The Surface, Microsoft's tablet offering for the holidays, is sleek, tough and powerful. But a lack of apps holds it back.
Besides the thin app selection in the Windows Store, I found the Surface to be a very competent tablet that shines when used for productivity and watching videos.
The Surface has one of the largest screens of any tablet at 10.6 inches. It's got a 1,366 x 768 pixel resolution and a 148 PPI. Microsoft doesn't boast that this is the greatest tablet screen ever, but surprisingly, it holds up really well. The bold bright colors Microsoft uses in Windows 8 look magnificent on the Surface, and because the screen is a perfect 16:9 ratio, you can watch movies without wasting a single bit of real estate to black bars.
However, because the screen is so wide, the Surface is ill-suited for being used in the vertical portrait mode that most people turn to when they read books.
That's not much of an issue, though, because this machine really was built for the horizontal landscape mode, especially when you add in the Surface's Touch and Type Covers. Much like the covers for the iPad, Microsoft's accessories will protect the Surface's screen, but these covers also double as keyboards.
The keyboards magnetically snap and hold on to the Surface, and they grab on tight. You can even dangle the tablet upside down, and hold it from the cover -- and it won't let go. Both keyboards are technologically impressive, but I found the Touch Cover to be no better for typing than a touchscreen. The Type Cover, however, has raised keys that easily transform the Surface into the best tablet for writing. Unfortunately, the only way to get the Type Cover is to purchase it separately, and at $139, the price is definitely steep.
Regardless, it's not just the keyboard covers that makes the Surface ideal for productivity. It comes with a suite of Microsoft Office apps, meaning you get Word, Excel and PowerPoint right out of the box. And with a classic Desktop Mode built in, it's easy and normal to save and manage your files the way you're used to on older Windows computers.
They aren't the only apps that come pre-installed. You also get a batch of Xbox media apps for purchasing music or movies as well as Bing apps, that include sports, news and finance apps. All are helpful, and having been specifically built for Windows 8, the apps look amazing. Looking at a sports gallery using the Bing Sports app is a blast with its large full screen and sharp images.
But a big problem on the Surface is how much space the Windows RT operating system and all the pre-installed apps take up. If you buy the 32 GB model, you'll only have 16 GB of free storage space to add apps, songs, movies or any other type of media. If you buy the 64 GB model, you're also reduced to 46 GB of free space.
Fortunately, there are ways to expand the space, including using the Surface's USB 2.0 port and its microSD card slot. You can also use the 7 GB of cloud storage that Microsoft includes.
The Surface also comes with the requisite dual speakers and two cameras.
The speakers are nice and will do the job if it's just you sitting at your desk, but they're nothing special.
The cameras are both capable of shooting 720p HD video. I tried them out for a video chat on Skype -- which has a well-designed app on Windows 8 -- and the video looked good. But I wouldn't go out and start filming movies with them just yet.
As for the build of the Surface, you get a pretty durable tablet thanks to its VaporMG exterior. It weighs just 1.5 pounds and it's the same thickness as the iPad at 0.37 inches. It also has a nifty kickstand, but be careful around kids because I'm sure they will find a way to snap it off.
As for the software, if you're worried about Windows 8, don't be. It looks and works great. Of course, it is a big change from any previous version of Windows as well as any other tablet operating system out there, but it's very intuitive and if you buy the Surface and play with it every day -- as I imagine you would if you buy a $499 gadget -- you'll learn within a week or less.
Windows 8 runs very quick on the Surface. In the main start screen, you can search just by typing -- you don't need a text field, you just type. You can also switch from app to app with ease by dragging your finger from the left side of the screen or you can close apps rapidly by moving your finger from the top of the screen all the way down. The only thing I found a little slower than I expected was how long it takes apps to launch. They aren't slow, but nowadays, there are some computers that would boot up just as fast -- so it'd be nice if app launch time could improve.