As you probably know, the iPad Air was just made available. Faster than ever, lighter than ever. It is by most accounts the tablet to beat. So why on earth did I just buy the Surface 2, the sequel to a colossal flop?
Hardware Design and Form Factor
The Surface 2 is beautiful. I can't say that I've ever thought that of any non-Apple machine before, and with good reason - the Dells and HPs of the world have almost always made creaky, plastic junk. It's no wonder that Microsoft decided to make their own hardware.
You can tell this tablet is well made from the moment you pick it up, thanks to its magnesium body. This initial hands-on impression is something the iPad gets so right, and I'm glad to see Microsoft follow suit. But it's only upon starting to use it that you realize that it's actually a different class of device, one that's not directly comparable to the iPad.
Take the array of ports, for instance. The Surface sports one for USB devices (it's full size, by the way), one for mini HDMI-out, and one for micro SD cards. These are amazingly useful on a tablet, and in fact that SD card slot is how I transferred the pictures you see here from my camera.
And then there's the kickstand and "click-in" keyboards, the latter of which is especially excellent; aside from the small trackpad, there is nothing about them that feels cheap or compromised. Again, it's hard to understand just how transformative these features are until you use them. Surfing the web and reading email work well in "tablet mode". But when I need to type up an article or manage the picture collection on my hard drive, the Surface elegantly turns into a sort of laptop, complete with the familiar desktop and mouse support.
Microsoft Software and Services
For as much flak as Windows 8 has gotten, I think it's an excellent interface for touch hardware and 8.1 has made it significantly better. It is modern and sophisticated, and makes apparent just how badly iOS scales to larger screens. The so-called Live Tiles display information such as your latest emails and calendar events, the current weather, news articles... it depends on the app. While it's not necessarily critical, the constant feed of fresh information does make Windows 8 feel very personal. Navigation is also done well. Swiping in from the left side of the screen will cycle you through currently open apps, which is so much more natural than Apple's screen-pawing gesture. Swiping in from the right edge will reveal the "charms" bar - Search, Share, Start, Devices, and Settings. Additional buttons can be found in the app bar, which is accessed with a swipe from the top or bottom edge. These gestures are a bit difficult to discover, but I miss them when using an iPad.
Speaking of which, let's talk about multitasking. We take it for granted on the desktop, but mobile-centric interfaces haven't ventured much into this area. Fortunately Windows has the ability to snap multiple apps side by side. I use it most often as a sidebar, keeping my to-do list, music app, or Twitter readily available while I work or read.
Microsoft's cloud storage service, SkyDrive, is another advantage (and the Surface 2 comes with 200 GB of storage, a fantastic deal). It is integrated into Windows, so you browse it as you would any other folder. The difference is that the files you see are not actually located on your machine. If you choose to open such a file, it is automatically downloaded and opened with the appropriate app. Nice.
Finally, let's not forget the included copy of Office 2013. It's frustrating to me that it's not truly optimized for touch, but then again, I'm using it with the kickstand and keyboard flipped out anyway. In any case, if you have a need for this type of productivity, Office is kind of hard to ignore. It is absolutely a standard in office software, and when a document is done, it can be sent to any printer, whether by USB or wirelessly. No silly AirPrint compatibility required.
Apps. There's no getting around it, the Windows Store has a weak selection. A lot of popular apps aren't there yet, and the ratio of quality ones to bad ones is alarmingly high. This can be partially remedied by using Internet Explorer 11, which is smooth and runs Flash... but it's not a great workaround. That said, the situation can only improve over time, and there's a decent selection of the essentials: Twitter, Facebook, Kindle, Skype, Netflix, Photoshop Express, Amazon, eBay, ESPN, Hulu Plus, The New York Times, Jetpack Joyride, Cut the Rope, Halo: Spartan Assault, Asphalt 7, Angry Birds, Where's My Water, and Fruit Ninja, among others. I personally don't find it horribly limiting, but I do look forward to improvement and am surprised developers haven't more aggressively targeted the platform.
The Surface isn't perfect. But it is an extremely compelling option and, depending on your needs, better than anything else out there.