The 10.6-inch Microsoft Surface is a fine tablet with an excellent display that rivals that of the iPad in our preliminary tests. Our tests revealed viewing angles as good as those on the Apple iPad 3. Colors also looked great. In addition, the Surface is as bright as the best tablets we've reviewed, and it's very readable in bright light.
Display and sound. Microsoft claims photos and text have more detail on the of the 1366x768 display of the Surface than on other tablets, thanks to its ClearType technology. Text did look good on the Surface, but it's still sharper on the iPad">iPad and the Barnes & Noble Nook HD. In addition, photos did not have as much detail as you'd find on an iPad.
Videos looked acceptable, but the speakers sounded weaker and more muffled than on an iPad. Volume controls were easy to access when the Surface was sitting on its stand.
The OS. The Surface we tested uses Windows RT, a version of Windows 8 developed for tablets with processors that are less powerful than those you find in computers. It runs apps from Microsoft's new Windows Store, as well as versions of Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, and OneNote. Movies and music come from Xbox services.
But don't expect the Surface with Windows RT to act like a full computer. Other than the Office apps, it doesn't run traditional Windows applications, such as Quicken and Photoshop. For those, you'll have to get the Surface with Windows 8 Pro, which runs apps from the Store as well as applications you use on regular Windows computers. It wasn't available at press time, so we couldn't try it.
Apps. Apps, of course, play a big role for any tablet. Microsoft says new apps are coming daily. But the Windows Store still falls short. There was no Facebook or Twitter app available when we tried it out, for example, and you'll find both in Apple's App Store and Google's Play Market. You can register only up to five PCs on a Windows Store account.
Usability. The Surface with Windows RT is 0.38 inches thick, generally the size of the thinnest 10-inch tablets. But it weighs 1.5 pounds, placing it in the ranks of the heaviest tablets we've tested. It's also longer than the iPad, because of its larger screen and 16:9 aspect ratio, compared with the iPad's more square shape.
The weight and shape of the Surface work against it when you hold it for an extended period of time. Fortunately, there's a handy stand built into the tablet, and the keyboards available for the Surface are very well-designed and a pleasure to use.
The TouchCover is quite thin and weighs just 0.4 pounds, but it's still a full-size keyboard. It requires a bit more pressure on the keys when typing than you might be used to, but haptic (tactile) feedback helps. The TypeCover is also thin and very light at 0.5 pounds, but it feels and looks like a traditional keyboard. Both have touchpads, and they easily attach to the Surface using magnets.
One oddity we discovered: When you fold the TouchCover under the tablet and lay it on a metal surface, the tablet shuts down.
Interface. Windows RT uses the same "live" tile interface you'll find on Windows 8 computers. The Mail tile, for example, changes as you receive e-mails; the Photo tile rotates through your pictures. There are also tiles for any apps you download. Tap a tile to open the app. The interface is very customizable; you can change the size of many tiles and move them around on the desktop.
Bottom line: The Surface has a lot going for it as far as hardware is concerned. The display is excellent, and you can use Office software such as Word and Excel on it. The Xbox content should keep you entertained.
But Microsoft has a long way to go before its app store compares with those for Android and Apple tablets. Look for full tests of the Microsoft Surface with Windows RT in our Ratings soon.
The Surface with Windows RT starts at $500 for the 32GB model without the TouchCover. You can save $20 by buying it with the TouchCover for $600. There's also a 64GB version, with TouchCover, for $700. Purchased separately, the TouchCover costs $120. The TypeCover is $130.
—Donna L. Tapellini