Security was heavy backstage at the Microsoft Surface launch event Monday. In what was probably one of the most controlled tech demos I’ve ever seen — even Apple lets you handle the product more than this — the media was ushered through a hushed white room in groups of seven. We clustered at each of four demo tables for a few minutes each.
“It’s like Disneyland,” joked a security guard. He meant the near-physical way you are led from ride to ride. Linger too long, and things could get ugly. Ditto if you dared to take video too close to a moving, functioning Surface.
The demonstrators gave us their spiel — here’s the Touch Cover, here’s how it was made. Feel the quality. Admire the precision engineering in this piece of casing. At each station we got to hold the device for just long enough to say we had held it. We deployed the kickstand. We got to swipe though an app, but never to the home screen.
Video was officially allowed on one side of the room only, where six Microsoft Surfaces sat behind a barrier on pedestals. They didn’t move. They didn’t function. They were like some kind of tech royal family.
In theory, you could stay at that distance as long as you wanted. In practice, it was assumed, you would give up trying to glean more information and gravitate towards the drinks waiters, who were conveniently located close to the exit.
So what, in these enormously limited circumstances, did I make of Microsoft Surface? Here are some observations:
1) It is heavier and thicker than the iPad. The spec sheet, oddly, only offers metric measurements, so we know the RT version of the Surface weighs 676 grams — roughly one and a half pounds, or slightly more than a new iPad. But it feels significantly heftier — especially the pro version, which adds another three quarters of a pound.
The iPad is only a few millimeters thinner. But because its sides are curved, and the Surface is flat like a picture frame, you really feel the bulk with the Surface.
In theory, the Surface’s 10.6 inch HD screen is larger than the iPad’s 9.6 inch Retina display. But again, it simply doesn’t feel that way. This may be because the shape of the Surface screen is closer to that of a letterbox, or because Microsoft has fewer pixels in its display (the company has not revealed any specs on pixels yet).
2) The kickstand is not intuitive. Having a built-in kickstand, so you can instantly stand the tablet up, sounds like a great idea, right? I certainly thought so. Microsoft spent more of its event talking about the kickstand than it did the Surface’s innards or apps. “It closes like a car door,” said the Surface’s product lead. I was sold.
Unfortunately, the latch where you release the kickstand is pretty hard to find, even when you know where it is. No one could open it on the first try, or indeed the second — even after being told where the latch was.
The hinge is solid, and yes, there is a nice satisfying car door-like snap to it. But this is like a car door you’ll be struggling to figure out how to open.
3) I really like the Touch Cover, but am curious about how it works in practice. Another fabulous idea, one of Microsoft’s best: build the keyboard right into the tablet’s protective cover. Make it so you can rest your hands on it without accidentally typing (the keys need more pressure than that). Make it inactive when the cover flips around the back of the tablet.
Third-party keyboard case makers will howl in protest, but let them. This is something Apple should have done long ago.
The pro version of the cover has a satisfying feel to the keys. They depress when you type. Clearly, you can touch-type on that. But Microsoft also claims you can touch-type on the Windows RT Touch Cover, which seems to be a keyboard moulded out of felt.
Can you? It would have been delightful to give it a try, but as with so much in this highly controlled demo, it wasn’t possible. None of us were handed a Surface with Touch Cover attached.
Overall, this is a good try from Microsoft. Surface will be the PC-based touchscreen to beat, and other Windows tablet-makers have to be quaking in their boots right about now. But the company needs to answer a lot of questions, and let us kick the tires.