mercredi 24 octobre 2012

Microsoft Surface review

The Microsoft Surface is no minor thing to review, especially when you consider the stakes for this product. The tablet / laptop hybrid — which was announced at a surprise event in Los Angeles back in June — is not just a unique product in the market, it's also the first of its kind for Microsoft. The company's foray into designing and building its own hardware is not exactly unheard of, but competing directly with partners on PCs certainly is. Adding fuel to an already-crackling fire, Microsoft is making two distinct versions of the Surface available: the $499 (and up) Surface with Windows RT, which runs a scaled back version of Windows for ARM chipsets, and the yet-to-be-released Surface with Windows 8 Pro, a full-on, Intel-based Windows machine with all the power you'd expect from a modern laptop. I've been tasked with reviewing the former, a product which competes in both price and functionality with the iPad and higher-end Android tablets.

The device itself is an interesting new addition to a crowded market. Though Windows RT touts a desktop environment which looks and feels very similar to Windows 7, the OS doesn't allow for legacy Windows applications to be run or installed, save for the Office suite and a desktop version of Internet Explorer 10. Furthermore, new apps must be written for the tiled environment of Windows 8 — the new Windows Phone-influenced interface which seemingly defines Microsoft's future.

So what to make of this strange hybrid? Is it the next logical step in computing — a transmutable slab which offers the best of the past and the present — or is it something else? A half-step, a feint, a compromise? Can you really have it all, as Microsoft suggests, or is the Surface trying to go in too many directions at once?

Hardware and design :

The Surface hardware is handsome indeed. The rectangular slab is a magnesium alloy forged from what Microsoft calls VaporMg, though it feels like thin, stiff aluminum to the touch. The device is wrapped edge-to-edge in the material, which is treated in a black (or nearly black) paint job. The backing is prone to fingerprints, though it's easy to clean. Microsoft seems to be focused on clean, simple lines both in Windows 8 and its recent product designs, and the Surface reflects that in spades. The sides, bottom, and top of the device edge back from the glass front in a slight taper, making for an angular, clean profile. On the back of the Surface, there's a small strip of plastic that houses a camera (and presumably Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios), as well as the novel, full-width kickstand that the company is touting as a key feature of the device.

The kickstand is indeed a unique addition to a tablet of this size, and it's sturdy and works reasonably well. I do have some niggles with it — particularly the fact that its position can't be adjusted in any way, meaning you have to like the angle the screen is at and live with it (it was usually too upright in most scenarios I tried it in, but not unusable by any means). The kickstand also has extremely sharp metal edges, which caused it to scratch a couple of wooden surfaces I found myself placing the Surface on. It's also not very useful on your lap — unless you like to struggle. You could use the kickstand to put the Surface upright in portrait, though it's not terribly stable, and I wouldn't trust it to not fall over with the wrong kind of touch.

The front of the tablet is all screen, save for a small camera and light embedded beneath the display at the top and a capacitive Windows home button that sits centered (in landscape, the preferred orientation) at the bottom. Along the top of the device, you'll find a sleep / power button on the upper right edge. On the left side is a set of volume rockers and a headphone jack, while the right side boasts a USB jack, Micro HDMI port, and the odd and difficult to use proprietary power jack. A microSDXC slot hides underneath the kickstand. I mean, it's really hidden; there's not even a little icon to indicate where it is.
Along the bottom edge of the device is a powerful magnet and dock connector which allows you to attach either the Touch Cover or the Type Cover accessories. The magnet worked extremely well, and both accessories are interesting experiments which have their plusses and minuses — I'll talk about them more later on in the review.
The Surface looks and feels pretty good when you're holding it... but it is huge. At 10.81 inches across (in landscape) and 0.37 inches thick, it's not really that comfortable to hold in landscape for extended periods, and in portrait it's laughably tall. Trying to hold the device upright to read a book in the Kindle app felt about as ridiculous as taking a picture with a tablet. Maybe more ridiculous, actually. The Surface seems to desperately want to be docked and on a desk or table rather than in your hands or on your lap. After using it for an extended period of time, it's hard to imagine bedtime reading or casual throw-it-in-a-bag use for this device. It's nice that Microsoft wanted to retain the 16:9 aspect ratio, but I would have happily traded some of that wide real estate for a more portable, comfortable device. In comparison to a new iPad or Nexus 7, the device seemed bulky, awkward, and just plain heavy. That's especially telling considering that the thickness and weight of the Surface and the iPad are nearly identical — those extra inches matter.
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.

Specs, cameras, display :
Inside the Surface, you'll find an Nvidia Tegra 3 chipset, 2GB of RAM, and either 32GB or 64GB of hardwired storage (I tested the 64GB version). You'll find the requisite Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios as well, alongside a light sensor, an accelerometer, gyroscope, and digital compass — but no 3G or 4G radio options. The Surface has two microphones and a set of stereo speakers, which sound decent, though they sometimes distorted when I was playing back music or video. The battery in the Surface is a hefty 31.5 watt-hours — that's solid, but keep in mind the iPad is lighter and has a 42.5 watt-hour battery.
The device has two 720p cameras (one on the front and one on the back), which have surprisingly good low-light performance, but are otherwise grainy and unremarkable. You probably know how I feel about taking photos with a tablet, but for video conferencing the front-facing shooter is quite good, with a very wide field of view, making for group conversations that don't require sardine-like packing of participants.

