Using Microsoft Surface in the Real World, part II – The Hardware

In part I, I rambled on about how I think the Surface with Windows RT tablet fits into the PC/laptop/tablet ecosystem.  Now let’s talk a little bit about the hardware.

Note: This review is about the Surface with Windows RT, released on 26 Oct, 2012.  Throughout the review, I’ll just refer to it as the “Surface”.

In a word, the Surface is gorgeous.  At 1.5 lbs and 9.4 mm thick, it feels great to hold and evokes the same kind of satisfied joy that I felt after unboxing and holding my first iPod.  The black metal case on the Surface–the “VaporMg” case made out of molded Magnesium–is the first thing that you notice.  So far, after a week of use, I haven’t seen any scratches on it.  This is a nice change from the scratch-magnet aluminum back of my iPad.

(Note: Click to see larger versions of all photos in this post).

The image above shows the left edge of the Surface, which includes one of the speakers, an audio jack, volume rocker switch control and a view of the kickstand at the bottom on the device.

The top edge includes a couple more tiny speakers and the power switch.  The right edge, shown below, includes the receptacle for the magnetic power connector, a USB 2.0 port, a micro connector for an HDMI cable and another speaker.

On the bottom edge you’ll find the magnetic connectors for the Touch/Type Cover attached keyboards.

My only concern with the various ports is that they’ll attract dirt or other particles, since none of them have covers.  For example, when you have the display turned on and you peer into the audio jack, you can see the back of the display.  The makes me worry a little bit about junk finding its way into the interior of the case.

You can use the Surface without a cover, interacting with it using only touch gestures and typing using the onscreen keyboard.  But you’ll more likely want to attach one of the combo covers/keyboards.  The Touch Cover is thinner and fuzzier than the Type Cover, which has mechanical keys.  (I only got the Touch Cover).

Attaching the Touch Cover to the Surface is the most delightful part of the hardware experience.  You only need to get the cover’s connector somewhere within the vicinity of the edge of the Surface and the magnet pulls it the rest of the way, until it snaps in place with a satisfying click.  There is no fiddling with the cover, trying to get it to align properly.  It just works.  More importantly, pulling the cover off or snapping it back on is extremely quick.

With the cover attached, you’ll have the Surface in one of three different configurations: 1) cover closed over display when you’re not using it, 2) cover unfolded, keyboard out and kickstand open, or 3) cover folded backwards over the case so that you can touch/type directly on the screen.

With the Touch Cover open, you’ll almost certainly want the kickstand on the back of the case opened and the Surface sitting on a flat surface.  The way that the cover attaches, it doesn’t work to have both the cover and case of the Surface both lying on a flat surface.

If you’re sitting somewhere and you want the Surface on your lap, you’ll either want to fold the keyboard out of the way completely, or end up folding out the kickstand and balancing the Surface on your lap so that you can use the keyboard.  This is a little precarious, so you’ll really end up using the keyboard only when the Surface is on a flat, stable surface.

When you do place the Surface on a table or desk, the kickstand on the back snaps out easily and feels quite solid.

The power supply that comes with the surface attaches to the case with a magnetic connector that is surprisingly hard to connect.  Unlike the Touch Cover, which easily snaps into place, the power connector for some reason requires a lot of attention to get the pins to line up correctly.  It doesn’t just snap into place.

The USB connector works as you’d expect.  You can attach any USB 2.0 compliant hardware to the port and it just works.  I’ve tried basic keyboards and mice, as well as a couple of USB memory sticks, and everything worked without a hitch.

Just under the kickstand on the back of the case is a slot for a microSDXC memory card.  You can currently pick up a 64GB card for about $60.  Plugging in a card works just like a USB-based memory stick–the card shows up in Windows as a removable disk.  (More in a future post on how to use content on the card).

Typing on the Touch Cover was surprisingly pleasant.  It’s not meant to be equivalent to typing on a laptop keyboard, but is actually quite a bit easier to use than the chiclet keyboards that you find on Netbooks.  The individual keys have fairly large touch targets, are slightly raised and the inside surface of the keyboard has a nice satisfying fuzzy feel to it.

