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Microsoft’s design team put thought into how the Surface user interface flows. (Keith Bedford/REUTERS)
Microsoft’s design team put thought into how the Surface user interface flows. (Keith Bedford/REUTERS)

TECHNOLOGY

Pretty vs. useful: with Surface Microsoft declares a winner Add to ...

At 10.6 inches, the Surface’s screen is slightly larger than the iPad’s. After working through a fairly straightforward set-up process, the user is presented with the tablet’s default view, called “Metro,” the code name within Microsoft for the design principles it used to create the new user interface.

This is the user interface that Microsoft designed primarily for touchscreens. It features an array of floating tiles that represent all the most common programs and services, including e-mail, social messaging, news apps and Microsoft’s cloud-based tools. As you install new apps from Microsoft’s store, they are added to the end of the horizontally scrolling, floating tile array (you can, of course, use the Surface in portrait mode, but virtually everything looks better in landscape).

Metro is beautiful. Everywhere you look, there are signs that Microsoft’s design team put thought into how the user interface flows. For example, some of the apps have floating tile icons that are animated, showing scrolling headlines or pictures of your friends. This means that you can lose track of what app you’re looking at. To fix this, the designers placed little white icons in the corners of the floating tiles, so no matter what images dominate the tile itself, you can quickly figure out what you’re looking at. Metro is clearly the star of Windows 8, and a physical Windows button at the bottom of the Surface will always take you back to the Metro screen.

Functionally, Metro operates by betting on the majority case. In effect, it guesses at what the average tablet user is likely to do with the Surface, and makes those tasks as easy as possible. The more esoteric the function you’re trying to access, the harder the Surface is to use. The pre-loaded travel app, for example, is beautifully laid out and amazing to use if you happen to want to go to one of the app’s featured locations at any given moment. But it becomes less and less useful as you start looking for more advanced commands. The sports app is equally excellent for a quick overview of upcoming games and scores from previous ones, but like other apps, it is heavily curated. Some of the more advanced features of the traditional Windows interface, such as the command prompt, still exist within Metro, but you have to look pretty hard to find them.

(Like Apple and Google, Microsoft wants you to log in to a Microsoft account before you use almost any of its services. In fact, many of the pre-loaded apps are essentially useless unless you’re logged in).

When you launch a tool such as the command prompt, you’re suddenly reminded that there exists an entirely different, second face of Windows 8 – the traditional Desktop interface. This is where some of the more traditional programs are sent to run, and where you can access tools such as the file manager. Desktop will seem familiar to anyone who has used Windows in the past 20 years or so, but unlike Metro, it doesn’t work so well on a touchscreen. For one thing, the Windows drop-down menus, which worked so well with a mouse and keyboard, are too bunched up for effective touchscreen use. You’ll constantly find yourself hitting the wrong menu item, or nothing at all, and your options to remedy this are to either scale the font and icon sizes way up, or to run your fingers through a pencil sharpener.

Fortunately, the Surface comes with a keyboard. In fact, the keyboard and the built-in kickstand that holds the tablet upright are two of the major differentiators between the Surface and many of its competitors. The default keyboard, which is paper thin and magnetically snaps to the bottom of the Surface, is bare-bones, but easily beats the feel of typing on a glass screen. In fact, opening the kickstand and attaching the keyboard quickly turns the Surface into a better approximation of a real laptop than any other tablet on the market. Microsoft also offers a more expensive version of the keyboard that features responsive keys, which eliminates the feeling of slamming your fingers against cardboard. Surprisingly, the more responsive keyboard only improves the typing experience a little, but the responsive mouse buttons make the built-in touchpad much, much better. The keyboard isn’t without faults. Trying to use it on your lap, or some other uneven surface, is a miserable experience, as the tablet simply doesn’t recognize the keystrokes half the time. But when it does work, the keyboard transforms the Surface into a device on which it is possible to do real work, and also makes the Desktop portion of the interface useable.

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