I’ve been a long time Apple consumer but recently sold my iPad (1st version, 32GB, WiFi only) which I had bought sometime in mid-2010. It had been a speedy device when I bought it but over the years of upgrades, it had DRAMATICALLY slowed down. Simple stuff like opening the browser or settings app which originally opened almost instantly now took many many seconds of waiting just to get started. Over time I’ve learnt one rule – don’t perform a major iOS upgrade more than one (MAYBE twice if you’re itching). Major means, iOS 5.x => iOS 6.x.
Essentially, I needed a new tablet that’s fast and capable. My use case is mostly reading, researching documents (PDFs or web pages) but anything more is always a bonus.
Enter Microsoft …
If I’ve been using Apple since iOS’ early days, I’ve been using Microsoft ever since it’s DOS days as a 4th grader watching my older brother “do stuff with computers”. Even in my work life, it’s mostly a Windows/Microsoft (and Web) based business. And when Windows 8 came out for the laptops, I detested it. Very forcefully. Corners and charms, made no sense on a multi-monitor workstation and making a critical portion of the User interface (Start Button), invisible made even less sense (“Hey, we have this button you must click to get to your programs, but we’re going to make it — invisible! Just to mess you up!“).
Then the other day I was at the Fashion Valley Mall in San Diego. Somewhere near the Prada and Louis Vuitton shops was a Microsoft shop. I had heard about the Surface 2 and Surface 2 Pro, so I curiously entered the shop to see if I could test drive a Surface 2 Pro. They had several and also some seats to be comfortable while at it! Awesome!
Surface 2 Regular and Pro
- The screen resolution was great!!
- Can run Office as-is! This is a HUGE deal for me since I’d really love to edit powerpoints or edit doc files casually. I think “heavy duty” work would be for the laptops but still. Office on iOS is really awkward with 100% compatibility unavailable. Interestingly, Apple recently made available it’s own “Office” apps (Pages, numbers and Keynote) which have import/export functionality for Office file types, so this will get interesting.
- “Real” multi-tasking side by side. I could keep one web page in the left half of the window and another page (or another app entirely, including any “desktop” app) on the right half. This is GREAT when editing email/documents while simultaneously researching the content.
- The Windows 8 UI was very good. While it makes no-sense on laptops, it makes VERY good sense on a tablet. I wish Microsoft had followed Apple’s strategy of separate UIs for tablets and laptops but at least the Surface has a great UI.
- Although the “cheaper” keyboard ($120) is absolute garbage, the “better” keyboard (“Type Cover 2″ at $130) has individual keys and is a GREAT keyboard. Microsoft should discontinue the useless keyboard to prevent giving the rest of the product a bad name. $10 isn’t going to kill anyone.
- Pro only: I could run most of my Windows apps (but we’ll get to this soon).
Bad: I won’t cover everything, just items that are “instant fail”
- The screen is too narrow/tall. Again, as a tablet, the vertical orientation is critical. Microsoft uses the 16:9 ratio which is great for horizontal mode when watching movies. VERY awkward when help vertically. I wanted to put it down and look away. For comparison, the iPad uses a 4:3 ratio and it’s very comfortable in both orientations.
- Pro only: Too heavy for a tablet. Really, this is way outside the weight category of a tablet, so it might as well be a bit more heavy – I wouldn’t consider it anyway. And if I can’t compare/use it as a tablet, it’s competing against the Ultrabooks/Macbook Pros/Macbook Airs – and it’ll get slaughtered there instantly.
- Browser: I tried IE on the surface and while it’s nice, it’s nowhere as nice as Safari is on the iPad. I’d like an alternative. But Google’s Chrome team says that Microsoft is dictating a monopoly on the Browsers on the Surface 2. Microsoft needs to break that so they can let other people improve their platform for them.
- Storage: You must compare the 32GB surface to the 16GB iPad. Why? Because the 32GB surface gives you 16GB usable space while the 16GB iPad gives you about 15GB usable space. Windows burns down almost 16GB on itself and on my laptops I’ve noticed it bloating in size over a period of time as it tries to save all the installation files (msi files) inside the Windows folder. On SSD and Flash based devices this is a critical failing item when I can’t determine how much space I have and will continue to have 18 months into device usage (vs OS mysteriously burning more and more away).