Many of us have gotten used to using on-screen keyboards on tablets, typing on glass.  This is workable, but never quite feels like a real keyboard.  The Touch Type keyboard is meant as an alternative to typing “on the glass” and gives you a much better experience.  I’m a touch typist who types pretty fast and I was able to be a lot more productive with the Touch Type keyboard with its taller keys.

The picture below shows the on-screen keyboard as well as the Touch Type keyboard, so you can see the relative size of both.  (You’d never see this configuration in real life, though–when you start typing on the Touch Type keyboard, the on-screen keyboard automatically disappears).

One thing about the keyboard that was not at all obvious as I first started using it is that it actually has “keys” for the left and right mouse buttons.  Immediately below the touchpad, which you use to move the mouse pointer, is a little vertical divider.  You can click on either side of the divider to get a left or right mouse button click.  It made my day to discover this–one week into using the Surface.

The other half of the experience with the Touch Type keyboard is that it becomes the cover for the Surface, folding over the display.  It works well as a cover, keeping the screen protected.  Its fuzzy surface gives the Surface a nice friendly personality when it’s just sitting on a desk, waiting to be used.

With the keyboard folded over to cover the display, the connector is at an angle that prevents it from becoming disconnected, which is nice.  You have to fully open the keyboard cover in order to disconnect it.

Another nice touch, really a requirement, is that when the keyboard folds backwards under the display, it disables keystrokes. This means that you can’t accidentally enter keystrokes with your fingers curled around the back of the Surface while you’re interacting with it using touch gestures on the front.

The display is very crisp and bright.  It feels much more crisp and readable than you’d guess, given that the resolution is 1366 x 768.  The resolution is in the same ballpark as my iPad 2, whose resolution is 1024 x 768.  But the content on the screen of the Surface seems much more crisp and readable.  This likely has to do with the fonts used on the Surface and the fact that the Surface is using ClearType technology to improve the resolution of the fonts.  Microsoft devotes a lot of resources to typography and the results are stunning.  At an equivalent pixel density, the Surface looks a great deal better than the competing displays.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that ClearType is going to make a 1366 x 768 display look as sharp as the iPad’s retina display at 2048 x 1536.  But the clarity of the display on the Surface will likely look quite good when compared directly to the retina display.  The Surface with Windows 8 Pro will have an even better resolution when it shows up in January of 2013, at 1920 x 1080.  It will also use ClearType.

(Click on the image below and then use the zoom function in your browser to see the following screenshot at its original size).

The default brightness setting for the display is a little dimmer than I would like, but is a compromise for the sake of battery life.  The colors really pop out and everything becomes much more vivid, however, when you turn the brightness up a bit.

The display also looks great when watching videos–one of the main use cases for the Surface.  Even though the display isn’t a full HD resolution screen (1920 x 1080), HD videos look great–with crisp detail and very smooth playback.

Power management makes use of the standard Power Options settings in Windows 8.  Note that you can change the brightness settings independently for when the Surface is running on battery vs. plugged in.  Also worth noting–the Surface turns off the display shortly after you close the Touch Type cover.

The touch screen is very responsive, across all the apps that I’ve tried using so far.  The Surface has a 5 point multi touch display, which means that you get the now standard pinch-to-zoom behavior that we’ve come to expect on these devices.

The screen show below is from an app that shows you all the spots on the screen where the Surface is currently detecting a touch.

The Surface doesn’t have a physical orientation lock button, like the iPad.  You can presumably lock the orientation using a little display lock widget on the Charms bar.  But I’ve had no luck in getting this to actually prevent auto-orientation of the screen.  It’s likely just operator ignorance, but this doesn’t appear to be very easy for the average user.

The battery performance has been excellent.  Microsoft touts a 10 hr battery life.  While I haven’t tested it, I’ve been using the Surface off an on throughout a full day and never even came close to fully draining the battery.

