A few weeks ago Microsoft held a massive press event in New York where it invited media from around the globe to witness the launch of its latest operating system Windows 8. While the event focused on the software side of things, we didn’t know at the time a second event was to take place that afternoon; one which would show off its new Surface tablet.

For some strange reason Microsoft was being very secretive about what would take place. In fact, once the presentation finally got underway Microsoft wouldn’t let the media record or broadcast any part of it. It got me thinking, maybe the presentation was smoke and mirrors.

Maybe Surface really couldn’t perform as well as it did up on stage. It wasn’t until a few days later when I received a unit to test for myself. I decided to put away my other tablets and use Surface as my primary device for 10 days to see if it could possibly live up to Microsoft’s hype. How well did it perform? Read on to find out.

The first thing you’ll notice about Surface is its size.  Surface is larger than most tablets on the market. In fact, with a 10.6-inch screen, it’s even larger than Samsung’s Tab 10.1 and Apple’s iPad. It’s also slightly heavier, weighing exactly one and a half pounds on the dot. That being said it seems quite well built. The case is made from Magnesium and has a nice polished yet durable feel to it. Microsoft claims the VaperMG case is scratch-resistant and after lugging it around in my work bag for more than a week I still don’t see any noticeable marks.

The screen itself is quite lovely. While it’s no Retina display, it’s still quite easy on the eyes, showing rich, deep blacks and bright whites. Since the screen is larger it’s able to display video in true 16:9 ratio, which means many movies and TV shows will appear with no black bars. However, the black bars will remain while viewing movies in 2.35:1.

As for physical features Surface has the usual suspects with a few surprises. On the top front bezel you’ll find a 720p camera along with ambient light sensor. On the bottom bezel a Windows logo acts as a home button, only it’s a touch sensor. The left edge of the tablet houses a tiny speaker, headphone jack and volume rocker. Another speaker is found on the right edge, along with Micro-HDMI port, power port and a full USB 2.0 port. Yes, you read right…a full sized USB port on a tablet! Think of the possibilities! You can transfer files with a USB stick, charge your smartphone or hook up a printer. After using other tablets with no USB ports, you tend to forget just how handy these ports can be. On the bottom a special connector sits in the middle along with a magnetic groove which is used for accessories.

On the backside you’ll discover another 720p camera plus two hidden features. The bottom back plate flips out to create a sturdy kickstand. I didn’t think much of this at first, until I started using it. I loved being able to prop my Surface up on a desk while I’m using it. It especially comes in handy with the Touch Cover keyboard attached. It essentially sits like a laptop on a desk, making it very easy to use.

Beneath the kickstand is a MicroXDSC card slot. A small feature, but a special one. Users will have the ability to expand the storage on Surface by an additional 64GB. This could be a key feature for those who don’t want to splurge on the more expensive 64GB model.

While Apple’s iPad runs on iOS and many other tablets run a variety of Google’s Android operating systems, Surface runs Windows 8 RT (which is not compatible with older Windows software). If you’ve used a Windows phone in the past or own an Xbox 360, you’ll actually already be familiar with the look of this operating system. The ‘Start” screen is comprised of a series of live tiles which represent your apps installed on the tablet. They’re called ‘live’ because they’re always updating themselves with information on the screen.

When it comes to navigating Windows 8, there is certainly a learning curve. The operating system is optimized for touch screens which make it perfect for a tablet. To minimize an app you must swipe down from the top bezel and then drag your finger right to the bottom of the tablet’s screen. Swiping towards the center from the right bezel will open the “Charms” which contain a Search feature, Share, Start, Devices and Settings options. If you swipe from the left bezel towards the center of the screen you’ll rotate through all the apps currently running, and if you only swipe part way then quickly swipe back to the left a side panel will open revealing all the apps you have running in the background.

It seems like a lot to remember, and truth be told it does take some time to get used to navigating through Windows 8. Microsoft’s new operating system definitely has a learning curve. However once you get it, the experience is quite enjoyable.

Since Windows 8 doesn’t allow you to install or run programs you may have used with Windows 7, you’ll be relying a lot on apps. Microsoft has it’s own App store simply called Windows Store. You’ll find thousands of apps to download, some free, others will cost you money. Interestingly enough some cost more here than they do in Apple’s App Store or in Google Play. For example Angry Birds Star Wars HD cost me $2.99 on my iPad. On surface it would cost me $4.99 to download the same game. The variety of apps is also lacking. Twitter doesn’t have an official app and neither does Facebook. Those apparently are still a few months away which is downright disappointing.

Fortunately one of the most useful pieces of software comes included on Surface; Office 2013. This isn’t a watered down mobile version, rather the full blown desktop version. Here you can use the full variety of programs including Excel, Word, PowerPoint, and OneNote 2013. All the features are here and ready to use (Note: Surface ships with preview but final version is downloadable for free in Windows Store). It’s nice to be able to actually write on a tablet in a program I’m all too familiar with.

If you do a lot of writing, I strongly suggest purchasing the Touch Cover accessory. This 3mm thin cover not only protects your screen, it also doubles as a keyboard. The Touch Cover connects via magnets to the base of the tablet. It’s soft, with a micro fibre feel about it, but the keys which are printed on perform like a real keyboard when you touch them. There’s also a touchpad near the bottom of the Touch Cover which works remarkably well. Since the keys don’t physically move it takes a few days to get used to the Touch Cover, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll be typing at full speed. I simply love Touch Cover. When it’s connected it feels like you’re working on a laptop. The best part is when you want to use the tablet’s touchscreen, just flip the keyboard under the tablet and the device knows not to pay any attention to it. You won’t have to worry about accidentally typing when it’s flipped as it’s basically disabled.

For those who need physical keys another version called the Type Cover is available. This cover has ultra-thin keys which you can press. Of course these accessories come at a price. The Touch Cover will set you back $129 and the Type Cover even more.

Overall performance was very satisfying. The processor kept up with what I wanted to do and appeared to have no issues running more than one app at a time. Windows 8 allows for true multitasking where programs continue to run in the background; a feature which I found useful.

Microsoft rates the battery life to be 8 hours, and I’ll say that may be a bit optimistic. I found mine drained within six hours, and I often needed to plug in my Surface for a quick energy boost three quarters of the way through the day.

After using Surface for 10 days I was left feeling very optimistic. I really enjoyed the Windows 8 experience and loved the Touch Cover which essentially makes it feel like I was using a laptop. It really felt like the best of both worlds. That being said, the lack of apps is a sticking point for me. I love apps, and the fact that I couldn’t download some of my favourites was a real disappointment.

There seems to be a lot of potential with Surface. If you want a tablet for productivity, whether for creating word documents or powerpoint presentations, then Surface could very well be what you’re looking for. However if apps and games are a priority for you, you might want to hold off until the Windows Store fills its digital shelves.

The Good:

  • user interface
  • nice display
  • full-sized USB port
  • Touch Cover is brilliant

The Bad:

  • learning curve
  • mediocre battery life
  • lack of apps