Surface Value

Microsoft's Surface is light, fast and good-looking, and it offers greater opportunities than any of its rivals

We’ve detailed Windows 8 and its many features in a prior article, but for refreshment’s sake it’s essentially focused on enhancing the touch aspect of the Windows OS, introducing a new Start screen, and a flattened desktop. The Start screen is now the main hub of Windows, featuring constantly updating Live Tiles for each application, which refresh with contextual information. The weather tile will show the current forecast, the People tile will display images of contacts and alert to notifications on Facebook or Twitter, the Netflix tile will scroll through your recently watched items. It’s marvelous in motion, and a lot of the joy in Windows 8 can be found in simply scrolling through the Start screen, watching your live tiles throw content at you. Users can customize the layout of the tiles, grouping them into categories, and can alter the size and amount of information they display. There are also a number of themes available, which customize the color of menus, standard tiles and the background of the Start screen. Users can customize their device to how they want. Prefer to see your news and email first, then put those live tiles right at the front. Want to see all of your apps at once? Pinch and the screen will zoom out to show every live tile across the screen.

At first, it can be a little confusing to use, and Microsoft shoulders the blame by offering little in the way of instruction. During initial set-up, which takes about five minutes as the tablet installs all of the apps, a brief video is shown that simply tells users to swipe in from the sides of the device to reveal more. That’s it. The less tech savvy will miss a great deal of Windows’ touch inputs, simply because Microsoft hasn’t said they are there. As it stands, your first hour or two with a Surface will involve setting it up, logging in with a Microsoft account – it offers the option to create one for those that have resisted thus far – downloading apps, and then learning the interface. Once you have grasped swiping in to see the charms bar, or dragging apps in from the left to multitask, it becomes very easy, and it flows together in a way that no other tablet OS can emulate. iOS looks severely dated next to Windows 8, and even Android lacks the versatility of Microsoft’s system. It really is very pleasant to navigate with a finger.

It’s not without issue, though, as the Tegra 3 can occasionally reach its limit and show signs of slowdown, though this is usually only in apps that haven’t been properly developed – I’m glaring at you, Amazon, and your woeful Kindle app – or when there are many apps running simultaneously. For the most part, however, the Surface is fast and responsive almost all of the time.

Now to mention the elephant in the room: Desktop mode. The Surface offers up a rich, intriguing touch interface in the Modern UI, but when you try to access any of the Office 2013 apps – included free, a nice touch – it drops you straight into the desktop, which for all intents and purposes is Windows 7, albeit without the Aero graphical tweaks. It’s not as jarring a transition as you’d expect, with the desktop running like a traditional app, but for those without the Touch or Type covers, it’s not somewhere you want to spend a lot of time without a track pad or mouse. The desktop has been tweaked, but is only marginally more touch-friendly than Windows 7, though scrolling and resizing are smooth, as is long-pressing a finger to right-click. From a touch standpoint it’s not great, but from a productivity perspective, the Surface blows every other tablet out of the water. With a cover, it transforms from a tablet into a laptop, offering file management, a desktop version of Internet Explorer, and the full Office suite. The ability to snap windows to either side of the desktop remains, which is great for multitasking, and enables some cool tricks. I was able to snap two windows together, and then drag in a Modern UI app – in this case, a third-party Twitter app – and run it side-by-side with the desktop. I had Twitter, IE and Word all open, all useable, and all taking up a third of the screen. It blew me away. This ability is available elsewhere, with users able to run two Modern UI apps on screen, with one taking a third, and the other the rest – and the ability to swap this balance. It offers better multitasking opportunities than any other mobile device, hands down.

The Surface isn’t for everyone, though. When you’re done being productive and just want to play, it’s left wanting in the face of its rivals. Microsoft’s app store is woefully underpopulated at the moment, though given it’s only a month since launch this should quickly change – this is Windows, after all – but expect to see some big names absent for the foreseeable future. If it’s games and apps you want, it’s Apple or Android you should seek.

Who is the Surface for, then? If you want a well-made, fast, beautiful tablet, why choose this over an iPad, or a Transformer Infinity? It depends on your needs. If you need to surf the web, and play games, and that’s it, then the Surface will do this with ease, though you’d be better waiting until more games are available. If you want to just write articles, and update blogs, and form spreadsheets, well, the Surface can do that too, though not as well as a dedicated laptop.

However, if you want to do all of those things, work and play, the Surface has few peers. It’s light, fast, good-looking, pricing is comparable with iPad and high-end Android tablets, and it offers greater opportunities than any of its rivals. It’s a more-portable laptop, a more productive tablet. For someone who has an Android or iOS device, but wants to do more, Microsoft have built the answer. And who thought we’d ever be saying that?

The Surface ranges in price from $499 to $699 and is available at surface.microsoftstore.com and Microsoft’s brick and mortar stores.

Rhuaridh Marr is Metro Weekly's assistant editor and covers cars, technology, and gaming. He is usually found with a controller in one hand and a smartphone in the other, and can be reached at rmarr@metroweekly.com.

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