Well, I finally got my hands on a Surface RT demo unit. The good news is that everything the reviews said is true. Sadly, that’s also the bad news.
The tablet itself is light and elegant, with a gorgeous screen and a body that oozes more prestige than an iPad. The RT screen has a visibly low resolution, but the Pro’s 1080p screen is by all accounts just as good in terms of color and contrast. The Type Cover was hands down the best keyboard for any portable device at the store, whether convertible tablet or laptop, and comparable in quality to separately sold Logitech or Microsoft keyboards.
Now for the bad news. The Touch Cover – the one that’s included by default with the Surface RT – is horrid garbage. Some reviewers have likened it to the Sinclair ZX Spectrum but I think it’s closer to the ZX 81. The $16-18 cost estimate for this $119 piece of rubber was, if anything, too generous.
But you could just use the Type Cover, right? Sure, but aside from costing $129 extra, the Type Cover does not solve the biggest problem with both Surface models which I now saw for myself: both keyboard covers are very light, relative to the tablet, and attached only by a wobbly strip of plastic, while the tablet itself rests on a sheet-like stand that has no bottom. It’s definitely impossible to use those keyboards unless the tablet is sitting on a big sturdy desk – or you’re happy to just leave it lying flat on its back.
This completely kills any interest I had in the Surface Pro. The tablet part is unattractive due to the limited software supply. Both my iPad 3 and my Nexus 7 can browse the web just fine, and both have a far bigger selection of games and other apps. On the other hand, what should have been Microsoft’s big home advantage – running Office on both Surfaces, or any legacy Windows application on the Pro – is utterly destroyed by the lack of lap-top usability. Literally any notebook is better at the job, even at half the price of a Surface Pro with Type Cover, so what’s the point?
Can Microsoft salvage the Surface line? That would require a full redesign of the keyboard mechanism to offer notebook stability, and shipping the equivalent of a Type Cover with every Surface variant. I don’t believe for a second that Metro apps will take off without the aid of a good convertible device – Windows Phone keeps lingering in its 1% ghetto, and sales of OEM tablets are even worse than Surface’s. Samsung was only the latest Windows OEM to vocally criticize Windows 8, shortly after a rumored stop of Windows RT tablet sales in Germany and elsewhere due to weak demand. Meanwhile, most of the Windows notebooks and laptops I’m seeing don’t even bother with touchscreens – and those conventional devices are the most attractive ones in terms of price and features.
Aside from the keyboard blunder, the other big problem is Windows 8 itself, a clumsy and schizophrenic system that forces users to choose between a smartphone mode without any decent apps, or a totally separate desktop mode without any accommodations for touch control. Why would anyone want this thing, instead of just buying two dedicated devices? That I still don’t see, and so for now I’ll have renounce my hopeful game changer prediction from last June. Despite the excellence of the tablet hardware itself, and despite its essentially correct idea of a portable convergence device, the Surface is burdened by serious defects that render it useless in practice.