Surface impressions

I stood in the rain for over two hours in front of a Microsoft Store so, by God, you are going to hear my quick impressions of the event and Surface whether you like it or not.

The scene:

It was no Apple event. I arrived an hour before the doors opened and was probably 60th or 70th in line and this is in Seattle so a decent number of people in line were actually Microsoft employees. Word had it the crowd at the Bellevue store, which is maybe 10 minutes from Microsoft’s campus, had 800 people.

There were two news vans on the scene and a couple of media people milling about. Microsoft’s marketing team was handing out water, coffee and snacks, and was interviewing people about why they were lined up for a Surface.

(I guess they don’t know?)

The guy in front of me was a Microsoft employee but said he was there as an individual. He said the company was actually encouraging employees to get the Intel-based Surface so they could run their corporate applications on it, something you can’t do with the ARM-based Surface RT.

The crowd was certainly less enthusiastic than at an Apple event. Several of the people around me joked about that. The people I talked to seemed interested in the Surface — everyone I spoke with worked in technology — but not exactly excited about it per se. I heard that someone had gotten there about 7:00 AM and I saw someone had a tent, but I think that was because of the rain, not because they were there overnight. I didn’t see the moment the doors opened because I was around the corner of the building but when I was in the store one guy did cheer as he entered, although he could have been a Microsoft employee.

Despite the line being shorter than at an Apple event, it didn’t seem to be any faster getting in the door. After two hours, we estimated we were still about an hour from getting in. Eventually we figured out this was because Microsoft was assigning a staff person to help you specifically with your Surface purchase and the hand-holding was apparently slowing things down immensely. If you wanted to browse, you could go right in. I wasn’t planning on buying one unless I was bowled over by the power of the uncompromising user experience, so I hopped out of line and went in.

The Surface:

I have to say that I was more impressed by the Surface in person than I thought I was going to be. It’s got a good build quality, although certainly not as good as an iPad. Because while it’s good plastic, it’s still plastic (Chris Pepper reminds me that VaporMG is metal so I’ll amend this to say it’s a metal that feels like plastic), and I think the Surface suffers visually from having more ports. I know that comes with added capabilities, but it just ends up looking like a Windows laptop and I don’t mean in a good way.

I do really like Metro (we’re just calling it Metro, OK?) and I like the way that Microsoft has cleaned up even the traditional applications like Word and Excel for Windows 8. No ribbon. I’ve already talked about my feelings about the Metro/desktop dichotomy so I won’t rehash them. Those haven’t changed and I still feel like the Surface is a device trying to do too many things and not excelling at any of them.

The unit I played with most had a few slight hiccups. It seemed to stutter a little when scrolling but not annoyingly so and spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I wanted it to do. Was that swipe from the side to bring up the menu or to scroll? Some of that may just be getting used to Windows 8 on a touch device. Once when I set it down the screen orientation was upside down and it didn’t seem to realize it. I had to pick it up and turn it over and then back again to get it the right way.

The Touch Cover was better than I expected, but not really that much better than how I can type on the screen of my iPad. I still made a fair number of mistakes. The Type Cover — which has keys that move — was quite nice and personally I’d only consider getting a Surface with one of them, which means it would start at $630 for me.

While I was more impressed than I thought I was going to be and genuinely liked the Surface, I wasn’t bowled over. I considered buying one but, as I said earlier, asked myself this question: “Wouldn’t you rather have two iPad minis?”

Turns out I would.