Review: Microsoft's Surface tablet no iPad, but better than other rivals

November 1, 2012 by Troy Wolverton

I found a lot to like about Microsoft's new Surface tablet. It's generally a pleasure to use. It has innovative features. And it appears to be well-built. For Microsoft's first effort at designing a mass-market computing device, it's a remarkable achievement, and it rates at or very near the top of the 10-inch tablets that compete with Apple's iPad. It's also a much easier device to understand and use than rival tablets based on Android, and unlike those tablets, it runs Office.

But as might be expected of a first-generation gadget, it also has numerous shortcomings, and because of those, I can't recommend it over the . For the same $500 base price, Apple's tablet is simply better.

At first glance, the looks unremarkable. It's a black slate with a glass screen, much like many of the other tablets on the market. It has a thin case with sharp edges that looks more like a utilitarian office device than something that will excite design fetishists.

But look more closely and you'll find some nice features. Unlike many of the iPad's competitors, its case is made of magnesium, not plastic, so it feels solid. It has a unique kickstand that folds out of its back, allowing you to prop it up on a table. And it has a full-size USB port and an SD card slot, allowing users to transfer files from external drives and cards.

For its new tablet effort, Microsoft designed a version of its operating system to run on ARM processors, the low-power chips that underlie the iPad and nearly all other competing tablets. Thanks to its ARM chip, the Surface is as thin as the big iPad and only slightly heavier. And like the iPad, it's ultraquiet, because it doesn't have a fan.

The new version of the operating system, dubbed Windows RT, looks a lot like the versions of Windows 8 that will run on traditional PCs. It has the same "Metro" start screen with "live" application tiles that offer up-to-date information, including the current weather and snippets from your latest email messages. And it has a version of the traditional Windows desktop.

I'm not a fan of the Metro start screen on traditional PCs. But the interface, which you navigate by swiping, tapping and pinching, was made for a touch-screen device like this. Some of the gestures take getting used to, but for the most part interacting with Metro is natural and easy.

One compelling feature in the Metro interface is the ability to split the screen between two applications. So, for example, you can play "Cut the Rope" while continuing to monitor your email. It's not the same thing as actually having windowed applications, but I'm not sure you need that feature on a tablet, and the screen-split feature is one you don't get on the iPad or on the typical Android tablet.

Another cool feature about Surface is that unlike the iPad, it supports multiple users. So you and your family members can share the device without having access to each other's email.

The Surface comes with a nice collection of built-in Metro apps, including a photo gallery, a maps application, email and calendar programs and different news readers. But what is likely to be the most attractive to Windows users is that Surface ships with versions of some of the core Office programs, including Word and Excel.

Those Office programs look and work just like the Office applications that run under traditional Windows. In other words, Microsoft hasn't redesigned those applications, so you can easily interact with them on a touch screen. Fortunately, the company is offering covers for the Surface that include keyboards and trackpads to navigate the desktop and the Office programs more easily.

For all that there is to like about Surface, though, it does have several notable shortcomings. Its screen resolution is significantly less than that on the new iPad.

Similarly, its cameras are lower resolution than the ones on the iPad, so the pictures you take with it will be noticeably fuzzier. And the Surface lacks both an intelligent assistant feature like Siri and the ability to transcribe speech to text.

But its biggest shortcoming is the number and range of applications available for it. Although the Surface runs Windows, it won't run any traditional Windows programs other than ones it comes with, and even among those, it's missing Outlook. The only programs you can add to the Surface are those designed for its new Metro interface and offered through Microsoft's new Windows Store - and that offering is relatively slim right now.

So, the Surface is a compelling tablet with a lot of potential, but unless you're dead-set against an iPad, it doesn't yet measure up.



-Troy's rating: 7.0 (out of 10)

-Likes: Solid magnesium case, new interface easy to use on a touch screen, ability to split screen between two apps, built-in Office applications, clever kickstand

-Dislikes: Relatively low-resolution screen, low-resolution cameras, desktop interface and programs difficult to navigate and use via touch screen, can't run older Windows programs, Office suite lacks Outlook, relatively few apps in Windows app store, no option for version with cellular data radios

-Specs: Nvidia quad-core processor; 10.6-inch 1366-by-768 display, 720p front and rear cameras

-Price: $500 for 32GB model, $600 for 32GB model with touch keyboard cover; $700 for 64GB model with keyboard cover

-On the Web:

Explore further: Review: Intriguing new Office suite hindered by interface

More information: Troy Wolverton is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News.


