Why Is the Surface So Bad?
Microsoft has been working on its tablet for years. It should be a whole lot better.
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 it 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 $130.)
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 the 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 recognize 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.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.