Tag Archives: surface

On Microsoft Surface: premium hardware, declining vision

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Microsoft’s Panos Panay shows off Surface Pro 3

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 was launched yesterday, but the roots of Microsoft’s Surface project – the company’s first own-brand PC – go back a long way. There are three big issues which it attempts to tackle:

1. The PC OEM hardware ecosystem was (and to a large extent still is) stuck in a vicious loop of a price-sensitive market driving down prices and forcing vendors to skimp on design and materials, and to pre-install unwanted third-party applications that damage user experience. Most high-end users bought Macs instead. With Surface Microsoft breaks out of the loop with premium design and zero unwanted add-ons.

2. The tablet market. Windows 8 is designed for touch, at least in its “Metro” personality. But desktop apps need a keyboard and mouse. How do you combine the two without creating a twisty monster? Surface with its fold-back, tear-off keyboard cover is an elegant solution.

3. Fixing Windows. Users of today’s PCs live on a precipice. One false click and the adware and malware invades. Live in the “Metro” environment, or use an iPad, and that is unlikely to happen. Use Windows RT (Windows on ARM) and it is even less likely, since most malware cannot install.

Surface could not have happened without Windows 8. The efforts to make it work as a tablet would make no sense.

Now we have Surface 3. How is Microsoft doing?

I have followed Surface closely since its launch in September 2012. The models I know best are the original Surface RT, the second Surface RT called Surface 2, and the original Surface Pro, which is my machine of choice when travelling. A few observations.

There is plenty that I like (otherwise I would not use it so much). It really is slim and compact, and I would hate to go back to carrying a laptop everywhere. It is well-made and fairly robust, though the hinge on the keyboard covers is a weak point where the fabric can come unglued. The kickstand is handy, and one of my favourite configurations is Surface on its kickstand plus Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, with which I can be almost as productive as with a desktop (I do miss dual displays). I can also use the Surface successfully on my lap. In cramped aircraft seats it is not great but better than a laptop.

There are also annoyances. Only one USB port is a severe limitation and seems unnecessary, since there is room along the edge. For example, you plug in an external drive, now you cannot attach your camera. Not being able to upgrade the internal SSD is annoying, though I suppose inherent to the sealed design. Performance was poor on the original Surface RT, though Surface 2 is fine.

More annoying are the bugs. Sometimes the keyboard cover stops working; detaching and re-attaching usually but not always fixes it. Sometimes the wifi plays up and you have to disable and re-enable the wifi adapter in device manager. Another problem is power management, especially on Surface Pro (I gather that Pro 2 is better). You press power and it does not resume; or worse, you put it into your bag after pressing power off (which sends it to sleep), only to find later that it is heating your bag and wasting precious battery.

The key point here is this: Microsoft intended to make an appliance-like PC that, because of the synergy between first-party hardware and software, would be easy to maintain. It did not succeed, and even Surface RT is more troublesome to maintain than an iPad or Android tablet.

Microsoft also ran into user acceptance problems with Windows RT. Personally I like RT, I think I understand what Microsoft is (or was) trying to achieve, and with Surface specifically, I love the long battery life and easier (though this imperfect) maintenance that it offers. However, the apps are lacking, and Microsoft has so far failed to establish Windows as a tablet operating system like iOS and Android. People buy Windows to run Windows apps, they make little use of the Metro side, and for the most part Surface customers are those who would otherwise have bought laptops.

Incidentally, I have seen Surface RT used with success as a fool-proof portable machine for running Office and feel it deserved to do better, but the reality is that Microsoft has not persuaded the general public of its merits.

Another issue with Surface is the price. Given most Surface customers want the keyboard cover, which is integral to the concept, the cost is more than most laptops. But was Microsoft going for the premium market, or trying to compete with mass-market tablets? In reality, Surface is too expensive for the mass-market which is why its best success has been amongst high-end Windows users.

Surface Pro 3 and the launch that wasn’t

That brings me to Surface Pro 3. The intriguing aspect of yesterday’s launch is that it was rumoured to be for a new mini-sized Surface probably running Windows RT. Why else was the invite (which someone posted on Twitter) for a “small gathering”?