Conclusions

At the end of the day, the Surface is a beautiful piece of hardware.  This is absolutely how a tablet should work.  It powers up and down instantly, has a responsive touch screen, and a gorgeous display.  The addition of the USB port and the Touch Type keyboard/cover, however, put it over the top.  You can plug in an external mouse or keyboard and even connect a HDMI cable to a larger display.  The Touch Type cover works perfectly in its role as both a keyboard and a cover and detaches/attaches effortlessly.  With the attached keyboard, the Surface suddenly becomes less like a tablet and more like a mini laptop.

That’s all I have for now on the hardware.  Next time, I’ll talk about the basics of using Windows RT on the Surface.

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Using Microsoft Surface in the Real World, part I

When the new Microsoft Surface device was announced, I decided to dive in and become an early adopter.  I promptly ordered a Surface (with Windows RT) and was pleased to get a confirmation e-mail indicating that I would receive my surface on 26 Oct, 2012–the same day that the Surface RT launched.

I’ve had the chance to start using the Surface RT over the past few days, so I thought I’d share some of my first impressions.  In this first post, I’ll offer up my thoughts about where the Surface fits into the mobile devices ecosystem and who the target market is.  In future posts, I’ll dive more into using the Surface for a variety of tasks.

(Note: “Surface RT” is my shorthand for Microsoft’s official name of “Surface with Windows RT”.  This is to contrast with “Surface with Windows 8 Pro”, which will ship in January, 2013).

In for A Penny

The three main Surface SKUs are as follows:

  • 32GB, tablet only – $499
  • 32GB, with Touch Cover – $599
  • 64GB, with Touch Cover – $699

I opted to go “all in” and got the 64GB model with the Touch Cover.

Touch Cover or Type Cover?

The Touch Cover is one of the two available add-on keyboard covers, which both snap in to the side of the Surface and also fold over the screen to act as a cover.  Comparing the two keyboards:

  • Touch Cover – $119.99 (if bought separately), pressure-sensitive keys, 3.25 mm thick,  0.46 lbs, comes in Cyan, White, Magenta, Black, Red.  Spill resistant.
  • Type Cover – $129.99, mechanical keys, 6 mm thick, 0.55 lbs, comes in black.  Includes function keys.

So you want the Type Cover if you want a keyboard with keys that actually move.  You want the Touch Cover if you want your Surface to be 3 mm thinner, you need a stylish color for a keyboard cover, or you expect to spill a hot cup of coffee all over the keyboard.  I drink a lot of coffee, so I went with the Touch Cover.

Both keyboards also include a trackpad.

It’s also worth mentioning that since the Surface has a USB port, you can plug in an external keyboard or mouse.  Since you only get one USB port, it’s a Sophie’s Choice situation and you have to pick which one you’d rather use.  In all honesty, this makes complete sense–I can see plugging in an external mouse, making it easier to work with the desktop-based Office applications.  But I’m less convinced that you’d want to plug in a full-size keyboard.

Those Other Guys

Since I haven’t yet talked about using the Surface, it’s perhaps premature to compare it to that other tablet.  And Microsoft may tell you that they are not competing directly against the iPad or targeting the same market.  Still, plenty of buyers will be making a buying decision between these devices, based mostly on the bullet item list.  So it’s worth considering how the Surface looks on the showroom floor, as compared to the iPad.

There are even more SKUs for the iPad than the Surface–I counted 14 different iPad SKUs.  Let’s just line up at least one of the iPad models to see how it compares to the Surface.

32GB WiFi Retina iPad vs. 32GB Surface (w/no Touch Cover)

  • iPad – $599 buys you a 32GB Wi-Fi only iPad with
    • 9.7″ display with 264 PPI (pixels per inch), 2048 x 1536
    • 1.44 lbs, 9.4 mm thick
    • 69-1/2 sq in of device
    • Dual-core A6X chip with quad-core graphics (1GB RAM)
    • Cameras: 1.2MP front-facing (720p HD video), 5MP rear-facing (1080p HD video)
    • 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi
    • Bluetooth 4.0
    • Battery: 10 hrs of use, 42.5 W-h
    • App store with 700,000 apps
  • Surface RT – $499 buys you a 32GB Wi-Fi only Surface with
    • 10.6″ display with with 148 PPI, 1366 x 768
    • 1.5 lbs, 9.4 mm thick
    • 73-1/4 sq in of device
    • Quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 (2GB RAM)
    • Cameras: Front and rear 1.2MP (720p HD video)
    • 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi
    • Bluetooth 4.0
    • Battery: 10 hrs of use, 31.5 W-h
    • App store with 10,000 apps  (growing by 500 apps/day)
    • microSD slot
    • USB 2.0 port
    • Port for Touch/Type Cover keyboards

