Microsoft's multitouch Surface computer was officially launched in Australia yesterday, and while its potential applications are as fascinating as they are limitless, it's got some annoying usability and design flaws.
It's fat and ugly Scathing, I know. But I was deceived. The massive black unit underneath the coffee table-like device is completely necessary to house all the cameras and hardware components (as well as hold up the screen). It's not designed to be portable, but it does weigh a whopping 90kg. The entire unit is 27 inches (69cm) deep and stands 21 inches (54cm) high.
But fat and ugly also means durable. Windows Product Manager, Danny Beck, was audacious enough to jump on top of the unit, and anyone under 90kg can do the same. It looks easy to clean and cosmetic blemishes associated with glass are a non-issue with the Surface's plasticky display.
Usability Issues The 30-inch acrylic screen displays images via rear projection, so the images are anything but sharp and this is glaringly noticeable when you're trying to read smallish text. Considering the nature of the display, developers will no doubt pick up on this quickly and go easy on the 12pt font (and our eyes).
The Surface recognises up to 50 points of contact simultaneously, so in theory 10 people using five fingers each could interact with the on-screen application at the same time. While individual applications make the most of the 360-degree user interface, the main menu (as seen in the above photo) is designed to be accessed from the long sides of the unit - if you're on the short ends, you have to tilt your head (I tilted too quickly and pulled something in my neck) or push your finger in an unnatural up-down motion rather than the side-to-side swipes we're used to.
If you have small hands like me, you'll need two hands to effectively navigate the Surface's multitouch capabilities. As you'll see in the video above of the ANZ application, I had difficulty turning and resizing objects, and moving them out of the way. Sometimes, the screen won't respond to your movements at all as Mr Beck demonstrates from about 0:28 in the clip. Other times, input recognition is too sensitive and objects will follow my fingers after they lift up off the display, or spin in an unwanted and unpredictable way.
I didn't see a BSOD, but one of the units in the demo area at Robbie Bach's university talk decided to play up. The problem was fixed with a keyboard and mouse. Embarrassing.
Apps, apps, apps This is where it gets cool. The most exciting part comes from how Surface applications interact with real-life objects. For example, the wine bar demo app helps you pick out a wine, order the wine and responds to your wine glass - or rather, the "surface tag" on it - on the table by popping out a menu that will suggest foods to go with your wine. It's incredibly interactive and functionally fun.
Any physical object with a unique, barcode-like "surface tag" can interact with the Surface, however therein lies another potential annoyance. Placing a Lonely Planet guidebook on the screen takes up space. Not a lot, but it felt like it was constantly in the way while trying to interact with the associated Lonely Planet app on the screen. It felt nice and easy with small items like business cards, though.
So, how much? $21,000 for commercial/retail units, or $24,500 for developer units. The same units in the US cost $12,000 and $15,000, respectively. Tracey Fellows, Managing Director, Microsoft Australia says they're expecting to see "hundreds, not thousands" in stores around the country within 12 months. Despite the steep prices and the steep learning curve for developers without .NET experience, it's probably not an altogether unrealistic target, with ANZ, Lonely Planet and Curtin University looking to deploy units by the end of the year.