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Admittedly, it is a stretch to suppose that the Surface Mini was cancelled between the date the invitations were sent out (around four weeks ago I believe) and the date of the event. On the other hand, this is a time of change at Microsoft. The Nokia acquisition completed on  25th April, putting former Nokia CEO Stephen Elop in charge of devices. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has only been in place since February 4. While cancelling a major hardware launch at such short notice would be surprising, it is not quite impossible, and a report from Bloomberg to that effect seems plausible.

It is also well-known that Microsoft does not intend to continue with three mobile operating systems: Windows x86, Windows on ARM, and Windows Phone. Windows Phone and Windows RT will “merge”, though merge may just mean that one will be scrapped, and that it will not be Windows Phone.

The promised arrival of a touch-friendly Microsoft Office for Windows Phone and Windows 8 further will rob Windows RT of a key distinctive feature.

This does not mean that Microsoft will not complete in the growing market for small tablets. It means, rather, that a future small tablet from Microsoft will run the Windows Phone OS – which is what some of us thought Microsoft should have done in the first place. This is a company that sometimes takes the hardest (and most expensive) possible route to its destination – see also Xbox One.

Surface Pro 3 specs: a MacBook Air compete

Surface Pro 3 is a large-size Surface Pro. It has a 12 inch 2160×1440 screen, a pen, and a redesigned keyboard cover that has an additional magnetic strip which sticks to the tablet when used laptop-style, for greater stability.

The kickstand can now be used at any angle, supposedly without slipping.

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The weight is 800g making it lighter than a MacBook Air.

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though note that the MacBook Air has a keyboard built in.

Battery life is quoted as “up to 9 hours”. There is still only one USB port. Full specs are here.

The Surface Pro 3 looks like a nice device. In the UK it starts at £639 for an Intel i3 device with a tiny 64GB SSD (I am running out of space with 128GB). And don’t forget the cover which will be at least £110 on top (prices include VAT).

A sensible Core i5 with 256GB SSD and a Type 2 cover will be around £1200. Not a bad buy; though personally I am not sure about the larger size.

Note that Microsoft has now abandoned the 16:9 wide-screen format which characterised the original release of Windows 8, designed to work well with two apps side by side. Surface Pro 3 has a conventional 3:2 screen ration.

Declining vision

Microsoft’s Surface project had a bold vision to reinvent Windows hardware and to usher in a new, more secure era of Windows computing, where tablet apps worked in harmony with the classic desktop.

It was bold but it failed. A combination of flawed implementation, patchy distribution, high prices, and above all, lack of success in the Windows Store ecosystem, meant that Surface remained at ground level.

What we have now is, by all accounts, an attractive high-end Windows hybrid. Not a bad thing in itself, but far short of what was originally hoped.

Microsoft is moving on, building on its investment in Active Directory, Azure cloud, and Microsoft Office, to base its business on an any-device strategy. The market has forced its hand, but it is embracing this new world and (to my mind) looks like making a success of it. It does not depend on the success of Surface, so whether or not the company ends up with a flourishing PC business is now almost incidental.

Review: Power Cover for Microsoft Surface tablets

I took advantage of a recent US trip to purchase a Surface Power Cover, at the Microsoft Store in Bellevue, near Seattle.

The concept is simple: you get an external battery integrated into a Surface keyboard cover. The keyboard is similar to the second version of the Type Cover, though curiously without backlighting other than a caps lock indicator. The keys are mechanical which for most people means you can type faster than on the alternative Touch cover, though it is less elegant when considered as a cover rather than as a keyboard.

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The trackpad is the same on all three second edition covers, which is to say, not good. The problem is not the trackpad itself, but the mouse buttons, which are NOT mechanical keys (they were on the first edition Type Cove). Given that you need to press and hold a mouse key for some operations, having a physical click on the trackpad buttons is particularly useful and much missed. Another annoyance is that you cannot disable tap to click, which means some mis-clicks are inevitable, though on the flip side it is easier to tap to click than to use the fiddly mouse buttons.

