TECHNOLOGY SPECTATOR: Microsoft's Surface tablet

More than an iPad but less than a PC, Microsoft's Surface could struggle to find its place in the world.

Technology Spectator

If you're looking for a poor man's notebook you might be disappointed, but there's actually more to Microsoft's Surface than meets the eye.

Microsoft is a latecomer to the consumer tablet revival but it's gone back to the drawing board with Windows 8, delivering a range of gadgets which are built from the ground up with touchscreens in mind. First out of the blocks were the new Window 8 touchscreen notebooks such as the Acer Aspire S7, but Microsoft's $559 Surface tablet presents a more intriguing taste of things to come.

The Surface sports a bright 10.6-inch, 1366 x 768 display which does an admirable job of handling outdoor glare. Hefted for weight it feels identical to Apple's original 9.7-inch iPad at 680 grams, but thinner and with a larger footprint. The taller 16:9 display also feels awkward in portrait mode if you're familiar with Apple tablets. The Surface feels more natural in landscape mode and has a built-in kickstand for resting on its side.

You wouldn't call it ugly, but the Surface is no sleek and slender fashion statement like the iPad 4 or petite iPad Mini. That's forgivable because, as is often Microsoft's way, the Surface puts substance before style. Turn it over in your hands and you'll find front and rear cameras, along with a micro-HDMI video output, full-sized USB2.0 port and micro-SDXC card slot to complement the 32GB or 64GB of onboard storage. Such impressive connectivity options are a taste of the versatility to come as you delve into the Surface. You also enjoy access to 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, but there's no sign of 3G/4G cellular models at this stage.

Under the bonnet the Surface sports an Nvidia ARM processor designed for mobile devices, rather than a traditional x86 chip from the likes of Intel or AMD. It's easy to get bogged down in the spec sheet but the choice of processor is critical. Shunning x86 architecture in favour of ARM means the Surface only runs a stripped-down version of Windows 8 known as Windows RT. For this reason you'll sometimes see the Surface referred to as the Surface RT, to distinguish it from the upcoming Intel-based Surface Pro which will run a full version of Windows 8 Professional.

An overgrown Windows phone? 

At first glance it appears the Surface is merely an overgrown Windows Phone which can only run the new tablet-style Modern UI found on all Windows 8 devices (formerly known as Metro UI). But just as with a Windows 8 computer, it is possible to brush aside Modern UI on the Surface for the comfort of the traditional Windows desktop (albeit sans the Start menu).

The temptation is to rush straight to the desktop but, to be fair, you can do quite a lot in Modern UI once you learn your way around. For starters you've got access to touch-friendly versions of Internet Explorer, Mail, Skype, Calendar and Contacts. Add to these a range of consumer-friendly apps such as Music, Photos, Videos, Games, Maps, News and Weather. Everything is tied together with Microsoft's cloud services – Office 365, SkyDrive and Hotmail (now renamed "Outlook.com", just to confuse things).

Modern UI is slick and responsive thanks to the 1.3 GHz quad-core processor and 2 GB of RAM. Performance is helped by the fact that Windows 8 uses intelligent resource management to ensure it doesn't grind to a halt when you open too many applications at once. You can run two apps side-by-side, with one taking up the left or right quarter of the screen.

To expand your horizons the Windows Store offers a small but growing range of iOS-style touch-friendly apps – from Angry Birds Star Wars and TuneIn Radio to the more productive Evernote. The promise of running these app across all of your Windows 8 devices is one of the platform's strengths. Meanwhile, Remote Desktop and RemoteApp open up possibilities for professionals relying on Line of Business applications.

While they're useful for many day-to-day tasks, it's important to appreciate that these Modern UI offerings are stripped down single-window apps. This can be frustrating from a productivity perspective, but the Surface's hidden gem is that it actually runs the "Office RT" applications Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote on the desktop rather than in Modern UI. Here you can open multiple documents at once and easily move between them, just like on your desktop PC, rather than struggle with a simplified touch-friendly interface.

