There's been a lot of buzz about Microsoft's entry into the computing hardware market with the Surface tablets. I've been using a Surface Tablet RT (the version using the ARM processor) for the past two weeks and have gotten a good impression of how effective this tablet is as an enterprise solution for knowledge workers.
Overall, I think Microsoft's first effort is quite good - especially on the hardware front. The tablet has a nice build quality, is sleek and lightweight, some very well-thought out design features such as the kickstand and keyboard covers. There is still room for improvement on the software front - the Surface RT is too heavily influenced by the PC-side of the tablet equation and not influenced enough by what Microsoft learned about mobility with their Windows Phone offering. For power enterprise users who want to use line-of-business applications or powerful productivity packages, I suspect you'll be better off with the more powerful Intel-based tablets. If your needs are simply focused on email, calendar, and the Office productivity suite (Word, PowerPoint, Excel), then you may find that this tablet is more than adequate for your needs.
Let me provide some context to my use requirements. I tend to spend a lot of time outside of my office, meeting with stakeholders in their locations - some of which are local and others involving travel across the US and in Asia. I've always liked the tablet form-factor and especially the characteristics that define tablet computing: lightweight, instant-on, and long battery life. My laptop, by contrast, is weighty and has short batterly life, necessitating carrying the power adapter (additional weight and bulk). This might suggest that I'm an ideal candidate for an ultra-book but I'd like to also maintain a touch-based interface to be able to do something quickly.
I've tried using an iPad as a laptop replacement but unfortunately, it's just not that easy. Apple scoffs at the notion of a tablet as a productivity device and it shows in their design. Without a fair amount of costly tweaks, it's hard to make your iPad into something you can do work on, not the least of which is the lack of native Office applications.
Microsoft has been raving about how much thought they placed into the hardware design and it shows. The tablet has a nice, sleek look - a magnesium alloy encasement with slightly beveled edges - only 0.37" thick. The dimensions will feel different for iPad users - the Surface RT is more of a rectangular shape than the iPad. Holding it from a portrait perspective will make it feel long and skinny compared to Apple's device. In landscape, it will look and feel quite natural. At 1.5 pounds, it's heavier than the iPad but I don't find it weighty. It has a good feel in the hand - it feels like a premium machine. It's certainly caught the attention of colleagues in meetings.
My favorite thing about the hardware is the inclusion of a USB port. It's only USB 2.0 but that alone makes this device far more useful, especially since I don't need to worry about carrying around some kind of dongle. I haven't used the port to attach to many devices but it worked just fine with my thumb drives and my other critical device - my mouse. I know what you're thinking - a mouse with a touch-enabled device? Yeah - absolutely. Touch is great for some things - scrolling, moving around large graphics, selecting large buttons but if you're trying to be productive, sometimes you need something with more precision. I've found this to be especially true on websites which are not mobile- or touch-optimized, for example, websites that have drop-down menus for their navigation. Zooming in- and out- to get that precision with my fat fingers is annoying.
The kickstand is as advertised. It's well-designed, innocuously fit into the back panel. A slight rift allows your fingers to ably pull it out to a comfortable and stable viewing angle. This is quite favorable to the iPad where I'm relying on a rubberized case which doesn't always conform to a stable shape and therefore is always at risk of toppling over with a bit of turbulence.
TOUCH KEYBOARD VS. TYPE KEYBOARD VS ON-SCREEN
Since I'm evaluating the device, I also got the opportunity to work with both the Touch and the Type keyboard. Both work snap quite easily and flawlessly into the tablet body with the satisfying "click" that Microsoft has made a big deal about in the commercials. The Touch is thinner, with less weight than the Type (although the weights are quite negligible). They do feel quite different from one another.
As other reviews have noted, it takes a bit to get used to the Touch interface - it's completely flat and Microsoft wasn't kidding when it makes the claim that they innovated to figure out when you're actually trying to type something versus just resting your fingers. It's quite responsive and it doesn't take long to get the hang of it. I was typing with speed and accuracy within an hour of playing with it. That said, I did experience some anxiety every time I had to type in a password. Since I can't see the characters and there's no tactile response, I would get nervous when I needed to type in a special character. I found myself consciously holding down the shift key and pressing harder on the numbers to get the special character. Again, no problems with it - just takes getting used to.
