Tech Lab

Surface tablet, Windows 8 may test users

Computers are supposed to be labor-saving devices. But a few days of using Windows 8, and I’m exhausted.

It’s partly my fault. I’ve tried to test every feature of Microsoft’s latest operating system. And I’ve tested this unfamiliar software on a new machine —Microsoft’s just released tablet computer, the Surface.

I could have run the Surface as a pure tablet computer, but where’s the challenge in that? By plugging in the optional keyboard and touchpad mouse, I effectively transformed the Surface into a PC with a touchscreen. That’s how most people will use Windows 8 in the years ahead, meaning that most people are in for an exhilarating, frustrating time.


Windows 8 is Microsoft’s effort to remain ­relevant in a world where many of us compute on the go. At its heart, it is an unspectacular upgrade to the company’s three-year-old Windows 7 software. But Microsoft has bolted on a radical user interface designed to create a consistent look and feel across the company’s entire product line, including its Windows Phone 8 smartphones and even the Xbox 360 gaming console. Each of these products now displays “live tiles” — gleaming rectangles that activate key features of the device and show information such as weather or news stories, constantly updated via the Internet.

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

The Windows 8 interface is designed for touch-controlled, portable tablets like the Surface and devices from manufacturers like Dell Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. But Windows 8 is also found on traditional laptops and desktops equipped with touch-sensitive screens. On these machines, you use a combination of mouse strokes, keystrokes, and screen strokes.

Sound confusing? That’s because it is. While using the Surface with a keyboard and mouse, I constantly had to re-learn how to perform simple actions, such as visiting a ­favorite website or modifying the settings on an application.

The Surface carries a $499 starting price, but the one I tested, with 64 gigabytes of memory and a keyboard, goes for $699. I also tested a better-quality keyboard, with springier keys, that costs an extra $119.99.

There are welcome goodies unavailable on Apple Inc.’s ­iPad: a “kickstand” to let you prop it up on a table; a micro­SD slot to add more memory; and a USB port that lets you plug in traditional PC devices, like printers, thumb drives, and — yes — a keyboard and mouse.


The Surface is not quite as snappy as the iPad’s: Apps sometimes seem a little slow to launch. But the relative handful of available apps are often lovely to look at and well designed. The device comes with very good news and weather apps. I also took a liking to the TuneInRadio app for streaming music, as well as Toolbox, a cool collection of mini-apps — clock, Web browser, calculator, Facebook reader, and more — that can be set to run simultaneously in different parts of the screen. Microsoft will not say how many Windows 8 apps there are, but claims to add hundreds every day. As a welcome bonus, the Surface includes a copy of Microsoft’s upcoming Office 2013 software at no extra charge.

But even as a a “pure” tablet, the Surface sends you back to school. The reliable Windows icon on the lower edge takes you right to the Start screen. But other controls are far less obvious. Want to run a search or change app settings? Stroke a finger against the right side of the screen. Want to see a list of recent apps run? Same stroke, left side. To kill an app, drag a finger from top to bottom. It takes a bit of practice.

Next, try it with a mouse, and prepare to be confused all over again. The same commands still work, but you’d better have the pointer aimed just right, or nothing happens. ­After a while, I gave up and just relied on the touchscreen. Surely that’s what Microsoft has in mind. The company insists that in a few years, we’ll all be using touchscreen monitors instead of mice.

This means there isn’t much reason to put Windows 8 on older computers. At just $39.99, it’s an inexpensive upgrade. But without a touchscreen, much of Windows 8’s appeal vanishes. Besides, installing one operating system on top of another is asking for trouble. I tried putting Windows 8 on a two-year-old Dell desktop, and now it crashes every 10 minutes.

With it freshly installed on Microsoft’s new tablet, I got much better results. Still, the constant fumbling with new features took a toll. It left me longing for the intuitive simplicity of the iPad, and sometimes even the mundane familiarity of Windows 7. I can’t help admiring Microsoft’s daring: Windows 8 and Surface are bold, innovative products. But using them is too much like work.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @Watha.