Keep in mind this is the non-commercial Home and Student edition of Office, so businesses will need to consider their licensing options. Meanwhile, you'll also find versions of Microsoft's Skype and Lync in the Windows Store, designed to run in Modern UI.

Back on the desktop you've got access to many of Microsoft's pre-installed native applications such as Internet Explorer, Paint, Notepad and Powershell as well as utilities like the Control Panel and Task Manager. What's really impressive is that you can run a Modern UI app on the side of the screen while still dedicating three-quarters of the display to the desktop.

Starting to look like a 'real' computer

About now the Surface is starting to look like a "real" computer, with Modern UI as an optional extra, and it seems a shame that it doesn't feature a physical keyboard. But look more closely. On the bottom edge of the tablet you'll find a magnetic docking port for Microsoft's optional $119 Touch Cover or $150 Type Cover which feature built-in keyboards. The Type Cover offers very shallow keys while the thinner Touch Cover only has a pressure-sensitive keyboard etched into it.

The Touch Cover feels disconcerting at first but offers decent-sized keys along with a small but usable trackpad. It might satisfy occasional typists but wordsmiths would want to weigh it up against the Type Cover. Thankfully the Surface also supports external keyboards and mice via Bluetooth and USB. Even with a Cover attached the Surface is more awkward to balance on your lap than a well-balanced notebook. When it's sitting on a desk you'll lament the fact that the kickstart isn't adjustable so you can't alter the screen angle.

Once you throw in Office on the traditional desktop and a physical keyboard, the Surface looks less like a consumer toy and more like a portable productivity device. Office RT is likely to satisfy most users but it has its limitations. For example it's missing Visual Basic for Applications and support for macros, add-ins and other features that rely on ActiveX controls or third-party code. Excel power users could feel the pinch, along with road warriors trying to incorporate legacy media formats into PowerPoint.

There's also no mail client for the desktop such as Outlook or Outlook Express, which comes as a shock to the system when you've just become comfortable with the desktop. You could use Internet Explorer to access webmail on the desktop. Alternatively you could flick back to Modern UI and use the Mail app which supports Exchange, IMAP and several flavours of webmail.

Remember you're stuck with Windows RT so you can't simply install your own desktop mail client of choice as you would on a Windows 8 PC. If you need something like Outlook, Photoshop, Pagemaker or InDesign you're out of luck. It's not an artificial restriction which can be bypassed by sneaky side-loading, it's a physical limitation of the hardware. Leap into Windows RT without appreciating this and you're in for a world of disappointment.

A mixed bag for enterprises

Windows RT also offers a mixed bag for enterprises. It supports Exchange ActiveSync for Mobile Device Management features but not Active Directory for connecting to in-house resources. This alone could be a deal-breaker for some businesses and you'll certainly need to do your research before bringing Windows RT into the fold. For now IT departments should perhaps best view the Surface as a glorified iPad.

If these kinds of limitations will frustrate you then perhaps you should hold out for the Surface Pro, which we should see in January, or else a third-party tablet running a full version of Windows 8. Yet if these limitations frustrate you then you might be missing the point of the Surface.

So what is the point of the Surface? Good question, but it's one you'll need to answer for yourself. Generous observers would describe the Surface as a touch-friendly iPad rival, with a less-diverse app store but the benefit of true Office compatibility. The icing on the cake is interoperability between Modern UI devices and tight integration with the Microsoft, Office and Xbox 360 ecosystems.

The more pragmatic might describe Microsoft's Surface as a dumbed-down notebook replacement, given a touch-friendly coat of paint in a futile attempt to compete with Apple's all-conquering iGadgets. At $559, plus a keyboard cover, you have to ask yourself why you wouldn't simply pay more for a Windows 8 ultrabook or pay less for an Apple or Android wundertablet.

You might point to weight or price alone as factors in the Surface's favour, but it doesn't matter how much a gadget weighs or how much it costs if it's not the right tool for the job. To fall in love with the Surface you'll need to find a task which it performs better than any of the alternatives, so much better that it outweighs the many limitations of Windows RT. Otherwise you might be better holding out for the Surface Pro or else throwing your lot in with Apple or Android.

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