Microsoft does hardware: The Surface RT

PC hardware companies have depended on Microsoft’s Windows to keep selling computers, and new Windows versions often spiked sales of the hardware. But with the advent of the iPad, Apple showed how important the hardware is: How thin, how beautiful and how well it works has contributed to its huge success.

As a result, when Microsoft conceived its Surface tablet system, it decided not to put its fate in the hands of its hardware partners, and designed the hardware itself. While its PC hardware partners protested, it was a smart thing to do; rarely have we seen breakthrough designs from the partners.

The results of Microsoft’s efforts were revealed earlier this month when the company introduced its first tablet, the Surface RT. I’ve been trying it out for the past week and there’s much about it to like. The tablet’s hardware design is sleek, thin and contemporary. It’s better than anything the hardware companies could have done.

The Surface is a flat slab with angular corners and edges, constructed out of dark premium-looking metal with a rich-looking matte finish. (Microsoft calls it Vapor Mg, referring to the magnesium content). Two features cause it to stand apart from other tablets: It has an integrated stand that allows it to be propped up and a choice of two different covers that do double duty as keyboards. The stand is the best implementation I’ve seen. It’s a metal panel that runs the full width, providing steady support when in use, and then collapses into the back, adding little volume. The keyboards also make this into a productivity machine.

The tablet’s 10.6-inch display is longer and narrower than an iPad, with a 16:9 ratio rather than the iPad’s 4:3 ratio. (Think HD movie format vs. your old tube-style TV format). It works better in landscape mode, because in portrait mode, it’s quite tall. It weighs 1.5 pounds, similar to the large iPad. The display is 1,366 x 768, on the low side compared to the new iPad’s Retina 2,048 x 1,536 pixels, but it looked good enough for most things.

Overall the tablet is quite attractive, perhaps even beautiful. I tried out the 16GB version with the Touch Cover that costs $599. The tablet without the Touch Cover costs $499, and with the Type Cover, $609. The Touch Cover is a thin, hard keyboard with no moving keys, while the Type Cover has moving plastic keys, yet is still quite thin. I’d opt for the latter.

The Windows RT is an entirely new user interface consisting of colored rectangular and square tiles on the home screen. Each represents an application that you touch to open. The tiles can also show changing information, such as a snippet of a new email, a Facebook image, or a news headline. The tiles extend off the screen to the right, and are accessed by sliding your finger from right to left across the screen. If you slide your finger from the right edge inward, a vertical row of icons emerges called “Charms” that provide setup and other tools. The interface uses thin, modern fonts and clever animation that keeps the interface refreshingly clean and entertaining.

It took me some time to set up the tablet, because settings such as WiFi and email were hard to find, and when I found them I ran into problems. For example, I tried connecting to my iPhone’s personal hotspot. While it found several other networks, there was no sign of “Phil’s iPhone,” the name I gave to my phone years ago. I tried accessing the Help menu that promised to assist in connecting to WiFi, but it was useless. In fact it asked questions that didn’t even relate to this device, such as whether the Wireless switch was turned on (there isn’t one on the RT). That’s a sign that the product was likely rushed out before being fully completed. Finally, a technician at a Microsoft Store determined my iPhone’s name was the problem; removing the apostrophe and renaming to “PhilsiPhone” worked.

Next, I set up my Gmail account, but doing it was quite different from other devices. I first needed to set up a Microsoft email account, which I did using an old Hotmail address I hadn’t used in years. I then was able to add my Gmail account. But, it became quite confusing when it later asked me to sign into my email account, not knowing which account it was referring to. While the device lets me delete the Gmail account or any other I add, it will not let me delete the Hotmail account. Microsoft also asked for quite a bit of personal information including address, phone number and age. If you choose not to provide, you can’t use the product. So much for anonymity.

I tried out the included version of Word, a light version, and was pleased with the ability to create documents, much like a notebook computer, even with the flat keyboard. It worked OK with feedback being a beep each time I hit a key. One challenge was using my finger to touch a selection on the display to highlight and move text. Many of the touch points were tiny, similar to those in Windows, so touching the right spot required care and dexterity.

I took the Surface on a cross-country trip and used it with a WiFi connection from the plane. It worked well and the battery was almost half-full after five hours. Compared to the iPad I found it much easier to create documents. I was able to save them using the Surface’s built-in file system that worked more like a PC.

Surface RT was developed as a lower cost alternative to a full Windows 8 tablet that is coming next. RT runs an Arm-based processor and needs all new apps. The Windows 8 Surface, which will look similar with the same interface, will run nearly all applications that now run on a Windows computer. It will likely cost about twice the price, but will have much more functionality right out of the box.

Currently there are just few apps available for the RT, including a calendar, Netflix, the New York Times, Angry Birds and a few dozen more. But there are none of the apps I use regularly such as Open Table, Yelp, Southwest Airlines, Tripit, FlighTrack Pro, etc. Microsoft starts so far behind that it’s unclear how long it will take for it to reach a critical mass of the most popular apps. That’s the risk a buyer takes, hoping their sales build fast enough to encourage developers to build the apps. That’s a big risk considering there will be a full Window version of the tablet shortly. I think there’s about a one-in-three chance that it will not gain enough critical mass to be a long term, well-supported platform.

Overall, I like the Surface RT hardware; it’s more attractive and feature-laden than other tablets and is more computer-like than an iPad with its office suite, file system, keyboard and ports, including a USB and micro SD slot. And once you get over the learning curve, it’s fun to use. But its limited number of apps will keep it from having the wide functionality of an iPad or even Android tablet. Ironically, Microsoft has succeeded brilliantly with its hardware, but needs to catch up with its software.