Surface’s design surpasses software
LOS ANGELES – Microsoft seems to have gotten the design and form factor right with its new Surface tablet computer. But the user interface, not so much. That’s an odd conclusion to make about a device from a software company that usually lets others do the manufacturing.
Still, that’s how I felt after feeling the heft of the device, examining it from all sides and making a few swipes at the screen. The Surface has a touch keyboard cover that feels great and, to me, is a big step forward for tablets. The tablet’s software interface, however, seems nonintuitive and sluggish.
Microsoft is clearly straddling the uncomfortable divide between the old world of mice and keyboards, where it dominates, and a future ruled by touch screens, where Apple and Android devices prevail.
Although the Surface won’t go on sale until this fall, I had the chance to spend a few minutes with some devices in a group demonstration after Microsoft unveiled them in Los Angeles on Monday.
The removable cover comes across as a takeoff of Apple Inc.’s Smart Cover. Both snap into place perfectly with magnets. But instead of sporting foldable sections, Microsoft’s cover is rigidly flat and has a full keyboard imprinted on it. Microsoft’s cover seems central to the Surface experience, although it’s not clear if it’ll be sold separately. Apple sells Smart Cover separately starting at $39.
The cover is thin — about a tenth of an inch, or 3 millimeters. When covering the screen, its spine covers one edge and its outer fabric makes the whole package feel like a soft book. Where it attaches to the tablet, it’s completely floppy, so it can be whipped around to close over the screen or folded back like a magazine.
The keyboard is imprinted on the inside of the cover, facing the screen. So when you open it, you can lay the cover on a table and use it to type. The letters are separated by little ridges, allowing you to feel around somewhat as you type. I have found that typing doesn’t feel right on the iPad’s glass.
The keyboard is covered with synthetic material that feels like a tennis racket handle or a high school running track, but not as grippy.
The keys themselves don’t depress as you type. Rather, there are seven layers of metal and other material inside that sense pressure and speed. When the cover is folded open entirely, covering the back, the keys stop being sensitive to touch.
There was another keyboard accessory with depressible keys that was 5.5 millimeters thick, or nearly twice the regular cover. It felt more comfortable for typing but didn’t seem revolutionary. You can also type on the screen, the way you can on an iPad.
Running the length of the Surface is a thin, 0.7-millimeter metal flap called the kickstand. This is what transforms the device from a tablet that you can grip to a computer you can type at while sitting at a desk or table.
The tablet’s software is what disappoints. I detected a lag when swiping.
Microsoft’s upcoming Windows 8 operating system and its Windows RT counterpart for low-power chips are supposed to bridge the gap between touch devices and personal computers.
But the company has made a perplexing design choice by hiding crucial navigation items off the screen. Finding them requires swiping in from the sides. I would need a tutorial on what actions lead to what results.