A short Microsoft Surface review

16 November 2012

Me, in June:

Actual judgements about the hardware aside (since, unsurprisingly, these aren’t yet on the market) this looks like the best work to come out of Microsoft since the Xbox 360. This isn’t me grading on a curve either. I’m not giving them extra points for finally making something that looks like it could be good. I’m saying that this device actually looks like it could be a great, viable, product line and could bring Microsoft up-to-speed on many many fronts.

You could say I was optimistic yet skeptical. Like many other product debuts at Microsoft I actually thought the Surface may never see the light of day. But it has. They're shipping them. They exist. Yesterday, while at Viddler HQ, I was able to play with a Surface for a few minutes.

I could have played with it longer. But I wouldn't want to. The Surface is terrible. Even if you've never picked up an iPad or an Android-powered tablet you would think the Surface is pretty slow, hard to use, and heavy; three things a tablet device should probably never have said about it.

I know, I know, some may think because I'm such an Apple fan boy that I wouldn't like the Surface even if it was truly great. Remember, I said "this device actually looks like it could be a great, viable, product line" for Microsoft. And I think it still could be. When playing with the Surface yesterday I said that I thought it still belonged in a lab - not being sold to the public.

When I first grabbed the Surface the running joke in the office was "Open Mail." At least two people told me to open the mail application. I tried. After waiting about a minute for the mail application to launch I gave up.

Then I tried Word. Surely this should be a simple, easy-to-use version of Word where I would launch it and immediately be able to begin typing, right? Wrong. Tapping on Word opened up a version of Windows 8 that looks like Windows Vista and then launches Word just like you would see on your desktop computer. Once the canvas loads where you can begin typing the cursor pops up and sits there, flashing at you, waiting to be used. Only, there is a problem, there is no keyboard.

Like the iPad, a physical keyboard does not come standard.The Surface has a few optional keyboards that could be purchased with it but they are pretty expensive and since this is simply a testing unit for Viddler our Head of QA decided we didn't need the physical keyboard. Arguably, though, the physical keyboard is one of the main reasons why someone would want a Surface.

Anyway, back to Word. So the traditional, desktop version of Word is sitting there - cursor blinking - and there is no keyboard. I'm used to how iOS and Android work so I thought that simply tapping into the area where I'd like to type would be enough for the OS to know that I'd need a virtual keyboard. Only, I'm in the part of the OS (the Windows Vista-looking part) that isn't smart enough to know this. So, after a few moments of panic, one of my fellow Viddler team members had to run over and show me that there was a button to ask for the virtual keyboard. The entire experience was really quite jarring.

Next, I opened Camera. Camera is one of those applications on Surface that you have to figure out how to use by experimenting. There is no apparent way to do anything. Not even take a photo or record a video. Rather than there being any interface for the application the entire Surface becomes a window to the world around you. Which seems nice in concept but I found it very frustrating. To take a photo you tap the screen. OK, that seems discoverable enough. But, how do I view that photo after I've taken it? How do I share it? How do I send that photo to my mother? Well, going into the Photo library application doesn't show you the photos you've taken with the Camera. So that's not it. Oh, the video I shot with the Camera? That isn't in the Videos app. This is what you have to do; you have to five-finger pinch within the Camera application to pull up a "slideshow" of your photos/videos that you've taken. This is not-so-discoverable.

By this time I was fed up with the Surface. I poked around a bit more and only got more and more frustrated with the device. For instance, I didn't find a single application that supported portrait-mode. So the device had to be in landscape all the time. Obviously Microsoft intends on you using this thing, kick-stand out, sitting on a desk with the $129 optional physical keyboard attached.

As of today the Microsoft Surface isn't a tablet. It is a thin PC that still needs a physical keyboard that runs a pretty cool touch OS that should be called Metro and an ancient and terrible OS called Windows. And it is heavy.