Having said that it is the same, I have noticed that the trackpad on the Power Cover seems a bit smoother and better behaved than the one on the Type Cover 2. This could be sample variation, or that it is new, or that Microsoft has slightly tweaked the internal design.

As you would expect, the Power Cover is heavier and more substantial than the Type Cover, though I find you notice the weight more than the bulk. Even with the Power Cover, it is still smaller and neater than a laptop. The extra rigidity is a benefit in some scenarios, such as when the keyboard protrudes over the edge of a table. The fabric hinge, which is a weak point in the design of all the Surface covers, seems to be the same on the Power Cover and I fear this may cause problems as the device wears, since the extra weight will put more strain on this hinge.

As with the other keyboard covers, if you fold it back under the tablet, the keys are disabled. In this mode the Power Cover is purely an external battery.

I used the cover with the original Surface Pro (it is compatible with all the models other than the original Surface RT). I understand that a firmware update is needed for the power cover to work; if so, it installed seamlessly though I did need to restart after connecting the keyboard for the first time. Everything worked as expected. If you click the battery icon in the notification area you can see the status of both batteries and which is charging, if you are plugged in; generally one one charges at a time.

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I boarded my flight and noticed that the Surface is smart enough to use the external battery first, and then the internal, presumably on the basis that you might want to remove the keyboard and use the Surface in pure tablet mode.

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It is impossible to be precise about how much extra time you get from the Power Cover, since it depends how you use the machine. It is a big benefit on the original Surface Pro which has rather poor battery life; extended battery life is perhaps the biggest real-world difference between the Surface Pro and the Surface Pro 2. Subjectively I have doubled the battery life on my year-old Surface Pro, which for me makes the difference between running out of battery fairly often, and hardly ever.

The Power Cover costs $199, which is expensive considering that you can get an entire spare Android tablet or Amazon Kindle Fire for less; but put in the context of the equally over-priced Type Cover, which costs $129, you can argue that it is not that much extra to pay. Prices from third-party sites will likely be lower once availability improves.

If you need it, you need it; and this must be the best way to extend the battery life of a Surface tablet.

The Surface keyboard covers are not perfect, and I still sometimes see an annoying fault where the mouse pointer or keys stop responding and you have to jiggle the connection or tap the screen a few times to get it back (I am sure this is a driver issue rather than a poor physical connection). Still, I put up with a few irritations because the Surface gives me full Windows in a more convenient and portable form factor than a laptop, and there is more right than wrong with the overall design.

Summary:

  • If you already have a keyboard and your Surface lasts as long as you need – forget it.
  • If you have a Surface that runs out of power with annoying frequency (probably a Surface Pro 1), this is worth it despite the high price.
  • If you don’t have a keyboard (for example, you are buying a new Surface) then this is worth the extra cost over the Type keyboard.

Microsoft Surface 2: still a hard sell at retail

I am a fan of Microsoft’s Surface 2; but looking at the display at Dixons in Heathrow’s Terminal 3 it is obvious that Microsoft has work to do in terms of retail presence.

There are no clues here as to why anyone might want to buy a Surface, and no indication that Surface 2 runs anything other than standard Windows 8, other than the two letters RT which you can read on the spec summary.

Windows RT is both better and worse than Windows on Intel. It is worse because you cannot install new desktop applications, but it is better because it is locked down and less likely to suffer from viruses or annoying OEM add-ons and customisations that usually result in a worse user experience.

Why did Microsoft not come up with a distinctive brand name for RT, such as AppWindows or StoreWindows or WinBook? I am open to negotiation should Microsoft wish to use one of my brand ideas :-)

Surface 2 has excellent performance, Microsoft Office is bundled including Outlook (though without the ability to run Visual Basic macros), and it is expandable using Micro SD cards or USB 3.0 devices, all features I miss when using an Apple iPad.

I do use the desktop a lot on Surface 2. Simple applications like Paint and Notepad are useful especially since they have, you know, cool resizable and overlapping windows so you can have multiple applications on view.

The Apple iPad is better displayed and I am sure its greater prominence is more than justified by relative sales.

