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Microsoft Surface Review, Part 1: Performance And Display Quality

Surface: Can Microsoft Make Tablets Productivity Tools?

Up until now, we've used tablets in one general way: consume content. We browse the Web, listen to music, watch videos, and play the occasional mainstream game. We all have our more specialized apps, too. From helping educate our kids to organizing wine cellars, finding the best deal at the grocery store, and controlling our home theaters, there is no shortage of ways we've found to use tablets.

But they also suffer a number of limitations, the most glaring of which is, ironically, their handy form factor. It turns out that having what amounts to a small monitor sitting in your lap isn't particularly ideal for getting stuff done (as opposed to enjoying all of those tasks listed above). Sure, there are plenty of folks quite adept at banging out emails on sub-10" displays dominated by on-screen keyboards. But for serious word processing, spreadsheet number crunching, and presentation creation, most of us would rather be in front of a good old fashioned PC.

The Surface piques our interest because it sets out to alter existing preconceptions about tablets. Microsoft is very deliberately working to convince us that it isn't necessary to take a tablet and notebook everywhere we go: its Surface should be every bit as competent at content consumption as its competition, with the added benefit of enabling productivity in a segment where it sorely lacked before.

SpecificationsLengthWidthDepthScreen SizeResolutionAspect RatioWeight
Apple iPad 2 (3G)9.5"7.31".34"9.7"1024x7684:31.33 lb.
Apple iPad 3 (3G)9.5"7.31".37"9.7"2048x15364:31.46 lb.
Microsoft Surface10.8"6.8".37"10.6"1366x76816:91.5 lb.
Motorola Xoom9.86.6".5"10.1"1280x80016:101.5 lb.
Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.110.1"6.9"0.34"10.1"1280x80016:101.3 lb.

When you're gunning to shatter a stereotype, I'd argue that dimensions don't necessarily need to be a first concern. However, Microsoft still needed to design a piece of hardware that qualified as a tablet, first and foremost. Its resulting Surface is longer, taller, and heavier than much of the competition we've reviewed. But it also gives us a nice big 10.6" screen. The Surface would have been heavier, had it employed an aluminum enclosure. However, the tablet's chassis is molded magnesium as thin as .65 mm.

We pre-ordered our Surface and received it on launch day. Naturally, we were eager to get our hands on the device to start running tests. But our news team also received a Surface on launch day, and posted their first impressions about a week ago. Building on those initial thoughts, we also found the Touch Cover that came with our unit slightly lacking for true productivity-oriented tasks, where the feedback of keys is a big variable in the speed at which you're able to type.

After a few hours of use, the smudges seemingly destined to mar any touch-oriented device were clearly visible. This is a reality that has to be faced on even the most popular tablets, and we can't wait for the same oily film to affect our desktops, too. Of course, we're kidding. It's easy enough to grab a tablet and rub it up and down on your shirt whenever your respective limit for unsanitary conditions are crossed. But that's not going to happen when your 27" all-in-one starts looking like a two-year-old's finger painting project.

I imagine the Surface will fall somewhere in-between. Set up as a productivity-oriented portable, it's going to collect a bit of grime in between cleanings. Carried around as a tablet, it's a lot easier to wipe down.

There are a few different ways to use the Surface. Most basically, it's a tablet. Use it in your lap, just as you would an iPad or Nexus 7. Or, activate the kickstand that holds the Surface up at about 20 degrees, positioning it for easier touch-based navigation on a tabletop.

For an extra $100, you can order the basic tablet with the Touch Cover, which attaches at the bottom and folds closed to protect the screen. When the cover is open, however, it serves as a pressure-sensitive keyboard. Our news team didn't particularly care for the lack of feedback, and we'd have to concur. At the same time, it's the best way to keep the Surface as thin as possible.

Stepping up to the $129 Type Cover is worthwhile when you're dead-set on using the Surface as a productivity tool. Although it adds nearly six millimeters to the tablet, closed (compared to the Touch Cover's three millimeters), mechanical keys are far easier to use without looking down and away from the screen.  

The Surface and Type Cover, together, are most similar to the way Asus positions its Transformer family and optional docking station. Asus' solution is significantly thicker, though, taking you from a tablet-like device to something more netbook-ish. Microsoft is trying to maintain the Surface's tablet profile, regardless of how you outfit it with accessories. Although the Surface's nearly-10 mm, plus 6 mm more, are beefier than any other tablet we've used (including the thick Motorola Xoom), it's the best combo we've seen for enabling consumption and productivity.

Both the Touch Cover and Type Cover attach to the bottom of the Surface in landscape mode. One of the two covers, used together with the kickstand, create the netbook-like experience previously missing altogether from the tablet model.

Microsoft Store BundlesPrice
Windows Surface 32 GB (Tablet Only)$499
Windows Surface 32 GB with Black Touch Cover$599
Windows Surface 64 GB with Black Touch Cover$699
Touch Cover (Black, White, Red, Cyan, or Magenta)$119
Type Cover (Black)$129

The Surface is available in two capacities: 32 and 64 GB. You can grab the 32 GB model for $499 if you're willing to forgo any sort of cover at all, putting you at the same price as Apple's base third-gen iPad. The iPad only includes 16 GB of space, but it also gives you a 2048x1536 9.7" screen.

Really, the way to differentiate the Surface is through its covers, though. The $599 package is probably a sweet spot for most, though we'd be most inclined to buy the base model and add the Type Cover. Unfortunately, as of this writing, the $499 model is out of stock, and has been for a while.

Don't feel compelled to splurge on the 64 GB model. Unlike most other tablets, the Surface includes a microSDXC slot behind the kickstand, next to the magnetic power connector. You can buy a 32 GB card for about $20, so it's worth considering the extra capacity as an add-on down the road. Or, if you really want to max out capacity, a 64 GB microSD card sells for around $60.

But there is another way to expand the Surface's storage capacity, too. 

There's a single USB 2.0 port on the tablet's right side, which you can use to attach an external hard drive. Windows RT features native NTFS support, which Android still lacks. For instance, Acer's Iconia Tab A500 (Acer Iconia Tab A500: A Tablet With Honeycomb 3.1) was one of the few tablets with a full-sized USB port that would take a disk or thumb drive. But because Android is limited to FAT32 support, maximum volume size topped out at 2 TB. On the Surface, you can use any drive formatted for your desktop without any problems.