Preliminary reading: Core post: Giving up the total OEM reliance strategy: the Microsoft Surface tablet [this same blog, June 19, 2012]
Follow-up: Microsoft Surface: its premium quality/price vs. even iPad3 [this same blog, Oct 26, 2012]
Highly suggested Understanding the Microsoft Surface (a sort of Review) [Hal’s (Im)Perfect Vision blog, Oct 28, 2012] with the following excerpts to wet your appetite:
… The Surface is a great tablet. It is amazingly well-built and well thought out. As a pure piece of engineering it stands as an equal to the best Apple or anyone else has to offer. When you add Windows RT to the mix you get something that is, in the context of use as a “pure” tablet, a strong competitor to the iPad. There are definite differences, some strongly in the iPad’s favor (e.g., number of applications currently available), and some in Surface’s favor. In most cases the significance of those differences comes down to personal preference. …
… an important point I think is missed in most reviews. Everyone wants to compare the thickness and weight of devices as they come from the factory. They don’t do comparisons of thickness and weight in terms of how they are actually used by customers! … while the Surface is competitive in raw weight and size it may be outstanding in real world usage configuration. …
… The UI is inviting. The live tiles are awesome. … Six months from now everyone will think that swiping in from the edge of the screen is a completely intuitive way to bring up menus.
Windows RT, and thus the Surface, currently has a relatively small library of applications available. But it is growing fast. Twice last week I tweeted or blogged [the blog case: Living with a Windows “RT” Tablet [Oct 22, 2012] is worth to read as well] about how I missed some application that I’d been using on the iPad. Within a couple of days, once within hours, the missing app appeared in the Windows Store! … Don’t let the size of the Metro app library keep you from getting a Surface if you otherwise find it a compelling offering. …
Now we’re going to get to the core of the matter. What really makes the Surface difference. In your hands it is, at worst, yet another tablet. Prop it up on a table or other flat surface and something magical happens. The weaknesses of typing on a virtual keyboard or positioning on a capacitive touch screen fade away and you get all the benefits of a real keyboard and pointing device. Sure that shows up in simple ways, like being able to easily and accurately type in a password. For real magic though take a look back at that first graphic I posted. While walking around with the Surface in hand it would land in the same place on the Consumption/Creation scale with the iPad. But put it down, even on your lap, and it takes a giant leap in Creation capability.
… if the keyboard is just a “nice to have” feature for entering text while you are sitting down, or you can’t stand virtual keyboards, or you like having it on the odd chance you’ll need to write a long email or make a Powerpoint slide, then the Touch Cover is for you, However if you know you are going to be using the Surface as a notebook substitute much of the time, then you may just want to pay the price (both in thickness and a little more money) for the Type Cover.
The magic of the Surface is that you can use it all day purely as a tablet without paying a penalty for its ability to do Content Creation. That magic is enabled by Windows RT, but it is really brought to life by the Surface hardware. For any given user the choice of a Surface, another Windows RT or Windows 8 device, or indeed an iPad (or Android tablet) is going to come down to a lot of personal preferences. Sweeping attempts to position one or another as best don’t actually mean much. Where Surface, and Microsoft’s overall approach with Windows RT and Windows 8, shines is when you have a need to do Content Creation. Whether that is replacing some (or all) of your current use for a notebook or desktop computer, or just a desire to be more productive than is possible with a virtual keyboard, it is the place where the Surface shines.
The reality shown #1: Surface Tablet Press Event Part 2 October 25, 2012 [TechLifeNews, Oct 25, 2012]
The reality shown #2: Surface Tablet Press Event Part 3 October 25, 2012 [TechLifeNews, Oct 25, 2012]
The reality shown #3: Surface Tablet Press Event Part 4 October 25, 2012 [TechLifeNews, Oct 25, 2012]
You can also read the transcript of the above as published by Microsoft:
Steven Sinofsky: Surface Launch [Microsoft News Center, Oct 25, 2012]
(note that the video records of intro and closing remarks by Sinofsky are at the end of this post)
See also: Microsoft Surface Now Available at Microsoft Retail Stores [Microsoft press release, Oct 26, 2012]
Overall reflections: What journalists are saying about Panos Panay
The Good reflection: #2 Microsoft Surface review: first look [PC Pro blog, Oct 25, 2012]
After the disappointment of the Windows 8 keynote, where very little was said that was either key or of note, Microsoft has struck back with a vengeance by delivering the Surface. And it is a staggeringly good device.
