Like many readers, I got my start with computing at the hands of Microsoft, when my father brought home a mysterious beige box in the late 1980s; it was an IBM 8088 clone, the monochrome green “consciousness” of the machine powered by a mysterious entity known as MS-DOS. I remember the feeling of awe as Windows 3.0 first started, after what seemed like an interminable afternoon shuffling 3.5″ disks out of our PC, and my first coding triumphs in innovative languages like Pascal, BASIC, and VBA.

Along with these high points in my computing career, Microsoft was also there for frustrations — broken DLLs, blue screens, seemingly boneheaded and botched product launches, BOB, palm-sized PC/Pocket PC/Windows Mobile, and even its pioneering (yet never commercially successful) foray into tablet computing.

With all this history and mental baggage, I bought a Surface tablet. This will either be Microsoft’s comeback in the mobile space or yet another multi-billion dollar, half-baked product.

A new beginning for Microsoft

I’ve previously written that Surface represents a major gamble for Microsoft. Windows 8 is a dramatic departure from the Windows desktop meme that’s been with us for decades, but it tries to maintain a link to the past with a “throwback” mode that returns the user to a more traditional desktop. With Surface, in particular, the device and OS can’t really be considered separately. I’m reviewing it as a complete product, especially since Microsoft has created everything from the base OS, hardware, and Office suite, which potentially sets this device apart from the rest of the non-Windows pack.

How I’m reviewing Surface

I purchased a Surface tablet on my own dime, with the aim of using it in a professional capacity. As a highly mobile consultant and writer, I’m always looking for devices that provide maximum productivity with minimal additional weight. Rather than analyzing technical features like screen resolution and processor speeds, I hope to answer the question of whether Surface represents a legitimate and sustainable tool for a mobile knowledge worker. Also, while Apple’s iPad is the obvious competition to this device in the enterprise and larger market, I’ll reserve iPad comparisons for a separate article.

Surface hardware

There are excellent and extremely detailed reviews of the physical characteristics of the Surface tablet, so I won’t belabor those efforts. Instead, I’ll focus on the qualitative rather than the quantitative aspects of the Surface hardware. Inside the unassuming shipping box, Surface is packaged in a reasonably attractive and business-like box. The packaging isn’t amazing or cheap, and there’s minimal wasted space — so stacking dozens of Surface tablets in an IT cabinet somewhere for distribution or spares will be easy.

The tablet itself is exceptionally executed, with a somber black design that’s well-assembled and solid. There’s no flexing, creaks, or cheap-feeling materials. It’s $499 (USD) entry price is kind of pricey, but the device feels like it’s worth the price of admission before you even turn it on. Microsoft has certainly matched its main competitors on industrial design, and it also brings a uniquely somber approach to the party. For its debut hardware effort, Microsoft seems to have knocked this one out of the park.

This device isn’t exceptionally light, but the long, thin design makes it fairly easy to pack. It has the usual complement of speakers, headphone jacks, and cameras — plus there’s a standard USB port and micro-HDMI connector, which allows you to connect mice, memory sticks, large monitors, and projectors without a special cable. There’s also a micro SDXC port hidden under the device’s kickstand for memory expansion.

The only unfortunate item on the connectivity front is a proprietary power adapter that uses a slightly under-strength magnet to attach to the tablet. The lack of magnetism and somewhat awkward shape and positioning are forgivable, but the cord is fused directly to the small power “brick.” This means that you’ll have one more charger to schlep around and potentially lose, rather than a cable with a USB connector on the end that’s lighter to pack and easier to stash in the car, briefcase, home, and office. On the upside, the charger recharges the battery in a couple of hours and is fairly small.

The kickstand and keyboard

Prominent in the initial bout of advertising for Surface is the keyboard cover and “kickstand” that props the device up. Having used several tablet keyboards, I’ve always been somewhat nonplussed by them, because it’s frustrating to write anything more than an email or short blog post. I thought the Surface “Touch Cover” keyboard would be of limited use, strongly favoring portability over usability. However,I was pleasantly surprised to discover this preconceived notion was wrong.

First off, the Surface keyboard seems to have been designed by someone who actually creates written text with their computing device. Critical keys like Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down are front and center, without requiring any multi-key gymnastics. Critical keys like the Space Bar, Backspace, and Shift also seem well designed. My hands are blunt instruments that would not look out of place on a large primate, but they navigated the keyboard with ease, and I was moving at a good clip a couple of paragraphs into this review.

The only difficulty I’ve had with the keyboard is that it’s difficult to gauge the amount of pressure required to activate a key. I find myself cycling from mashing each key to gradually reducing pressure until I start missing letters, then returning to hammering — something that’s sure to fade over time. Even the touchpad works well. It supports two-finger scrolling and is positioned so that there’s little risk of moving the mouse while typing, which is something I frequently struggle with on my laptop.

With the surprisingly capable keyboard, plus the kickstand anchoring the display on a hard surface, it’s easy to forget you’re not working on a standard laptop when you’re pounding away in Word or Excel. Should you need to move or wrap up your work, it’s rather satisfying to slap down the kickstand and fold up the keyboard, a task that can be completed in a single, fluid movement — as if you’re gathering a stack of papers. When you’re ready to resume working in “laptop mode,” it’s similarly easy to fold out the kickstand and pop open the keyboard cover, and you’re right where you left off in less than a second.

The solid kickstand and keyboarding experience falls apart a bit when used on a soft surface like your lap, particularly in bed. While it’s unlikely I’ll write much beyond a few paragraphs in bed before turning in for the night, occasional nocturnal bouts of inspiration have me reaching for a standard laptop rather than Surface, since it’s difficult to support the kickstand on your legs, and the keyboard tilts and shifts without a hard surface to support it.

Winning the hardware battle…

Clearly, Microsoft has come out swinging on the hardware front with Surface. It’s an attractive and well-made device, and it should be perfect for travel. I intend to put Surface through the travel wringer in a future installment. Surface works reasonably well as a tablet and transforms into a capable laptop-like mode, all in an extremely lightweight package.

Excellent hardware, however, is only one element in a successful tablet. In the next installment, I’ll discuss actually getting work done with the Windows RT OS that puts the brains in Surface’s appealing exterior.