The USB and microSD ports make it easy to move files on and off the Surfacesomething that has never been the iPad's strong suit. And you can access, right on the tablet, Windows File Explorer, which gives you the same file management tools and visibility that are available on a traditional Windows desktop. This is a great touch, but it comes at a price. In trying to bring so much PC functionality to a tablet, Microsoft has made the Surface a device that is, at times, complicated to use.
Indeed, the Surface is almost like two devicesa tablet and a desktoprolled into one. And the integration isn't entirely seamless or intuitive. The tablet component works splendidly. You're presented with a "Start" screen full of large (and highly customizable) tiles that will look familiar to anyone who has ever worked with Microsoft's "Metro" interface (a core element of its Windows Phone and Xbox products). Touch a tile that corresponds to an app, and off you go. There is a button, too, for Microsoft's Internet Explorer 10 Web browser, which works well on the device, with smart features specifically designed for touch (like swiping to access the next page in a Web document without having to click on links). Navigating the Surface's interface can seem a bit overwhelming at firstswiping from the right brings up a "charms menu" that lets you search and configure settings in an app, among other things; swiping from the left toggles between open apps; swiping from the top closes the current app. Play with it for a while, however, and you'll realize what an elegant design this is.
But then there is the desktop com ponentand that doesn't work nearly so well. Microsoft literally brings a "laptop-like" environment to Surfacethat is, you can switch back and forth between the touch-friendly "Start" interface and a traditional Windows desktop, complete with all those components PC users know so well: File Manager, Task Manager, Control Panel, and so on. Navigating this interface is awkward on a tableticons are too small for fingers, and many features aren't applicable to tablets or are just clumsy to use on one.
The awkwardness of the desktop interface is particularly striking when it comes to the browser. Click on the Internet Explorer tile on the Start menu, and you get the slick, mobile-friendly IE 10 browser. Click on the Explorer icon on the desktop, and you get the old IE 9 browser. None of the cool new features are here; in fact, if you're working without the keyboard cover, you'll have to manually call up the virtual keyboard when you want to enter a URL (on other tablets, it pops up automatically when you tap the URL box). Our advice: Stick with the Start interface as much as possible, and use the desktop interface only when absolutely necessary, for tasks like file management.
There are other flaws. Mobile devices need an informative and easily accessible battery gauge, and the Surface misses on both counts. From the Start screen you'll only see the gauge when you call up the charms menu, and even then you'll just see an icon, with no "percentage remaining" given. The Surface also has an annoying, all-too-laptop-like habit of updating its softwaresometimes for minutes on endwhen you turn it on. That's another tablet no-no; you want to get right to the action.
Battery life is not stellar: Microsoft claims eight hours, but vendor numbers are generally based on continuous use, with the screen brightness turned down. Using the device sporadically over a few days, with Wi-Fi on and the screen at full brightness, we got 6.5 hours out of the battery: not terrible, but not quite enough to leave the AC adapter at home on a workday. And the display is no iPad Retina screen; it does not quite match the sharpness of the best tablet displays.
Finally, for all its Office 2013 functionality, this version of the Surface does not run Microsoft Outlook. Instead, you have to use a bare-bones Windows Mail app, which is sufficient for reading and replying to email, but will disappoint Outlook fans. (Calendars and contacts are handled by other apps.)
In all, however, the Surface is off to a great start. Its disappointments are largely minor, fixable with updates, or relatively easy to ignore. It brings some innovative featuresand ideasto the tablet space. Besides, what lawyer wouldn't want a true, full-featured, portable Office suite to go?
Alan Cohen is a freelance writer who covers legal technology. A version of this article first appeared in The American Lawyer, a sibling publication.