Microsoft Surface Vs iPad

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My iPad is my second most favorite toy in the world, but when I travel I still need to bring a laptop with me because the Office compatibility apps available for the iPad just don’t do the trick.

After reviewing the specs for the Microsoft Surface and realizing that Microsoft Office 2013 was built in, well I just had to buy one to try it for myself.  The below review/comparison has been compiled based on my initial reaction to the device, which I’ve now owned for less than 24 hours, and I’ll post subsequent blogs should my opinion of the device change over time.

Packaging: The Apple User Experience begins the moment you get that sleek white box in your grubby little paws.  The only word that can describe it is beautiful.  The Microsoft Surface package has a little more of an industrial design feel to it, which I don’t dislike, but then there are two ugly pieces of 1″x3″ packing tape that must be removed and right away you’re reminded that Microsoft Usability Engineers are behind this device.

First Appearance: When I got my first iPad, with its lovely rounded corners and sleek styling, it was love at first sight; the same can’t be said of the Microsoft Surface.  It looks as though it was designed by two design teams working in competition, who had to compromise on the final device.  The screen looks a lot like an iPad screen with rounded corners, but the back of the device has conflicting angular and rounded edges.  It’s not ugly-sexy, it’s just ugly.

Keyboard: Microsoft offers two different types of cover for the Surface, both have a keyboard built in, one is almost flat, the other has raised keys.  I decided on the Touch Cover as I felt that adding the depth of a Type Cover would have resulted in the device being too lap-top like.  I like how the Touch Cover attaches securely to the device, and the keys are remarkably responsive.  The on-screen keyboard is always available, but for lengthy emails and documents, I like the idea of the external keyboard.

The keyboard color choices appear to have been selected to appeal to a 14 year old girl, so I picked the black one.  It’s not pretty, the back of it is battle-ship grey felt, which is somewhat fitting, but I’m really disappointed to note that it doesn’t fasten to the device in the same way that the magnetic iPad covers do.  I’m going to have to steal a handful of rubber bands from our stationary cupboard to keep in the bottom of my laptop bag so that I can make sure that my car keys don’t get wedged between the cover and the screen when they’re shoved into my bag.  Some Velcro on the cover and the screen would also do it, but I don’t feel like this is an issue that I should have to solve.

Power: The Microsoft Surface power cord is about 18 inches longer than the standard iPad power cord, but unlike the iPad you can’t swap out the cable for a more convenient longer one.   The unit is fused and the end that attaches to the device has one of those magnetic power connectors that I’ve seen on Mac Books, so no doubt I’ll have to shell out some $$$ to get something more usable for my home office configuration.  Given that the cord is 5′ long I was surprised that nobody thought to include some kind of a strap or piece of velcro to secure it when stored.

Kick-Stand: As you can see from the above photo, the Microsoft Surface has a kick-stand built into it which, while convenient, also makes me nervous.   It’s metal and a part of the device case. Were one sitting on a plane and the passenger in front decided to recline their seat, I can imagine this thing snapping right off and destroying the case…or worse.  In terms of sturdiness it’s definitely an improvement on the iPad cover that doubles as a stand but collapses if you breathe too heavily on it.

Getting Started: The iPad user interface is intuitive.  I’ve seen two year olds pick it up and start playing games on it.  Granted there are advanced features that the average user doesn’t know about, but for the most part they don’t need to know about them.

The TV ads for Windows 8 had me mystified and it’s no better in real life.  It all started when I realized that after setting the time zone for the device that it was off by an hour.  I remembered seeing the time displayed on the screen where I’d set the time zone, so I revisited that screen expecting to be able to set it with the swipe of a finger, but that information wasn’t changeable.  I then poked and prodded and exerted multi-finger gestures on the on-screen clock only to find that it’s not configurable either.

Confounded, I looked at every page in the PC Settings app and didn’t find it anywhere.  I’ve been in this industry for 20 years and hung my head in shame as I entered “setting the time on a Micorsoft Surface” into a search engine.  The results suggested that you do it from the Control Panel.  I had to slither through a porthole from Windows 8 to Windows 98 to find the control panel and set the time there.  The usability, like the design and packaging, is schizophrenic; some features are super sleek and some feel like a trip back to the mid-90s.

Apps: As I stated up-front, my main motivation for buying the Microsoft Surface is for the Microsoft Office productivity suite, and that doesn’t disappoint.  My expectations of finding anything fun in the “Store” wasn’t high, so I was shocked to find “Angry Birds Star Wars” in there albeit at a much inflated price (i.e. it’s 99c in the App Store and $4.99 in the Microsoft Store).  It seems that Microsoft is targeting an audience with more money than sense.   There’s quite an array of free and for fee games and apps in the store but I’m unwilling to pay premium prices for the convenience of having it on this device instead of on my iPad.

Screen: The screen resolution of the Microsoft Surface (148ppi) doesn’t come close to the iPad retina (264ppi), but it’s not bad for a tablet of its size.  What’s quite annoying is the default font size and the precision of the touch screen – it strains my old eyes and you have to be far more precise in where you touch the screen on the Microsoft Surface than you do on the iPad.  The other thing that I found odd, and I need to play with this some more, is that when I tried to move the cursor to edit an entry on a form on the Microsoft Surface the box containing the magnified text got in the way of my finger so that I couldn’t move the cursor to the beginning of the word.  I’ll play with that some more – it may be user error.

Camera: The Microsoft Surface comes with front and rear cameras with similar specs to the iPad cameras.  Unlike the iPad, the cameras are positioned mid-way along the long edge of the device.  This makes sense for a device that’s intended to replace a laptop, but for those accustomed to an iPad, the placement feels unnatural and the resultant photos are unflattering.  No doubt this is something that I’ll get used to – the changed angle, not the unflattering photos, I’m well used to those!

Hand feel: I was surprised to learn that the difference in weight between the Microsoft Surface and the iPad is negligible because it feels quite a bit heavier.  For those used to typing on a laptop on the fly e.g. while walking on-stage to deliver a presentation – it’s almost impossible to use the Touch Cover while walking.  The center of gravity of the device is way off but, necessity being the mother of invention, I have no doubt I’ll find a way of resolving that.

USB I’ve long bemoaned the absence of a USB port on the iPad, but the Microsoft Surface has one, and it also has a MicroSD port, both of which I know I’ll use.

Gestures, Pointers and Menus: I’m still getting used to the Microsoft Surface Gestures and Menus but let’s just say that they aren’t intuitive.

In Summary The Microsoft Surface feels like it was built by some Soviet-era engineers who were given the design plans for an iPad and told to implement something similar.   The user interface, and in particular the inclusion of the retro “Desktop”, feels disjointed and results in a schizophrenic user experience. My advice to Microsoft:  Fill a room with money and use it to lure usability and design engineers from Apple or Nest to come work for you.

PS: Nest is my most favorite toy in the world – more on that later.

About Emma McGrattan

As SVP of Engineering at Actian, Emma leads development for the Actian Vector team, including the Ingres and X100 components, and the Actian Matrix Planner team. A leading authority in DBMS technologies, Emma is celebrating 20 years in Ingres and Actian Engineering.

View all posts by Emma McGrattan →

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