The company has sold operating systems for other companies' computers for more than 30 years. Sticking to the software and letting other people deal with the hardware side is what made Microsoft the multinational behemoth that dominated the computing landscape through the 1990s and much of the 2000s. MS-DOS; 16-bit Windows 1, 2, and 3; the hybrid Windows 95 family; and the 32-bit (and, later, 64-bit) Windows NT family that is still with us to this day: all were sold primarily to computer OEMs for preinstallation on new machines.
With Surface, Microsoft is diving headlong into a new business model. Let's be blunt here: Redmond is going the Cupertino route. Microsoft is not merely writing the software. It's designing hardware to go with that software, and contracting manufacturers in East Asia to turn its designs into millions of units of real, shipping hardware, that Microsoft will be selling directly to customers.
|Specs at a glance: Microsoft Surface with Windows RT|
|Screen||1366×768 10.6" (147 ppi), 5-point capacitive touchscreen|
|CPU||1.3GHz NVIDIA Tegra 3 T30|
|RAM||2GB DDR3L (non-upgradeable)|
|GPU||NVIDIA Tegra 3|
|HDD||32GB or 64GB solid-state drive (of which about 20 or 52 GB are usable)|
|Networking||802.11a/b/g/n with 2x2 MIMO antennas, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Ports||Micro HDMI, headphones, microSDXC, USB 2.0, Cover port|
|Size||10.81×6.77×0.37" (274×172×9.3 mm)|
|Price as reviewed||$699|
|Sensor||Ambient light sensor, Accelerometer, Gyroscope, Magnetometer|
|Other perks||24W charger|
Why the change of heart? The president of Windows and Windows Live Division, Steven Sinofsky, says that Microsoft has its own point of view when it comes to tablets. He pointed at Google, Amazon, and Apple, saying that each of them have their own tablet take. Google's world is centered on search and collecting data; Amazon's tablets are intended to drive purchases from Amazon's store; Apple's is designed to capitalize on the iPhone's familiarity.
Microsoft's take is the same as it has always been: the tablet is a sort of PC, with all the flexibility, extensibility, and variety that that entails. This mindset is fundamental to understanding why Windows 8 is the way it is. It's also why Microsoft continues to sell its operating system to OEMs; it knows that there's too much variety in the market for one company to meet every need.
But Microsoft has a competing pressure. It wants to show off its software in the best light possible, and controlling the whole experience—software, hardware, and even retail—is how it plans to achieve that.
Quite how Microsoft will sit in the broader tablet market isn't yet entirely clear. The company is keeping very quiet about production volumes and expected sales figures. There are a few predictions and rumors floating around, putting expectations in the region of low millions. That's a smaller scale than, for example, Amazon's Kindle Fire or Google's Nexus 7, but still substantial for a first product.
If nothing else, the limited distribution—Surface will initially be available in just eight markets—will serve to limit Surface's ability to disrupt the OEMs, making the computer more of a Nexus-like benchmark than a complete transformation of Microsoft's business model. But we can expect that to change with time. Studio B, the building in Redmond that houses the Surface team, is taking hardware seriously, and Microsoft wants to create a sustainable, profitable hardware business to position itself as a "devices-and-services" company.
Surface is the first product to reflect this devices-and-services ambition and I've been test driving one for about a week. Does Microsoft have what it takes to be a player in the hardware market? Can it take on not just the OEMs, but the Apple juggernaut?
It's a tabletWith the way Sinofsky emphasized Microsoft's desire to put its own stamp on the tablet market and ensure that its hardware experience was the best possible, one might have expected something a little more exotic than a black widescreen slab. A black widescreen slab is what we have.
I think it's a good looking slab. The shape is squarer and more angular than many competing products, which I enjoy. It's slim, at 0.37 inches (9.4mm), and light, at 1.5lb (681g). Its front face is dominated by the 10.6-inch, 16:9, 1366×768, Gorilla Glass 2-covered IPS screen. Above the screen are a 720p camera and a little light that illuminates to show that the camera is in use. Below that sits a Windows logo that serves as a Start button.
