecosystems, the integration of hardware and software is key.

I think Surface has the potential to connect with users who haven't yet been tempted by what the tablet market has presented them. Clearly, in this new age of personal computing, a single approach won't suit everyone, nor should it.

Surface also serves to raise the bar for Windows OEM devices. If it accomplishes nothing else, its existence will be justified.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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