To explain this without making me sound like a Microsoft fanboi, I’ll dive into the kind of minutiae that PC Pro readers should appreciate.
Because I want to start with, yes, wireless reception. This boring topic is something that’s difficult to get people excited by, until they need to get internet access in an area of poor coverage. Then, suddenly, it’s all-important.
Microsoft has put a good deal of effort into wireless, including two MIMO aerials where most tablet makers opt for one. It was certainly a match for my Asus Ultrabook in the theatre, but to be sure I’d have to take it home with me (something the bulky security guard looking over my shoulder seemed less positive about than I did) and use it in the wireless-free areas that litter my lounge.
Then there’s the magnetic mechanism that clamps the Touch Cover to the tablet. Unlike the iPad, you can hold the Surface by the cover and let it drop without fear the tablet will break off and smash to the ground. We also saw Panos Panay, the general manager of the Surface team at Microsoft, bravely drop it on stage during his demo and the machine carried on working (see the video below).Panos Panay, the General Manager of the Surface team at Microsoft, bravely dropped the Surface on stage during his demo and the machine carried on working
At this point I’m unapologetically going to get more geeky and talk about how that mechanism works. The answer came quite unexpectedly when I started chatting to Ralf Groene, creative director of Surface, later on at the event.
The key point to understand is that magnets work extremely well when they’re directly aligned, but if they move out of position then the connection becomes weak. So, if you swing the cover around and the angle shifts, the connection will break and your tablet will fly off into the distance.
This was a problem that afflicted an early version of the Surface, until one of Groene’s team came up with the solution: two protrusions on the cover that would ensure it stayed perfectly aligned unless enough lateral force was applied. How much force? Roughly what you’d expect from a five-year-old.
Now Microsoft claims that you can still touch-type on the Touch Cover and reach similar speeds to before, although Panos added the caveat that it takes 3-4 days to get used to it. In my experience, that could be a little optimistic: there’s a reason that keyboards with decent level of travel are people’s preferred choice.
What I can say with confidence is that within a few minutes I was typing far more quickly than I’ve ever managed with an on-screen keyboard (according to Microsoft’s internal tests, you should be able to reach around 80% of your natural speed). And, if typing is important to you, then there’s always the Type Cover.
This adds a little more girth and weight to the Surface, but not by much. And for anyone who does a lot of typing, the result is well worth it. It’s not the simple ability to be able to touch type, but the fact that, with a Type Cover, this machine can genuinely replace your laptop.
The 1.2mm of travel each key offers, while not generous, is just enough to make you feel like you haven’t made a sacrifice. You’ll look at your laptop, particularly if it’s more than 2kg, and start thinking of all the reasons why you can leave it behind on your desk.
Because, as with all Windows RT tablets, the Surface includes Word 2013, Excel 2013, PowerPoint 2013 and OneNote 2013. They are full applications, although note that you can’t run macros due to the RT’s lack of support for Visual Basic for Applications.
The other omission to note is Outlook 2013. Yes, there are Mail and Calendar apps built in to Windows RT, but I’m reserving judgement on exactly how I might replace Outlook if I do decide to replace my work laptop with the Surface (some third-party apps are already available, for example).
The only times that using Surface jars a little is when you slip into the old style of Windows interface; for example, when you click Personalize in the Settings menu. This is jarring and horrible, because you have to peck at a tiny X with your finger in a way that’s all too reminiscent of Windows Mobile before it became Windows Phone.
But – and it’s a big but – there’s something about the Surface that makes you forgive these foibles. There’s the kickstand, shown in action above, which folds perfectly flat against the back of the Surface when not in use.
All the gestures seem to work so well that you’ll soon be flicking between applications (swipe in from the left) and jumping to the app’s hidden features (swipe in from the bottom).
It helps that it’s pretty light too: around 680g, or 1.5lbs. It feels well balanced, although just like the iPad you wouldn’t want to hold it one-handed for long.
