The Other Tablet
It's here. The first tablet that's supposed to be better than the iPad. It's called Surface, and it's made by Microsoft.
The most important product that Microsoft has created since the Xbox is supposed to be a lot of things: the beginning of a new kind of Microsoft, a stage for the most ambitious version of Windows ever, and an honest-to-god slice of the future. More simply, Surface is just supposed to be the Other Tablet. The tablet that's not an iPad. It is that, sort of. But you shouldn't spend $600 to buy one.
Surface, the first computer ever created by the biggest software company in the world, is the physical manifestation of the fact that personal computers are in a very weird place right now. It's a tablet, but it rapidly transforms into the barest essentials of what constitutes a laptop, with an angled screen, an ultra thin keyboard and a trackpad. The software, called Windows RT, is something brand new, designed for a world that revolves around touch interfaces, but it also runs the desktop that we've been familiar with since Windows 95. The alternative from Apple is a reductionist model of interaction that was born on a phone and is increasingly characterized by pastiche (think wooden bookshelves and leather calendars). I love the iPad, though I feel increasingly limited by it. Surface should be the answer, a tablet that is capable of so much more. It simply isn't.
Surface runs Windows RT, a version of Windows that looks a lot like the full-blown Windows 8, but it doesn't run desktop applications or old Windows apps; it only runs apps designed for the new versions of Windows (except, confusingly, the version of Office that comes pre-installed with Windows RT). Though it represents a fundamentally different view of the world — Apple created the iPad by scaling up a phone, while Microsoft created Surface by scaling down Windows — in practice it makes Surface far more like an iPad than like a PC, although you can do some computer-y things with it, like plug things into its USB port and charge your phone. And right now, there aren't very many useful apps for Surface in Microsoft's app store, so there's less it can do for me currently than an iPad despite Windows RT's inherently more powerful interface. (That said, the Netflix app is amazeballs, and the most excellent Netflix app on any platform, bar none.) The question is whether those apps, the apps Surface needs to be amazing, will ever show up — Microsoft's last major platform, Windows Phone 7, launched with the same app problem and never really managed to recover from it, but in this case the entire Windows ecosystem hangs in the balance.
Deadlier still, a lot of what the New Microsoft promises is a total unity across Windows, Xbox and Windows Phone, but my experience with SmartGlass, the new application that connects an Xbox to a Windows device, was not exactly fantastic. The music and video apps baked into Surface were designed and built by the Xbox team, but music, particularly in concert with my Xbox, was totally confounding to use. Not only is the music service's interface egregiously convoluted, but the number of steps required to find an album on the Xbox Music service, play it on Surface and beam it to an Xbox 360 borders on madness. In general, the SmartGlass architecture is confusing, requiring you to flip back and forth between the apps you're trying to do stuff with and the SmartGlass app, and it's never super clear which app you are or should be in. Bonus gripe: When you haven't picked up SmartGlass for a few minutes, it takes a bit to reconnect to the console, and if your Xbox is playing music, but you decide to switch the track, it'll often start the new track on Surface, resulting in a strange moment where you have two different songs playing in two different places until you re-beam the new song to the Xbox. All in all, it didn't "just work" — it often just felt like work. And this is supposed one of the reasons you drop $500 or $600 on a Surface.
For a device that's supposed to feel more like an appliance, with seamless and beautiful software, there are a number of weird moments that scream "computer!" like black-and-white nightmares bursting into rainbow dreams. In general, the desktop environment feels like a trick, a kludge, because Microsoft didn't have a fully touch oriented version of Office ready to go — so every time you want to use Word or Excel, you're launched into Windows circa 2000-whenever. Conversely, when I tried to preview photos that I imported from a card reader into the desktop environment, it automatically flipped me back into the flashier, tablet-oriented photo app, even though I wanted to stay within the desktop environment.
This is on top of the fact that a lot of the built-in tablet apps feel not just basic, but anemic — a stark contrast to Windows RT's powerful multitasking and sharing interface (just watch me fly through apps in that GIF). The mail app is a stripped down affair, far less useful than a true desktop email client, all the while running far slower than a mobile email app should in 2012. The People app, which tries to pull off being an address book along with a universal social networking app, fails on both ends — you can't, for instance, post on somebody's Facebook wall, but if you've been messing around in the social networking side of the app, it takes too long to get to somebody's info.
All of that said, Surface is a beautiful, substantial and muscular piece of hardware. It's not as elegant, not as insistent on its ability to disappear as an iPad, but it's just as thoughtful, in a different way. It revels in its physicality — that what makes it different is that it can physically transform into something more than a tablet, though it can be something so much less than a laptop when it needs to be, thanks to the built-in kickstand and Microsoft's Touch Cover. The Touch Cover comes bundled with the $600 version of the Surface, or is available separately for $120, but it's a critical part of Surface — as I said before, it's the engine of Surface's transformation.
Without it, Surface is effectively a powerful but less capable iPad, made by Microsoft. With it, Surface becomes something that does approximate a laptop, at least in your ability to type and edit text, as well as perform finer manipulations of things on the screen with a cursor, like a real computer. It can almost fool you into treating it like a real computer, opening tons of apps to do tons of things, but Surface simply doesn't work that way. Not only does it get too slow — in general Surface seems a hair slower than it should be — but in practice the workflow is closer to an iPad than a real computer, because apps are designed to be run full screen. (Speaking of the screen, briefly: The resolution isn't as high as the iPad's retina display but I honestly didn't notice or care. Also, using the 10.6-inch widescreen display in portrait mode feels unsettling — it's too tall and unwieldy — though it's positively immersive in landscape.)
The irony here is that Microsoft, a software company, has mostly nailed the hardware but fallen down when it comes to the software. The deeper irony still is that what matters more and more with devices like Surface is the software, apps and ecosystem that go into and surround the device — not the hardware itself, beyond its ability to be a stage for the software. And Microsoft has very much bet the company on the software inside of Surface — the new Windows that's at the core of its PCs, tablets, phones, and most likely, the next Xbox. I hesitate to question the integrity of the new Windows in its entirety, but after the last week of using Surface and Windows RT, ultimately all I'm left with is questions — questions that won't be answered until the new Windows, in all its forms, is in the hands of millions of other consumers. I can't wait for the next piece of Microsoft hardware, though.
I've been waiting a long time for somebody to produce tablets and phones that are lock, stock and barrel better than what Apple's been making since the first iPhone. Every year, somebody gets closer. Surface is good, but it doesn't get close enough. The thing is, Surface is supposed to be so much more than just Microsoft's iPad alternative, the Other Tablet. It may very well be one day. It has everything it needs to be that. But right now it's just another tablet. And not one you should buy today.