Evidently the review embargo on Microsoft’s first stab at a mass market tablet was lifted last night, and the flood of reviews from several major outlets has begun. So far, the reaction appears to be somewhat mixed; everyone has commented on the Surface’s excellent build quality, and how cool the Touch Cover is, but there remains a great deal of concern surrounding the Windows RT operating system and its lack of app support.
On the build quality and hardware front, pretty much everyone agrees that the Surface nailed it. The magnesium body is tough, light, grippy, and looks great, and that’s a hard combo to argue with. Engadget gave the Surface high marks on build quality and materials in their review, saying:
The exterior of the slate is a cool, matte surface that looks dark and feels quite strong and durable[...] The material feels amazing in the hand and here it’s used to create a structure that is quite complex, flat on the front and back of course but with the sides angling outward, connecting a facade slightly wider than the rear.
The Verge also praised the Surface’s looks and overall build, but worried that the 10.6-inch screen made for a tablet that was a little bit too big for regular use. In their views, they say:
Overall, Microsoft has designed a beautiful tablet that’s unfortunately more functional as a laptop… on a desk. The styling and components are incredibly well made and high quality, but the form factor isn’t svelte or small enough to really come across as a true hybrid.
The Touch Cover, Microsoft’s screen cover that doubles as a full keyboard, scored high marks among reviewers, impressing them with its usability as an actual keyboard replacement. Ars Technica was particularly impressed with it, saying:
I expected to hate the Touch Covers. I wanted to hate the Touch Covers. As a fluent touch-typist who normally uses an extremely loud Dell clicky keyboard, the Touch Covers represent an affront to everything I stand for. But the damn things work, and work well, and I don’t really know how I feel about that. They do take a little getting used to; it’ll be a few days before you’re really comfortable on them. 50 words per minute should be readily achievable, with an accuracy and convenience that surpasses any on-screen keyboard.
Overall, reviewers are almost universally in agreement that the hardware of the Surface is top notch (with the exception of some pretty mediocre cameras). If you never turned the device on, you’d think it was the an incredibly well designed tablet. Unfortunately, once you do turn it on, there’s a different story to be told.
The current Surface runs an operating system called Windows RT, which looks like Windows 8, but is based on ARM processor architecture instead of the x86 architecture that regular Windows runs on. The result is an OS that looks like Windows 8, but can’t actually run any Windows software. You’re stuck getting your apps from the Windows Store, which at this point looks like a bit of a ghost town.
BGR put it best in their review, saying:
Imagine booting up an iPad for the first time, seeing the OS X desktop exactly as it appears on a MacBook, and then finding out you cannot run any OS X software on the device. As odd as that scenario sounds, that is exactly the situation Microsoft is facing with the next-generation Windows OS.
Gizmodo also hammered the Surface for it’s lack of usable software at this point:
There’s no Twitter or Facebook app, and the most popular 3rd party client breaks often. The Kindle app is completely unusable. There’s no image editing software. A People app is supposed to give you all the social media access you’d ever need, but It’s impossible to write on someone’s Facebook wall through the People app, Surface’s social hub; the only workaround is to load Internet Explorer. Blech.
So yeah, the software side of things is looking a bit weak for the Surface right now. One has to keep in mind that the device isn’t even available to the public yet, though, and if people actually buy the thing, developers will be much more inclined to make software for it. The software ecosystem on Windows RT right now probably isn’t indicative of what the software ecosystem on Windows RT will look like a few months or a year from now, in other words.
At the end of the day, it’s probably Wired that offered the best description of both the successes and shortcomings of the Surface tablet. In their (quite well-done) review of the Surface, they say:
It’s something completely new and different. It is, in some ways, better than an iPad. In some ways, worse. It’s brilliant, and yet it can be puzzling as well. Confoundingly so at times. It’s a tablet of both compromises and confusion. It is a true hybrid — neither fully a desktop nor mobile device. That’s reflected in all sorts of ways. It is Wi-Fi only, but won’t run traditional Windows applications. It has a full-featured keyboard and runs Microsoft Office — but it’s certainly meant to be touched and swiped and tapped.