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Hands-Off: Microsoft Surface Tablet Review
After seeing yet another “hands-on” review of the Microsoft Surface tablet, I thought it would be interesting to shed more light on what exactly the journalists who assembled in Hollywood this week for the Surface launch event actually got to do with the tablets. In short, not a lot. Come along as I explain the hands-off reality of what I saw.
Anticipation, It’s Making Me Wait…
When everyone checked-in before the event started, they were given small plastic cards with a time printed on them. We weren’t told what these were for. Mine said 5:50pm. The purpose became clear after the event ended, though I think we had a pretty good idea what they were for. These were to allow us some close-up time with Microsoft Surface.
When the event was over, I was really looking forward to when my appointment would come around. I had about an hour wait, so there was plenty of time for anticipation. I walked around, had some nibbles and shot a few photos with my Windows Phone (I believe in accessorizing properly). Look at how pretty Microsoft made the stage, just like a big Surface:
Seriously, I was standing in the back of the empty hall talking with the guy who helped design all this. He was rightly proud of making it look nice.
The Surface Will See You Now
But enough stage dressing. My time approached. I gathered over near the front, where we were allowed to go through in groups of about eight. I had a chance to finally meet Ed Bott, a long-time Windows guru I’ve followed, who promised me that he’d be delivering a piece to help me, a Windows 7 user not liking with Metro-happy Windows 8, on how to fix all that (and he delivered). Bott’s own impressions of Surface from his tour is here. Also in our group was, I realized today, Mary Branscombe, who’s “hands on” piece today tipped me over the edge.
Branscombe is hardly the only journalist who came out of the tour we were given and wrote a “hands-on” story. I’m looking at you TechCrunch, The Verge, AnandTech and Mashable, among others. “Hands-on” was used in plenty of headlines, and that irked me, because I know we weren’t given any real hands-on with the device at all. That is, unless you believe holding an iPad or a Kindle Fire that’s not turned on is “hands-on.” That’s pretty much what it was like with Surface.
The Keyboard You Can’t Type On
After we entered, we went to the first station, where there were two guys holding Surface tablets and telling us how awesome the keyboards were. There were also a variety of keyboards spread out before us in pretty colors. Here are two of them I moved together, one of the super-flat ones on top of a more traditional keyboard with keys that actually moved:
The flat keyboard is really flat. Those iPad covers from Apple? Those are slightly thicker, I’d say. When you push on this keyboard, there’s no give like you’d expect from a regular keyboard. It’s like trying to type by pushing on a paperback book.
Now, the Microsoft guys were rambling on about all the awesome stuff that makes these keyboards work as well — if not better — than a real keyboard, all the same stuff we’d already heard about an hour before during the main event. I wanted to try one of the damn things. You know, like hook it up to a Surface and see it for myself.
Because, you know, the keyboard is the main feature here. Aside from that keyboard, Surface just seems to be another Windows 8 tablet. The keyboard is the edge that Microsoft’s apparently hoping will “wow” consumers, even though you’d think putting a “real” computer in a tablet would be “wow” enough.
I asked one of the Microsoft guys if we could try the keyboard with the Surface he was holding, one that wasn’t on. Nope. Why not? He just kind of shrugged and said he didn’t know.
What the hell? You’ve dragged 100 journalists out in the middle of Los Angeles in the afternoon (with LA traffic, imagine crawling slowly on broken glass), made a big deal about this keyboard on stage and no one can actually try it? To see for ourselves how well it works? Yeah, that wasn’t encouraging.
After seven minutes (according to the time stamps between my photos), we were moved to the next station, where the innards of the Surface were spread-out. That was to show us what we were being told, that there’s this awesome material that’s awesomely wonderful blah blah blah. Oh, and the kickstand makes a carefully engineered clicking sound.
My Bike Has A Kickstand Too; That’s Not Why I Bought It
Now I’m thinking seriously? We’re going to get excited over the kickstand? Yes, my new iPad cover (and I mean a cover for the “new iPad” not a new cover for my iPad) doesn’t seem to clip as well as the one for my iPad 2 did. I’d like it to elevate the iPad more on those rare occasions I’m trying to maybe eating and also reading the iPad. Usually, I’m just holding it in my hand. That means I don’t care that much about a kickstand, much less one that has perfect-pitch sound.
What I did care about was that this station had a keyboard hooked up to a Surface. Of course, the Surface wasn’t actually on. But at least I could get a sense of what it was like to open it. In fact, I was desperately trying to open it as we were being ushered away, because I kept feeling like it opened “backwards” from what I’d expect:
See, the keyboard is light, unlike the keyboard of a regular laptop. So, you want it to be on the bottom, which means lifting a heavier console up, and it felt odd, kind of backwards. But maybe if I’d had more than 30 seconds to try, I’d have gottten used to it.