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2 / 5 (8) Nov 01, 2012
It's missing Outlook and that's a bad thing ? LOL.
1 / 5 (7) Nov 01, 2012
Although the Surface runs Windows, it won't run any traditional Windows programs other than ones it comes with
I see, with support of traditional Windows programs nobody would use the Microsoft Store, without it nobody would use the Surface. Well - lets say, this product is a bit ahead of its time... ;-)
1 / 5 (1) Nov 01, 2012
Nice Jedi mind trick forcing users to buy all their programs twice!
2.3 / 5 (3) Nov 01, 2012
This is PhysOrg, right? Didn't know this was a product review site..
5 / 5 (3) Nov 01, 2012
Actually it's pretty similar to Apple's iTunes. You can install a program/app in multiple locations or on multiple profiles using the same Microsoft account without the need to purchase it again.

Windows 8 RT is not a 'full version' of 8, but the iPad can't run programs that Mac desktop computers can, so they're pretty even in that arena.

It doesn't have as many apps as the iPad, but it's also new. The iPad didn't always have a billion apps, they had to be created. The fact that it has a USB port and functional word processor with the ability to save to standard file formats makes it instantly more utilitarian out of the box than the iPad. You also get twice the memory of an iPad for the same price.

I like the iPad, it's a pretty solid piece of hardware, and it's fun. I would prefer a surface to do actual work on, though, if I had to use a slate due to space or weight restrictions, and the 'It's a good toy' sentiment over the iPad has been stated by many of my clients.

not rated yet Nov 01, 2012
@R2Bacca, it's a science and technology site. This being new tech it's appropriate. Whether or not you agree with the review it's informative of the capabilities.
1 / 5 (4) Nov 01, 2012
Two new tablets released this month through a new site called TabletSprint offer impressive features & stack up against the iPad and the Google Nexus 10 for nearly half the price... One model is the Novo 10 by Ainol electronics, a tabletmaker which received a CNET/CES 2012 "Tablet of the Year" award for another tablet they produced earlier this year - The Novo 10 offers a Quad Core processor and a pretty amazing 1920x1200 Liquid Crystal 10.1" screen (like iPad Retina display) and priced at $269 and features an advanced 10-Point Multi-Touch, HDMI with 1080p (HD) output to a TV, Dual Cameras, Bluetooth, WiFi, Built-In GPS, a Micro-SD Memory Card Slot, a Micro-USB port, a Strong Battery (10,000 mAh), Android 4.1 O/S (Jelly Bean) and Google Play access (400,000 Android Software Apps). A similar model is produced by another Asia firm, Ramos Technology, the W30-HD has many of the same features but includes 3G through any GSM Carrier(T-Mobile & AT&T) -- both available through TabletSprint --
not rated yet Nov 01, 2012
This is PhysOrg, right? Didn't know this was a product review site.. > Electronics > Consumer & Gadgets. Looks like the right place to me. Plenty of science in the other sections.
1 / 5 (8) Nov 01, 2012
I wonder how long it will take for apple to start suing them for copying the home button. FYI folks, you can now have blue screen dumps on the go and not just on your desktop at home. Its funny seeing someone join the party ten years later lol.
1.8 / 5 (10) Nov 01, 2012
Seems better than an iPad, it has a real Keyboard available.
1 / 5 (9) Nov 01, 2012
Nope. stcking with my transformer!
2.9 / 5 (8) Nov 01, 2012
@evropej - actually they arent 10 years late...Windows tablets were available 10-12 years ago, but the market wasnt there yet (not to mention decent wireless and other technologies to go with it which help make it a success today). The shortcoming was probably stopping encouragement of tablets...
1 / 5 (6) Nov 02, 2012
Does any iPad like device have the ability to print to a network printer?

This is a frustrating shortcoming of smart phones (of any variety), but at least the phones do have other utility like being a phone.

Is having Microsoft Office on the device useful if you can't simply print your work? [Yes, I understand that you can use the USB to transfer your files to a real computer].
5 / 5 (1) Nov 02, 2012
Those live tiles are exceptionally irritating.

Not to mention ugly as hell.
1 / 5 (6) Nov 02, 2012
I try to have an open mind about Microsoft's new products but I am challenged at every turn. This device doesnt work as well as a laptop and doesnt really offer anything that the competitors already have working well.

Why would you spend 100 plus dollars on a horrible thing that kinda works like a keyboard? This is the silliest thing ever for me.

The windows 8 interface, this is the biggest flop ever. When microsoft redid the start menu, it was horrible but now they really screwed things up. Neither a desktop, laptop or portable device works well. Its like a science experiment gone wrong.

The cost is also no competitive. How are they going to compete with better quality products at much lower prices?

@yes dogbert, they can do a lot more. my iphone for example syncs to icloud automatically, music, data, os backup, updates. I can stream to a tv. I can print to any printer and much more.
1.6 / 5 (7) Nov 02, 2012

Your phone has no capacity to print.

You can send to an application on your computer or out to the cloud, but you can't print directly to a printer. Why doesn't your iPhone have C.U.P.S.? (Apple created C.U.P.S.). Why doesn't my android phone have it?

Your smart phone is a computer. It should be able to print.