There’s much more that could be said about the bright 10.6in screen, the clever webcam that films at exactly the right angle when you use the kick-out stand, the way it integrates with an Xbox so you can display films on your TV screen, the fact it includes a microSD card so you can expand storage – but if I carry on in that vein even I’ll start to believe I’ve drank the Microsoft Kool-Aid.
In short, we’ve seen very few Windows 8 tablets that would give Apple any cause for concern, but the Surface really should. It’s been designed with the same from-the-ground-up ethos that marks the iPad, and the end result will be hugely compelling to both home and business users.
And now I’m going to save this file to a USB thumbdrive because I’m being kicked out of the theatre – how handy that a USB slot is built in.
The good: Microsoft Surface’s Metro interface is innovative, elegant, powerful, and versatile. The tablet feels strong and well-built, includes Office 2013, and rich video and music services. Its keyboard cover accessories are the best ways to type on a tablet, period.
The bad: The tablet has sluggish performance, its Windows Store is a ghost town, Metro has a steep learning curve, and the Desktop interface feels clunky and useless.
The bottom line: If you’re an early adopter willing to forget everything you know about navigating a computer, the Surface tablet could replace your laptop. Everyone else: wait for more apps.
Microsoft Surface is the best productivity tablet yet, and it had better be. As the only Microsoft-branded Windows RT hardware to launch with the new operating system (Windows 8 launches this week as well), the tablet serves as ambassador and flagship for the touch-focused, wildly risky Windows grand experiment. The Surface excels thanks to its thoughtful design, sensible implementation of its keyboard accessory, and the innovations brought about by the interface formerly known as “Metro”– chief among them: the gesture-driven menu system, powerful search tool, and incredibly cool and versatile split-screen feature.
Unfortunately, there’s a price to pay for doing things differently. I’ve spent a week with this soldier for the Windows cause, and I predict that some of you will find Metro’s steep learning curve discouraging. Additionally, apps support is dismal, performance (especially when using IE 10) is slow at times, and like the old guy in the club still hanging around after last call, the traditional Windows interface lingers on, feeling embarrassingly out of place.
The Surface isn’t for everyone. Those looking for tons (or even several pounds) of apps should look elsewhere; however, it takes a legitimate swing at replacing your computer and gets closer than any tablet before it at hitting the mark.
On the Surface
So what keeps the Surface from looking like just another generic black tablet? Honestly, not that much, but the features and aesthetic details that do set it apart are significant, if not immediately apparent. For one, the Surface sports a 10.6-inch screen, which is about 0.5 inch larger than most full-size mainstream tablets and 0.9 inch larger than the iPad’s screen. However, this larger screen affords it a true 16:9 aspect ratio at a screen resolution of 1,366×768 pixels. This aspect ratio matches most movies and TV shows, eliminating the need for black bars to appear at the top and bottom of the screen. While movies shot in Scope (2.35:1) will still display with black bars, they’re not nearly as all-encompassing as when watching the same movies on an iPad with its 4:3 aspect ratio screen.
Then there’s the Surface’s beveled backside that contributes to its sleek, somewhat industrial-looking metallic aesthetic. It looks practical without being cold, and just feels like a high-quality device that Microsoft cut few corners to make. Speaking of which, the corners are somewhat rounded, but do tend to dig into the palms a bit when holding the tablet in both hands. The entire chassis is surrounded by a full magnesium (VaporMg, pronounced “Vapor Mag”) outer casing that’s supposedly both scratch- and wear-resistant; however, scratches are already beginning to appear on my unit.
Microsoft Surface Asus Transformer Tab Infinity TF700 Apple iPad (third generation) Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
Weight in pounds 1.5 1.32 1.44 1.32
Width in inches (landscape) 10.8 10.4 7.3 10.3
Height in inches 6.8 7.1 9.5 7.1
Depth in inches 0.37 0.33 0.37 0.35
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 0.81 0.8 0.87 0.9
In the top middle of the front bezel, sitting right next to an ambient light sensor, is the front-facing 720p-capable camera. Several inches below that on the bottom of the bezel sits the Windows home touch sensor, which takes you back to the Start screen or to the last app you had open if you’re already at the Start screen.