The Surface has a fine set of specifications, but this isn't a speeds-and-feeds affair. In fact, the device is in some ways all about the opposite of biggest and baddest. Microsoft has made a big deal about squeezing Windows down to function on a more modest ARM chipset with less RAM on hand, and the Surface clearly shows off the realization of that work.

Performance and battery life :

Overall performance on the Surface was a bit hit or miss. In terms of general UI responsiveness, touch response, speed and framerate of the tile interface, Windows desktop, and most basic OS functionality, the Surface felt incredibly speedy. Switching between apps was fast and fluid, organizing and navigating the Start screen felt snappy, and live tiles flipped and updated smoothly and as expected. Many of the first-party apps — particularly Internet Explorer in the new interface — felt good to me, but others left me wanting. The native email application, for instance, could be slow to update and unresponsive to touch on a regular basis. Other apps, both first and third-party, could be slow to open, then stall or crash altogether. Some 3D games, such as Rocket Riot, seemed fluid and natural, while others staggered along, seemingly struggling to pump out an acceptable frame rate.

When I was just dealing with the core OS, the Surface felt like a lively, sophisticated, fast-moving new system, but the deeper I got into apps and the more apps I opened, the more the device seemed to bog down. There were other issues too: video playback in the browser was a spotty experience. Flash content didn't fare too well in either the desktop or new browser, and some HTML5 playback stuttered and dropped frames during play.

I can't say for sure that the performance issues were due to a software problem, hardware deficiency, or some combination of the two — I only know that my experience wasn't 100 percent consistent. On the plus side, my general takeaway is that the Surface is a highly capable and highly enjoyable device to use most of the time, and is likely in need of some bug fixing and optimization. However, that seems like it should have been done prior to the release of the product to the public.

Battery life, on the other hand, was consistent and impressive on the Surface. Microsoft claims that users can nab somewhere in the vicinity of eight hours on a single charge in mixed use. My experience bore those numbers out, and then some. I was able to put the Surface through a full day of relatively heavy use (video playback and streaming, document editing, lots of web browsing, app downloads, game playing, email, Twitter, and more) and still had some charge left that evening... and into the next morning, without having plugged it in overnight. Battery life on the Surface seemed more akin to an iPad than a laptop — which makes sense given the ARM architecture. In the same way I never worry about whether I've charged the iPad recently, I found myself carelessly leaving the Surface off of the charger for extended periods. And I think that's a good thing.

Touch and Type Cover :

Microsoft isn't just introducing a new tablet — it's got a couple of novel accessories up its sleeve too. I'm speaking, of course, about the clever hybrid products that do double duty as protective covers and physical keyboards, called the Touch Cover and the Type Cover.

The Touch Cover has been more visible in Microsoft's advertising of the Surface, and rightfully so. Not only is it a very new kind of product for tablets, but the company is offering it in a variety of bright colors that are extremely eye catching. While both the Touch and Type Cover snap onto the bottom of the tablet using a set of pogo connectors and a strong magnet, the Touch Cover is unique in that it's a physical keyboard with no moving parts. Instead, there is a set of raised keys on the soft, material-like surface. And not just keys, but a fully functional multitouch trackpad with two buttons.

On a desk or other flat surface, the Touch Cover works reasonably well. It doesn't come close to replicating a physical, tactile keyboard, but it does do a good job of reminding you where your fingers need to be. I was surprised that it often took a little more pressure on the keys to get input to register, but once I figured out the appropriate heaviness, it wasn't too much of an issue. My typing rate seemed to increase as I used the cover more, though I found myself mistyping and having to correct (and re-correct) errors I had made. It might be a matter of adjustment, but it wasn't a completely pain-free experience.

The Touch Cover feels excellent on the device from a screen protection standpoint, and it feels good when you wrap it over the back of the device (as you'd fold back a magazine or book). The Surface has a way of sensing what position the cover is in using its accelerometer, though I did experience a few glitches where the cover was on the back of the Surface, but still sending chaotic key presses to the device. Luckily this issue was few and far between.

The Type Cover is another story altogether — it's one of the best portable keyboards I've ever used. Like the Touch Cover, it functions as a screen protector, but unlike the Touch Cover, it has a full complement of great-feeling, tactile keys. Typing on it was akin to working on my MacBook Air, and I rarely made mistakes because of the size of the keyboard or the positioning of the keys. It really was a joy to use.

I do have two issues with the accessory, however. The first is that it's a bit uncomfortable to use when it's wrapped around the back of the device; feeling keys under your fingers is just not reassuring. Secondly, a handful of times I had keys pop up slightly off of their retainer, making for missed presses and the need to realign and replace the key where it should have been. It's not a huge deal, and it's certainly something that happens on laptop keyboards from time to time, but with all of the action this accessory will see, it is a little worrisome.

Both covers are relatively expensive ($119 for the Touch Cover and $129 for the Type Cover), and both have plusses and minuses — but I do think they make the Surface a more attractive device, and I think it's somewhat incomplete without at least one of them. Microsoft seems to agree, hence its $599 bundle that includes the Touch Cover. One caveat — you don't get to pick your color, so you might want to spend that extra $20, buy the pieces separately, and show off your wild side.
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