One of the most highly anticipated tech products of 2012, the Surface tablet is not only the first Microsoft-branded computer but also one of the first devices to run Windows RT, a new operating system powered by ARM-based processors.
With a sleek magnesium chassis, sharp and vivid screen and a magnetic Touch Cover that doubles as a keyboard, the Surface with Windows RT ($499 to start) is one of the most innovative iPad alternatives yet.
But at $599 with the black Touch Cover (and $619 when you choose a different color), it's clear that Microsoft isn't shy about positioning the Surface as a premium product.
Is the Surface with Windows RT really a better choice than the third-generation iPad and high-end Android tablets?
Made from a strong vapor-deposited magnesium frame, the Surface sports a subtle-but-attractive matte dark titanium- colored chassis with a magnesium back that's easy to grip, but not coated in the kind of soft-touch finish we've seen on many other mobile devices.
Pleasantly free from aggressive branding or bling, the back sports a light gray Windows logo while the front has only the Windows home button to decorate its 10.6-inch glossy screen and dark black bezel. Unfortunately, both the glossy Gorilla Glass 2 display and matte back are fingerprint magnets.
Microsoft says that the Surface feels 37 percent lighter than another 1.5-pound device the moment you grab it and, in our tests, it seemed easier to pick up than the iPad. However, the iPad felt a little lighter in hand.
A panel on the back of the surface flips up to become a sturdy kickstand, a useful feature for watching movies, giving presentations and typing. With the stand flipped open, the Surface can stand up on its own, either on a table or on your lap, provided that you don't move your legs around too violently. The kickstand uses three magnets in its mechanism, two for opening and closing the latch and a third that gives the mechanism a pleasant clapping sound that's meant to resemble a well-built car door closing.
Microsoft offers two different optional covers for the Surface, the $119 Touch Cover and the $129 Type Cover. A unique feat of engineering, the Touch Cover features a touch-sensitive, 6-row QWERTY keyboard with keys that are just slightly raised above the surface of the 3.25mm cover. In lieu of function keys, the top row has keys that control volume and media playback while launching search, sharing, power or settings menus in Windows RT. The bottom of the keyboard holds a rather narrow touchpad with a touch-sensitive button area beneath it.
Though it took some getting used to, we found the Touch Cover an accurate and convenient way to type on the Surface. Because of grooves in the F and J keys, we were able to identify the home row without looking and quickly place our hands into touch typing position.
Windows RT Operating System
The Surface runs a new version of Microsoft's operating system called Windows RT that is designed for devices that use ARM processors like the 1.3-GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 CPU you'll find inside this device. At first glance -- and even second glance -- Windows RT looks and functions identically to Windows 8, the new touch-friendly OS from Microsoft debuting officially on Oct. 26.
Unlike its sibling, however, the new OS cannot run any of the millions of available desktop programs that have been developed for Microsoft's platform over the years. So, if you have "World of Warcraft," a copy of Photoshop you want to run or a favorite shareware utility you want to install, forget about it. Users who buy the Surface may only purchase and install Windows Store apps that run in the operating system's Modern Style UI.
Though it can't run desktop or "legacy" apps, Windows RT does have a desktop environment that looks just like the desktop mode in Windows 8, right down to its color scheme and default wallpaper. If you want to copy or manage files and folders, you'll need to use Explorer on the desktop. There's also a desktop version of Internet Explorer 10 that runs in a window, even though there's also a full-screen Modern UI version of the same browser.
You can copy files or pin shortcuts to the desktop, and there's a taskbar for pinning shortcuts and switching between open windows. Though you have to use Windows search to find them, the standard Windows control panel and most of the preloaded Windows desktop apps are also available, including Windows Paint, Notepad, Calculator and the Command Prompt.
The Surface with Windows RT comes preloaded with a special version of Office 2013 Home and Student, which includes fully functional versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and One Note that run in their own windows in desktop mode. Though the current preload of Office is technically a preview edition, the final version will automatically appear through a Windows update within the next few months.
The Windows RT version of Office 2013 appears functionally identical to the regular Windows version with the same ribbon menus, functions and file support. It's so much like the desktop version of Office 2013, that its touch mode -- which makes the icons and menus slightly larger and more finger-friendly -- is disabled by default.
With its 1.3-GHz, quad-core Tegra 3 processor and 2GB of RAM, the Surface with RT had enough power to take on all the tasks we threw at it, from viewing HD videos and using Microsoft Offfice to video chatting and playing demanding games like "Dredd vs Zombies."
However, the system's performance was far from perfect. We often ran into small delays while apps launched. On several occasions, the touch screen was less than responsive when we were trying to swipe to change apps or tap on charms; rebooting usually fixed these problems.
The internal flash memory cold booted the system in 30 seconds, which is pretty fast for a tablet, especially when you consider that most users will be putting the device to sleep rather than shutting it down. Still, some Windows 8 hybrids we've tested with faster SSDs take less than 15 seconds.
Microsoft promises "all day" battery life on the Surface with Windows RT and, in our experience, endurance was strong as the tablet lasted a full 7 hours and 43 minutes on the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous surfing over Wi-Fi. That's 50 minutes longer than the tablet category average (6:52).
The Surface with Windows RT proves that Microsoft can beat its own partners on hardware. Between the build quality, kickstand, and truly innovative Touch Cover, this is a tablet whose design and fresh interface will turn heads away from the iPad.
Ultimately, the Surface will succeed or fail based on the quality of the apps around it. Right now, $599 (the minimum cost with Touch Cover) is a lot to spend on a fledgling ecosystem. However, with the power of Microsoft and Nvidia behind it, we believe we will see more compelling apps for Windows RT arrive within the next few weeks.