Along the right edge, from the top is a speaker grille, a Micro-HDMI port, a full USB 2.0 port, and the power port, which magnetically attaches the power cable. At the far right of the top edge is a lone power/sleep button. The left edge features an additional speaker grille, a headphone jack, and a satisfyingly tactile and clicky volume rocker. Seated toward the bottom of the left edge sits an inch-long groove that allows you to easily pull out the built-in kickstand and prop the tablet up.
The Ugly reflection: Apple’s CEO Discusses F4Q12 Results – Earnings Call Transcript, Question-and-Answer Session [Seeking Alpha, Oct 25, 2012]
Shannon S. Cross– Cross Research LLC
Great, and then I just had a follow-up question on the Tablet market, now with the launch of Surface today and obviously Window 8 Tablet in that could you talk a little bit about what are you seeing, from a competitive standpoint and how you think about it? Thank you.
Timothy D. Cook– Chief Executive Officer
I haven’t firstly play for the Surface yet, but the, what we are reading about it is that it’s a fairly compromised confusing product, and so I think one of the toughest things you do with deciding which product is to make hard trade off and decide what a product should be and we really done that with the iPad and so, the user experience is absolutely incredible, I suppose you could design a car that flies and floats, but I don’t think it would do all of those things very well, and so I think people when they look at the iPad versus competitive offerings are going to conclude, they really want an iPad and I think people have done that to-date and I think they will continue to do that.
Windows 8, of course, features both the standard desktop interface and the new Windows 8 UI (formerly known as “Metro”). The surface, runs Windows RT, doesn’t offer the full desktop experience, but it does run Microsoft’s Office suite in the old-school desktop mode.
Cook was clearly taken back a bit by this question and he clearly had to think about his answer. He still didn’t hold back and, to be fair, his opinion is fairly similar to that of many reviewers.
Microsoft’s own CEO Steve Ballmer, of course, channeled some of Apple’s language today and called the Surface “truly magical” during today’s official launch.
Cook may have had in mind the Wired reviewby Mathew Honan, who described the Surface as “a tablet of both compromises and confusion.”
CNN’s Harry McCracken also wrote that working with the Surface’s Office apps “feels like an exercise in compromise,” while Josh Topolsky of the The Verge wrote “Instead of being a no-compromise device, it often feels like a more-compromise one.”
A common refrain from founder Steve Jobs was that he was as proud of the things that Apple has said no to making as he was the things that they had made. This has been echoed by Cook during his tenure. This is apparently the reasoning that Cook is following when saying that they’ve heard it is a ‘compromised and confusing’ product.
Microsoft has actually used the term ‘no compromises’ when referring to the Surface, a hybrid tablet that runs desktop and touch-friendly Windows environments and has an optional keyboard accessory that features heavily in its advertising.
Apple and Microsoft are taking different routes when it comes to tablet software. While Apple offers its iOS mobile software on its family of iPads, Microsoft has decided to revamp Windows by bringing in elements from its smartphone operating system. Previously, Cook had compared what Microsoft was doing to combining a refrigerator and a microwave.
Microsoft, on the other hand, claims Windows 8 doesn’t have any of the compromises that the iPad has.
“We have a different perspective, a different reason why we would want to make a tablet computer and that is really rooted in PCs being a general-purpose device that works within a broad ecosystem, that connects to a lot of peripherals, and represents an open platform,” Steve Sinofsky, head of the Windows division, told ABC News in an interview.
The reality shown #4: Microsoft Surface vs Apple iPad 3 – NYC Launch Event [Portaltic YouTube channel, Oct 25, 2012]
A glimpse into the Windows 8 reality shown before the Surface launch (after the break): Full report [in just 2 and a half minutes]: Microsoft Windows 8 aimed at tablet, mobile users [networkworld YouTube channel, Oct 25, 2012]
– Windows 8 Arrives [Microsoft press release, Oct 25, 2012]
– Windows reimagined. #Windows8 [Tami Reller on the Windows Experience Blog, Oct 25, 2012]
– Steven Sinofsky, Steve Ballmer, Julie Larson-Green, and Michael Angiulo: Windows 8 Launch [full transcript on Microsoft Nerws Center, Oct 25, 2012]
It’s the kind of OS that should get Microsoft to scream loudly from every rooftops: “We have reimagined the PC and moved the dialogue about the next generation of computing interfaces forward; We have forced our partners to evolve the computer for the next generation of challenges.”