All hardware designed for Windows 8 will sport a Start button positioned centrally below the long edge of the screen (except for hybrid laptops, which are given more leeway in their positioning) and it is an irritating design flaw that Microsoft has mandated. Sinofsky has said that one of Surface's immutable design constraints was that it was intended for two-handed operation, held in landscape mode. Windows 8 and RT similarly are built for this mode with their convenient thumb keyboard. Problem is, when held this way the Start button is unreachable.
The front of the machine is covered edge-to-edge in Gorilla Glass. All other sides are metal.
Surface is made from injection molded magnesium alloy, the same technique used for building the internal structures of SLR cameras. The results are stiff and robust (and enjoyably flammable) but also lightweight. How stiff? Well, Microsoft has turned one Surface tablet into possibly the world's nerdiest skateboard by attaching four wheels.
The black (or "Dark Titanium," as Microsoft calls it) finish is a result of Microsoft's VaporMg (pronounced "Vapor Mag") vapor deposition technique. The result is hard to scratch, easy to grip, and comfortable to hold. It's also a veritable fingerprint magnet. Keeping your Surface looking smart will require kid gloves.
The edges of the machine all have a 22° angle, which has the effect of making the rest of the machine "disappear" when you're looking at the front. It also feels good in the hand. The Surface is comfortable to hold, feeling well-balanced.
Buttons and portsAround the edges of the machine are various buttons and connectors. From top to bottom on the right, we have a speaker, mini-HDMI, full-size USB 2.0, and the magnetic power connector. I've taken an instant dislike to the power connector. The magnets are so strong that the Surface aggressively grabs the connector, snatching it away from my grasp. It doesn't, however, seat the connector properly within its receptacle, so the system can't actually charge. I have to jiggle the thing and reseat it every time.
At the other end of the power lead is a 24W wall wart. There's no option here for USB charging. Sinofsky described this as one of the many trade-offs that have to be made when designing hardware. USB charging is useful, because it means that you can carry around fewer chargers.
However, it's also power constrained; although the USB working group is producing a high power (100W) standard, current USB 2.0 is limited to 2.5W and USB 3.0 to 9.0W.
With Surface's 31.5Wh battery, that would produce a best-case charging time of 3.5 hours over USB 3.0 (assuming the machine has its screen off and is idle, so all the energy slurped in over the port can be stored in the battery), and more than 12 hours over USB 2.0. With the 24W charger, a full charge can be had in around 80 minutes.
The positioning of the power connector is also aggravating. If you're holding the Surface in the two-hand landscape style—the style that was a design constraint—your right hand goes where the power connector attaches. The connector gets in the way. It's not as bad as on some other machines I've used, however. Samsung's Series 7 Slate puts its power connector in the same place, but unlike the flat connector of Surface, it's a conventional circular jack that juts out perpendicular to the side of the machine, rather than lying alongside it. Nonetheless, the Surface's placement seems to be at odds with the intended design and usage of the machine.
On the top edge there's a power button and two microphone holes. The top edge and a small portion of the rear are covered in a material that isn't magnesium alloy. It's probably plastic (though Microsoft would not confirm this), and positioned behind it are the twin MIMO Wi-Fi antennas. This presumed-to-be-plastic piece also houses a second 720p camera, mounted on the rear of the machine.
On the left edge is another speaker, a 3.5mm headphone jack that you'll want to use instead of the built-in speakers (as they're rather quiet, even at full volume), a volume control, and a chamfer to make it easier to flip out the kickstand. Tucked away behind the kickstand is a microSDXC slot.
Not present? A rotation lock button. There's a software lock, but I would have liked a hardware button; much easier to tap a hardware button before handing the device to someone to show them something than fuss around with the icon on the brightness slider in the settings charm.
Kickin' itThe kickstand is Microsoft's first key point of differentiation. When closed, it fits flush with the back of the machine. It opens with a confident, assured click, snapping securely into place. When deployed, it props the screen up at a 22-degree angle.
Sinofsky and Panos Panay, General Manager of Surface, told us that their goal with the kickstand was to instill confidence. Surface users should be able to flip it out, certain that it will snap into place (rather than half deploying, ready to collapse, catching users unaware) and securely hold the device up.
