Magnesium chassis, vapour deposition coating, cutaway edges, ClearType HD display; the design credentials and the specs for Microsoft’s new Windows RT tablet are impressive and in the flesh this is a delightful piece of hardware that looks good – and is practical too.
It’s thin, it’s light, it’s comfortable to hold, it runs Windows RT as excellently as you’d expect, it makes you want to touch it but it’s also designed so you can snap the magnetically attached cover into place – in no way similar to any competitor idea..
However, you won’t be able to get the Surface tablet until Windows 8 ships – and we can’t get its big brother, the Intel Core i5 Surface for Windows 8 Pro, for another three months after that.
The design of the Surface for Windows RT (and the similar Surface for Windows 8 Pro that we didn’t see in as much detail) is understated.
The front is sleek black glass, precision bonded to the magnesium alloy chassis (“we squeezed all the air out,” as Microsoft hardware expert Stevie Battiche told TechRadar), with only a Windows logo visible – the word Microsoft doesn’t show up on the case anywhere.
Turn it on and the 10.6″ screen fills most of the Surface’s front display, but the four edges have half an inch of bezel so you can hold it comfortably.
The Windows logo isn’t just for show; it’s a touch button that gives you the Start screen when you tap on it, plus the whole bezel is touch-aware so you can swipe across it to bring up the App bar or the switching pane (spending on which way round it is).
The Surface is light and comfortable to hold; the edges are sloped to give you a comfortable grip (although the edge with the cover connector isn’t quite as ergonomic until you connect the cover).
The magnesium alloy chassis is covered with a soft coating that feels durable and expensive (that’s the vapour deposition bit; it’s chemically bonded rather than just painted on).
If you don’t want to hold it, there’s a built-in stand that’s like a large hinge running across the entire back of the Surface, with another Windows logo in a slightly matte finish.
The hinge is usually held in place by an array of magnets so it doesn’t fall out if you shake the Surface around; on the left there’s a little cutout in the edge of the hinge to make it easier to flip out.
If you’ve seen Apple’s SmartCover on the new iPad 3, then this method of connection won’t be a surprise – it’s another move that shows Microsoft is intending to go toe-to-toe with the Cupertino brand in the tablet arena.
The Surface tablet also balances well on the hinge, which has two long rubber feet to stabilise it.
With the Touch Cover on, we were able to balance the Surface on a lap for typing like a notebook without it falling forward or tipping over backwards; compare this to the Asus Transformer Prime which always wants to fall backwards, and you’ll appreciate this weighting.
Microsoft has included the fewest ports it could get away with; the bottom edge is filled with the magnetic keyboard connector, the top has the power button and the sides have two speakers, dual microphones, microSD, one USB 2.0 port (USB 3.0 for the Surface Pro) and Micro HDMI (on the surface Pro that’s mini DisplayPort), plus a magnetic power connector.
The magnesium alloy chassis and the precision design give the Surface RT a sturdy feel. Lift it by the corners and twist and there’s no flexing at all; we tried the same thing with the frame of a chassis that hadn’t been assembled and even without the glass and back it barely moved.
The Microsoft team showing off the tablets weren’t cradling them protectively; at one point Battiche tossed a tablet to a colleague. Even without the cover, the Surface should stand up to some punishment.
he Touch Cover is the ultra-thin touch keyboard for those that value portability; the Type Cover is the slightly thicker keyboard with physical buttons for those that want keys that actually move rather than just the audio feedback of the Touch Cover.
Both have the same connection and they snap into the magnetic latch easily but firmly; little latches fit into the Surface itself, which is why it stays in place even if you’re holding the cover and letting the keyboard drop under its own weight.
Snap either cover in place and instead of the sharp edge on one side, you have a comfortable grip that feels like the edge of a magazine or a thin hardback book – it’s equally comfortable to hold whether the cover is closed to protect a screen that doesn’t really need protection or folded back.