Instead Microsoft launched Windows almost timidly, speaking not of Microsoft launching Windows but of the industry launching Windows. At no time during either Steven Sinofsky’s speech nor Steve Ballmer’s one did the company mention its own name and presented the image of a giant reborn. Both seemed worried, concerned that they might offend, and with many partners in the room, the whole affair felt uneasy as they presented something that just didn’t seem terribly exciting to them.
The performance of Microsoft’s management was not too far from the performance of president Obama during the first presidential debate: somnolent, and somewhat withdrawn.
The reality shown and told before the proper Surface launch: Surface Tablet Press Event Part 1 October 25, 2012 [TechLifeNews, Oct 25, 2012]
The reality shown and told after the proper Surface launch: Surface Tablet Press Event Part 5 October 25, 2012 [TechLifeNews, Oct 25, 2012]
Steve Sinofsky, who earlier that morning had robotically run through the Windows 8 scripts seemed to go off script, talking about passion and truly excited about this new device. Panos Panay, the man behind the Surface tablet, seemed to have had a double dose of expresso, presenting the Surface in a way that channeled the presentation genius of Steve Jobs and combined it with a little Oprah Winfrey thrown in. Whether it was when talking about the hardware, the software, the way this helped him be a better dad, the going into the crowd and handing out devices to be tested, or throwing a tablet on the ground to show how sturdy it was, we were presented with a man who knows what showmanship is about.
While Panay played the lead role, Sinofsky was dropping in, with amusing quips and a sense that this, the first computer built by the company (if you assume that Xbox is not a computer) was the truly exciting thing. But at the same time, there was some tension in the air: it was almost as if Microsoft had a hard time containing its excitement but also wanted to keep it all secret in order to not annoy its OEM partners.
Surface is a tight-rope act for Microsoft, as it tries to compete with its business partners while saying it doesn’t compete with its business partners. The company’s level of care in attempting to create a unique device clearly points to how much it believes that this is the future of the company but at the same time, the company is wary of telling PC manufacturers that it wants to eat their lunch. And so there’s this weird uneasiness where the company appears to want to promote Surface but at the same time is wary of over-promoting Surface.
And the right conclusion after all that is:
Microsoft is hiding its new mistress (Surface) from the rich wife (the OEM partners) all the while claiming that it loves both but, in its heart, truly more enthused by the new girlfriend. Microsoft marriage of convenience is something that sustains it today but it yearns to elope with the new thing in town and build a new life with it.
And at the source of it all, that may be why the company is under-hyping Surface and Windows 8. Microsoft is having a mid-life crisis and after a 30+ year marriage with its OEMs, the company is plotting a future that looks radically different, one where it is single and gets to choose what its product/mate looks like. It’s the future it really wants but it’s also a future the company is not willing to admit to. All its insecurities are tied into its relationship with the OEMs and the company fears that if it makes the jump, it will have a chance to fail and that’s truly scary.
So the company is doing everything to undermine its own hopes. Looking at the Surface is facing a true tragedy due to poor pricing: The Surface retails at $499 without the keyboard (you’ll have to pay $100 extra for that) and thus finds itself in a space where it is too expensive to compete in the tablet space and not feature-rich enough to compete in the PC space. It’s the kind of device that would have been perfect at a $399 price point with the keyboard included, the kind of device that could have stolen millions of hearts away from the iPad; It’s the kind of device that could still have been a successful contender at $329 without its keyboard; It’s the kind of device that seems to exist to prove Apple’s superiority in squeezing every dollar out of its production line to deliver products that are relatively inexpensive while getting decent enough margins for the company.
And the truly sad part is that Microsoft will look at this failure in selling more of those devices as confirmation that it should have stuck with its partners in the first place (no matter what I, or any other pundit, say, there will be hundreds of millions of copies of Windows 8 sold, as the industry as a whole loads it up on new machines that will get upgraded to eventually).
But maybe there’s hope. I was recently talking to a longtime Apple user (the kind of person that was there with the early macs, the kind of person who stuck by Apple’s side through the lean years; the kind of person who’s never own anything but a mac) and she told me that Surface was the first time she thought of a Microsoft product as a decent alternatives. The live tiles, in particular, were part of the attraction.