1 / 5 (2) Nov 02, 2012
Apple fans are too funny. So loyal they refuse to admit when Microsoft has clearly introduced a great device. You can consume content on it....just like the ipad, and you can create content on it, unlinke the ipad, real content anyway. I pad was a great tablet, but it lacks the ability to use for work - Surface clearly has the ability to be used as a work and play device. Good job Microsoft - suck it up Apple fans.
1 / 5 (5) Nov 02, 2012
What is that? My printer support airprint, so does my receiver/tv support airplay. Facts are facts.
1.6 / 5 (7) Nov 02, 2012
What is that? My printer support airprint, so does my receiver/tv support airplay. Facts are facts.

Facts are facts. You can print pictures to special printers which have additional software to print pictures. That is not print capability. You can't send a word processor document to a network printer and have it print.

Read more at:

Airprint: Print right from your iPhone over Wi-Fi with AirPrint. There's no software to download, no drivers to install, and no cables to connect. With just a few taps in Mail, Photos, Safari, or iBooks, you can send whatever's onscreen to an AirPrint-enabled printer.

Printing a picture or a screen (a picture) is not printing.

I can do those things with Android too. I cannot, however, print to a network printer unless I install an application on a computer and keep that computer running to accept and print the content I might send to it.

1.6 / 5 (7) Nov 02, 2012

No phone, to my knowledge, has printer drivers installed to print to a network printer.

I don't believe any iPad type device has printer drivers either.

Why buy a device with word processing capability when you cannot print the documents you create from that device. Why not just buy a portable computer?
not rated yet Nov 03, 2012
Print is dead, Dogbert.
2.7 / 5 (12) Nov 03, 2012
Not for people who actually need to do work.
1.7 / 5 (6) Nov 03, 2012
A lot of pretty stupid drawbacks if you ask me. Half of them aren't expected out of any other tablet (Outlook, Older Programs) and yet you suddenly expect it out of the Surface? There are plenty of bigger reasons not to get one, but those reasons apply to all tablets. The only thing any tablet is really good for at this point is entertainment and socializing and looking like a douche bag when taking photos with it.

1.7 / 5 (6) Nov 03, 2012
Not for people who actually need to do work.

I did not mean to give this a 1... I agree with you
5 / 5 (1) Nov 03, 2012
Not for people who actually need to do work.

This must be a first, because I actually agree wholeheartedly with you there.

Tablets are toys. For that market they are great.
But there are people in the world who work for a living. And I hardly think there's anyone on the planet who can (or even would want to) work on a tablet 8 hours a day (or even 1 hour a day).
1 / 5 (1) Nov 04, 2012
Whether tablets are useful for "work" depends on the work you do. There are many productive activities that don't require a mouse and/or keyboard to perform efficiently. And we are only breaking the surface (no pun intended, but I'll keep it) as to how multi-touch interfaces can be employed.
not rated yet Nov 04, 2012
There are many productive activities that don't require a mouse and/or keyboard to perform efficiently.

Name one. Something where it is more useful to sit down with a tablet than do the work on a dedicated workstation with a a good input device and a large screen. (Just lugging that huge thing around for taking notes is not 'productive work'.)
1 / 5 (4) Nov 04, 2012
This is a pretty damning review from someone who wanted to like it.
not rated yet Nov 05, 2012
Okay, so I've had a chance to play with one. I would most definitely like the full operating system, but here's what I've determined. Yes, you can print to a network printer, easily. I can also remotely connect to our servers with it, and do most things I can do on a full scale laptop. The mail program it comes with is about as good as on the iPad with a bit more capability.

Antialias, this would be good for me, who has to go onsite to clients for IT issues(when doing something remotely is not an option). With a full operating system (which Windows 8 RT nearly is, but I want backwards compatibility) it's pretty much a good netbook with a bigger screen, but I don't need much power for troubleshooting. I told my company to wait for the Pro version, but I could get by with RT if I had to. Really, though, the 'Microsoft/Apple is going to crash' talk has happened every time a new product comes out and when pointed out those people always say 'this time they really will!'. No, they won't.
1 / 5 (5) Nov 05, 2012

Yes, you can print to a network printer, easily.

You can open a word processor document or an Excel file and simply print them to a network printer?

If so, the utility of a surface tablet has risen considerably.
4 / 5 (1) Nov 06, 2012
Yes, there are a couple ways to get to Devices and Printers. The easiest to start off with, as with many things, seems to be using the search function. Go to the top/bottom right corner using a mouse, or swipe in from right using touch, to bring up the 'charm menu' and choose search, type printers, then choose Devices and Printers. Add a printer as you would using prior versions of Windows.

In Word, just go to File>Print, as always. Or you could add a Print Preview & Print button to the ribbon.

Windows 8 RT is essentially a full operating system, just with no backward compatibility. That's irritating, but increasingly capable.

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