 

Surface 2 has a decent camera, unlike Surface RT

Who cares about cameras on a tablet? Not many perhaps, though I regularly see iPads held aloft. Microsoft’s Surface RT has two cameras, both 720p (1280 x 720 or about 0.9MP). Surface 2 also has two cameras, the rear 5MP and the front 3.5MP.

I found the Surface RT rear camera so disappointing that I never used it, but the one on Surface 2 is rather good. Here is a quick snap of a similar scene taken with each device.

Surface RT:

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Surface 2:

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or zooming in for some detail

Surface RT:

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Surface 2:

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First thoughts on Surface 2

After a day or two with Surface 2 and the Touch 2 keyboard, a few thoughts.

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First, I am typing this on my desktop PC. I would have used the Surface 2, as I like to match the tool to the review, but no Live Writer on Surface (my favoured blog authoring tool) and no, Word is not as good for this.

That neatly demonstrates the app issue on Windows RT; but despite that I expect to use Surface 2 frequently in the coming months. It is an excellent tablet, with its chief advantages over the older Surface being performance and Windows 8.1, which includes Outlook.

Performance on Surface 2 is around 4 times faster for graphics – see previous post – and more than twice as fast in general.

The touch keyboard, now with backlighting, is also much improved.

I know I am in a minority here, but to me the Windows RT concept makes good sense. A locked-down version of Windows that is almost legacy-free, though it is still Windows and capable of throwing up mystifying dialogs and hiding settings in strange places.

It seems to me that if there is any hope for the Windows 8 app ecosystem, then it will be driven by tablets like this one, and Nokia’s new Lumia 2520 which also runs Windows RT. Desktop users are mostly ignoring the app platform. There are a few signs of life, like the new Facebook app, and things like Xbox Music are now decent. MediaMonkey, which I like for its Flac support, runs nicely on Surface 2.

Isn’t an iPad Air better? In some ways for sure. Usability, performance, size and weight, and rich app availability are all in the iPad’s favour, and price is similar. The reason you might get a Surface though is for Office, USB 3.0, HDMI out, SD card, and the clever keyboard cover. I also like having more than one app to view, whether that is Word and Excel on the desktop, or Word and Caculator, or the split view that works in the new app world.

I’ve hit a few snags with Surface 2. Sound is less good than on Surface RT, tending to be thin and reedy, unless you use headphones or external speakers. The Touch 2 keyboard sometimes stops responding, which I hope is a driver issue (perhaps the update downloaded this morning will fix it).

I also suspect that build quality on Surface 2 falls short of Surface RT. It is still “Vapor Mg” but I already have a slight dent in the bezel on mine whereas on my old RT it is still perfect and I wonder if it is thinner.

The extra price for the 64GB vs 32GB SSD is absurd. Why not make them all 64GB and increase the price by a fraction?

Is Microsoft serious about selling Surface 2? There does not seem to be much stock around, and it is not yet listed on Amazon.co.uk, although it has been on sale since yesterday.

Those that do discover it will like it, provided they understand the difference between Windows RT and Windows x86, something which – bizarrely – Microsoft still seems keen to disguise.

FutureMark graphics benchmark: Surface RT vs Surface 2

We know that the new Surface 2 (Nvidia Tegra 4) is faster than the old Surface RT (Tegra 3) but by how much?

I came across the FutureMark 3D Benchmark for Windows RT in the Windows Store and tried it on both.

I could see this was going to be a wipeout from the off. The first test saw a frame rate of 12.9 FPS on RT versus 59.9 on Surface 2. Surface RT first:

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Then Surface 2:

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Surface 2 reported “Maxed out” on the scores. However, on the next test, Ice Storm Extreme, I got a result.

Surface RT: 2065

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Surface 2: 8577

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3D Mark RT says my score is “low for this device” on Surface RT, but “a great score for this device” on Surface 2. Maybe the impact of Windows RT 8.1?

Bottom line: on these tests Surface 2 is around 4 times faster. No wonder it feels snappier to use.

