Why is this Surface review so godawful?

Farhad Manjoo, in Slate yesterday, asks Why Is the Surface So Bad? He starts with this provocative question:

There’s only one question anyone should ask about Microsoft’s Surface tablet: Is it better than the iPad?

And boom! We are off the rails.

Manjoo (normally a thoughtful reviewer) is merciless:

[T]he new tablet’s flaws are glaring: It’s too slow, it’s mercilessly buggy, and the add-on that’s supposed to set it apart from the iPad—its touch-cover keyboard and trackpad—is nice but far from revolutionary.

But here’s the problem. The reviewer, instead of looking at this device and trying to imagine who it is for and why it is designed the way it is, compared it directly to an iPad. So the criteria became not “What can I do with this device?” but rather “Has Microsoft succeeded at cloning the iPad?”

Spoiler alert: Microsoft did not design the Surface to be a clone of the iPad. You can read my full review here, in which I state right up front:

After using a Surface RT for the past week, I can explain it in one sentence:

It’s more than an iPad, and less than a PC.

The Windows RT-powered Surface will not replace your desktop PC or your full-strength notebook. It is, instead, an ideal companion device for a Windows PC, with great mobility. It is powerful enough that it alone can handle most work and play duties, even on an extended business trip or vacation.

It is a clever device that can switch between modes: it is a very good tablet for reading e-books and watching movies and listening to music, but with a flip of a kickstand and the yes-it-is-too-revolutionary Touch Cover, you have a device that can do much of what you would have had to pull out a Windows notebook (or a MacBook) to accomplish.

And what are the horrible flaws Manjoo found?

The first problem is speed. Everything you do on the Surface takes more time than you expect. When you load an app, switch between apps, launch a Web page, go back to a previous Web page, check your email, and do pretty much anything else, you’ll find yourself waiting a half-second too long. This sounds like nothing, but when you compound that time across every action on the Surface, the wasted half-seconds add up to an annoying trudge.

Seriously? We are quibbling over half-seconds? That hasn’t been a problem with my review unit, and when I placed a 3rd-generation iPad alongside the surface I didn’t notice any of those delays. Maybe I’m just a more patient person.

Apparently it also takes a half-second for text to resize when you pinch zoom a web page. It felt more like a few milliseconds to me, but whatever.

Meanwhile, why not try some other tasks, like connecting to a Wifi network, which you can do with a short swipe from the left and one tap of the WiFi icon on a Surface. On an iPad, by contrast, you have to navigate your way back to the home screen, open Settings, open Wi-Fi, find your network and open it, and then enter your passcode.

I can connect to a Wi-Fi access point in 2-3 seconds on a Surface or Windows 8 slate. It takes 10 seconds at least on an iPad.

Or try printing something. Oh wait, you can only print from an iPad to an AirPrint printer.

Or try downloading files from a networked PC to the local disk so you can work on them offline? Oh wait. You can do that on a Surface, but the iPad actually doesn’t have a file manager or any good way to connect to a file server.

This made me laugh out loud:

I like the Surface’s sturdy design, and its built-in kickstand is handy, but when I picked it up, my first thought was, Boy, that’s heavy! When I looked up the specs, I discovered that the Surface is only about 20 grams heavier than the iPad 3, but somehow those grams make a difference.

Ahem. 20 grams is less than three-quarters of an ounce. It is the weight of four sheets of paper. And it’s worth noting that this device has a larger screen than the iPad.

Also, try weighing them with covers (you wouldn’t use a tablet without a cover). Another spoiler: the Apple cover is heavier than the Microsoft Touch Cover. And it doesn’t include a keyboard.

Manjoo again:

The only old-style Windows programs that the Surface will run are preview versions of Microsoft’s own Office programs, which come pre-installed on the device. To get any use out of these, you’ll need to use the trackpad, and even then, they’re difficult to navigate on such a small screen.

Wait a second. These are no longer preview versions. On Day 1, Microsoft released an automatic update to the final version of Office 2013 RT. It improves performance, fixes some bugs, and adds some new features.

If you find the trackpad awkward, you can plug in a USB mouse or connect a Bluetooth or RF mouse using a USB dongle.

Oh yes, the device has a USB port and an SD card slot, neither of which are available on an iPad. Neither is mentioned in Manjoo’s review either.

There’s a brief mention of the Windows Store, but not one single indication that this reviewer actually tried any apps. Hint: Skype is available. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have very good touch-friendly apps. There’s a Kindle app. The Xbox SmartGlass app is nothing short of amazing.

But here’s the dead giveaway:

In the years I’ve been using the iPad, I’ve come to recognize that it’s good for specific tasks.

That follows this howler:

But it didn’t take me a week and a half to decide whether the Surface is better than the iPad. At most it took a couple days, and that’s being generous. You’d likely arrive at the same conclusion after playing with the Surface for just a few minutes in a Microsoft Store.

In fact, it appears that the only thing this reviewer did was to sit on the couch, surf some websites, tap on the keyboard for a few minutes, say “Meh,” and count the minutes till he could get back to his precious iPad.

After you’ve read this horribly lazy review, I urge you to read this thoughtful response from my colleague Tim Anderson:

Microsoft seems to have created a device with many flaws, but one that is useful and sometimes delightful even despite those flaws.

It’s a very well-balanced list of flaws (many of which can and will be fixed in software updates in coming months) and a concrete list of things that this device does exceptionally well.

