Microsoft Surface review

25 Nov

I spent much time in the days leading up to purchase of a Microsoft Surface reading all the reviews of it I could find on the net. Having had it for two weeks I thought I’d post my own initial impressions.

Assessments of the Surface out there are quite broad in range but coalesce around the notion: “great hardware but lacking in decent apps”.  I would say: “great hardware and touch interface but lacking in decent apps”.

Starting with the positive, the machine itself is beautifully made. If it were a meal, Michel Roux Jr might roll it around in his mouth with pleasure, pondering his positive judgement to thrill the neophyte chef. The case is made from a durable, heavy duty magnesium alloy. Its appearance is unremarkable though its sheen is markable (with fingerprints); however the build quality is excellent in every way. Being quite a bit bigger than an iPad it’s heavier too, but perhaps only slightly. The Touch Cover keyboard I bought with it is white. Although advertised in many colours, the options appear at the moment to be restricted to black, white and maybe cyan but no doubt this will soon change. It neatly doubles as keyboard and dust cover. You can keep it attached permanently, folding it back when you just want to use the touch interface, or detach it easily with a flick of the wrist. The rather excellent video advertising the Surface on TV has young folk cavorting around snapping the thing on and off with great panache and it’s hard to resist clicking it on and off just for fun.

It comes packaged neatly though not as superbly as an Apple product. I have four iPhone boxes stored under this desk, feeling reluctant to throw them way as they are objets d’art in themselves. The Touch Cover keyboard came in an inexplicably large box – bigger than the box for the Surface itself. When you switch on, going through the setup procedure is fairly painless. You have to create a Microsoft account which then ‘syncs’ (there must be several syncing puns lurking somewhere beneath the Surface) with your emails, Facebook, Twitter etc. accounts. This is a great attraction to me as I spend a lot of time slavishly checking these media to see if anyone has responded to my plaintive laments, gripes and observations.

The thing I like most about the Surface is surfing. Ah, suddenly I get the name-pun. It really is a joy to swipe and tap your way through apps and the internet. Once you learn the gestures and features of Windows 8, it competes very well, nay perhaps outdoes, the iPad iOS. Microsoft have given a lot of thought to the way people actually do things and made these easier. It isn’t without learning curve mind you. When you are presented in Internet Explorer 10 with a full-screen view of a web page with no visible navigation icons, it can be disconcerting. (By the way, you swipe down from the top to navigate).

Now for the bad bits. I use Skype to contact my children in the UK and US but the Skype app in Windows 8 doesn’t show them my image. This is bad: the web cam, though working in the Skype test area, gets turned off in an actual call. OK, maybe I am missing something, but after spending about 1/2 hour trawling forums etc. for an answer without success, I definitely chalk this down as a failure. And it isn’t only Skype; other Win 8 apps just don’t seem as fully featured and de-bugged as their Win 7 counterparts. One tip is to use the web versions of apps: Facebook, WordPress (e.g. for this blog), Twitter and the like can all be pinned to the Start Screen and accessed just as easily as apps, working perfectly well.

This brings me on to gripe number 2, regarding the schizophrenic nature of the Windows 8 system. Win 7, and its predecessors back as far as Win 95, all had a Start menu and a desktop. Windows 8 has transformed the Start menu into the Start Screen, with its distinctive Tiles. Now Microsoft’s reasoning behind this appears to have various threads. On the competitive/commercial front, MS wants to compete with Apple and Google, to whom it has lost much of its commercial dominance in recent years. In order to do this it needed an ‘ecosystem’ of apps, devices and operating systems that integrate between themselves and with the ‘cloud’, that amorphous mass of storage capacity hosted on server farms throughout the world which, apart from being a socio-political issue of enormous international importance given the extent to which we all now rely on it, actually makes a lot of things very much more convenient. Windows 8 therefore needs to work well on touch-screens which, since the iPad and iPhone, have become ubiquitous and have taken over in many ways from the keyboard/mouse combo for PCs and buttons for phones. For touch, big tiles are good but tiny menus and buttons are bad.

Also, Microsoft wants to be on the app revenue bandwagon. Until recently programmes were sold, expensively, to do things on desktop PCs. Now apps are sold, cheaply, to do things on tablets and phones. Microsoft needs to have a way to exploit this and the Windows Store is it, but not all the programmers in the world working together could have re-written all the traditional Windows programmes to be touch-friendly apps. So Microsoft needed to perpetuate the desktop as a way to run programmes. This leaves the user with a curious interface disconnect, where the ‘Desktop’ is another tile on the touch interface. When you tap it, you are sent to a familiar if neutered version of the old desktop, with the Start menu missing. Remember, the Start menu is now the Start screen, and…oh I give up. For the main PC version of Windows 8, you can download a utility that will replicate the Start menu and have Windows boot to the desktop by default. I am not sure if this is available for the ‘RT’ variant of Win 8 on the Surface. One thing that is certain for RT/Surface users is that no traditional desktop programmes at all can be installed, meaning that you are largely restricted to the App Store with its small, if growing, collection of sometimes half-baked apps. There is however a special version of MS Office 2013 installed on the Surface for free, which is a great thing.

It tickles me that we seem to have gone back to the wonderful world of Windows 3.11. I disliked the Start menu when it first came out in Win 95: I just didn’t know what to do, being used to double-clicking Win 3.11 er… well… Tiles, to get programmes started. Plus ca change , plus c’est la meme chose.

In the last two weeks I have been both frustrated and pleased by the Surface but do love it.  After all, it cost 500 quid so I’m bound to make an effort. And what love comes ever without effort? This is the attitude I would encourage in every impatient consumer, every hasty critic: effort is needed if we are to reap the benefits of anything. A little like a spouse, this beauty is challenging to live with but hard to live without. You must learn its special ways, devote time to working with it on its own terms; then it may turn out to be a great companion.

Surfacing on a messy desk


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