Is Microsoft’s new Surface your next iPad, or is it your next personal computer?
It isn’t an idle question. The company is touting the Surface, its shiny new tablet-PC hybrid, as something of an iPad-killer. After a week of using it, I’m not so sure. But it may just be the slickest laptop I’ve used in a very long time.
Technically, the Surface isn’t a PC at all, since it doesn’t run on the Intel (INTC) microprocessors that are the industry standard. Instead, it uses an Nvidia (NVDA) chip of the kind commonly found in tablets and wireless phones, and its operating system is a variant of Microsoft’s new Windows 8 called Windows RT.
To many users, though, that may be a distinction without a difference. The Surface, which goes on sale Oct. 26, is preloaded with new versions of Microsoft (MSFT) Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Internet Explorer and has a desktop mode that feels a lot like traditional Windows. Outfitted with one of Microsoft’s snazzy new $120 keyboard covers, and perhaps a USB thumb drive to expand the storage, it becomes a powerful, lightweight productivity tool.
The Surface starts at $499 for a Wi-Fi-only model with 32 gigabytes of storage. In theory, that’s $100 cheaper than a comparable iPad. But only in theory.
For one thing, not all that space is accessible to the user; only 44 GB of my 64 GB test model was actually available for my own stuff.
Moreover, the accessories needed to use it as a PC are expensive and available only from Microsoft: that colorful cover that doubles as a flat, pressure-sensitive keyboard, or -- my favorite -- a $130 model with actual keys. (A bundle with a black flat keyboard is $599 for 32 GB, $699 for 64 GB.)
There are a few big differences between the Surface and the flood of new Windows 8 PCs hitting the market. One is the limited storage; the other is the absence of Outlook, Microsoft’s e-mail and calendar client.
The biggest difference, though, is that it can’t run existing software written for previous versions of Windows, like Adobe (ADBE)’s Photoshop or Intuit (INTU)’s QuickBooks. (A costlier Surface that will run Windows 8, use Intel chips and handle legacy software is due early next year.)
The Surface’s split personality is evident as soon as you pull it out of the box. It’s a sleek black rectangle weighing 1.5 pounds with a 10.6 inch widescreen touch display -- both slightly more than the current-generation iPad -- and front- and rear-facing cameras. Turn it on, and you’re greeted with the new Windows Start screen, full of big, colorful tiles that display updated information and launch apps.
Then you’re asked to give your beautiful new bauble a name. You might want something friendly, like maybe “Rich’s Surface.” Oops, sorry, you’re not allowed to use a space, an apostrophe or other “special characters.” Same old Microsoft.
In tablet mode, the Surface is swift and responsive, whether you’re launching new apps or scrolling between open ones. Though not quite in the iPad’s league, the screen is nice enough -- and the integrated kickstand allows you to prop it up at a comfortable angle, perfect for viewing, say, a movie on an airline tray table. The kickstand snaps shut with a pleasing click, indicative of the overall solid feel of the device.
But while I generally like the touch interface, and give Microsoft props for not aping the iPad, it simply isn’t as clean and intuitive as Apple (AAPL)’s iOS. As just one small example, it took me a very long time to figure out how to change the default location for the Weather app, followed by multiple steps and swipes.
Nor can the Surface compete with the iPad on the number and variety of available apps, at least until existing Windows programs get rewritten for the new environment.
I also had issues with its power system, ranging from the awkward placement of the connector to a mysterious episode in which a nearly full battery on Saturday drained to completely empty by Monday morning.
Depending on what I was doing, I sometimes coaxed Microsoft’s promised eight hours of battery life out of the Surface. But it isn’t as long-lived as the iPad, even with its overly aggressive default screen-dimming settings.
The biggest question is how users familiar with previous versions of Windows adapt to the new interface, whether on the Surface or the other Windows RT and Windows 8 devices to follow.
Something like the traditional Windows desktop environment still exists. But it’s now, essentially, an app launched via a tile on that colorful Start screen.
The potential for confusion is considerable. For instance, there are now two separate versions of Internet Explorer 10: one in the new style, for when you’re using the Surface as a tablet, and a separate, more traditional one for when you’re working on the desktop.
The Start screen also behaves inconsistently: Some tiles launch new-style apps while others, such as those for the preview versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, toss you into the desktop environment.
While I initially regarded the desktop as a kind of penalty box, I found myself gravitating towards it. In some ways, using it on the Surface reminded me of netbooks, those cheap little Windows PCs that enjoyed a brief vogue a couple years ago. But this is what a netbook should have been: versatile, with a modern design and an appealing, well-made look and feel.
Microsoft is taking several enormous gambles with the Surface. Are users willing to embrace a Windows so different from what they’ve known for nearly 20 years? How will Intel and computer makers react to the fact that their software partner is now a direct competitor?
It may just be that the company didn’t have a choice if it wanted its flagship software to remain relevant. With the world moving inexorably toward mobile devices, the Surface is the first Windows PC of the post-PC era.
(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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