Review: Surface Touch Cover 2

Windows tablets present a design challenge because they include desktop applications which are designed for keyboard and mouse, rather than touch – not least Microsoft Office, which for some of us accounts for a significant proportion of the time spent using the device. So far there has been consensus therefore that Windows tablets need some easy way of using a keyboard and mouse or trackpad. How to achieve this without losing the benefits of a tablet  is not easy. Bluetooth is one solution, but means three devices rather than one in your bag. Screens that twist over to form tablets are another, but the devices tend to be heavy and the twisting action inconvenient. Detachable keyboard/trackpads are the favoured solution, but leave you the problem of a loose keyboard to look after once you have detached it. If it stays always attached, perhaps you should have bought a laptop.

Microsoft’s Surface tablet has the most elegant solution I have seen. When it was launched a year ago, it included two optional keyboard covers. The Type cover is a thin keyboard with real clacky keys.  The touch keyboard is almost flat, though the keys are slightly raised. You can detach them, but they fold back behind the device, automatically disabling the keys, at which point they are unobtrusive.

Many people liked the idea of the touch keyboard, but found typing frustrating with more errors than they normally make. For this reason, the Type keyboard is more popular among Surface users. It is possible that more Touch keyboards were sold, since they are slightly cheaper and more often bundled with the device, but in actual use I see more Type keyboards.

That is a shame, because the Touch keyboard is design-wise a better solution. It adds very little bulk to the Surface, and when folded back under the device for tablet use, it feels perfectly natural, whereas the Type keyboard feels odd because of the keys that are then on the underside.

When Microsoft announced the Touch Cover 2, it said that by adding more sensors (14 times as many apparently) and more intelligence to the cover and its drivers, it had improved the typing accuracy. As a Surface user I was excited to try the Touch Cover 2 and see if it lives up to these claims. If it does, I will happily ditch the Type cover.

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The Touch Cover 2 is the same price as before, £99 in the UK or $120 in the US. It is compatible with every Surface, including the original Surface RT. It is also fractionally thinner, 2.5mm as opposed to 3mm. Third, it is now backlit, which makes a big difference on those odd occasions when you are typing in dim light, such as on an aircraft when the cabin lights are dim.

Looking at old and new side by side though, you would be forgiven for thinking not much has changed – the new one is the lower of the two, and note that my original is a US layout and the new one UK:

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Here are a few more points of detail:

  • The new keyboard has function key labelling F1-F12. As is now common, the default is the non-Fn meaning, and you have to press Fn first to get the function key. The old keyboard also has an Fn key, but you have to work out which top key to press. The right Alt key is now labelled Alt Gr.
  • The purpose of two of the special keys has changed. The new keyboard no longer has volume keys, though it does have a volume mute. In their place are two keys controlling the brightness of the backlight.
  • The design of the trackpad has changed slightly. On the old touch cover, the left and right “buttons” are on the edge of the keyboard outside the etched area that represents the trackpad. On the new cover, these buttons are within the etched area, which means that the trackpad seems slightly bigger, but in reality is not.
  • The underside of the touch cover used to have a fabric finish. On Touch Cover 2 it is now smooth plastic. This is one detail where I prefer the older cover, though maybe it helps to get it that 0.5mm thinner.

The following picture shows the backs of the old and new keyboard covers side by side, with the new one on the left:

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Touch cover 2 in use

Now for what really matters. How is the Touch Cover 2 in use?

My first thought was to try a speed test. I went along to this online test and tried it several times with the old touch cover, then with the new one. The results favoured the new cover, perhaps by around 20%, though how you evaluate it depends on the weighting you give to errors versus speed.

Then I sat down to write this review. This is where my opinion of the new Touch Cover began to swing in its favour. I find real-world typing on the Touch Cover 2 substantially more pleasant than with the earlier version. Measuring words per minute does not fully represent the improved experience. Of course this is a personal thing and your experience may vary.

The backlighting is low key (ha!) but improves usability. The way this works is that the white lettering on the keys is illuminated so it stands out more.

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Note that if you think it is not working, you probably just need to increase the brightness using the special keys.

