Scratching the Surface

It’s strange to think of Microsoft as an underdog. But in markets dominated by Apple devices, that’s what it’s become. Microsoft originally launched its Zune music player in 2006 as an “iPod killer,” but finally discontinued it last year following disappointing sales. Now Microsoft is going after the iPad with its new Surface tablet.

Just trying to find a Surface, which starts at $499, demonstrates what the tablet is up against. To get to the Microsoft store in the Fashion Show, one must pass the Apple store, and also numerous booths selling iPad cases and accessories. Then the Microsoft “store” turns out to be a kiosk, so small it isn’t even listed on the mall’s directory. (To find it, look in front of Forever 21.)

But the Surface tablet shows promise. The hardware is impressive. It’s not as thin or as light as an iPad, but it’s fast, sturdy and has a nice built-in kickstand ideal for watching videos. Its upgraded Type Cover (which includes raised keys and costs $130) is the nicest detachable keyboard cover I’ve seen on a tablet (unlike the default Touch Cover, which reportedly has been breaking easily). The Surface also has a full-size USB port and an HDMI output for running a monitor or projector. I plugged in my flash drive and had a PowerPoint presentation playing from it perfectly within seconds. Try that on an iPad.

Unfortunately, the software still needs some work. The Surface runs Windows RT, which looks like Windows 8 but won’t run normal Windows programs. The Surface ships with a special version of Microsoft Office pre-installed and offers an app store, but the store is not yet well stocked. In fact, there’s no Facebook, Twitter or Pandora app. I looked for DropBox, which I’ve run on every computer, tablet and phone I’ve owned for years, but it’s not (yet) available for the Surface. Even the salesperson admitted that the current version of Surface is essentially a toy.

An improved version, the Surface Pro, is expected to arrive in January, and will run Windows 8 Pro. Because it will run normal Windows programs, people will be able to use it instead of a laptop—something they can’t do with an iPad or Android tablet. As much as Microsoft would like to see it, the Surface Pro won’t be an iPad-killer. But as a combination tablet and laptop replacement, it is versatile and well-designed. And that’s a good start for future editions of the Surface to build on.