There was no time for that, however. You see, as the last group of the day, there was absolutely no one behind us. That meant, oh — yeah, there was no reason to rush us other than to keep our time as limited with the Surface — well parts of Surface — as possible.
No matter. At the last table were live, working units. As with the previous tables, this station had two Microsoft guys behind it. This is how we interacted with the units:
That’s not a journalist holding Surface. It’s one of the Microsoft guys. They’d swing them around with a pretty picture on the front, I guess so we’d go “ooh” and “ahh.” If we were lucky, we were allowed to hold one for a few seconds. But if you tried to do anything with it, bang, it was gone.
Believe me, I know. I tried. I had kept hearing everyone on Twitter screaming about how no one at Microsoft was saying what the screen resolution was. Since it was such a big uber-secret, I figured I’d try to find out.
After asking repeatedly if I could hold one — I felt like a seven-year-old, “please can I hold it, please can I try, would you mind if I try” — one of the Microsoft guys gave me a shot. I brought up the Start screen by hitting the Windows button on the front of the tablet, hit Desktop to get to the Windows 8 desktop, did a long press guessing that would bring up the Screen Resolution setting and it did — at which point, the unit was literally jerked out of my hands.
Oh dear. Did I mention having a Windows Phone? Maybe I should have waved it around more. Anyway, I don’t think Microsoft guy number one quite knew what I was doing (you know, trying to actually use the damn computer the way I’d use a computer), so Microsoft guy number two didn’t catch on that by no means should I be allowed to hold one of these devices again. After more begging — “please can I hold it please please please can I hold it” — I got another maybe 10 seconds to repeat what I did before. That got the unit jerked away again, with a “Nice trick” remark.
The Hands-Off Museum
Nice trick? No, you know what’s a nice trick? Bringing out devices that no one can actually use. I know they work. I could see that one of the Microsoft guys was all logged into his. But why not let us actually use them, especially when you’ve made us wait from 10 to 60 minutes specifically, as we were told, so we’d all have some close-up time with Surface.
No journalist seems to have really used any of these at the launch event. None of the hands-on reviews that I’ve read, having been in that room and toured the stations, have anything that reflects any real hands-on activity to me. There’s plenty of careful photography that can give the impression that hands-on was going on. Some of it doesn’t even illustrate how the last station with the Surface tablets with keyboards in them literally had a rope to keep us away.
I remember once taking my kids to a museum where you weren’t allowed to touch things, something odd for them after years of being in hands-on museums. One of them remarked, quite seriously, “I guess this is a ‘hands-off’ museum.” That’s what the Surface event was like, a hands-off museum.
But Windows 8 Tablets Are Intriguing
Frankly, I’m far more excited about Windows 8 tablets coming than the fact Microsoft has its own with a potentially fancy keyboard.
As I wrote earlier, to me the distinguishing point of Surface is Windows 8 itself, the fact that unlike the iPad, it looks to be a proper desktop computer tucked into a tablet. Can I really take one of these on the road, use it like a tablet, then plug back in at home or elsewhere to external monitors or keyboard to use like a desktop? I see some awesome in that.
Again, like I wrote before, if I could have only two of three tablets, I’d go iPad then Windows 8 and not Android, because Android’s not offering me anything I can’t already do on the iPad but with (to me) what’s not an elegant environment. Windows 8 is different, unique, seems to offer some compelling features even without the icing of a kickstand that goes “click” and thin keyboard.
At the SXSW conference in March, Microsoft had a non-Surface Windows 8 tablet out in its booth. It was fascinating to see a tablet with a real file system:
It was nerdily amazing that I could even make a DOS prompt appear on it:
That was cool, and no one made me stop playing, not even Solitaire:
It’s a pity Microsoft didn’t have enough faith in Surface to let the journalists there actually have the hands-on that we wanted.
Postscript: Mary’s done a follow-up post explaining more about her hands-on experience. I said before, and I’ll repeat. My intent wasn’t to single her out. Her story was just latest of several publications writing about a hands-on experience, even though no one seems to have really used a live unit for more than a few seconds.
To me, putting a unit in your lap and pretend typing on it isn’t hands-on. Especially with this keyboard, that tells you nothing. I pretend typed on it myself at two different stations. That didn’t give me any sense of how typing on it really works, any more than playing pretend airplane when I was a kid actually let me fly through the sky.
My experience at SXSW with a Windows 8 tablet was far more satisfying, because it was just sitting there for anyone to use. Microsoft Surface is just a Windows 8 tablet with a newfangled keyboard. If people can really go hands-on with a Samsung Windows 8 tablet, or a Lenovo one, or an Acer one, there shouldn’t be anything that secret about Windows 8 itself on a Surface nor anything likely to crash, no particular reason not to let the journalists you’ve assembled use it.