Microsoft's Surface, A Tablet With Many Faces

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It feels like Microsoft has already shipped two Surface tablets.

There's the device it unveiled in June; despite the lack of such relevant information as a price, a ship date or battery life, the design shown off at an event in Los Angeles drew instant, giddy praise from reviewers I trust, up to "I love the Surface."

And then we have the $599 bundle of a $499, 32-gigabyte Surface tablet with a "Touch Cover" keyboard that I picked up one of Microsoft's retail stores on Saturday. It is not quite as lovely as those early raves might suggest.

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What the Surface does best, not that it's alone in that respect, is bring Windows 8's touch-driven interface to life. It's far easier to tap, flick and slide your way from one app or task to another on its beautifully sharp 10.6-in. screen than to mouse around my laptop's larger display with its touchpad or pointing stick.

So do I compare it to an iPad? At 1.5 lbs., Microsoft's Wi-Fi-only tablet weighs barely more than Apple's. But Apple's also offers an exponentially larger selection of applications: 275,000 versus 9,000 and change.

Surface battery life also falls short of the iPad's; with two Web pages reloading in the background as it played through a loop of music files, this device expired after six hours and 33 minutes.

But wait, a Surface can be a laptop too! This tablet includes a standard USB port (yes, you can charge a phone off that) and micro-HDMI audio and video output, with a microSD Card slot hiding underneath the kickstand that flips open from its back. And with the Touch Cover, you sort of have a keyboard.

But that accessory ($119.99 sold separately) lacks the usual tactile feedback; its keys and touchpad, covered in a sort of rubbery felt, don't depress when you tap them. I think I'm typing faster on it than I could on the Surface's screen, but not as fast a regular keyboard like Microsoft's heavier, thicker, $129.99 Type Cover.

Surface's Windows RT software — a cut-down version of Windows 8 optimized for mobile devices — also makes this less than a laptop. Those older Windows apps you own? Forget about running them on this Surface unless their developers rewrite them.

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You might not guess that from the way Windows RT looks and works like the standard flavor of Windows 8. The traditional Windows desktop, minus the Start menu, presents the same array of cursor-optimized menus and toolbars as ever. It takes some dainty finger work on the Surface's touchscreen to use them, as well as the preinstalled preview version of Microsoft Office 2013.

Windows RT did, however, eat up enough storage space to cut the advertised 32 GB of solid-state memory down to a bit more than 18 gigs of usable capacity after installing a round of system updates.

(You'll be able to buy a thicker, heavier Surface tablet running the full Win 8 later this year, but Microsoft hasn't named a price for that yet.)

I have to agree with those early assessments of the Surface: This is one well-crafted piece of hardware. The Touch Cover's magnetic latch couples with a satisfying click and stays clamped in place. The "VaporMg" magnesium-alloy coating looks terrific and doesn't seem to attract scuff marks like the aluminum exterior of an iPad.

But when I sit down to use this thing, I don't see most of those details. I see what's on its screen.

Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery