Everyone who has gone hands-on with the Surface RT this week has said the same thing: they wanted to like it, but just couldn't get there when the rubber hit the road. One of the first Surface RT units landed in Australia this morning, and we got hands on with it. Is it really the misfire people are labelling it as? Not necessarily.
Microsoft's communication strategy for Windows 8 has been nothing short of genius. It keeps the tech-obsessed like you and I always wanting more. First a developer preview featuring a bold new look, then a refined consumer preview, then a steady stream of promotional videos before the first hands-on with the Surface RT.
We're still waiting on the Surface Pro, which Microsoft is holding over through to January, probably to compete with Consumer Electronics Show 2013 announcements. Stealing the show without really being there is a master stroke, and it's one Microsoft is playing for this time around.
While there are many devices now arriving in stores with Windows 8 pre-installed, the Surface just feels special. When you use those other devices, you just feel like its a tablet or an Ultrabook that someone has thrown a copy of Windows 8 at. There isn't the care and consideration in them that Surface has had. Microsoft set out five years ago to build a premium piece of hardware for the future. It started out as a cardboard prototype and today it's the carefully constructed, elegant piece of hardware I went hands-on with.
The care and consideration that Redmond has put into this device really shows. Months were spent researching how the vividly designed Touch Cover connected to the tablet itself. Microsoft wanted to perfect that cchhkk noise, for example. Not because they were faffing about and wanted customers to look cool, but because they wanted to make it feel like a premium automobile does when you close the door: sturdy, special and unique.
The top and bottom edges of the device have been carefully filed down to a point where they are both angled at 22-degrees. Why 22-degrees? Well, Microsoft engineers wanted you to feel like you were carrying a fine paper notebook or a premium, glossy magazine like Vogue when you took the device with you. That makes people feel special about their hardware.
The screen is a weird size, and it took Microsoft ages to settle on an actual dimension. It wound up with 10.6-inches. While that makes no logical sense on the (sorry) surface of it all, it's actually amazing when you want to snap apps into the sides of your (sorry again) windows. Both apps are given a fair share of the screen, rather than the two looking like they are trying to overpower each other.
The Touch Cover is both vibrant in colour and soft under the fingertips when it envelops the Surface, but when you flick up the solid VaporMG kickstand at the back of the device and lay the Touch Cover out in its full glory to start working, it feels functional and fantastic. Not getting a haptic response when you touch the keys is weird at first and some larger-handed folk may find fault in the lack of travel between keys, it's genuinely a joy to type on.
It's these little things that make Surface a bite-the-back-of-your-hand gorgeous device.
Moving beyond the hardware, the Surface RT sports a quad-core 1.3Ghz Tegra 3 brain from NVIDIA, 2GB worth of RAM and either 32GB or 64GB worth of storage, depending on what you're willing to spend. That means it's more than capable of handling the requirements of Windows RT, which is essentially a stripped down version of Windows 8 that is specifically designed for ARM-based tablets. One of the things you miss out on with RT is the full desktop experience. Not to say it's not there, it is, but you won't be able to access anything but the Office RT suite and the desktop version of Internet Explorer.
This is the RT's fatal flaw, and it's one we mentioned in our international review this week.
The RT — being a completely new device — doesn't have a huge amount of apps that you can go and install right now. They might be coming, but what Microsoft needs is an ecosystem that people can buy into the second they pull the device out of the box. A tablet like thi needs killer apps to survive, and right now, they aren't there. Sure, they might be coming, but until then, this is still a productivity and content consumption device, not something you can run your digital life from like you could an iPad or an Android tablet.
This is a problem that can be fixed, though, and it's likely to be fixed sooner rather than later because of the company that's backing the device: Microsoft.
Redmond is no stranger to throwing money at a problem. It threw money at Xbox 360 to make it the most popular gaming device for the home, and it's still losing money hand over fist with the Bing business to grab some of that sweet search engine market share. Surely if Microsoft intends to make more bespoke pieces of hardware — which Steve Ballmer indicates that it will — it can make the developer attraction package a little more compelling? That's the one thing Research In Motion is getting right at the moment: it understands it needs brass tacks to attract devs, otherwise nobody will be interested.
The Surface is a pristine wilderness then. It's unmatched in its beauty, unspoiled by the burden of the past but it will ultimately remain unseen by the general public unless Microsoft gets its app ecosystem straight. This is the new age of Microsoft, and without apps, it risks falling into irrelevance, and nobody wants that from something so beautiful.