Key takeaway: Microsoft has a great idea of where it wants the form factor to go and I find it exciting. Having full office functionality is a major positive but it’s held back by poorer apps compared to iOS. It’s also held up by weight issues (=usability comfort) and an awkward screen ratio that more tuned to horizontal usage at the expense of vertical usage comfort. Microsoft also needs to focus on the Surface non-pro. It’s got potential. The Pro is only viable if it can completely replace an ultrabook which it can’t given it’s screensize and keyboards. Or the Pro is viable if it can come in at the non-Pro price point AND without the weight/screen issues. Till then it’s stuck in limbo, being neither a great tablet replacement nor a great laptop replacement.
Nokia Lumia 2520
Given my Microsoft experience, I really wanted to find a Nokia tablet, the 2520. It’s supposed to have a crisper/ brighter screen and a better keyboard. It also looked better (in photos), so I wanted to feel it. I couldn’t find any Nokia stores nearby, so unfortunately, I can’t consider buying one. Based on the specs, it should be very similar to my Surface 2 experience (including weight/screen issues) except for the LTE modem bonus. A 32GB, 4:3 screen ratio’d, 1 pound Lumia with LTE at $499 would be very compelling!
Ok, so back at the Mall, there was also an Apple store just 2 minutes walking distance from the Microsoft store, so I walked right there after the Surface 2 experience fresh in my head. The Apple store was certainly more crowded, I wonder how many people even knew the Microsoft store existed? Anyway, picked up the iPad Air and played with it.
- Incredibly light compared to the Surface 2.
- Screen ratio is “normal” , 4:3 that feel like holding a regular sized (paper) page.
- The iWork suite – Numbers, Pages and Keynote are standard on the new iPad (as is iMovies, which is awesome!)
- Safari’s page rendering is awesome as usual. Vital as a lot of my research time is spent reading web pages and PDFs.
- The office experience was weaker (I didn’t get to try out iWorks with some documents I regularly work to test formatting)
- They still have a 16GB version. I had hoped the 32GB version replaced the 16GB version at the same $499 price point and the 16GB version is retired. It’s 2013 folks, not 2010 anymore.
So what will I buy?
I think this generation I’ll continue with the iPad. Although Apple didn’t really refine the tablet vision this time around, they didn’t screw up either. And Microsoft’s lineup does have some fatal flaws. If the next generation (Surface 3?) fixes these issues, it’ll be a worthy replacement for the iPad. Microsoft also needs to figure out how it can help migrate people from iOS to Windows. That means recommendations for the iOS apps I have and some idea on how to migrate my iCloud (iTunes Match) music library over to the Microsoft side. Same with iCloud backups. Miss any one piece in the migration puzzle, it too much work for people to jump ship.
Footnotes: Physical store experience
Not directly related to the products but I wanted to write about something that I felt emerge rather subtly. I know Apple plays up their stores substantially and I always felt they overrated it. Until I measured my own experience in the Microsoft store. It was an eye opening moment when I could actually play with the Surface 2 tablets. I was even impressed by the Samsung ultrabooks there and I may consider them to replace my 15″ Macbook Pro. I may consider the Surface 3 even more seriously. These are devices that I wouldn’t have considered due to my own inertia as I’m absolutely satisfied with my Apple devices. I wouldn’t have even considered the Microsoft counterparts but the play-time made them FAR more familiar. Even if I don’t buy them today, there is now a huge possibility I will in the future! Microsoft even had a MakerBot 3D printer what a Surface 2 Pro was controlling – insanely cool!! These stores need to showcase Microsoft’s vision – “The technology you see in these stores is cutting edge and this is the vision”. Without it, most people, including myself equate most Windows devices to the “mass” products there, which don’t represent the cutting edge vision I think Microsoft is coalescing towards.
So Microsoft needs to have more stores. From the top of my head, I know of 4 Apple stores in my city but only one Microsoft store. Many people I asked didn’t even know what a “Microsoft store” was. Answers ranged from where they sell Windows to where they fix their PCs if they have IT issues … Microsoft, please do yourself a favor and brand yourself better on the consumer side in a consistent way.