Farhad Manjoo, in Slate yesterday, asks Why Is the Surface So Bad? He starts with this provocative question:
There’s only one question anyone should ask about Microsoft’s Surface tablet: Is it better than the iPad?
And boom! We are off the rails.
Manjoo (normally a thoughtful reviewer) is merciless:
[T]he new tablet’s flaws are glaring: It’s too slow, it’s mercilessly buggy, and the add-on that’s supposed to set it apart from the iPad—its touch-cover keyboard and trackpad—is nice but far from revolutionary.
But here’s the problem. The reviewer, instead of looking at this device and trying to imagine who it is for and why it is designed the way it is, compared it directly to an iPad. So the criteria became not “What can I do with this device?” but rather “Has Microsoft succeeded at cloning the iPad?”
Spoiler alert: Microsoft did not design the Surface to be a clone of the iPad. You can read my full review here, in which I state right up front:
After using a Surface RT for the past week, I can explain it in one sentence:
It’s more than an iPad, and less than a PC.
The Windows RT-powered Surface will not replace your desktop PC or your full-strength notebook. It is, instead, an ideal companion device for a Windows PC, with great mobility. It is powerful enough that it alone can handle most work and play duties, even on an extended business trip or vacation.
It is a clever device that can switch between modes: it is a very good tablet for reading e-books and watching movies and listening to music, but with a flip of a kickstand and the yes-it-is-too-revolutionary Touch Cover, you have a device that can do much of what you would have had to pull out a Windows notebook (or a MacBook) to accomplish.
And what are the horrible flaws Manjoo found?
The first problem is speed. Everything you do on the Surface takes more time than you expect. When you load an app, switch between apps, launch a Web page, go back to a previous Web page, check your email, and do pretty much anything else, you’ll find yourself waiting a half-second too long. This sounds like nothing, but when you compound that time across every action on the Surface, the wasted half-seconds add up to an annoying trudge.
Seriously? We are quibbling over half-seconds? That hasn’t been a problem with my review unit, and when I placed a 3rd-generation iPad alongside the surface I didn’t notice any of those delays. Maybe I’m just a more patient person.
Apparently it also takes a half-second for text to resize when you pinch zoom a web page. It felt more like a few milliseconds to me, but whatever.
Meanwhile, why not try some other tasks, like connecting to a Wifi network, which you can do with a short swipe from the left and one tap of the WiFi icon on a Surface. On an iPad, by contrast, you have to navigate your way back to the home screen, open Settings, open Wi-Fi, find your network and open it, and then enter your passcode.
I can connect to a Wi-Fi access point in 2-3 seconds on a Surface or Windows 8 slate. It takes 10 seconds at least on an iPad.
Or try printing something. Oh wait, you can only print from an iPad to an AirPrint printer.
Or try downloading files from a networked PC to the local disk so you can work on them offline? Oh wait. You can do that on a Surface, but the iPad actually doesn’t have a file manager or any good way to connect to a file server.
This made me laugh out loud:
I like the Surface’s sturdy design, and its built-in kickstand is handy, but when I picked it up, my first thought was, Boy, that’s heavy! When I looked up the specs, I discovered that the Surface is only about 20 grams heavier than the iPad 3, but somehow those grams make a difference.
Ahem. 20 grams is less than three-quarters of an ounce. It is the weight of four sheets of paper. And it’s worth noting that this device has a larger screen than the iPad.
Also, try weighing them with covers (you wouldn’t use a tablet without a cover). Another spoiler: the Apple cover is heavier than the Microsoft Touch Cover. And it doesn’t include a keyboard.
The only old-style Windows programs that the Surface will run are preview versions of Microsoft’s own Office programs, which come pre-installed on the device. To get any use out of these, you’ll need to use the trackpad, and even then, they’re difficult to navigate on such a small screen.
Wait a second. These are no longer preview versions. On Day 1, Microsoft released an automatic update to the final version of Office 2013 RT. It improves performance, fixes some bugs, and adds some new features.
If you find the trackpad awkward, you can plug in a USB mouse or connect a Bluetooth or RF mouse using a USB dongle.
Oh yes, the device has a USB port and an SD card slot, neither of which are available on an iPad. Neither is mentioned in Manjoo’s review either.
There’s a brief mention of the Windows Store, but not one single indication that this reviewer actually tried any apps. Hint: Skype is available. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal have very good touch-friendly apps. There’s a Kindle app. The Xbox SmartGlass app is nothing short of amazing.
But here’s the dead giveaway:
In the years I’ve been using the iPad, I’ve come to recognize that it’s good for specific tasks.
That follows this howler:
But it didn’t take me a week and a half to decide whether the Surface is better than the iPad. At most it took a couple days, and that’s being generous. You’d likely arrive at the same conclusion after playing with the Surface for just a few minutes in a Microsoft Store.
In fact, it appears that the only thing this reviewer did was to sit on the couch, surf some websites, tap on the keyboard for a few minutes, say “Meh,” and count the minutes till he could get back to his precious iPad.
After you’ve read this horribly lazy review, I urge you to read this thoughtful response from my colleague Tim Anderson:
Microsoft seems to have created a device with many flaws, but one that is useful and sometimes delightful even despite those flaws.
It’s a very well-balanced list of flaws (many of which can and will be fixed in software updates in coming months) and a concrete list of things that this device does exceptionally well.
After comparing the two reviews, I know which one is the winner.