Is it as good as a real keyboard, or even a Type Cover? I doubt it ever will be, especially if you are someone who does not look at the keyboard while you type. The problem is that the slight etching round the keys makes it harder for your fingers to know where they are, though typing with audible key clicks helps.

Another factor is that if you are not at a desk, the lightness and thinness of the touch cover counts against it, since it flexes slightly on your lap.

That said, with practice you can get good speed and accuracy. As a cover, it is so much more elegant than the Type Cover that overall I might just prefer it, even though I still rate the Type Cover slightly better for typing.

One caveat though: I used the Touch Cover 2 with both Surface RT and Surface Pro, and had an annoying problem. If I stay typing in one app everything is fine, but if I switch apps than sometimes the keyboard stops responding. Oddly, opening Device Manager and pressing the up and down arrows a few times seems to fix it. Perhaps my Touch Cover 2 is faulty, but I suspect a driver issue, which means hope for a fix soon. I will be trying it soon with a Surface 2 and will be interested to see if the problem remains.

The keyboard also seems to mark easily. I have only had it for a day, but can already see slight fading of the black finish on the keys I type most often.

Mobility always involves compromise. If you want the very best keyboard for typing, it won’t be a touch cover. In fact, for best productivity I prefer a high quality Bluetooth or USB keyboard to either of the Type or Touch covers.

That does not detract from what Microsoft’s engineers have achieved with the Touch Cover 2. Flip it back, and you have a tablet; flip it forward, and you protect your screen; place it on a desk and you have a productive typing machine.

Glitch aside, I recommend the Touch Cover 2 as a good option with a new Surface and a worthwhile upgrade from the first Touch cover.

Sunspider JavaScript Benchmark on 4 models of Microsoft Surface

Today I got my first sight of Microsoft’s new models of Surface, its Windows tablet, on display at the Microsoft Store in Bellevue.

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I ran the Sunspider JavaScript benchmark on the new models, and then on the old ones for comparison.

  • Surface RT 1.0: 922ms
  • Surface 2.0 (RT): 397ms
  • Surface Pro: 127ms
  • Surface Pro 2.: 114ms

No surprises; but what this confirms is that Surface 2.0 RT, which has an NVIDIA Tegra 4 chipset, is substantially faster than the earlier Tegra 3 model; whereas Surface Pro which has an updated Intel Core i5 processor is only a little faster on this particular test.

Microsoft is attempting to continue selling Surface RT alongside Surface 2.0 RT, at $349 vs $449 for the 32GB model. However the new one is a better buy and I imagine the price of the earlier model will fall further, given that Microsoft appears still to have substantial stocks.

Will you buy a Surface Pro? Here is why and why not

Microsoft has announced pricing for Surface Pro, its own-brand tablet running Windows 8. Quick summary:

  • 64GB is $899
  • 128GB is $999

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UK pricing has not been announced, but if it follows the pattern of Surface RT we can expect around £720 and £799.

These prices include a free Surface pen, but not a Touch or Type keyboard cover. Since this is one of the best features of Surface, you can add around $120 or £100 (a little more for the Type cover) to the price.

Here’s why you don’t want a Surface Pro:

  • Unlike Surface RT, this tablet runs any Windows application, most of which do not work well with touch control. So you will need that keyboard and trackpad or mouse, making it an awkward thing versus an iPad or, in some ways, a traditional laptop.
  • The spec is a long way from cutting-edge. Screen is 1920×1080 pixels, versus 2048-by-1536  on a cheaper Apple iPad. Core i5 has been around a while. Storage spec is poor – even 128GB is small by current standards, my Samsung Slate from February had a 256GB SSD – and the cameras seem no better than the basic ones in Surface RT. 4GB RAM is also minimal for a new Windows machine.
  • This thing is not cheap. With the keyboard, it is nearly double the cost of a Surface RT, and you don’t get Office 2013 thrown in – Home and Student is around $100 or £85.
  • Microsoft is including a pen. Why? It does not clip into the Surface so you will lose it, and a pen, while fantastic for taking notes or sketching in tablet mode, is less good than a mouse or trackpad for most other operations.
  • Battery life half that of Surface RT: ouch.
  • Do not compare this with an iPad. It only makes sense if you want or need to run Windows. It is even less like an iPad than Surface RT.