After comparing the two reviews, I know which one is the winner.

10 thoughts on “Why is this Surface review so godawful?

  1. Manjoo has always been an Apple fan masquerading as a consumer IT journalist. His coverage of Microsoft technologies at both Slate and Salon before it has been spotty – but he breathlessly combs over any news coming out of Cupertino. His “retraction” re the iPhone 5 is either nauseatingly fawning or awesome satire.

  2. Disclaimer: I didn’t read the article nor am I familiar with Manjoo’s writing.

    However, as a longtime Windows user who also has an iPad, I welcome articles comparing Surface to the iPad. Right now, the iPad is the best tablet for my purposes. I need reliable information to make an informed decision on whether I should switch to the Surface from the iPad. There are hundreds of reviews for first-time tablet buyers who may be considering Surface. I think there’s room for both types of articles.

    Also, let’s be honest. Surface is a DIRECT answer to the iPad. If we’re doing Apples-to-Apples these comparisons shouldn’t include the keyboard – which adds to the cost of the device. Most fair reviews say the hardware is good, but the ecosystem is nowhere near iOS or Android yet. I would not recommend them to friends/family over iPad at this time.

    Now, the Windows 8 tablets/convertibles/hybrids etc. really represent the “no compromises” vision that Microsoft has been touting. That’s what I’m really excited about. It’s a shame they didn’t have the confidence to go with full Windows 8 devices instead of the compromised Windows RT.

  3. @PaladinTom, you really should read the review in Slate as well as the one that Tim Anderson wrote AND the one I wrote.

    No, Surface is not a direct answer to the iPad. It is not designed for “switchers from the iPad.” You would know that if you read the reviews I cited.

    Did you know, in fact, that there are at least five things a Surface RT can do that an iPad can’t? You might be surprised when you see the list in my review.

  4. Respectfully disagree Ed…

    Not for switchers? That’s defeatist to me. That’s leaving millions of potential customers out of the picture. Kinda what Mitt Romney did.

    I checked out your five differences, and except for multiple users (killer!) the others simply aren’t compelling to me. Tablets are devices for our wireless generation and I’ve never needed or wanted to plug anything into – especially printers. The cloud and my home network provides all the storage I need. Even Microsoft recognizes the fully wireless nature of the second-screen.

    Also, Microsoft almost had to bundle Office with this tablet because they risk losing their dominance with Office. I see it every day with small businesses and younger people.

    Lastly, it’s unfair to include the keyboard as it makes the device quite a bit more expensive up front, and only useful on a flat surface… not a laptop – which is where I’d want it the most.

    For my money, I’d rather go with an ultrabook or one of the touch screen Windows 8 for a bit more money.

  5. @PaladinTom, if you look at prices, see also tech spec. Because the iPad start with 16 GB and Surface RT with 32 GB. So if you compare iPad models Vs Surface RT models at the same GB level, you’ll find that the price of Surface RT with Touch cover (3mm cover keyboard!) has the same price of the equivalent iPad:

    iPad (32 GB): $599.00 Surface with Windows RT (32 GB & Black Touch Cover): $599.00
    iPad (64 GB): $699.00 Surface with Windows RT (64 GB & Black Touch Cover): $699.00

    So it’s absolutely fair to compare with the touch keyboard. But if you don’t need it, then
    Surface with Windows RT (32 GB) is $ 499.00

    Give it a try and you’ll love it! 🙂

  6. @Nicolò, and yet the useable space of the 32gb Surface is only 16gb! At least SkyDrive storage offers more than iCloud.

    I’ve tried Metro and except for the live tiles it’s just another touch-based os that is not very compelling over iOS or Android. Nowadays, it’s all about ecosystem which is why I don’t recommend this tablet to friends or family. This is a 1.0 device that needs time to grow on the app front.

  7. That first sentance sums it up quite nicely. iPad fanatics will always downplay all other tablets no matter how good they are. Sometimes they downplay them a little, or like in this case a lot.

  8. Oh, and I forgot to add this: Here is why folks find the Surface heavy. It’s wider than the iPad. That’s why, no other reason. You seriously can’t tell 20 grams in your hands, you just can’t. But, put 100 or 200 grams farther away on a length and the difference in night and day! Since the Surface asks to be picked up by it’s short side, you grab it so the length is pulling at your hand. Most folks pick up the iPad from it’s long end, so there is less of the “fulcrum effect” pulling on your hand. If you were to pick up the Surface at first from the longer end, like most do with the iPad you might actually think it’s lighter than the iPad.

    Amazing how simple math and physics escapes so many folks on the web.

  9. @PaladinTom – you keep coming back to ‘ecosystem’. How many of those hundreds of thousands of apps do you actually use? Prior to switching to a Lumia 800 (beautiful phone) I used an iPhone for years, and use an iPad 3 still. I’ve polled most of the people I know and the vast majority use no more than half a dozen of the same apps (weather, photos etc) and a few games. The rest are gimmicks that come and go. The question is – does the device let you do more of what you need without having to open up your laptop. The answer to that question is most definitely yes.

  10. Manjoo is already well known in the industry and in writing circles to be a complete tool. Few if any would ever give him the credibility to sway their decision on a device purchase. So, even this defence against his commentary on the surface is probably unneccesary other than for the sheer humour value! Great breakdown!

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