Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet is in many ways what I like to call instant gratification. Unlike most devices I stalk on a daily basis, from announcement to launch, it seems like it all transpired in a few weeks. I can honestly say it did not seem like forever since I’ve been waiting to get my hands on this thing. Now that I have it, I can’t imagine my digital life without it.

First off, to really appreciate the Surface, you’ve got to understand what it means to Microsoft; once you understand that, it starts to grow on you a bit more. Because Microsoft is mainly a software supplier, they often play a game of tug-of-war with their OEM supporters and partners alike. Sometimes they lose, sometimes they win. With Windows 8 and its bold new UI thundering down the pipe line, this was one of those times when Microsoft had to win for certain. Windows 8 ventures into a huge gray area where a touch centric UI can only thrive in a mobile world and users are settling for convince over functionality.

By merging the touch UI and the traditional desktop into a functional hybrid, Microsoft hopes to capture the hearts of the consumer and retain the crown of functionality. The only problem here is, this is Microsoft’s vision, no one else’s. With the iPad quickly running away and Android seemingly doing a horrible job on purpose, the market has room but still plenty of stage fright. Any attempt to shatter the barriers would take tremendous effort and risk. Who could Microsoft trust to be their white knight? Microsoft, that’s who. Surface is by all means a “here, let me show you how to do it” solution. In all its awesomeness, and maybe even success, I still get the feeling Surface is a “dear john” letter being sent to the Microsoft’s’ partners. The message? “We are taking Windows 8 seriously, and so should you.”

As a Microsoft fan, the story behind Surface was enough to have made me fall in love, but it didn’t stop there. Surface had to be amazing on all fronts! It had to be something spectacular, a perfect complement to the UI and core fundamentals of Windows 8. The most obvious place to birth something so special would have to be the design. Surface needed to be something dreamt up in a dream! Boy oh boy did Microsoft dream big on this one!

At .65mm thin and 1.5lbs, it commands a smile at first sight. The pronounced lines and overall modern design cues really take you back when you see it in person for the first time. Sure, we’ve all seen the pictures, the videos, the keynotes, but what you never account for is your first reaction when you see and hold one for the very first time. It is amazing! My first experience with the device was akin to the very first iPad, it’s just that special!

Asthetics aside, Microsoft worked very hard to not only give Surface its own unique identity in a world with millions of tablets, but they also did a fair bit of work to make sure it would be able to stand the test of time. As described by Microsoft:

Crafted from a molten magnesium alloy, VaporMg is three times lighter than aluminum, with a highly durable exterior. Anti-fingerprint coating helps keeps Surface looking flawless.

Yes, what they said. What ever VaporMg is, I am a believer. According to the designers, this is where Surface gets its unbelievably “solid” feel. This is something I am particularly impressed with. Up until now, the only other tablet that could ever duplicate the premium feel of an iPad, was an iPad. I am amazed at how well Microsoft has been able to capture the premium essence. Every time you pick it up, you’ll feel as if you are holding something worth holding, you get the feeling of pride. That’s how it’s supposed to be!

The tech specs crammed inside Surface are rather impressive as well, especially given such a breath-taking design. Surface shows up with a wide screen 10.6” display sporting a satisfying 1366 x 768 resolution; yes, that is indeed a 19:9 aspect ratio. I’ts packed with the latest Quad-Core NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor, 2GB of Ram, 32GB or 64GB of space with an expandable Micro SD card slot, Wi-Fi (duh,) Bluetooth 4.0, 2 cameras, two microphones, stereo speakers, a USB 2.0 port, and a HD video out port. Yes, it is stalked!

 

 

One more piece of tech worth mentioning is the Surface’s available cover keyboards. Here is something I can appreciate from Microsoft, the ability to excuse pride. If you’re going to chase the market leader, you’re going to have to offer what they offer – in other words, copy your ass off and make it better. Apple is a genius at this, but this time around, Microsoft is the “innovator,” in a very Christopher Columbus fashion…. if you will. What made the iPad 2 special for me was not its thinness,its speed, nor its weight, it was the damn $70 smart cover. That silly thing was the best feature on that tablet, and still is today. No bulky case needed, and it was smart enough to know it was being removed! How awesome is that? Awesome enough that Microsoft decided to best them at it.

So Microsoft knew that giving the device an attachable cover, and having it exist in a very minimal manor gives the device a premium feel. But they wanted more, they went ahead and cooked up a genius idea of making that same cover a physical keyboard. Whoa! Out of this realization came another part of what makes Surface special. There are two types of keyboard covers available: the first is called a Touch Cover which is actually the thinner of the two and has a rubber feel to it. Do not be fooled, this thing packs some kind of pressure sensitive technology, so it knows when you are actually trying to type, versus an accidental touch.

