Look and feel
Microsoft’s Surface Tab looks smart, although it’s a little chunky and hefty for easy one-handed use
Ease of Use
You’ll need to learn your way around Windows 8, but once you get used to its layout, it’s simple enough to use
The Surface tablet’s keyboard cover is a great little device that admittedly not everyone will enjoy. The 1MP cameras are basic, but you get plenty of storage space (expandable) and a full-sized USB port for attaching peripherals
A quad-core nVidia processor provides plenty of power, although we did see the occasional stutter and pause in Windows 8
A standard 5 hours of battery life when streaming media is a respectable result
Review by Sunetra Chakravati,3/8/2013 4:23:46 PM
Ease of use
Neat keyboard cover;
Chunky, hefty build;
Windows 8 quirks and lack of apps
Microsoft’s Surface Tab is a Windows 8 tablet that thinks it’s a laptop, packing a snazzy felt keyboard cover. It’s got stiff competition from the likes of the Asus Vivo Tab RT, so how does Microsoft’s baby stack up?
As a stand-alone tablet, the Microsoft Surface is your typical black slate. The ‘stretched’ widescreen design, coupled with the reasonable heft (comparable to Apple’s latest iPad), makes it a little cumbersome to wield one-handed in landscape mode. You’re best off clutching it in portrait mode. The Surface is solid in all areas, and reassuringly chunky.
If you like 'em chunky, the Surface is your girl
Volume and power buttons are easily accessible at the edges, and Microsoft has even found room for a full-sized USB port on the side, which can be used to add peripherals such as external hard drives. You also get a mini HDMI port for hooking up to a big screen.
However, the Microsoft Surface’s unique feature is its keyboard cover and rear stand, which combine to turn this tablet into a laptop. Tug the tablet’s back panel and it pops out, propping the Surface up in either portrait or landscape mode – useful by itself if you want to watch a movie without clutching it in your hands. However, in landscape mode you can also snap the magnetic cover onto the bottom. This cover acts just like Apple’s iPad accessory – when it covers the screen the Surface hibernates, or you can fold it back behind the tablet to get it out of the way.
On the inside of the cover is a physical keyboard, which kicks into life as soon as the cover is connected. The keys themselves are little more than slightly-raised pads, and initially we were sceptical that it could replace a full physical keyboard or even a virtual onscreen board. However, after an hour of using it to type up emails and even write this review, we found it was a reliable way of quickly and accurately bashing out large reams of text.
Your natural instinct is to push hard on the keys, but you only have to tap lightly for it to register. Once we got used to that we found we rarely made mistakes while touch typing, even with a lack of proper physical feedback. Of course, we’d recommend trying in a store before you buy, and if you can’t be without a proper physical keyboard, Asus’ Vivo Tab RT may suit you better (although you can also get alternate Surface Tab keyboards that have proper clacky keys if needed).
The keyboard is unfortunately a dust magnet: this is it after extensive brushing
The keyboard has a full range of shortcut keys, including fast access to your charms (menu options), and even includes a miniature built-in touchpad for moving a cursor about the screen – although we still prefer tapping the screen instead. The magnetic bond is also impressively tough, so it’s unlikely to come apart unexpectedly.
Our hands-on testing of the keyboard cover's magnets
Anyone who’s used Windows on a home computer will notice immediately how Windows 8 looks nothing like previous versions. This version is optimised for touch control, with a desktop filled with ‘live tiles’ which you can swipe through and tap on. Each tile is a gateway to one of your apps (e.g. music, mail) so tapping on it opens up the relevant app, but the tile itself is also a live information feed – for instance, if you receive an email, the mail tile will tell you so. This saves you tapping it every few minutes to see if anyone’s bothered to get in touch.
The tiles aren’t limited to just apps, however. You can pin pretty much anything you like on there, be it your favourite website or even your most loved people, so you can quickly contact them and see their social media updates. For nostalgic Windows fans there’s also an old-school desktop, which isn’t as much fun to use with your fingers, and multiple users can set up their own desktops, so there needn’t be any family squabbling.
You can access Windows 8 RT’s (a version of Windows 8 more suited to tablets) more useful features by learning its swipe commands. For instance, drag your finger from the left side of the screen to see your recently opened apps, which you can then run alongside whichever other app you have open (for instance, you can bash out an email while checking your calendar). Drag up from the bottom to open a full list of apps, and drag right to open the ‘charms’ menu, which gives you quick, easy access to your settings and search/share tools. It takes a while to get used to if you come from an Android or iOS background, but once you learn the gestures it’s a fairly intuitive system.
Unfortunately there are still some issues with Windows 8. The People app, for instance, sometimes refuses to update with your latest notifications or shows the wrong profile picture for one of your contacts for no discernible reason.
Microsoft’s App Store is neatly presented, with apps broken down into categories such as Sport, Music & Video and Games, and then again into top paid, top free and new releases. The only problem is the limited range, compared to rivals such as Android and iOS. Windows 8 will always be playing catch-up simply because of how much longer the other platforms have been established, but we struggled to find more than a handful of decent games, quality restaurant/drinking hole apps were pretty much non-existent and some of our faves such as Flipboard and YouTube were conspicuous by their absence (the third party YouTube apps are woeful at best).
Still, you get the option to try out many of the paid apps before you buy, which is a neat touch and saves you from splashing out on junk. You also get Microsoft’s Office suite (Word, Excel etc) to stay productive on the move, which has to be opened from the desktop section. These apps haven’t been redesigned for a touchscreen so the menu buttons are fiddly to use, and this was the one time we used the keyboard’s touchpad to ensure we clicked on the right thing.
Performance and battery life
A quad-core nVidia Tegra 3 processor backed up by 2GB of RAM runs the show, and for the most part the Surface runs smoothly. Occasionally things ground to a halt, even when we didn’t have much on the go – we’d simply be browsing the App Store and tap something and it would pause for five to ten seconds before bringing up what we wanted. This was an infrequent problem however, and we played some of the latest games without any kind of stuttering.
We managed five hours of media streaming on a single battery charge, about average for a modern tablet. You’ll get longer if you limit yourself to more basic tasks such as word processing.
Screen and camera
Then there’s the Microsoft Surface’s 10.6-inch screen, which may lack the supreme sharpness of rivals such as Apple’s iPad Retina display, but is crisp enough to make games, movies and photos look good. Colours are less vibrant than on the Asus Vivo Tab RT, a fellow Windows 8 tablet, but look more realistic. The Surface also boasts a powerful maximum screen brightness, which easily overcomes sunlight and other harsh glare.
Rounding off the specs is a pair of basic 1MP cameras, one on the front of the Surface and one on the rear. The rear-facing lens is mostly pointless, taking grainy shots that are barely even fit for Facebook, but the front-facer is fine for Skype chats.
Microsoft’s Surface tablet has plenty to offer if you’re after a portable device to keep you productive on the move. The keyboard cover works better than expected and saves you lugging a plastic dock around, while the screen is bright and reasonably crisp. Only Windows 8 itself is a slight downer: for every great feature there’s a weird quirk, and the Windows Store is still too barren to recommend.