Microsoft’s Surface with Windows RT is a gorgeous device that under different circumstances might have been a gloriously unexpected mutation in the evolution of hardware. But beauty can’t conceal the blemishes beneath. The promise of the Surface, and hybrids in general, is that they can credibly replace both a laptop and a tablet. Surface disappoints as either.
Much of what isn’t right is due to the operating system on the device. This version of Windows 8 dramatically changes the user experience by co-mingling a traditional Windows desktop with a separate universe dominated by “live” tiles that allow access to information and apps. The interface doesn’t impress, complicating appreciation for the hardware itself. For whatever reason, the OS seems slow and unresponsive. And the “full” desktop is crippled: It’s not possible, for example, to install desktop software — like a different browser or software you might need for a 4G dongle — even in the “desktop” mode. It feels like a device that was dreamed up to have one revolutionary new interface instead left the factory with two broken ones.
Further, in the one place where the design is spot on, Microsoft’s marketing and sales pitch is out of sync: Surface’s keyboard-as-cover is truly innovative, which makes the significant extra cost for this “option” a bit insulting. As questionable as Surface is, it is outright incomprehensible without it. I tried both the “touch” — which doesn’t have raised keys — and the “type” version which can be used to touch type. Only the “type” makes any sense, and Microsoft seems to be driving us to this patently superior model by charging only $10 more for it than the touch model (MSRP $120 vs $130). I didn’t use my touch keyboard enough for it to come apart at the seams, but there were early reports that it does.
But the keyboard did not always work as expected. On softish surfaces it missed keystrokes. It was positively unusable when typing in a Google Document. Latency and hiccups under those conditions is always an issue, but I’ve had better luck with after-market bluetooth keyboards whose idiosyncrasies were consistent enough for me to adapt to quickly. This felt like a software, not mechanical failure.
The kickstand, a sleek and cleverly unobtrusive part of the rear panel, is an absolute must for a machine with laptop aspirations. But it only tilts the screen at a single angle. Unlike a laptop, the orientation can’t be optimized to suit your ad hoc needs. For about $20 you can pick up an infinitely-adjustable tablet stand; it’s hard to understand why, on a device whose skin was so carefully designed, Microsoft didn’t allow for a range of lockable movement.