In today’s installment of the Munchkin Wrangler Gear Whore Labs reviews, I will share with you my opinion of the Microsoft Surface.
I have a new review policy in place. All items I review in this spot—books, toys, gear, whatever—are paid for by my own cash, not provided to me by someone else. And I don’t review anything until I’ve had a chance to use it on a regular basis for at least a month, preferably two, so the starry-eyed new toy phase doesn’t taint the review.
So two months ago, I decided to take advantage of the deep discount on the Surface tablets right before the new version came out, and purchased a Surface RT 32GB. I’ve been using it every day since then, so I’ve had plenty of opportunity to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses, especially compared to the iPad (of which we own four at last count—an iPad 3, an original iPad, a WiFi iPad mini, and an LTE iPad mini.) I’ve been a big iPad fan ever since Robin brought home that original model three years ago, which still serves very well as a beater unit for the kids. Robin and I both also own iPhones (hers a 4S and mine a 5), and I also have a MacBook Air, so we’re quite heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem.
That said, <DRAMATIC DRUMROLL>, I’ve come to the conclusion that (for me, at least) the Microsoft Surface is a better tablet than the iPad.
<insert the shocked, sharp collective drawing-in of breath in the audience>
I thought it was neat in the store, which is why I decided to risk $349 on it, seeing how I could have returned it within 30 days anyway if I ended up hating it. But I really didn’t appreciate its strong points until I used it regularly for a few weeks.
The main selling point for me that the Surface RT comes with a full version of Microsoft Office 2013. Love it or hate it, Office is pretty much the standard in the publishing industry, and after hitting a few bumps during the hot-and-heavy editing phases of TERMS OF ENLISTMENT and LINES OF DEPARTURE, I decided that I needed a cheap-ish mobile system for edits on the run that was 100% compatible with the .DOCX files I get marked up by my editors. The Surface has proven just the right pick for the job—lightweight, reasonably cheap, long battery life, flexible to use, and very compatible. But there’s a lot more to like about the thing, especially when compared to the iPad, and particularly when it comes to productivity use.
That’s the Surface, clad in a leatherette case, with a Logitech illuminated Bluetooth keyboard behind it. I use the Surface without the keyboard 90% of the time and only need the BT ‘board for longer typing jobs, which is why I didn’t see the need for buying either the Touch or Type Covers that Microsoft sells along with the Surface.
The hardware is extremely well thought-out. You can tell that the people who came up with the design didn’t just want to do a “me too” iPad clone, but rather went their own way. Some of the hardware features I really like:
–Built-in kickstand. Simple concept that makes a great difference. The stand is built into the back of the unit and flips out in far less time than it takes for any case origami.
–Sturdy construction. The case and screen feel like you’d have to drop a car battery on them to do any damage. It’s as pleasant to hold and use as the iPad, only in a different, more industrial sort of way.
–Full-sized USB port. Not only can I plug in USB peripherals, I can plug in anything that works on my Windows 8 desktop system. External mice, keyboards, hard drives, DVD drives, memory sticks, WiFi dongles…it all works. If the device has a driver in the Windows driver database, it works on the Surface. That is sort of a Big Deal.
–Wide-aspect screen. Seems weird for a tablet at first, but now the iPad screen looks too tall and square to me. It’s much like back when we switched from 4:3 aspect LCDs to 16:9 widescreens for our desktops. After you’re used to the wide aspect, the other aspect ratio just looks all wrong. Movies play without letterboxing, and text takes up narrower and easier to read columns in portrait mode. (Interestingly, I use the iPad almost exclusively in portrait mode, and the Surface almost exclusively in landscape mode.)
–SDHC memory card slot. Unlimited, infinitely expandable storage! I expanded the internal 32GB with a 64GB SDHC card. So handy to just be able to copy, say, a movie from the desktop to the Surface via SDHC card without having through that Convert-‘n-Sync-via-iTunes routine on the iPad.
The Surface beats my MacBook Air in battery life and portability while allowing pretty much the same capabilities at least as far as I use both devices. It runs Office natively, lasts eight hours on the battery, can use any USB PC peripheral I have around the house, and can use ubiquitous SDHC cards for internal storage expansion and file transfer. All that for $349? Sign me up.
