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Microsoft Surface — it ain’t no iPad

After all the hype and waiting, last week we got our hands on one of Kiandra’s two new Microsoft Surface devices – part of Microsoft’s foray into tablet hardware, running the mobile-optimised release of its flagship operating system, Windows 8 RT.

Picking it up, it’s difficult not to compare it to the iPad, the device we’ve fallen in love with over the last two and a half years. It feels a little thicker thanks to the steeper bevelled edge, it’s a similar size (perhaps a slightly wider aspect ratio) and it’s almost exactly the same weight. It has a both rear and forward-facing cameras and is charged from a port on the narrow end of the device. And yes, it’s a touch-driven device, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

Let’s take a look at a few of the more important differences.

 

Keyboard

A highly visible improvement over the iPad (and yes, we know it’s an accessory) is the lightweight yet sturdy cover that doubles as a surprisingly responsive keyboard, complete with touchpad, and finished in a material that’s not unlike suede leather. This is a differentiator that Microsoft appears to be keen to promote, as evidenced by their current ‘Click-in’ campaign.

Multi-User Support

Tablet devices are made for sharing and being shared, and in this area the Surface is a hands-down winner. Got multiple users who have their own preferences for content, configuration, games? Microsoft’s answer to this is simple: support multiple users. Operating in the exact way that PC users are well accustomed, different consumers can create their own accounts and set it up their way – nice.

The User Interface

The primary interface of the Surface will be, to many users, their first experience with Metro, Microsoft’s tiled interface that surfaces detail right there on the home screen, unlike the iPad. Tiles are nicely laid out and easily rearranged, taking up an amount of space appropriate for their content.

But it’s the button that’s not quite a button (cue fancy new minimalist Windows logo printed on the glass directly below the screen) beckoning you to touch it that hints at what this device really is: (almost) just another PC. Touching it (and getting the pleasant tactile response Windows Phone users have grown used to) reveals Windows RTs ‘desktop’, from which you can launch a range of applications including what really does feel like a full version of Microsoft Office.

(Real) Office

Sure, there’s Office-like apps for the iPad, but we all know there is a special place in restaurants reserved for those who enjoy constructing a Word document using only an on-screen keyboard. The Surface RT device not only supports the standard Microsoft Office suite (including OneNote) but allows you to connect that special accessory most of us find pretty darn useful: a mouse. The trackpad is convenient, but when it comes to quickly and precisely navigating through or around any document or website, there’s a reason I use a mouse.

Connectivity

That brings me to connectivity. The iPad supports the iPad connector, which allows you to plug it in to, say, a few things. Like a computer. But the Surface allows you to plug stuff into it, in a way that you’re so much more accustomed to. A full-sized USB port, a micro-SD card reader and a video output port adorn the squarer edges of the Surface RT. Certainly the most important of these is the USB port, and possibly the single most compelling argument for the Surface over the iPad. Supporting USB means supporting pretty much any device you’ve ever plugged into your computer. Portable drives containing your music, movies and tv series, cameras, coffee-cup warmers and – you name it. All immediately accessible on the Surface, with no need for ‘syncing’ via a computer. The limitation of the ARM processor in the Surface RT device means that only USB 2.0 is currently supported, but this will surely change and the benefits of just having USB support far outweighs the difference.

Apps

Another difference that you, me, and definitely Microsoft are hoping will change is the availability of apps in the device’s store. It’s still early days, to be sure, and there are undoubtedly sweatshops working feverishly to be the first to port Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja or Shazam (or at least a clone), however until there is even a fraction of the range of things to do on this device that we can on the iPad, it will remain adrift.

Perhaps there’s a misheard Field of Dreams quote here somewhere that Microsoft are pinning their hopes on, but it seems that me that if it is to be, then it’s up to we. Developers that is. Windows 8 RT developers. In HTML/CSS and Javascript, C#/C++ and XAML. How about it, team? The fact that this device offers a PC-like experience and ultimately PC-equivalent accessibility must mean that line-of-business applications are going to be more readily consumed on it.

 

In conclusion, it’s clear to me that Microsoft has made a number of important advances with its entry into the tablet game. Whether it’s enough to slow the freight train that is Apple Corp remains to be seen, but for your sake and mine, I certainly hope so!

 

Oh, and it has a kickstand. 😉