A failure? Not necessarily. Here is why you do want a Surface Pro:

  • It is a little bigger than Surface RT, but much smaller than the average laptop, even with the keyboard cover, and it is all you need on your trip. I find laptops bulky and awkward now.
  • Performance will be much better than Surface RT. I presume it better my existing Samsung Slate, which has an older Core i5, and that is already a zippy performer.
  • The Surface is well made and designed. The only problem I am aware of with Surface RT is fraying keyboard seams, which I hope will be fixed in later production runs. The flip-out stand works well and the keyboard covers are excellent.
  • That USB 3.0 port is a big asset.  Of course Surface RT should have had this as well. You can attach as much storage as you need with great performance, or other devices.

The question is this: what other laptop or Windows 8 slate will be better than a Surface Pro, all things considered? You will easily find a better spec for the money, but when you evaluate the complete package Surface Pro may still be a winner.

That said, we have not yet seen Surface Pro and my judgment is based on combining what I know about Surface RT with my experience of the Samsung Core i5 slate.

The internal storage limitation is my biggest concern. 64GB is hopeless and 128GB still too small. There is a microSDXC card slot, and a sizeable card will be pretty much essential, again increasing the real-world price.

Microsoft Surface is coming: Windows, but not as you know it

Today Microsoft showed full details and prices for its Surface RT tablet with an ARM processor – an Intel variant is to follow – and you can order now.

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Surface is a distinctive device. Here are the key points:

  • Surface RT runs an NVidia ARM chipset – which means not one of your existing Windows 7 or earlier apps will run. Only new Windows Store (Metro-style) apps can be installed.
  • Microsoft Office 2013 comes preinstalled. It is the Home and Student edition, no Outlook and no license for commercial use, though individuals who use it for work are unlikely to be pursued. Businesses will need to cover Office usage with a volume license.
  • This is a true tablet. There are two different styles of keyboard cover, but it is designed for touch control. How successful this is for Office is moot (and we have not yet seen the final Office 2013) but it should at least be tolerable.

I doubt you will buy Surface RT for its specs: not bad, but not special either:

  • 10.6″ 1366 x 768 display (no Retina claims here)
  • 5-point multitouch
  • 2GB RAM
  • 1.5lbs weight – pretty lightweight
  • Wifi and Bluetooth but no 3G or 4G
  • Front and rear 720p cameras
  • Two microphones, stereo speakers
  • USB 2.0 (not 3.0)
  • MicroSDXC card slot (a nice differentiator from the Apple iPad)
  • 32GB or 64GB built-in storage
  • HD video out
  • Sensors: ambient light, accelerometer, Gyroscope, Compass
  • Estimated 8 hour battery life – a bit disappointing, but decent

On the plus side, this should be the most reliable Windows yet. With desktop application installs blocked and only sandboxed Windows Runtime apps allowed, there is little opportunity for badly behaved applications or OEM foistware to foul up the system.

Surface RT realises the Windows 8 vision more fully than the Intel models, which are less efficient, less secure, and odd hybrids of old and new Windows. There is still a desktop in Surface RT, but it is limited and it would not be surprising if it disappears in future versions.

This means that Surface RT is in some respects better than the x86 Surface Pro which is promised at a later date. Surface Pro is heavier (up to 2lbs total), more power hungry, does not come with Office bundled, and will not be as secure. Further, Surface Pro will have greater need of keyboard and mouse thanks to those old desktop applications that users will install. I know which one I would rather take on a plane.

The problem with Surface RT: the Windows Store currently has around 3000 apps, most of them trivial and/or poor. How viable is Surface RT right now for getting all your work done when on the road?

That is an open question, and makes this a risky purchase for most users right now.

Then again, with Office, a web browser and a remote desktop client you are covered for many needs.

As the Windows 8 app ecosystem matures, Surface RT will get correspondingly more attractive. If Microsoft has got the design right (and early reports are good) this could be the ideal device for work and play. I want one.