Microsoft is finally ready – finally – to take on the big daddy of the tablet PC arena, Apple’s iPad. At least, that’s what it claims. Is there any truth to Microsoft’s assertions? Let’s find out.
The Surface’s VaporMg casing feels silky smooth to the touch, and seems to be fairly excellent when it comes to avoiding fingerprints. It’s a solid device, weighing roughly the same as the iPad at 1.5 pounds. The display sits neatly flush with the surrounding bevel, which is angled so as to give the Surface RT a slight wedge shape. The screen is vibrant, pushing 1366×768 pixels under a glossy GorillaGlass 2 protective layer. The screen feels smooth and pleasant, and the ClearType HD technology running the panel itself responds swiftly, with no noticeable ghosting or stuttering.
The iPad’s stainless steel reverse has a powdered texture to it, which feels cool and rich beneath your fingers. Because so much of the device is crafted from one block of material, heat dissipation is uniform. The device feels strangely cool to the touch, as if it has been dropped by some futuristic oddity. The display, which pushes 2048×1536 pixels, is class-leading. Each pixel is so small they cannot be distinguished individually at a reading distance of around a foot, which makes the whole display look like a bizarrely high-saturation glossy magazine. It’s a weird, but pleasing effect. The glass display front feels strong, and the oleophobic covering – designed to minimise fingerprints – makes the whole device front supernaturally smooth. It’s a tactile pleasure to use.
There is no question that both devices have taken radically different routes. Which is ‘best’ is, of course, a matter of opinion – but for us the choice is fairly clear-cut. The iPad is one of the industrial design icons of the 21st century – it’s ridiculously well engineered. Microsoft have produced a beautiful device that outstrips the original iPad – but it’s just not up to the heat, three iterations on.
Windows RT is relatively fresh out of the gate, and that means there isn’t much of an ‘ecosystem’ of apps and utilities to support new users. This is frustrating, as the minimal UI and subtle typography makes for one of the most pleasant Operating Systems we’ve ever used. Ninety-degree angles make a welcome return after years of rounded rectangles, and the ‘flow’ of the operating system gives a sense of immediate connection with the interface environment. It’s a work of art, but hindered by a lack of content (for the time being).
iOS, on the other hand, has been around for ages. Now in its sixth iteration, we haven’t seen any design overhauls since 2007. That’s starting to show – the skeumorphs that made the device so friendly and accessible three years ago now seem jelly-like, overstated and unsubtle. Say what you like about the inclusion of ‘real world’ features in digital interfaces, iOS’ take on the user interface is starting to look fragmented, and tired. The calendar app looks nothing like the alarm app. The notification center has a completely different UI to the home screen. Siri lives in a UI world of its own. There’s no coherence any more, and that makes for an over-egged and, at times, frustrating user experience.
The problem with the Surface RT, though, is that it’s locked down in a similar way to the iPad. In fact, the words ‘jailbroken’ and ‘Windows RT’ appeared quite recently in the same news headlines. If Microsoft were trying to build a walled garden to take on their age-old competitor, they might have succeeded. However, the lack of downloadable content is kind of a deal-breaker.
Another real problem with the Surface RT is how schizoid the entire experience feels whenever you’re forced to slip back in to the regular old Windows 7 desktop environment. Metro is cool, fluid, touch-efficient, beautiful: Windows 7’s touch interface is anything but. It’s clunky, it’s unpleasant, it looks tired and old. It reminds us of Windows 98: everything is right-clicking and window management. Those things should be defunct in the post-PC, touch-driven era.
It’s not difficult to recommend the iPad above the Surface RT, but doing so seems strangely unfulfilling. For one, both of the devices are seriously lacking features that we’re expecting around about now. Both have fragmented and, occasionally, unpleasant User Interfaces. Both feel slightly dated, even though they represent the most advanced consumer technology to date. In reality, it’s easier to recommend an ultrabook over either of these – something like the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga – or even to point out other tablet PCs hitting the market right now. Either way, the next iteration of these machines had best be spectacular from both Windows and Apple – or they’re going to start to lose their sheen as premium innovators at the top of their field.