Designed for Surface, Touch Cover is a revolutionary dual-purpose pressure-sensitive keyboard and protective cover. The bright, smooth surface lets you type up to 2x faster than onscreen. Email, chat, work, and connect with friends in style. Built-in trackpad and Windows shortcut keys give you quick, easy ways to navigate Surface. Touch Cover is spill-resistant, easy to clean, and comes in five vibrant colors (Black, White, Cyan, Magenta, and Red), so you can express your personal style.

The second is called the Type Cover. This one is a bit more thick, but offers an actual tactile feedback keyboard that some users may prefer.

One of the thinnest mechanical keyboards available, Type Cover features a QWERTY keyboard, a full row of Function keys (F1-F12), Windows shortcut keys, media controls, and a trackpad, giving you maximum agility for navigating your Surface. The comfort and speed of a traditional keyboard, with a revolutionary design that combines the best of productivity and protection.

Also amazing, both keyboard covers include a trackpad, and they really do a great job at emulating a laptop-like experience. Who would have ever thought adding a cursor to a touch UI would make such a huge difference. Priced from $120 to $130, I thought these keyboard covers were way too over priced, but then it hit me. A while back, I was looking to get a keyboard solution for my iPad and not only was I shocked at the price, I really wasn’t too happy with the way things functioned. Typing then reaching up to touch the tablet screen just seemed too clumsy, it wasn’t natural (adding even more value to the included trackpad on the Surface’s keyboard covers.) None the less, these keyboard solutions where around the same price point Microsoft is offering, not to mention, they do not include the convince of a trackpad.

How about that kickstand? An interesting, surprising and much appreciated part of Surface’s design is the included kickstand. So simple, so overlooked, its genius! Not only is it designed in durable way, it gives the Surface that much more functionality while adding character to the mix. If you plan on getting a keyboard cover for your surface, pull out kickstand, and boom, there it is, a 1.5lb laptop. Also, the angle at which the stand would position the Surface was given much thought, so much so that the angle is said to be perfect to allow for ideal video chat, you’ll always be in frame. Wow.

Microsoft obviously knocked the design out of the park, the only thing left was the final piece to the puzzle. Windows 8. Surface is to Windows 8 as Windows 8 is to Surface. They complement each other perfectly. Now that you’ve felt elegance in your hand, Windows 8 makes sure the experience does not stop there. With it’s huge live tiles, simplistic UI and super responsive performance, Windows 8 shows up to the party ready for action. Because this is the RT version of the tablet, you’ll be able to enjoy features like “always connected.” The Surface RT will maintain connection to update you on things like email, twitter or any other type of notifications while in standby. It pretty much works like your cellphone, sweet. The Windows Phone social integration is very much alive and well here, it even gained Skype integration. That’s right, you can make video calls right from the contact lists.

My favorite part of the Windows 8 and Surface relationship is without doubt the live tiles. Sure, I’ve been a fan of Windows Phone from launch, but here it’s just that much better on Surface. Tiles are huge, this translates to a lot more information at glance. I can actually read snippets of email and who they were sent from, just from a glance, this is paramount! Other favorite features include Xbox music, Xbox live and Smart Glass integration and full Skydrive Integration.

As great as it is, a huge part of my neglect for the iPad was due to my ties to the Microsoft eco-system. If it didn’t support Zune (now called XBox Music) it was just useless to me. Now I finally have a beautifully designed piece of hardware that allows me to enjoy my XBox music, keeping tabs on my XBox gaming life and having all of my pictures, videos and documents available to me when ever I need them, where ever I go. Windows 8 and the integration services it offers really does give Surface the ability to set me free, I finally feel like I can breathe!

Perfect it is not! There are a few outstanding issues with Surface in general. My first complaint is the lack of a LTE offering. Although I swore I’d never pay a monthly bill for a tablet, mainly because my phone should be able to handle those tasks when I am out and about; the Surface does a good job at making me feel guiltily. I want to have it out every where I go, I want to browse the web when I am not home, I want to scroll through my people hub to see what’s new. I want to do these things without hunting down a Wi-Fi connection of firing up hotspot on my Android device. This is an entirely new feeling to me, one that says a lot. So, it make it even more painful that Microsoft is not offering a cellular option.

Access to the “desktop mode” will be huge problem until people are educated. Truth be told, it is super confusing to wrap your head around if you are not some sort of IT professional. Surface RT is not a “real” PC – it runs on mobile hardware. Although it is cutting edge tech, it is still scaled down. This becomes painfully obvious when running 8 tabs in the desktop IE, things start to chug along, whereas running 8 tables in the Metro IE never even breaks a sweat. It’s obvious to see desktop mode does not belong on an ARM device. People are not going to understand this, they will try to save money by not getting the Pro version because it is cheaper and thinner. They will not understand there are worlds of differences and they cater to two completely different crowds. I fear the confusion will become a huge problem in the coming weeks.

Apps? What apps? Because Surface RT falls in direct competition with the iPad and Android tablets, the yard stick becomes a mile stick. With over 500 apps already available in the Store, I still get the feeling that is not nearly enough. Although most of the heavy hitters are already there (Angry birds, Netflix, Hulu, NYT, ect.) consumers and the people selling to consumers couldn’t care less about quality. It will always be a number game at the end of the day, “Which one has the most apps?” is always what they’ll ask or care about. Microsoft already has a ton of developers onboard and are still working hard on attracting more. If Windows Phone is to be an indication, the growth rate of the store will be just fine, it’s all a matter of time.

