Its 10.6in IPS screen is probably the most controversial part of the Surface, thanks to the iPad, Nexus 10, Asus Transformer Infinity and other premium tablets eliminating those pesky pixels from sight with insanely high resolutions, a phenomenon Apple calls “Retina Display”. For its non-Pro Surface, however, Microsoft went with a ‘bog-standard’ 1,366 x 768 pixels (that’s around 148ppi).
However, it’s important not to make too much of this. Keep in mind that as recently as 2011, 1,366 x 768 was the standard resolution on laptops with screens as large as 16 inches, and generally the Surface’s display looks nice and sharp.
Text also appears clearer than on most tablet displays with a similar ppi, thanks to Microsoft’s ClearType fonts tech (which has been available in Windows since XP). This can access individual colour-stripe elements in every pixel to display text details a fraction of a pixel wide, smoothing out the appearance of fonts considerably. Naturally the iPad/Nexus/Transformer win out on sharpness but it’s not too dramatic.
Surface above, iPad below, showing the difference in aspect ratio
Contrast on the Surface’s screen is pretty good, with a lot of dark detail visible without compromising whites too much - here the Microsoft tab outperforms most rivals including the iPad. As with most premium tablets, viewing angles on the Microsoft Surface’s screen are pretty much flawless, and reflections are minimised by the display being a single layer, similar to the Cell screens found on recent high-end smartphones.
Combined with no noticeable backlight bleed and only slight lighting unevenness, this makes the Surface a great little tablet to watch movies on, where its 16:9 aspect ratio also comes into its own. However, we do really miss those extra vertical pixels for web-browsing and reading. Though it’s probably on the way out, 1,280 x 800 (or 1,920 x 1,200 if you’re talking Full HD plus) is still the tablet ideal in our books.
Let’s face it: most tablets sound rubbish. Some of them don’t even have stereo speakers, and with most that do you wouldn’t notice. It’s also often the case that holding the tablet in a certain way covers the speakers.
Thankfully, we’re seeing more and more tablets that are worth listening to, like the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 with its front-facing stereo efforts. Surface joins this crowd with some seriously impressive sound from its tiny side-facing speakers, positioned where you’re unlikely to accidentally cover them. Good volume, plenty of clarity and a decent mid-range mean we’d use these for entertainment in a pinch – just don’t expect them to match a laptop or earbud headphones.
Its specifications are probably the least exciting thing about the Microsoft Surface tablet. It sports a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor (though if we’re being accurate there are actually five cores thanks to a fifth ‘companion’ core for light use), specifically the T30 SKU where the four main cores run at 1.4GHz. This is the exact same chip found in the Asus Transformer Prime and only a small step up from the one used in the £150-ish Google Nexus 7, but it’s more than powerful enough for what is, after all, primarily a tablet.
Thanks to its 12 graphics cores you get decent 3D gaming performance, and Microsoft has backed the Tegra 3 SoC with 2GB of RAM which makes for smooth multi-tasking and gives a little wiggle-room to demanding applications. These specs will be identical on the first wave of Windows RT tablets from other brands that we’ve seen, meaning developers have a stable platform to work on.
On the storage front, as mentioned you can get the Surface with either 32GB or 64GB. There is no 16GB Surface, which makes sense as Windows RT and Office 2013 combined with the other pre-installed apps take up nearly 12GB. However, keep in mind that you can add extra storage for music, videos, pictures and documents using the microSD card slot, which officially supports 64GB cards and should work with 128GB models.
Being an ARM-architecture tablet, you would expect good battery life from the Surface, and it delivers. In a general usage test (productivity, gaming, and browsing, with Wi-Fi switched on half the time) its 35Whr battery managed a full 9-hour day with some left over.
We’ll come back with video results but, based on shorter tests, you should see similar figures when watching HD movies or TV shows. This is a good result and mostly competitive with the new iPad. However, it doesn’t begin to match what we can expect from convertible tablets with dual batteries, like the Acer Iconia W510 which claims up to 18hrs on a charge and runs ‘proper’ X86 Windows 8. It would be very interesting if Microsoft decided to get into the convertible game at some stage…