Essentially, Microsoft includes pretty much every connection you need, though there are no extras. Along the left is a 3.5mm headphone jack; responsive and comfy volume rocker; and insert to pull out the kickstand, which we’ll get to in a minute. At the tablet’s top you’ll find the power button along with dual array microphones.
On the right we have the magnetic power connector, a full-size USB 2.0 port for hooking up everything from memory sticks to printers or peripherals, and a microHDMI port for outputting video to a monitor or telly. Microsoft also sells a VGA adapter for £35 (Apple charges £39 for its Lightning to VGA one), for those still using the analogue standard.
Under the kickstand you’ll also find a microSDXC card slot for expanding internal memory, so you can easily give the Surface an extra 64GB of storage for music and movies (it doesn’t work for apps) for under £50.
On the wireless front, we have Bluetooth 4.0 and some impressive Wi-Fi N thanks to dual antennas. Unfortunately, there’s no 3G/4G version of Microsoft’s Surface (yet), a definite disadvantage compared to the iPad and some Windows RT rivals. NFC, as found on most premium Android tablets, doesn’t make the cut either, which is a real shame as it offers some neat current functionality and a lot of future potential.
Another niggle is that the aforementioned proprietary magnetic power connector is rather awkward. Where the Surface’s bottom keyboard connector pulls itself into place effortlessly (as does the similar MagSafe charging system used on Apple laptops), the power plug requires careful insertion which can be very fiddly. We hope this is something Microsoft will fix for the Surface Pro.
Here is something its rivals can’t offer: Microsoft’s Windows RT tablet has a kickstand. Now this might not sound like much, but keep in mind that most other (non-convertible) tabs need a case to stand upright on a table or desk, while with the Surface it’s part of the ‘bare’ package.
The kickstand extends the entire length of the device but is beautifully integrated. It will never open by accident, and it won’t snap closed unexpectedly either. Microsoft has put a lot of time and research into its mechanism, and it shows. Just make sure your fingertips are out of the way when you close it.
You can’t adjust the stand to various angles, but Microsoft has chosen a good 22-degree default (again, lots of research including reflection, ergonomics, desk height etc). With its ‘leg’ extended, the Surface is very stable on a flat… erm… surface and pretty secure on your lap. Its kickstand is an essential ingredient in how Microsoft’s tablet gels with its keyboard cover, which is yet another trump-card it holds over the Apple iPad/Google Nexus competition.
To go with Office on the software side, Microsoft also provides the hardware tools to make its Surface one of the most appealing tablets for productivity: optional keyboard covers. These are very similar to your average magnetic tablet cover, except they’re far more robust and secure, and you can also type on them –the Surface Type Cover even manages to squeeze physical keys into its svelte 5mm thinness.
We’ll get onto the typing experience these covers offer in a moment, but first let’s talk about the details. The bundled keyboard cover comes in black to match the tablet, though you can get the Touch Cover in Blue or White too. They latch onto the base of the Surface using a magnetic clasp that pulls the cover in smoothly and holds it so securely that you can dangle the tablet by its cover without worries. This is very impressive indeed.
Naturally, like any smart cover these Microsoft efforts turn the Surface tablet on or off when you open and close them. The good news continues: if you flip the cover back when it’s not in use, an accelerometer sensor ensures the keys will deactivate so that they don’t accidentally get ‘pressed’.
You can also fit the cover both ways around; so you can have the keyboard towards the front or, if you want to use it to protect the Surface’s back without the keys being visible, simply turn it and attach the other way - genius.
On their bottom, both black keyboard covers sport a felt-like material finish that was developed by Nike for its sports wear. It’s durable and anti-slip, keeping the tablet firmly in place on a smooth surface or sloping legs. From a design point of view it was quite divisive in the TR office, with some likening the material to carpet while others enjoyed its unique look and feel. Oddly, the blue and white Touch Covers don’t offer this finish on their bottom.
There’s no cover included with the £400 base Surface, and buying the Touch one bundled will set you back £480. That’s a decent saving considering the Touch Cover alone costs £100.
The Surface Type Cover is only available separately for £110. It offers nearly full-size keys with better action and layout than you would find on many laptop keyboards. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel as sturdy as a Touch and our model suffered from repeated unregistered keystrokes, especially if used on a lap rather than a desk.
For this and its 3mm thinness, we prefer the Touch Cover, whose typing experience pleasantly surprised us. Indeed, before we got some extensive time in with the Touch and the Type, we were convinced the Type Cover would be our favourite, but despite its lack of physical feedback and smaller ‘keys’, the Touch works flawlessly.
Laid out nicely, the Touch Cover’s ‘keys’ are raised with indents between them. They might not move, but confirmation is provided by the mere fact that you hit them, along with an unobtrusive sound from the Surface tablet. After some initial disorientation, we were typing blind at close to our regular speed within minutes.
Whether you hit a ‘key’ hard or gently it usually registers without fail, and we typed the first page of this review with only twelve typos caused by the cover rather than human error. Either way it’s quite simply the best typing experience we’ve yet come across on a tablet, and Windows RT’s virtual keyboard easily matches the best that Android and iOS have to offer too. It’s just a shame the Type Cover doesn’t work well on irregular surfaces.
The touchpads on both keyboard covers work superbly, being very responsive with support for multi-touch. Basically, aside from their small size they offer an identical experience to those on a laptop. Even the Touch Cover trackpad gives you distinct right and left click ‘buttons’.