These complaints aside, Surface RT is a hell of a tablet. But, is it for you? Well, who are you? At first, I had it broken down to two people, power users and everyone else. In other words, if you’re the type of person to fire up Photoshop, load up Sony Vegas or develop blueprints on the weekend, Surface RT is NOT for you, it is not your work horse. Everyone else, you just want to browse the web, check email, be a social networking junkie, watch movies, listed to music and play some games, Surface RT is for you. Wait, or is it? I had to rethink this, everyone else includes my mom, who by the way, just called me up to help her install Magic Jack on her PC. As I said before, Surface RT is not a “real PC,” you cannot pop in a CD or thumb stick and install a .exe, you are pretty much limited to apps in the Store. So there, it gets even more confusing.

I suspect Surface Pro to be a much better option for most. They’ll have the ability to do what ever they want with the same design. So, would I recommend the Surface RT? Again, it depends. If you’re looking for a companion to your laptop/desktop, yes, by all means, dive in. If you’ve been surviving with an iPad or Android tablet, then by all means, dive in. But if you don’t fit in any of those two scenarios, I suggest you do some homework, really think about what you need in terms of functionality. In other words, judge the Surface RT like you would an iPad, the same principles apply.

For me, Surface makes a much better companion to my digital life than any other tablet. It fully supports the eco-system I’ve been vested in for years, it is functional, it is beautiful and a complete joy to use. Surface RT is indeed that special something Microsoft needed. Finally!

 

 

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Note to self. Don’t try and load Windows 8 on two PCs, receive a new Windows 8 desktop, “and” the tablet I have been waiting my whole life for, on the same day. First it was the download of Windows 8 early Friday morning (mine started at 12:04am), creating bootable discs, and installing Windows 8 on my old Fujitsu tablet. Then off to work in the morning, where my new Asus i7 desktop and Surface w/cyan and type covers, were already waiting for me. A complete reformat of my office PC (believe me, it was easier) and then a fresh install of Windows 8 took up most of the day, so I barely had a chance to take my little buddy out of it’s beautiful packaging. After all, I was supposed to be working.

    Then off to the humble abode to start on the Asus. That went long into the night and lasted through most of Saturday, reinstalling my whole life and setting things up the way I like it. All the while my new Surface sat on the kitchen counter, lonely, waiting for little touch.

    Wasn’t until the wee hours of the morning that I finally got to spend some quality time with my new friend. Setup the Start screen to my liking, downloaded some essential apps. Learning some of the touch gestures has been my biggest challenge so far, coming from a guy who has relied on a keyboard, and later a mouse, for 30 years. But once you figure it out, things just get easier. Tried plugging my 10 year old Logitech portable BT mouse into the Surface’s USB port last night and it instantly connected. And this morning, just for giggles, I plugged in my portable CD/DVD drive. Surface had no problems seeing the cda files on the audio CD. Just no app currently available to open the files. But Win RT did invite me to browse the App Store for alternatives. Same when loading a DVD. Point here is there are no restrictions. Just need the horse to catch up with the cart. But try doing the above on any other, “non-full OS” tablet. Good luck with that.

    The Surface is equally comfortable using with touch only, a combination of touch and keyboard, or kb exclusively. So it will appeal to everyone and anyone. The build quality is second to none. Solid is an understatement. It’s damn beautiful. And battery life? I charged it while in the office on Friday afternoon, snuck in about 45 minutes of play time on Friday night, used it Saturday morning to read some Windows 8 & Phone news (downloaded some RSS feed apps Friday night) and left it propped up, ready to go all day Saturday, occasionally playing for 5 or 10 minutes while waiting for another app to download or install on my desktop. Then a good 90 minutes of playtime before bed last night. I was amazed when I checked battery and it was still at 49%. I had not powered the Surface down since turning it on the first time Friday afternoon at about 2:00pm. So 38 hours of on time, and at least 3-4 hours of actual use. I can get used to that.

    I already played with Smart Glass on my Lumia 900 (had to do that as soon as the app became available) and looking forward to some Netflix/Xbox interaction on my Surface later today. Going to take several more days before I can form a solid opinion, but so far, Jimmy likes it.

  2. Do you think Microsoft could really knock this out of the park with one addition?

    – A USB modem, with a subsidized wireless data plan.

    Think about it…

    By going to USB technology, it opens things up for people to decide later if a LTE-based connection is worth it. No forcing the decision with an on-board only component.

    It leaves the option of using a third-party device, to be sure… but imagine if they came up with something that hugged the edge of the case, so it would have the requisite size and bulk for the antenna, but without giving the user the fear that it would always be sticking out, or a magnet for accidental bumps.

    This could be a winner…

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