(Yes, I know you can get budget Windows laptops for the same money, but those don’t run cool and silent for eight hours on one charge, and they don’t come pre-loaded with Office 2013 either.)
I’ve come to equally appreciate the software, which is Windows 8.1 RT. It’s visually and functionally the same as 8.1 on the desktop, with the exception that it can’t run Windows legacy apps. (Its more expensive cousin, the Surface Pro, can do that, but more on that later.) The much-maligned new Metro interface of Windows 8 makes little sense on a keyboard-and-mouse driven system, but on a touchscreen, it’s very good. In many respects, it makes iOS look a bit dated in comparison. The touch gestures come so naturally after a while that I get annoyed whenever I pick up my iPad these days and try to do the Windows 8 swipe gestures. It’s much easier to task-switch in Windows 8 (swipe in from the left; pick from the list of open apps) than in iOS (double-click the home button, flick-scroll through your list of open apps). Closing an app in Win 8? Swipe down from the top of the screen, flick it down off the bottom of the screen. Closing an app in iOS? Double-click the home button, flick-scroll through your open apps until you find the one you want to close, flick it up off the screen to close. After using both operating systems for two months side-by-side, I’ve come to prefer the Win 8 gestures.
And Internet Explorer on Windows RT? Full Flash support. Everything plays in the browser without codec issues.
Oh, and how about multi-tasking? Here’s the Surface running two apps side by side in split-screen mode:
That’s Internet Explorer on the left, Word 2013 in desktop mode on the right. I can write stuff up and have the research and reference material right next to my work. No big deal on a desktop system, but not an option on the iPad.
And not only can you split the screen, you can adjust the split:
Word 2013 on the left, Twitter on the right. You can make one or the other minimize and give the remaining app the full screen back just by pushing that divider over all the way to the left or right. For productivity, it makes a huge difference, and it’s definitely the feature I miss most when I use the iPad.
For media consumption, the iPad is still the top dog, and the application variety is much greater for iOS. For getting stuff done, however, the Surface runs circles around the iPad.
Are there things I don’t like? Of course there are. No device is perfect. Stuff I dislike about the Surface:
–The magnetic power plug is way too hard to line up and connect. On my MacBook Air, it snaps in when you just move the plug into the vicinity of the jack. On the Surface, you have to line the plug up very carefully and rock it into place, and the feeble magnet only pulls it into place when you’re just about all the way into the socket already anyway. NEEDS REDESIGN.
–The app variety is paltry compared to Apple’s iOS, which had a two-year head start. But it has Office 2013, which is a big advantage for us publishing types.
–There aren’t very many accessories available for the Surface. I had to get a leatherette case off Amazon because none of the local big-box stores carry a damn thing for the Surface other than the (too expensive) Microsoft Touch and Type covers.
–It’s too easy to leave lying around, say, in the bathroom, where your wife may come across it, play with it, and want her own.
Yep…Robin looked at the Surface RT for a little while, and when I told her that the Pro version would run all her legacy Windows apps, she went out and got a Surface Pro 2 for herself. Now she has a tablet that runs Scrivener, Office, and World of Warcraft, with the same portability as her iPad 3, and with the ability to use her specialized PC peripherals. (She plays with one of those mega-multibutton mice because she can’t use both mouse and keyboard simultaneously due to physical restrictions.)
Now, I’m not slamming the iPad here, which is a fine device and still the top dog when it comes to media consumption and general variety and quality of apps. But for us, the Surface has proven a surprisingly capable machine with its own set of strong points that the iPad can’t match. It fits my day-to-day needs for mobile computing so well that I’ve barely touched the iPad or the MacBook Air since I got the Surface. I have to give credit to Microsoft for coming up with something decidedly different from the iPad and even *GASP* innovating along the way. I’m happy with the RT over the Pro right now because it runs cooler and more quietly with longer battery life and quicker startups, but it’s already filling almost all my day-to-day computing needs as it is.
Now I need to come up with some star system that isn’t bullshit. Whatever the scale, however, I’m leaning toward giving the Surface a really good rating on that scale. It’s not perfect, but it’s really good, and it works for me.