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Surface Review Roundup: Hardware Great, Software and Apps Lacking

  • Check out Scott's own review of the Surface RT here.

We haven't gotten our hands on one of the Microsoft Surface RT devices yet, but a few reviewers around the Web have. The consensus seems to be that the Surface hardware is extremely strong but that the software and especially the app ecosystem, two areas where Microsoft should theoretically shine, are problem areas.

The New York Times
Hardware: "succeeded brilliantly."
Software: "an insanely confusing split personality."

David Pogue painted the big picture in The New York Times with his lead:

"How would you like to move into a stunning mansion on a bluff overlooking the sea -- in Somalia? Or would you like the chance to own a new Ferrari -- that has to be refueled every three miles? Would you take a job that pays $1 million a year -- cutting football fields with toenail clippers?"

It's a nice analogy for using Microsoft products these days in many circumstances. (It captures my feelings this weekend, for example, in the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. An app to see what you'd look like as a Neanderthal was available only for iPhone and Android. Yes, it was a frivolous app, but walking around with a Windows Phone often leaves me feeling like I'm outside the party looking in.)

Pogue writes that on "the hardware front, Microsoft has succeeded brilliantly." He writes lovingly of the many ports and jacks, the kickstand and the magnetic hinged Touch Cover. In use, he notes that Touch Cover occasionally misses keystrokes if you type too fast and finds the battery life underwhelming, but these are minor complaints in a very positive take on the hardware.

Of the software, on the other hand, Pogue calls it a "heartbreak." Many of his problems have to do with the intentional (though certainly not beyond questionable) limitations of Windows RT -- the preview-only versions of Office 2013, the inability to run legacy Windows applications,

Worse, though, he accuses the Surface with Windows RT of having what he calls "an insanely confusing split personality." He also legitimately knocks Microsoft for having only 3,500 apps available for Windows RT at the launch, given that Windows RT can't run older apps. This is where all the analogies about the mansion in Somalia and the Ferrari come from.

The Wall Street Journal
Hardware: "better for traditional productivity tasks than any tablet I've tested."
Software: "fluid" but with "a paucity of apps."

After testing his Surface for three weeks, Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal gives this as his bottom line:

"Microsoft's Surface is a tablet with some pluses: the major Office apps and nice, optional keyboards. If you can live with its tiny number of third-party apps, and somewhat disappointing battery life, it may give you the productivity some miss in other tablets."

Mossberg says the device "isn't a cheap iPad knockoff," a complaint often leveled at various Android tablets. Instead, he says the magnesium device has a feeling of "quality and care." He has some problems with the software but isn't nearly as negative about it as Pogue. He's also brings up some interesting limitations of the hardware.

While overall he calls the keyboards "better than any of the add-on keyboards I've seen for the iPad," Mossberg also notes, "They are almost useless in your lap." On a table or desk, though, the combination of keyboard and kickstand "make the Surface better for traditional productivity tasks than any tablet I've tested."

Other hardware negatives -- the battery life is seven hours compared to 10 for the iPad, the 1 megapixel rear camera takes fair pictures and "only OK" videos, and the screen is sharp and vivid but inferior to the iPad 3's Retina display.

Mossberg found the software less frustrating than Pogue. He had trouble with Mail and with syncing to some Microsoft services and to Evernote, but he says the Office programs work fine and really sees potential in the Xbox Music app. His largest criticism was with the available apps. Microsoft officials told him more will be available than he and Pogue were able to see in their tests, however -- 10,000 worldwide and 5,000 in the United States at launch.

Laptop Magazine
Hardware: "proves that Microsoft can beat its own partners on hardware"
Software: "a fledgling ecosystem"

Writing in Laptop Magazine, Avram Piltch gives the Surface 3.5 out of 5 stars and his verdict is a tough one for Microsoft's OEM partners:

"The Surface with Windows RT proves that Microsoft can beat its own partners on hardware. Between the build quality, kickstand, and truly innovative Touch Cover, this is a tablet whose design and fresh interface will turn heads away from the iPad."

Not that Piltch believes every head that turns will chose the Surface over the iPad -- far from it. "For a flagship product with a premium price, Microsoft compromises on too many things by including poor cameras, weak speakers, slow internal memory and a screen that, while better than most, isn't as good as the iPad's Retina display," he writes.

Apps are also an Achilles Heel in Piltch's view: "Right now, $ a lot to spend on a fledgling ecosystem."

NBCNews Gadgetbox
Hardware: "a hardware success...the company should be proud"
Software: "keeps this from being a home run  for Microsoft"

The headline of Wilson Rothman's review on NBC's Gadgetbox sums it up: "Microsoft's New Tablet is a Mixed Blessing." Calling the Surface a "hardware success" that "the company should be proud" of, Rothman argues the Windows RT software "keeps this from being a home run for Microsoft."

Rothman likes many of the same things that other reviewers liked about the hardware -- the Touch Cover, the kickstand, the feel of the device. He breaks some new ground on battery by comparing the experience to laptops rather than other tablets.

"Having never met a Windows laptop that didn't die a quiet, lonesome death every time I left it unplugged overnight, I was stunned to see how exceptionally well the Surface RT manages power. Even under heavy use, the battery will carry you at least eight hours, but even more impressive is the fact that if you leave it sitting for hours or even days on end, the battery will show little if any signs of expenditure. Even if you have your Exchange email, messaging and all kinds of social feeds on, you can expect very little draw when your screen is off. Better still, the battery charges quickly, and can be completely topped off in two hours."

He nicely captures the problem on the app side, though, with a zinger: "You can practically hear an echo in the Windows 8 app store right now. There's a serious lack of games and, aside from Netflix and Kindle Reader, not much major video, music and book apps."

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Posted by Scott Bekker on October 24, 2012