So $100 more for the iPad gets you a higher resolution screen, better camera, and a lot more apps–while giving up the extra microSD and USB ports, as well as the ability to attach a Touch/Type cover.

We might also compare the $499 Surface RT against the $399 Wi-Fi iPad 2.  The differences between the two are then:

  • iPad 2 $100 less than Surface RT
  • iPad 2 has 16GB memory, vs. 32GB for Surface RT
  • iPad 2 with 132 PPI display vs. 148 PPI for Surface RT
  • Similar cameras
  • microSD slot, USB 2.0 port and Touch/Type Cover ports for Surface RT

Why a Tablet?

I’ve grown up knowing Microsoft as a software company.  They’ve had a few forays into hardware markets, some of which worked out well (e.g. XBox, the $1+B warranty costs notwithstanding) and some that didn’t (e.g. Zune).  But other than XBox, they still make most of their money off of software–Windows on the desktop, Windows Server, and Office.  At roughly $18 billion a quarter, they’re doing pretty well–until you consider that Apple’s revenue is nearly double that of Microsoft’s and that most of it comes from selling mobile devices to consumers.

The mobile device market has exploded in the past couple of years and iOS has mostly dominated the market, with Android now making serious inroads.  Given the size of the mobile market, and the fact that it’s still growing, Microsoft absolutely needs to be a player in this space.  They will continue to make lots of money off of software for many years to come.  But to remain relevant, they need to grab a piece of the mobile devices market.

Windows 8 is Microsoft’s bid for a touch-centric mobile operating system, competing against Android and iOS.  But having a great software offering for mobile won’t do any good unless people start actually buying devices that are running Windows 8.

This is the point where Microsoft is going all-in.  It’s not enough for them to create a great touch-based operating system and then just hand it off to their hardware partners and pray that the partners get some traction in the market.  This market is too important for Microsoft to entrust  it entirely to their partners.  They can’t afford not to build their own hardware device–one that showcases what they’ve done with Windows 8.  Like Apple, they can then take a no compromises approach to the device, developing both the hardware and the software and controlling the entire user experience.  Case in point: there is no third-party crapware on the Surface.

Microsoft is, of course, hoping that their partners also do well in getting Windows 8 mobile devices into users’ hands.  But building the Surface lets them stand out in front of the partners and show them what the user experience should be for these devices.  That’s why the Surface RT and Surface Pro devices exist.

Who Is This Thing For?

The tablet market is an outgrowth of the smartphone market, both of which are mobile devices with a persistent connection to the Internet and enough horsepower to deliver a rich user experience.

Smartphones and tablets are both targeted at a wide variety of users (which is why the market is so huge).  This covers younger users, using smartphones for communication and social, all the way up to the 60+ crowd, using tablets for e-mail and web browsing.

In my mind, the tablet is primarily a device for the couch.  It’s mainly targeted at consumers using it while at home, for things like:

  • Browsing the web  (e.g. the Pinterest addiction)
  • Social  (Facebook, Twitter, Google+)
  • E-mail
  • Games
  • Entertainment  (Netflix, Hulu, YouTube)
  • News

While the tablet is seen as more of a media and entertainment device, the smartphone is seen as a device for communication and social.  It’s easy to make the case that many users will regularly use both devices.  During the day, they carry their phone, using it for texting, voice and checking social networks.  In the evening, they plop down on the couch, pull out their tablet and use it to check e-mail, play a game, or watch a show (TV or movies).

The tablet is therefore primarily a consumer-targeted device used for content consumption.  This is our “post PC” era, where the devices that we use have evolved to better fit our model of using them mostly for consumption.

