Surface: Simply Put

Surface is very well built and extremely well designed. It’s easily among the best built products I’ve had the opportunity to handle, and definitely puts a lot of earlier attempts from far more experienced companies to shame. I wouldn’t say that it looks better or worse than the iPad, it’s simply different. I talked about perspectives earlier, Microsoft’s perspective on tablets is a bit more utilitarian than Apple’s and Surface’s design reflects that reality.

Where the iPad is curvy and without any IO expansion, Surface is squared off with 22-degree beveled edges. The iPad features a light aluminum finish while Surface contrasts with its dark Magnesium surface. Not better or worse, just different.

Surface is both larger and heavier than the iPad, both design decisions on Microsoft’s part to built a device that could better deal with Windows RT’s multitasking capabilities as well as make room for a comfortable typing area when used with one of its two keyboard covers.

The added weight is offset by superb internal weight distribution. Microsoft claims a lower moment of inertia by more evenly distributing weight inside Surface’s chassis. I don’t know that I’d consider Surface light but it is very comfortable to carry around. It’s not quite like porting around a pad of paper, but carrying Surface feels very natural.

The focus on weight distribution results in a device that is honestly comfortable to hold in tablet mode and very comfortable to carry around. The more squared design of Surface actually makes in hand feel more like a book than the iPad, which was an early goal for the device.

The chassis is built out of an injection molded Magnesium, which gives it a very different feel to most machined Aluminum or plastic tablets we’ve used in the past. Microsoft calls this process VaporMg (vapor-mag) and I have to say that I’m pleased with the outcome. Surface’s finish is smooth and lacks the same texture that we’ve come to expect from machined Aluminum. The device feels very durable and doesn’t seem to scratch or scuff easily, although I didn’t purposefully try to mar my review unit over the past week. Striking a balance between robustness and light weight is very tricky business when building mobile devices, Surface easily falls on the robust side of the scale without feeling overly heavy. I never felt that the device was too fragile.

The power of Surface is in its flexibility. Microsoft’s talents not as a software developer nor as a parts assembler are what make Surface great here, rather its design and manufacturing intuition. I would’ve expected Surface to come from a company that had much more experience in designing and building tablets and PCs, not from a company that’s traditionally known for putting stickers all over them.

Surface’s flexibility comes from three areas: the tablet itself, the integrated kickstand and the optional Touch/Type covers. In tablet mode, Surface is Microsoft’s take on the new wave of tablets. It delivers the same intimate content consumption experience that you’d get from other tablets but with the added benefits of Windows RT, such as improved multitasking and better task switching.

Surface also features an integrated kickstand, also made out of the same VaporMg process as the rest of the chassis.

Microsoft wants you to be able to quickly transition between notebook, tablet and display modes. It’s rare that I see a goal so well executed. Surface really masters the art of quick transitions between all three modes. I can be in word, typing out this review and quickly switch to a tablet mode where I’m browsing the web with the keyboard cover folded neatly behind the display. If I need to respond to a comment or answer an email, I can just as easily switch back. The kickstand is a necessary part of enabling these quick transitions, and it does its job well.

There’s only one side of Surface that has a cutout for you to easily flick the stand out from its resting place. The kickstand’s range of motion does take some getting used to. It’s spring loaded enough to pop out at good velocity (and strong enough to pinch your skin nicely if you close it on a part of your finger by accident). When deployed it positions the top of Surface away from you at a 22-degree angle, matching the bevel of Surface’s edge.

With a fixed angle of deployment the kickstand doesn’t always deliver the best viewing experience, although it’s usually good enough. The kickstand is perfect for desk use and even for using while reclined on a couch or even in bed. Where it does fall short is if you’re hunched over Surface on an airplane in coach without a lot of room to move the device away from you. In those situations you’re going to find that you’d wish the kickstand could open at a wider angle.

Microsoft is particularly proud of the acoustics and feel of the kickstand. In my experience I felt the kickstand actuated nicely but I don’t know if I’d go so far as to draw the luxury car door comparison. The best way I can put it is the kickstand never feels cheap and doesn’t rattle, it works and gives you the confidence that it’ll always work and not just break after half a year. It’s not often that I find a substantial moving part on a mobile device that I feel is more functional than gimmicky. Surface’s kickstand is definitely a job well done.

The third element of Surface that makes it a very flexible device is also responsible for the splash of color in the design that gives the otherwise business appearance a consumer twist. I’m talking about Surface’s Type and Touch Covers.

A Different Perspective Thing aka Touch Cover
POST A COMMENT

235 Comments

View All Comments

  • PeteH - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    I disagree. I think what you're seeing as "forced" is genuine uncertainty, which I think is to be expected from any reviewer when a device doesn't fit well into an existing category.

    I know my feelings on the Surface can be best described as intrigued, but uncertain.
    Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - link

    Noted. Thank you. Reply
  • JumpingJack - Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - link

    "Application launch times are another thing entirely. Nearly every application I launched took longer than I would’ve liked on Surface. I can’t tell if this is a hardware issue or a software optimization problem, but application launches on Surface/Windows RT clearly take more time than on an iPad. I timed a few just to put this in perspective:"

    And then there is nothing after the colon -- just the next paragraph.
    Reply
  • andykins - Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - link

    On the chassis and construction page:

    'A Focus on Flexibility
    Surface’s design began with a simple concept: a Moleskine notebook. Microsoft wanted to emulate the convenience, ergonomics and overall feel of carrying around a well made'

    then there's nothing. What is it that's well made? You're killing me haha! Otherwise enjoying the review!
    Reply
  • Kevin G - Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - link

    Perhaps he was using the type cover? Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - link

    Unfortunately the timing of this week has been against us. Between Vishera, an Apple event, and Surface, we're stretched thinner than ever before. In this case Anand wasn't able to complete some of the charts on time, which is why it looks like stuff is missing.

    Anyhow, Anand is currently enjoying a well deserved nap at 35,000 feet. Once he's back down on the ground we'll get those filled in. Our apologies, and please pardon the dust.
    Reply
  • JumpingJack - Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - link

    No apologies needed. Great review. Reply
  • Kevin G - Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - link

    I was wondering where the next podcast was and then everything had their NDA's lift today. AMD CPU's, new iPads, and Surface reviews all in one day? That's a lot of content all at once. Then you have Google and MS making more noise later this week too. Reply
  • MilwaukeeMike - Wednesday, October 24, 2012 - link

    Yeah, we know... i was very surprised to see this review today. Your intelligent readers know that there are sacrifices required to get a review out as fast as this one. The iPhone 5 review didn't come out for weeks after it was released and Surface isn't even for sale yet. Reply
  • Dug - Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - link

    At $699, which is the version I would want to get, it just too close to something like an 11" macbook air.

    As far as trying to get work done on a tablet, this is obviously a better solution than Android or Apple's efforts, as they are geared more to a consumption devices.

    But I don't think the Surface will be able to snag enough users without something faster than the tegra. The killer app for it will be Office, but without full compatibility of the x86 version I don't know if this will be a hindrance for RT.
    Reply

Log in

Don't have an account? Sign up now