LOS ANGELES – Microsoft seems to have gotten the design and form factor right with its new Surface tablet computer. But the user interface, not so much.
The Surface has a touch keyboard cover that feels great. The tablet's software interface, however, seems non-intuitive and sluggish.
Although the Surface won't go on sale until this fall, I had the chance to spend a few minutes with some devices in a group demonstration after Microsoft unveiled them Monday in Los Angeles.
The removable cover comes across as a takeoff of Apple Inc.'s Smart Cover. Both snap into place perfectly with magnets. Microsoft's cover is rigidly flat and has a full keyboard imprinted on it. Microsoft's cover seems central to the Surface experience, although it's not clear if it'll be sold separately. Apple sells Smart Cover separately starting at $39.
The cover is thin — about a tenth of an inch, or 3 millimeters. When covering the screen, its spine covers one edge and its outer fabric makes the whole package feel like a soft book. Where it attaches to the tablet, it's completely floppy, so it can be whipped around to close over the screen or folded back.
The keyboard is imprinted on the inside of the cover, facing the screen. So when you open it, you can lay the cover on a table and use it to type. The keys themselves don't depress as you type. Rather, there are seven layers of metal and other material inside that sense pressure and speed.
Running the length of the Surface is a thin, 0.7-millimeter metal flap called the kickstand. This is what transforms the device from a tablet that you can grip to a computer you can type at while sitting at a desk or table.
The front-facing camera looks up at you, while the back camera is angled so that it points forward when the kickstand is extended.
As I said earlier, the tablet's software is what disappoints. I detected a lag when swiping. If the image doesn't come along in real time, that's noticeable.
Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 operating system and its Windows RT counterpart for low-power chips are supposed to bridge the gap between touch devices and personal computers.
But the company has made a perplexing design choice by hiding crucial navigation items off the screen. Finding them requires swiping in from the sides. I would need a tutorial on what actions lead to what results.
At the announcement Monday, CEO Steve Ballmer pounded home the message that this tablet will be as good as a PC for creating documents in a way that the iPad never was. Surface splits the difference between a standard tablet and super-light laptops such as Apple's MacBook Air or ultrabooks that run Windows.
But typing on the Surface's keyboard cover seems to require just that, a surface. I'm not sure how I would manage the cover keyboard and a kickstand on my lap.
Microsoft's ultimate challenge seems to be making sure that all the programs on my current laptop can run smoothly on Surface. It's not clear yet whether it can deliver on that vision.