Although invisible to users, the kickstand uses a complex arrangement of three custom-designed hinges to do its thing. The left and right hinges are responsible for snapping the kickstand shut and holding it open, with an arrangement of cams and springs inside. The central hinge provides damping to ensure that the metal stand doesn't vibrate and creates a reassuring noise. It also uses magnets to close more securely.
On a level surface, the kickstand holds the device steady, and on a desk or a table the angle is satisfactory. The mechanical feel is enormously pleasing; I would not be at all surprised to find Surface buyers idly snapping the kickstand open and closed just because it feels so good. At least if they're left-handed; the chamfer to make flipping the kickstand out is on the left of the machine. As a righty, I reached out with my dominant hand every time to try to open the kickstand, and every time was disappointed. I would have preferred the chamfer to exist on both sides, but there isn't room on the right-hand side due to the position of the power connector.
As with all kickstands, however, it becomes much less useful when used without a desk or table. I was using Surface on my lap as the passenger in a car. While I appreciate that this is not perhaps the most ergonomic way of using it, it's a scenario that a laptop handles with aplomb. I can tilt the screen back far enough to make it comfortable to read, and push it back far enough on my lap that it's comfortable to type on.
The kickstand, however, was less than satisfactory. My lap is not perfectly flat, leaving the Surface unsteady and prone to toppling over backwards. The kickstand also has a thin edge that was uncomfortable on the bare skin of my legs.
Similarly, I work extensively with a laptop on my lap, using a Lap Desk. In the armchair in which I normally sit, the Lap Desk is not horizontal, it tilts slightly towards from me. With my laptop, that's fine; comfortable and secure. With Surface, it isn't. The screen angle is wrong, and the machine topples over toward me. Without the Lap Desk, it topples away from me.
This is not a "Surface" problem so much as a "kickstand" problem; it's one of the prices you pay by not having a large base with a stiff hinge, as a laptop does. As a kickstand, the Surface's implementation is solid, stable, and reliable, and it has the kickstand advantages of light weight and elegant integration with the body of the tablet. But it's still just a kickstand, and kickstands have their downsides.
Keyboardin' itI neglected to mention the bottom edge of the Surface before. The bottom edge contains another connector, the cover port. It's here that Microsoft's other major point of differentiation comes into play: covers that double as keyboards.
There are two kinds of cover. There's the Touch Cover: a 3.25mm membrane keyboard weighing in at less than 0.46lb (208g), and the Type Cover: a 6mm physical keyboard coming in at less than 0.55lb (250g). Both are six-row (well; five and a half, the function key row is half height) keyboards with a small two-button touchpad below.
Whichever keyboard you use, they connect to the cover port and latch in place magnetically. This latching mechanism is nothing short of remarkable. The magnets are positioned such that they align and clamp the keyboard perfectly into place, ensuring correct attachment the first time, every time. You can't plug it in with the keyboard askew, or laterally displaced by a few millimeters, or anything else that would disrupt correct connectivity. If you hear that click, you're good to go.
Sinofsky and Panay talked about the design spec for the connector's magnetic attachment. It needs to be strong enough to support the weight of the Surface unit, but not so strong that a three-year-old can't disconnect the two. I don't have any three-year-olds to test the ease of disconnection, but I can say that it does indeed support the weight of the Surface. Dangling the computer from the keyboard feels very unnerving, but it works.
Like the kickstand, the magnetic clamping mechanism used to keep the keyboard covers attached is going to be another boon for fidgeters everywhere. You'll want to disconnect the keyboard over and over just to experience the "snap" as the two pair together. It's no wonder that the Surface ads tell you to click in.
I do have to wonder, though: if Microsoft can make a magnetic connector this good, why does the power connector have none of these qualities? That connector has to be carefully placed and doesn't always make a proper connection.
TypingOn to the keyboards themselves. The Touch Cover is likely to be the more widespread option. Some Surface units will ship with a black Touch Cover, and they're also available in white, cyan, magenta, and red (though not all colors are available in all markets).
They're covered in polyurethane that should prove hard-wearing and water resistant (I was told that they should withstand scouring pads, though I admit I'm too chicken to try—we had to promise to return our review units unharmed), with laser-etched print on the keys.
The black ones seem to have a kind of grey felt covering on their rear; the rest are smooth.