Microsoft unveiled the Surface on June 18 and caused some strong emotions to ripple through the tech world. Many IT pundits were impressed; many potential users were excited, and some of Microsoft's hardware partners were... terrified?
I've had several tablets, including an iPad (with which I was captivated at first, but I quickly grew tired of its limitations), a 7-inch Android (Samsung Galaxy Tab), and a 10-inch Android (Tab 10.1). I like the tablet form factor, but so far none has been compelling enough to keep me interested. I find that my smartphone (Galaxy Nexus) serves the purpose about 80 percent of the time when I'm on the go — in much more portable fashion. And when I need more than the phone, I really need more than a tablet, too, so I end up taking the laptop.
The Surface, though, promises to be the tablet I'll actually use. I can't wait to get my hands on one. Here are some of the reasons.
1: We'll have freedom of choice
With every other tablet, you take what you get — and what you get is an operating system that's more like a phone OS than a PC OS. That's a good thing, in that it makes for a touch-friendly experience suited to the mobile use of the tablet. But it's a not-so-good thing when you need to get real work done, because the mobile apps often just aren't as full featured and capable as desktop applications.
The Surface will give us freedom of choice: We can select the less expensive, presumably less power-hungry ARM version running Windows RT or the Intel version running full-fledged Windows 8.
2: Membership has its privileges
If I choose the Intel version of the Surface, not only can I run the full Windows 8, I get Windows 8 Professional edition. That means my tablet can be a member of a Windows domain, just like my desktop and laptop. It can be managed by domain group policy and function fully as part of my work network. Try doing that with an iPad or Android tablet.
3: You can switch between touch and desktop
If I choose the Intel version of the Surface I'll also get another layer of freedom of choice: I can choose to use the touch-friendly "Interface formerly known as Metro" or I can use the familiar desktop UI. The touch interface is great for on-the-go tasks, such as reading email, looking up info on the Web, checking in on my Facebook friends, and viewing a video. But when I want to get some work done, I still prefer the desktop.
With a Surface Pro, I can have whichever environment best suits what I'm doing at the time, and it's easy to switch back and forth between the new Start Screen and the traditional desktop. Of course, when I'm using the desktop, the laptop form factor still has some advantages — and that brings us to the next two things I love about the Surface.
4: It's just my type
The tablets I've used in the past have been great for content consumption but less than ideal for content creation (unless perhaps if you're creating drawings). One of the biggest surprises at the Surface announcement event was the keyboard that's built into the ultra slim cover. It turns the Surface into a usable content creator on par with a laptop. Sure, you could use an external keyboard with other tablets, but you had to carry it around separately. The Surface keyboard/cover fits onto the device and adds very little bulk or weight.
The idea is so great that Apple has, umm, borrowed it, based on its new patent application for a "cover attachment with flexible display" for the iPad.
5: We'll get a kick out of it
With other tablets, you have to buy a special case/cover or use makeshift methods to make it stand up, whether for typing or to watch video. The Surface has the kickstand built right in. It's not a new concept; several smart phones, such as the Sprint EVO, have incorporated kickstands, but this is the first tablet to feature one as part of the design.
It's a little thing that makes a big difference, especially when you need your tablet to emulate a laptop for heavy-duty typing.
6: The pen is mightier than the finger (sometimes)
Leaving the keyboard behind and getting back to the slate experience, tablets lend themselves to being used like their paper namesakes. But to truly emulate that experience, you need a pen. Sure, using a finger to flick through photos or scroll down a Web page is a great experience. But when you need to do precision work, such as drawing or handwriting, that just doesn't cut it. And neither does a mouse or keyboard. Ask anyone who has ever tried to draw a detailed diagram or jot down a handwritten note of more than one or two words with an iPad or Android app. It's not a pretty sight.
The HTC Flyer might not have flown off the shelves, but its digitized pen input won it some loyal fans — even though it was competing with the much slimmer, sexier Galaxy Tabs in the 7-inch tablet market. The Surface Pro includes support for digital ink input that will be welcome to those who want to use the tablet like a tablet.
7: Bigger is better (up to a point)
Judging by the trends in smartphones, we want our mobile devices to get thinner and lighter, but at the same time we want larger screens. Smart phones have gone over the 5-inch line now, while tablet users seem to have divided into two groups: those who prefer the more compact 7-inch versions and those who like the 9.7- to 10.1-inch size exemplified by the iPad and Samsung's larger Galaxy tablets.
With the Surface, Microsoft is gambling that users will prefer just a little more screen real estate, and I think it makes sense — especially for those who will use the Surface with its keyboard and stand to emulate a laptop. The 10.6-inch size shouldn't make much difference in portability but will give it an edge in usability.
8: It's expandable
One of my big gripes with the iPad — and one of the reasons I gave mine away and switched to an Android tablet — was the lack of expandability. I couldn't add a flash memory card to increase the storage space; instead, I was expected to shell out hundreds of dollars for a whole new device if I wanted more local storage space. I liked that (some) Android tablets let me add micro SD/SDHC storage, but expandability was still limited.
One of the things I like best about the Surface is that I can expand storage with micro SD/SDHC and even SDXC (a format that can support up to 2 TB capacities, as compared to 32 GB for SDHC) — and it has full-size USB ports (USB 2.0 on the ARM version, USB 3.0 on the Surface Pro). Now that's exciting. It means I can plug in any USB external drive and also use any other USB peripherals I can use with a Windows 8 desktop or laptop.
9: It comes in colors...
...Or at least, the cover/keyboard does. Okay, this isn't a great big deal maker/deal breaker, but it is nice to be able to make a little (or a lot) of a statement and differentiate your Surface from all the others. I have to admit the hot pink, electric blue, and carrot orange aren't my thing, but I like that I can have either black or white. Microsoft was wise to put all the color in the cover, rather than making the tablets themselves come in vivid colors as some laptop vendors have done. If that screaming bright hue seems like a mistake six months later when you have a new job in a conservative office environment, you can buy a new cover much less expensively than you can replace the whole device.
10: This is only the beginning
Microsoft has made a big splash with this first version of the Surface and it already has features we only dreamed of before in a thin, light tablet. But rumor has it (based on the company's recent job ads) that Microsoft is expanding the Surface team and is already hard at work on the next version.
Microsoft has a history of vastly improving on its v1.0 products, so I'm looking forward to getting in on the ground floor of something that will only get better. I also think Microsoft's foray into the tablet market will inspire other vendors to work a little harder on making the tablet experience better in order to compete. We've heard that Apple may be planning to copy some of the Surface's features, such as the keyboard built into the cover and stylus input, and Sony's new Experia tablet is said to be going the keyboard/cover route, as well.
Meanwhile, the Surface will be our first chance to experience the full benefits of the Windows 8 touch-centric interface, and I can't wait to get my hands on it.
Do you think the Surface will meet your needs better than other tablets you've used? Share your opinion with other TechRepublic members.
More on the Surface
- How Microsoft can convince me to ditch my iPad
- Microsoft's latest tablet rises to the Surface
- Why Surface could harm Microsoft's tablet success
- Can Microsoft be right about tablets and Apple, Amazon, and Google be wrong?
- Poll results: IT Pros plan to buy Microsoft Surface tablets not iPads
- Predicting how tablets will evolve by 2015
Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 additional books on subjects such as the Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 MCSE exams, CompTIA Security+ exam, and TruSecure's ICSA certification.