Too slow ... Microsoft's new Surface tablet. Photo: AP
There's only one question anyone should ask about Microsoft's Surface tablet: Is it better than the iPad?
I've spent the past week and a half trying to answer that question. During that time, the Surface was my exclusive tablet — the only time I touched an iPad was to examine points of difference to write this review, and to use one or two iOS-only apps that I couldn't give up. (By which I mean, I played Letterpress.)
But it didn't take me a week and a half to decide whether the Surface is better than the iPad. At most it took a couple days, and that's being generous. You'd likely arrive at the same conclusion after playing with the Surface for just a few minutes in a Microsoft Store.
That's because the new tablet's flaws are glaring: It's too slow, it's mercilessly buggy, and the add-on that's supposed to set it apart from the iPad — its touch-cover keyboard and trackpad — is nice but far from revolutionary.
At $559 for the base model, plus $139.99 for the almost-required touch cover, the Surface is also not very competitive on price. You can get the newest standard iPad for $539, the still pretty good iPad 2 for $429, and the new iPad Mini for $369.
The Surface's shortcomings are puzzling. Microsoft has been working on the technology in this device for years. When it decided to create its own hardware, it had to have known that making a good first impression against the iPad would be the key to the Surface's long-term survival.
The Surface is also the most celebrated home for Windows 8, the touch-friendly operating system that Microsoft is hoping will become a big hit on tablet machines.
In other words, a lot-for Microsoft, perhaps everything-is riding on the Surface. So as I used it, I was nagged by a recurring question: Why is the Surface so bad?
The first problem is speed. Everything you do on the Surface takes more time than you expect.
When you load an app, switch between apps, launch a web page, go back to a previous web page, check your email, and do pretty much anything else, you'll find yourself waiting a half-second too long.
This sounds like nothing, but when you compound that time across every action on the Surface, the wasted half-seconds add up to an annoying trudge.
It's not just the extra time that kills, but also how the tablet clues you in to its slowness. The surface is littered with little visual bugs that make you think the thing's broken.
When you pinch-to-zoom in on a web page, the text first shows up looking jagged and low-res; after a small wait, it gets sharp. Every single time you go back in the browser, you'll see the previous page greyed out; it takes a split second for it to light up.
When you switch the Surface from portrait to landscape mode, its interface doesn't switch immediately. There's a half-second where nothing happens, enough time to make you wonder if the switch registered the orientation switch, so you begin to turn it back the other way just as the screen flips to the new orientation.
And when the screen does eventually flip, it's not as smooth as the iPad. Instead the Surface's screen simply quick-cuts from landscape to portrait and back again and, while that gets the job done, the transition feels less than elegant. And then there were the times I found myself tapping the Surface like a madman, because I couldn't tell whether it was just responding slowly or whether it hadn't even noticed me. This happened often. It wasn't pleasant.
This suggests the first answer to why the Surface is so bad: Perhaps it's just hobbled with an inadequate processor and too little RAM. Maybe we can expect future versions to pack more power and, consequently, to feel less frustrating. After all, Apple's original tablet was a bit lethargic, too.
But the iPad 2 was substantially faster and more enjoyable, and the third- and fourth-generation devices began to make good on the promise of ushering in a "post-PC" era. So if it took Apple a couple of tries to perfect the tablet, shouldn't we cut Microsoft some slack, too?
No, we shouldn't. The first iPad was released in 2010. It may not have been perfect, but it was unquestionably the best tablet of its era.
The Surface is hitting the shelves in 2012 when, in addition to Apple's tablets, you can now get Google's Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 or one of Amazon's super-cheap Kindle Fires. Because it was first to market, Apple's first-generation device had some leeway to miss the mark, but its competitors have little room for error. Anyone who's considering this tablet will be forced to stack it against the competition, and the Surface doesn't wear these comparisons well.
Not even the first impression is great: I like the Surface's sturdy design, and its built-in kickstand is handy, but when I picked it up, my first thought was, Boy, that's heavy! When I looked up the specs, I discovered that the Surface is only about 20 grams heavier than the iPad 3, but somehow those grams make a difference. (My wife and my sister also remarked on the Surface's weight when they first picked it up.)
I also found that, despite Microsoft's assertions, the Surface's display isn't as sharp as the high-definition iPad's. When you compare text side by side, the iPad stands out as much more pleasant to read.
You might argue that such side-by-side comparisons are unfair. Microsoft has consciously avoided selling the Surface as an iPad killer. Instead, the firm has argued that the Surface is a new kind of device — a machine that fills a niche between an iPad-like tablet and a full-featured laptop computer. The key to this claim is the Surface's Touch Cover, which builds a QWERTY keyboard and a trackpad into an incredibly flat folding case.
The cover, which is made out of a smooth synthetic fabric, has keys that are slightly raised, though they don't move when you hit them. Instead, the keys respond to the pressure of your tap. The sensation is a bit like tapping on a warm touchscreen.
Does it work? Sort of. I've used many keyboards for the iPad, and the touch cover seemed just as good as those — meaning I could type on it somewhat more quickly than I can on a touchscreen, but I wouldn't call it a pleasant experience. I made lots of typos on it, and I wouldn't want to do much more than send quick emails using the Touch Cover. The Surface's Type Cover, which is a bit thicker and whose keys actually move, was slightly better than the Touch Cover, but not substantially so. (It costs $149.99.)
These covers are innovative, but I don't see how they make the Surface a breakthrough. As I said, there are lots of compact external keyboards available for the iPad already. It's true that none of the iPad keyboards feature a trackpad, because iOS offers no support for pointing devices.
But the Surface's trackpad — on both the Touch and Type cover — is cramped and uncomfortable. If you love mousing and hate touchscreens, you may feel differently, but I often found it much easier to reach for the screen than use the pointer.
The other thing that might attract you to the Surface is its OS. It runs Windows, which may lead you to believe that the Surface's interface will resemble that of an old-school laptop rather than a tablet.
But that's not the case. Yes, the Surface runs Windows, but it's a circumscribed version that will not run any of the software from your PC. Instead, you'll have to get all of your programs from Microsoft's built-in Windows Store (which does have some nice apps, but not nearly as many as the iPad's App Store).
The only old-style Windows programs that the Surface will run are preview versions of Microsoft's own Office programs, which come pre-installed on the device. To get any use out of these, you'll need to use the trackpad, and even then, they're difficult to navigate on such a small screen. After using them a few times, the Office apps came to seem like a marketing gimmick — a way to insist that the Surface is different, even if the difference isn't actually useful.
And that, I think, is the main reason the Surface falls short: It lacks focus. In the years I've been using the iPad, I've come to recognise that it's good for specific tasks. I'll write short emails on it but not long ones. I'll use the iPad to shop for stuff on Amazon, but I won't use it to buy something with lots of variables, like a plane ticket.
To a lot of people, these limitations feel restrictive. The Surface was designed with those people in mind: It promises that you'll be able to type faster, to use a pointer, to actually get things done and not feel like there are certain things your device just can't do.
But the Surface ends up proving the wisdom of Apple's limitations. The iPad may not allow you to do everything, but Apple has made sure that it's great at what it can do. The Surface, by contrast, will let you do everything you want. The problem is that you'll have no fun doing it.