By contrast, the on-screen keyboard lights up the key and gives a ticking sound to give more confidence. It would have been nice if Microsoft had at least put in an audio response to the keyboard. The keys are a good size in both portrait and landscape although the landscape keyboard takes up quite a bit of real estate - nearly half the screen. In portrait mode, you can reach all of the keys pretty easily with your thumbs.
The Type keyboard works much as any other keyboard. It's has a good size and you have the immediate tactile response. I found that it was similar to just about any keyboard I've worked with. It does have a little more weight than the Touch and it's also quite a bit louder. Power users will probably find that they like this one better.
I didn't have a mini SD card handy to test and take advantage of the memory expansion slot. Much has been made of how Windows 8 RT takes up nearly half of the 32GB of memory in the model I'm using. Too early to see how fast I'd run through it but Microsoft is really pushing their cloud storage solution, SkyDrive, which gives you an additional 7GB for free.
I didn't run a battery test but I got through a full day of work without draining the whole battery. I'd guess that the iPad still probably lasts longer but the Surface does have a speedy charger. It's supposed to get a full charge in just two hours.
The software is where I think Microsoft faces the biggest challenge on the device. In designing the software for Surface, Microsoft had a choice between letting it be influenced more by the PC side of Windows or more by the Windows Phone side of the equation. Unfortunately, it seems Microsoft chose the PC side.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the Mail application. The initial mail application on Windows Phone 7 was criticized heavily because it didn't allow for consolidating multiple email accounts into a single inbox. The Windows Phone team corrected that in a subsequent update but clearly that message didn't get over to the Surface RT team whose Mail application still segregates all of your accounts. I also found the Mail application slightly buggy. Corporate Active Sync accounts had to be added in a certain order or else they wouldn't function correctly. Similarly, the Mail application wouldn't allow me to have both my corporate Active Sync account and my personal Outlook.com account on at the same time. Accounts that I deleted would sometimes be added back to the Mail application. Very frustrating.
It's unfortunate that Windows 8 RT didn't work more closely with the Windows Phone team - there might have been a possibility to enable the more than 70,000 applications already built for Windows Phone to get ported over - much like the iPhone apps can run on the iPad. Sadly, Microsoft has decided to start over which means they'll have at least three app stores: one for Windows 8 PC apps, one for Windows 8 RT, and one for Windows Phone 8. I've been told by some developers that it's not hard to port the code over for the three separate platforms but that remains to be seen. The app store so far is still pretty sparse.
Another disconnect potentially is that as you use the tablet, you learn that Windows 8 seems to have something of a split personality. The start screen and all the apps that you get from there are clearly optimized and designed for at touch experience, including the browser. Once you decide to use one of the Office applications, though, you'll discover there's a whole other side to your operating system that operates much more closely to the familiar Windows 7. For example, in this more Windows 7-like environment, there's another Internet Explorer browser which is more like the traditional IE and has a distinctly different interface than the mobile browser side. With some digging, you can also discover the more familiar Windows Control Panel and Windows Explorer dialogue windows. None of this is deal-killing but it does make the experience sometimes feel disjointed or awkward.
At the end of the day, you're running a full version of Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and OneNote on a device that's a fraction of the size of a traditional laptop. I thought that perhaps Microsoft would narrow the functionality of these tools, but at least from what I can tell, these are complete versions of the software with no need to compromise functionality. The performance of the Office applications and the browser are quite speedy as is the OS in general. Where I saw the most performance lags were apps that needed to hook into the Internet - like Mail, People, Weather, etc. These apps generally had some clocking while they pulled down information from the Internet. Not sure why that's the case but it could get annoying waiting to see the most recent updates from your friends.
The other thing I like about the Windows device experience is the tie-in to your Microsoft Live account. Because Microsoft starts to sync nearly everything you do on your device with SkyDrive, it's really easy to get all your contacts, photos, music up and running on the tablet. Within minutes, I was able to get view of my pictures, see my friends' updates on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.
I did try out picture password and that seems to work out pretty well. It's a far more pleasant experience than the typed out passwords.
I think this is a great device for individuals who don't have complex computing needs. The hardware is nice, delivers great performance and good battery life, and is a real winner with the addition of the USB port and full keyboard. I think the software is a bit awkward in a few places but it works - I'm sure it won't be long before Microsoft does the upgrade releases to fix the bugs and bring functionality in line with the competition. If you're not using complex, enterprise software and don't have a complex security infrastructure to plug into, this is a great device. You get the basic productivity computing of a PC in the form factor of a tablet. What's not to love about that?