Review: Microsoft Surface

It really is amazing how things come full circle.  I still remember seeing Bill Gates on stage introducing the Tablet PC back in the early 2000s.  I remember being excited then and buying so I could use it for note taking during my study abroad in Japan.  I remember how it just didnt work all that well and eventually fell out of favor with the consumer and remained largely unadopted by businesses.

Fast forward to 2010 and the release of Apple’s immensely successful iPad.  Building on the touch technology pioneered in iPod and perfected in iPhone.  This device, in addition to the already successful iPhone, brought Apple heaps of mindshare and effectively removed Microsoft from any conversation about mobile form factors (even with Windows Phone 7).

But I knew this would come, anyone who knows Microsoft’s history knows they do their best work when their backs are against the wall.  And they delivered, on Friday, Microsoft Surface, a device which is their first foray into the tablet market and a sign that companies may have to rethink how they distribute products in the future.  The reliance on OEMs to handle the hardware side of it (Dell, HP, etc) may be coming to an end due to the needs of the experience to be top notch.  With that in mind, lets review Surface:

The Good

Lets start with the good, this is an amazing device.  In just under 10m I had the device out of the box, booted, setup, connected, and fully stocked with apps. The finish is very clean and Windows 8 functions on a tablet as beautifully as you would expect.  It really is designed for a tablet, though I am also enjoying it on my developer laptop.  Soon it will be going on my desktop machine.

I personally love the magnetic connector that the Surface comes with, Mac has had it for years (Microsoft actually owns this patent, which I found amusing) but it seems most OEMs disregard this feature perhaps in favor of saving on cost.  But Microsoft made the decision to include because Surface is designed to be, like the iPad, a luxury device.

I have always been a big fan of the design formally known as “Metro” its clean and expressive, yet simple at the same time.  Microsoft choose to take a different approach from Apple and offer a lower resolution screen and high contrast to make the screen seem brighter than it is.  This wont get you to retina, but Metro doesn’t need retina to look good.

Probably the most unique thing about Windows 8, and I believe this will be something both Google and Apple will have to address is “snapping”.  The ability to actually have two applications visible on the screen at the same time is HUGE.  Granted for developers it adds more complexity, but Microsoft has taken steps to make it easier, that will be in a future blog post.

I also love the unification of all application features: search, share, and settings into a single place.  Once you get used to this, it feels very natural and sensible.  Why should every application support search in a different way?

One of the other noticeable differences from Apple and Google is the integration with social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc as well as contact and calendar integration across a variety of services.  This is something that Microsoft started doing in Windows Phone and they have evolved it hear beyond anything Apple and Google offer.  Microsoft has always stated that the device isn’t about just getting apps, its about representing your life and connecting you to the people in it, for that reason ANY app can share information to the various social networks you are connected to.

Productivity

As good as Apple’s office tools are, they still pale in comparison (and usage) to the Microsoft Office tool suite. This is a huge part of Microsoft’s business and the central reason why Office 2013 Preview (with the ability to upgrade to the full version when released) is included, for free, on all Surface products.  These are NOT Metro style apps; Microsoft is working towards making them so, but remember that Metro apps emphasize simple design, and the various Office applications often include a bevy of additional features, some of which dont make sense in the tablet experience.

At long last, Skydrive is finally taking center stage.  I have been using Skydrive, I swear, for about 7yrs, long before Dropbox or iCloud were even thought of, but Microsoft being Microsoft they never took advantage of this until Apple started featuring it in commercials for photo sharing.  In fact, ALL office products, by default, save to Skydrive if available (Internet required).

One of the other huge draws was the TouchCover.  I have handled an iPad many times and I hate the soft keyboard.  I hate working on a device that I should be able to type naturally but it feels anything but.  I hate giving almost half my screen real estate so I can have a keyboard.  On a 7” tablet this is alright cause I can still use my thumbs in portrait mode, but it does not work for a 10” (unless you have really big hands).  Microsoft understands, and wants, the office crowd to be one of the major buyers, so the TouchCover (or TypeCover) gives you an actual keyboard you can use, and you know what, it really works insanely well.  I watched several videos on how they made this thing and it is an impressive feat in engineering.  I am still getting used to it, mainly because while I do use two  hands, my style is a bit, weird, so its requiring some adjustment, especially when I move to hit the ‘a’ key.  But I am getting there.

The Bad

So its not all fun and games, Windows 8 is a big time change for most Windows users as it moves them into an era where touch is more dominant then point-and-click, which has been the Windows staple for almost 30yrs.  This OS is different, whether its different good or bad is for the individual user to decide.  The device does display a quick tutorial at the start illustrating the charms bar, but users have a bad habit of not paying attention to this.

One of my other concerns, though there is a way to indicate their presence, is that app bars.  On WP7 there was a small ellipsis exposed to indicate the presence of the Application Bar, that is gone (or made optional) in Win8, and I haven’t seen a lot of apps exposing it either.  The idea is to swipe down from the top or up from the bottom to expose extra screen features (context sensitive).  I don’t quite understand why we have TWO app bars, but I wonder how and when users will know when they are there. Most likely, once they do it a few times, they will know to try the swipe to see if anything else is there, but I believe this is not intuitive enough and will cause confusion.

While the People hub is nice it hardly can fully replace a standalone Twitter or Facebook client.  Just this morning my brother responded to a comment I made on Facebook and it took me a bit to find out where I could find this.  As there is not yet a Win8 Facebook client, People hub is the only option. So if you are really busy on social networks, the experience here could use some work or, better yet, be supplemented by specific apps.

Perhaps the most annoying this on Win8, and I cant tell if this is the software or the hardware, is the touch and drag of the tiles in your start menu.  I love having my new Start menu arranged in a certain way so that I group related tiles together.  Trying to move tiles around on Surface is PAINFUL.  You have to touch and hold and when the tile tilts move it down or up a little so the OS knows you arent swiping.  You can then move it around pretty freely and there are good markers to let you know how your drop will affect the UI.  But Microsoft needs to make it easier for people to move tiles, the current way is painful.

Conclusion

I have said this many times and I will say it again: “Give Microsoft credit.  Instead of going to the Google approach and using iOS as a template for how they approach UI, they went their own way and have actually innovated something”.  I have heard it a lot from Apple fans that I know that they really like to look and feel of Surface, some have already converted from iPad.  But lets not get carried away, and Sinofsky said it too, “this isnt a device for people who ‘love’ their iPad”.  Windows 8 is not perfect but I think its more evolve in many ways, specifically user interaction, than Apple or Google’s products.  The ability to have two applications open on the screen at the same time is a big plus and not something either competitors consumers enjoy at the moment, despite being all being used to the “windowing” idiom that most desktop/laptop OSes employ.

It really is nice to see Microsoft showing that they can still create great hardware (360, Kinect, etc) and deliver on the experience.  Based on a number of factors you can really see Microsoft is changing the way they think about products and how they deliver them, along with many other vendors spurred by the Apple approach.  The general consensus among the various tech outlets is this is a dramatic win for Microsoft and puts their name back into the conversation with Apple and Microsoft.

That said, I want to take a moment and an dditional things: Many of the reviews have noted the low App Count as being a diminishing factor in this product. While the app count is certainly dramatically lower than iOS, Android, and even WP7, the OS has only been available for a little over a month and was publicly launched Friday, October 26.  Does anyone want to take a guess at how many apps iOS had in 08 when the App Store opened?  There is not a magic app fairy that can suddenly create 50,000+ apps overnight, sorry. Microsoft has the tools that developers love so I expect the app store to begin filling quickly, but it will still take years before it reaches the levels of iOS and Android.

What Surface is, and Sinofsky said this too, its a different “perspective”.  This isnt like the iPad at all, its different.  Some will enjoy that difference, others will curse and hate it (I happen to love it).  But at the end of the day there is no denying that Surface is a quality product and 8 was made for tablets.  Welcome to the age of touch Windows users.

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