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Microsoft Surface Review, Part 1: Performance And Display Quality

The Surface Impresses, But Makes Compromises Too

We've been using and testing Microsoft's Surface for more than a week, and we have mixed feelings about the tablet on its own and the tablet with the Touch Cover. We're much more excited about using the Surface with Microsoft's Type Cover.

The kickstand works well, as does the magnetic power connector. Performance is snappy (aside from our experiences on a handful of Flash-heavy sites), and display quality is fair, at the very least.  

Conversely, the Touch Cover isn't your best asset for enabling productivity-oriented typing. Windows RT has an inherent learning curve associated with it. And the 16:9 screen, though nice and wide, isn't particularly conducive to typing with a two-hand grip. I might just have small hands, but in landscape mode, it's simply too hard to reach the middle of the default keyboard layout to type with my thumbs. The split mode is much more ergonomic, but I also find my eyes darting back and forth between the halves. Microsoft seems to be saying, "Use me in portrait mode, use my kickstand, or use one of the two covers."

Is the tablet alone worth spending $500? It's certainly not made any more compelling when you take away its Touch and Type Covers, that's for sure. We end up with another content consumption-oriented device that's tough to use in your two hands, just asking for a more elegant input mechanism.

So, how about the $600 package? Adding a Touch Cover helps make it more clear what the Surface was really designed to do. It's responsive to rapid text input, and the touchpad up front responds to a number of gestures, such as two-fingered scrolling. But I have a habit of dragging my fingers around, and on the Touch Cover, that translates into unintended typing errors, which get exacerbated by a lack of feedback when you end up on the wrong key.

It really takes adding the $129 Type Cover to more closely match the functionality of a notebook, which is where productivity takes off. Granted, the extra thickness detracts from Surface's role as a tablet. However, it's easy to go from a handheld device to a propped-up display to a full word processing-ready platform. I'm not going to hold 6 mm against the Surface for what the Type Cover adds.

Naturally, we can't ignore Windows RT and the Draconian rules applied to its Windows Store. That you're limited to apps listed on the Store and prevented from using third-party apps is going to be a turn off for a great many people. Currently, the number of apps available is fairly low, and those that do exist aren't necessarily memorable (Ed.: Except the Tom's Hardware app, of course!).

If you're not bothered by the Surface's limitations, which are mostly imposed by its ARM-based guts, then this tablet, plus the Type Cover, is pretty hot. But PC power users will certainly want to hear more about the Surface Pro before making a commitment. We already know it'll feature an Ivy Bridge-based Core i5, a higher-resolution screen, more storage space, and Windows 8 Pro. Although the Surface Pro will be heavier, thicker, and more expensive, fewer compromises will further that marriage of content consumption and productivity.

In the days to come I'm going to test whether I can replace my tablet and notebook with a Surface, enabling a simultaneous marriage between mobility and capability I haven't enjoyed before. So, there will be a Part 2 that covers real-world use, gaming support, and battery life. But I'll say it up-front: the Surface Pro is much more interesting to me.