To a lesser degree, tablets have also begun to be seen as a productivity device.  As people start using these devices for content consumption and the devices become ubiquitous, it’s only natural that we’ll want to start using them at work, or using them to do work.  There are a variety of productivity use cases, including:

  • Checking work e-mail from home
  • Contact management
  • Creating/editing/sharing documents
  • Running custom enterprise apps for consuming and sharing business data

People have been talking at length about the BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) phenomenon, with people bringing their tablets to work and expecting them to integrate seamlessly into the enterprise ecosystem.  But iOS and Android devices have not yet made serious inroads into the enterprise.  There are still many challenges, including: security, authentication and easy sharing of data.  There’s also potentially a high development cost, as employees expect someone to port existing Windows-based enterprise applications to the tablet platforms.

This is Microsoft’s big gamble and where they really hope to make inroads into the enterprise with Windows 8 tablets.  A tablet based on Windows can bypass many of the typical issues with BYOD.  File sharing becomes easier, Remote Desktop allows connecting to your desktop from home, and support for Active Directory makes authentication trivial.

The gotcha for Microsoft is that BYOD doesn’t work unless users actually have the device to bring to work in the first place.  There might be some cases where an enterprise will proactively acquire Windows 8 devices.  But the more natural progression is that users will start out with a Windows 8 tablet as a content consumption device at home and then bring the tablet to work, where they’ll begin to use it as a productivity device.

Surface for Windows RT is the first step along this path.  It’s meant to be the consumer-focused device for content consumption.  It’s the device for the couch.  It’s big brother, Surface with Windows 8 Pro, is the next step along the path.  It will be the device that you’ll want to bring to work, adding support for Outlook, Sharepoint, desktop applications and Active Directory.  (Find Surface with Windows RT vs. Surface with Windows 8 Pro comparison here).

At least that’s the idea.  For the vision to work, Microsot first needs users to buy Windows 8 tablets.

Next Time

That’s enough for now.  Next time, I’ll start diving into examples of specific things that I’ve tried using the Surface for.

Microsoft Surface Unboxing

Unboxing a new 64GB Surface tablet from Microsoft.  This is the 64GB Surface with black touch cover, $699.  Microsoft was as good as their word and I received the Surface on 26 Oct, 2012–launch day for Windows 8 and for Surface.  No lines, no waiting.

Fairly attractive box.

Simple branding.

The whole she-bang–a simple black outer sleeve with an inner white box for the Surface.

The inner white box, also with simple branding.

Slide the white box to reveal the touch cover in a little compartment below.

A closer view of the touch cover, with a fairly pleasant black material.

Another view of the touch cover.

Touch cover from the side

Keys on touch cover are slightly raised, but do not click or have any travel.

A closeup of the magnetic connector at the back of the touch cover.

The full touch cover keyboard

Instructions are in tiny little booklet.

Simple and elegant instructions on how to use kickstand and touch cover

Finally, opening the main box

In the box is the Surface tablet and a power supply.

Surface is 12-1/2″ diagonal, in total

On edge

Below the device is another little instruction booklet.

Right edge has speaker, HD video out, USB and connector for power cable.

Connecting the touch cover was simple.  And yes, it did result in a satisfying click.

Another view of the right side of the Surface, including a good view of the kickstand flush against the back of the device

The outside surface of the touch cover is sort of fuzzy.

The magnetic connector for the touch cover

Another view of the touch cover connector

Power supply has folding set of prongs.

Power supply connector on the Surface side is another magnetic connector.

Surface now plugged in

Flipping out the kickstand

Standing on the kickstand, with the touch cover folded up

Side view, kickstand out, touch cover up

Small instruction booklet

Warranty and license junk for Windows (both Windows 8 and Windows RT)

Windows RT instruction manual couldn’t be simpler.

Instructions for the Surface itself, showing the location of various ports

Hardware setup consists of clicking the touch cover onto the Surface.

Software setup consists of pressing power button and following instructions.

Badge with model info is behind the kickstand.

microSD port is behind the kickstand.

View of the edge of touch cover with folded over connector strip

Surface is plugged in and charging.

One final view