What It's Like To Use The New Microsoft Tablet

Microsoft's Surface is the most interesting tablet since the iPad. But how does it actually feel, you know, in your hands?

A few years ago my dad discovered a Nepali/Tibetan restaurant in St. Paul that served yak. Not being a terribly adventurous eater, yak seemed pretty damn exotic. But the first time he tried yak, he loved it. He started comparing yak to other new things he tried. “That pasta was good, but it’s no yak.”

So let's say, then, that Microsoft’s new Surface is good.

Admittedly, I’m not Microsoft’s core audience. I haven’t owned a Windows machine since the Clinton administration. And even then, technically my parents owned it. So the only thing I can compare Microsoft’s new Surface to with any degree of honesty is Apple products. But frankly, that’s fitting, because Microsoft desperately wants my business. And the business of so many others who have jumped ship to Apple products — specifically mobile devices — in the past decade.

Everything about the Surface launch event — from the super-duper-top-secret meeting location to the cultish chant of “design, design, design” — screamed Apple. Frankly, I wanted to love whatever the hell they were unveiling. Their promo video was slick and exciting, opening with a beautifully cinematic shot of a crumpled lump of metal soaring a few feet over a barren wasteland; lens flare letting you know that they take themselves seriously, but not too seriously. Then the lump of metal bursts apart to form the word Surface, the sun beautifully revealing itself. I’m a sucker for techno-glitz — and here in L.A., glitz is pretty much the currency — but actually holding the Surface just isn’t that satisfying.

For an iPad user, the Surface will feel familiar, but let’s say 10% different. I’m intrigued by the beveled edges and it feels pretty comfortable to hold. But I’m skeptical of the pop-out stand. Surface also feels a little bit bulkier than the iPad — just enough to notice. One reporter was holding his iPad up to the Surface to compare thickness between the two machines and someone from Microsoft was quick to point out that the stand was one of the reasons it was thicker.

The response time when touching the Surface screen feels just a millisecond longer — and comparatively, the flip from vertical to horizontal feels like an eternity. The user interface is, again, perfectly acceptable in the limited amount of time I got to play with one. But it felt 10 percentage points from wonderful. I suppose these are the minor details you notice when you’ve been using Apple products pretty much exclusively, but that's precisely why they matter — most people have only used one other tablet in their lives, and that tablet is an iPad.

To me, the most appealing thing about Surface is the aspect ratio of the screen. Most movies and TV shows these days are shot in widescreen, or the 16:9 aspect ratio. In the 1950s, movie production companies started shooting in widescreen to compete with the emerging medium of television. The idea was to provide something that you couldn’t get at home. But since the iPad is formatted like a television (4:3), I’ve always been frustrated watching new movies on it. You’re either forced to watch in pseudo-pan-and-scan mode like you’re renting a VHS tape from Blockbuster circa 1994, or you just have to deal with the letterbox bars.

We don’t have a release date, or a price, or essentially half the specs, or any sense of what developers will end up doing with the new Windows platform, but we do know that the device feels like. And it feels pretty good, but it’s no yak.

Matt Novak writes the Paleofuture blog for Smithsonian magazine, The Paleofuturist column for the BBC, and the Retrofuturism column for The Daily. He also writes about old inventions for Pacific Standard. He tweets here.