As soon as you fold the cover forward against the screen it turns the Surface off (putting it into Connected Standby – we’re wondering if Apple’s patent lawyers are rubbing their hands with glee at more work); when you fold it back against the hinge the accelerometer turns the keyboard off automatically so you’re not typing while you hold it.
That’s the same feature as on Lenovo’s Yoga notebook, but with a much thinner keyboard to fold back.
The Touch Cover looks more like a picture of a keyboard than an actual keyboard; it’s the same multitouch sensors Microsoft used inside the Sidewinder keyboard.
They’re very thin but they’re also very accurate so they pick up your typing well. The keys are a good size with a little spacing between them; the touchpad underneath is a little small but it has left and right buttons – and you have the whole touch screen for larger gestures.
You’ll use the touchpad when you want the precision of placing the mouse cursor inside a word.
The Touch Cover comes in five colours: white, black, red plus cyan and magenta versions that will match Nokia’s cyan and magenta Lumia range nicely.
Typing on the Touch Cover is a little odd at first because the keys don’t move under your fingers; but they don’t pick up typing until you actually hit the keys so just resting your hand on the keyboard or even putting your fingers in place on the keyboard while you think about what to say doesn’t generate stray characters.
The soft surface is more comfortable and less slippery than typing on a screen – not to mention being at the right angle.
It is harder on your fingers than typing on a keyboard with physical keys that give as you type, so if you type a lot there’s the Type Cover.
This has the same strokeable soft feel as the Surface chassis itself and the keys go down a surprising distance for a keyboard that’s still so thin.
As well as all the usual keys, down to backslash, pipe and a nicely arranged set of four arrow keys, the top row of keys has the volume, media playback and navigation keys you’d expect – and that’s Home, End, Page Up, Page Down and Delete but not the irritating Insert key that does nothing but make Word type over what you’ve already written.
Between them are four keys you won’t have seen before but will recognise from the Windows 8 interface; they’re the Search, Share, Devices and Settings buttons from the Charm bar so you can get at them without having to take your hands of the keyboard to swipe across the screen.
The Type Cover has those keys labelled as function keys as well; the Function lock button is on the Touch Cover as well so you can use F7 in Word to start spell check of Shift F3 to change case if you want to.
Presumably, Microsoft believes that if you know what function keys are you can find them by the number keys in the row below.
The back of the keyboard covers (and the front of the Touch Cover) are a tough microfibre fleece made especially for Microsoft; it’s soft to the touch, comfortable and gives you a good grip.
Surface Pro has some extras above and beyond the Intel processor and the ability to run all your Windows programs.
The Ivy Bridge Core i5 still needs cooling, so there’s a groove around the edge; it’s 4mm thicker and 227g heavier and the screen resolution is what Microsoft cryptically calls ClearType Full HD.
It’s got DisplayPort instead of HDMI and as well as the two keyboard covers it also comes with an active pen.
This clips onto the side using the same magnets as the power cable, so it doesn’t get in the way of the keyboard connections.
In your hands though, Surface Pro looks and feels very much the same – and the Touch Cover and Type Cover fit both interchangeably.
It’s a surprise that Microsoft created its own tablet, but it’s done a more than decent job of it; far more creative and polished than many Android tablets.
Microsoft has to get the price right – the current thinking is comparable with iPad and 10-inch Android tablets for Surface RT rather than with the 7-inch Kindle Fire – and battery life has to be good.
Surface doesn’t feel like an iPad in your hands; it feels like a well-designed Windows tablet crammed with clever touches that make it practical.
But this is the first hurdle in a number to come in the tablet race – sure, the design and construction of the Microsoft Surface tablet is great and in a blind test would fare well against the best the tablet world has to offer.
The next stage is convincing the world that Windows 8 is a comparable tablet OS to iOS and Android, and making it competitive on cost too.
But the first move is a good one – giving choice, an excellent array of hardware and a well-designed tablet range to those that are still unsure whether the current crop of slates can match their needs.
It also sends a message to Microsoft’s hardware partners: this is the standard for Windows 8 tablets should adhere to, unless you’re going to get seriously competitive on price.