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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 ...

For Windows 8 (and, more specifically, the Metro portion of the operating system on the Surface), Microsoft has developed an entirely new language of touchscreen commands and gestures. As you’d expect, swiping and touching all do the same things they’d do on any other tablet. But swiping down from the top of the bezel will launch the file menus specific to whatever app you’re using. Swiping from the left will bring up a list of other active programs (actually, it will launch one of those programs, seemingly at random. If you want to see the full list, you have to swipe into the screen and then swipe back out. If that sounds obtuse, that’s because it is). Swiping in from the right will bring up a non-changing menu that’s consistent throughout the Windows experience. It allows you to share things, tweak the system settings and, most importantly, access the universal search. That latter function, when it works, is one of the best features of the operating system. When you’re in Microsoft’s music app, for example, it automatically searches for songs. Unfortunately, universal search isn’t yet as universal as it should be. The New York Times app, for example, allows you to access different sections of the paper from the app-specific menu, but doesn’t recognize the universal search. The Globe and Mail app, on the other hand, does the exact opposite.

Some early Surface users have complained that all the new touchscreen gestures are confusing, and indeed they are, but that isn’t a major issue. There was a time when clicking, double-clicking and click-and-dragging all seemed confusing, but users figured it out in the long run. There are, however, some Surface-specific issues with the new gestures. Because it’s difficult to use the tablet with one hand, you’ll likely spend most of your time holding it in landscape mode with your thumbs on either end of the screen, scrolling various apps and menus horizontally, but if you start scrolling from too close to the bezel, you’ll bring up one of the menus instead. This is especially annoying if you scroll from the left side in, because that menu command will instantly take you to some other app screen.

There are other issues, such as an infuriatingly reticent power source connector and black holes in memory usage (the 64-gigabyte model we reviewed only showed a 54-gigabyte hard drive, even before factoring in the size of the pre-installed software). But all of these problems can be solved. The biggest problem with the Surface (aside from an app store that is, so far, much smaller than Apple’s and Google’s) is also the biggest problem with Windows 8 – it tries to be two things. The Metro interface is beautiful, but tightly controlled and lacking most of the advanced functionality that made older versions of Windows so useful. The Desktop interface features much of that functionality, but is miserable to use with a touchscreen. In effect, the Surface is half-laptop, half-tablet, just as recent BlackBerrys have been half-business, half-consumer, and nobody in the tech industry has been able to make this hybrid model work yet. Microsoft may have been better off releasing the lower-priced Surface model with only the Metro interface, and pitching it as a gorgeous tablet with limited functionality and a total reliance on downloaded apps – which is basically what the iPad is. Although, to be fair, the ability to simply plug a USB key into the Surface and access files as you would on a traditional PC makes the Desktop interface worth having.

Microsoft will face an even more serious version of this problem when it finally releases the higher-priced Surface with the full Windows 8 experience. If it works, it could become the first hybrid tablet that offers an acceptable experience for novice and advanced users. But there are many catches. For one, the high-end Surface will be expensive, and will compete directly with laptops. More importantly, the ability to install any programs you want means the increased likelihood of viruses, malware and all the stuff that made traditional Windows so Ugly in the first place. If users who bought the Surface expecting an iPad-like experience start to see their shiny new tablets go haywire, Microsoft’s Pretty device may not seem so Pretty after all.

Using the Surface, you can start to guess what Windows 9 and Windows 10 will look like. Eventually, it’s a safe bet the gorgeous Metro interface will start to consume the traditional desktop, as more users agree to give up advanced features and the ability to tinker with their computers in exchange for crash-proof, idiot-proof machines. To its credit, Microsoft has built a beautiful tablet in the Surface. In the details, it borrows far less from Apple than just about any other tablet on the market, and actually has an aesthetic all its own – a prettier one than Apple’s, for that matter. In the big picture, it borrows everything from Apple; of course it does. The company that brought you the iPad has redirected the trajectory of consumer electronics, and the Surface (and Windows 8) is the most significant acknowledgment yet that the war between Pretty and Ugly is over. Pretty won.

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