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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 ...

Years from now, when digital archeologists sift through carbon rings of petrified tweets and the oily sludge of long-discarded iPads, they’ll mark the launch of the Microsoft Surface as a turning point, the moment the consumer electronics industry fully conceded that pretty is more important than useful.

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The Surface – Microsoft’s first in-house competitor to Apple’s iPad and the product chosen to lead the ticker-tape parade hyping the launch of the Windows 8 operating system – is pretty. In fact, the 10.6-inch tablet, with its floating-tile user interface and its magnesium-alloy exterior, is prettier than the iPad, or any other tablet, for that matter. That such a product should originate from the same company whose flagship operating system for decades plagued users with the single ugliest sight in consumer technology – the blue screen of death – is in of itself astounding.

The prevailing narrative in the technology world over the past half-decade or so has been the transition from desktop to mobile. In a way, this seems obvious, thanks to the white-hot popularity of smartphones and tablets. But it is also inevitable. A few decades ago, a computer was a heat-spewing colossus that could only fit in a warehouse. Eventually, it shrunk to the point where it could fit on an office desk, and then shrunk further until it fit in your pocket. Eventually, it’ll fit under your fingernail or embed in your skull, depending on which William Gibson novel reality is currently headed toward. The entire trajectory of consumer electronics has been a war of extremes – more pixels in thinner screens, faster processors in smaller spaces – bounded only by the laws of physics.

Rather than Big to Small, the more interesting transition in consumer technology has been the one from Ugly to Pretty. The older versions of Windows, for example, were Ugly – a concept that extends beyond the fact that Windows had a user interface that was not incredibly pleasing to look at. Ugly also meant that you could open up the guts of the software and really get your hands dirty. If you wanted to, you could burrow deep into the registry editor and change the most minute, obscure settings at the heart of the software, and if you messed up, you risked burning the whole operating system to the ground. And because Windows was (and still is) the great middle ground of the technology world, its status as certifiably Ugly meant that millions of users throughout the 80s and 90s were introduced to computing as something that was hands-on, malleable, open.

But over the past few years, Apple changed all that. The iPhone’s central bargain – the reason it became one of the best-selling products of all time – was between control and simplicity. In exchange for giving up the right to tinker with the insides of the software or hardware in any meaningful way, you were treated to a beautiful device that just worked. Suddenly, you didn’t need to know how to use a computer in order to use a computer. That transition, more than anything else, is the reason Apple became the most valuable tech company on Earth.

For years, Microsoft resisted this shift. But as the company started trying to get in on the smartphone market, it began to show signs of change. The Windows Phone operating system marked a rare Microsoft foray into the world of design-first software – in other words, software that looked good. Quickly, that philosophy spread across the company, and with the recently released Windows 8, it came to define Microsoft’s most ubiquitous product.

Microsoft did itself no favours with the way it announced the Surface, so it’s helpful to decipher the company’s sales strategy. There are, fundamentally, two versions of the tablet (excluding the various memory specifications). The first, which is available now and starts at about $520, comes with Windows RT – Microsoft’s fancy name for a version of Windows 8 that includes both the cool-looking “Metro” interface that’s built primarily for mobile devices and the more traditional Desktop interface. But Windows RT has one major limitation: it cannot run any programs that aren’t from Microsoft’s App Store. That means you can’t install any traditional Windows 7 software.

The second (likely much more expensive) version of the Surface runs on the full version of Windows 8, meaning you can install programs as you wish. Microsoft has yet to announce a launch date or pricing for this version, but generally, the Windows RT model is meant to compete with the iPads of the world, while the more expensive model is meant to replace a higher-end laptop.

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.

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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