IS Microsoft Surface the Zune of tablets?

Monday, November 5, 2012 by Frogboy | Discussion: Personal Computing

I'm writing this with my brand-new Microsoft Surface.  The best way to describe it is that Surface is to tablets what the Zune was to music players. It's not terrible but the $500 device has nothing to recommend for it.

As a notebook device, it's certainly better than the iPad. It supports multiple users. It supports mice (and on-screen mouse cursors). In short, you could realistically use this device as a very very light work machine.  In theory. It comes with a Windows RT version of Office Preview which works adequately, if slowly.

Ironically, it's as a tablet where it falls down. I always assumed that the "Metro" experience would shine on a tablet. It doesn't. It's annoying and perplexing even there. Give me the option of having the charms bar up all the time and the specific app bar up all the time and it would be much more tolerable. I really don't like having to swipe at the screen in just the right way to get options to display. Getting around the Metro experience is a chore, even as a touch device.

It's very frustrating, at times, to navigate around Metro. I'm still new with I accidentally closed my editor because I was trying to switch to another tab (Which you do by swiping down from the top and selecting the tab). However, if you swipe too far down, it closes the app. Bam. Gone. 

What's worse is the app selection is pitiful. Don't even think about using Office apps as a pure tablet. It's very frustration trying to use what is clearly a Win32 port with a touch screen. It does much better once you've sat down, hooked up a mouse, and started working with a real keyboard. The situation with Modern UI apps (which I'm just going to keep calling Metro) is even worse. The included ones are slow. Very slow. I also couldn't find decent third party apps that I'd use. If there's a Pulse/Flipboard quality RSS reader for WinRT I haven't found it yet. There just isn't that much to do with it.

The form factor also makes it an awkward tablet. It's very long (or wide, depending on how you look at it). It's also quite heavy. Too heavy to want to use as a tablet for an extended period of time.

Getting more apps for it is also painful. The Windows Store is terrible. As anyone who has used Windows 8's store knows, it's an assault on the eyes. Lots of multi colored blocks that tell you nothing about the app. It's just very hard to find things.

The Unopening:

Here's my friend Paul (former guest on trying it out.

Just a few points to take home from this from my notes:

The Bad:

  1. Note Facebook app
  2. No bundled Twitter app
  3. No bundled RSS app
  4. Apps load extremely slow
  5. Very hard to navigate around
  6. Too easy to unload things entirely
  7. Too heavy to use for an extended period of time as a plain tablet
  8. It's ergonomically inferior as a tablet
  9. The Office port is embarrassingly half-assed
  10. Lack of app selection makes it hard to justify using vs. an iPad or Android device.
  11. UI usability lacks a lot of polish, awkward to use at times
  12. You cannot use this as a laptop (the stand requires a desk)

The Good:

  1. The mouse and on screen cursor is a huge win.
  2. It's actually a pretty decent notebook PC if you buy the upgraded keyboard.
  3. The screen isn't bad.

Overall, for $599 it's not a bad little notebook PC. But I can't imagine why anyone would want to use this as a tablet versus its competitors unless you have some specific enterprise need for multiple users and superior security.

  Hardware: B
  Software: D


I am really digging the form factor. It's replaced my MacBook Air for light computing. But it's pretty mediocre as a tablet. It's a light PC.

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Reply #21 Tuesday, November 6, 2012 4:06 AM

Depends on one's line of work. In medicine, the iPad is used extensively. No one I know with one would change it for a Surface.

Also, I don't see any business going in the direction of Windows 8 and Surfaces.

Reply #22 Tuesday, November 6, 2012 6:08 PM

Pauls run with Surface makes clear that this tablet, and tablet OS is not for me. Thanks for sharing. i've watched a variety of user vids. This last one caps off a final decision to avoid this tablet. As well the cons list against win8 grows. i seek increased efficiency and productivity. This set-up is not for me.. despite a powerful motivation for the external pointer input. 

Reply #23 Wednesday, November 7, 2012 3:22 AM

I'll get that too.

I had a brief look at the RT a little bit ago, and kind of shrugged it off.  Too big for a tablet, too slow for a Notebook, too expensive for a gimmick. 

The Pro model, however, is something special.  It's powerful enough to be used as a work horse.  It won't out-do your Desktop in terms of performance, but you could do some light coding on it.  It's what I'm waiting for - it's basically what Windows 8 was designed for.

Reply #24 Wednesday, November 7, 2012 12:12 PM

In medicine, the iPad is used extensively.

The only knocks on it are Apple's failure to enable general printing from the device and the lack of a Dragon-like voice transcription function.  It is otherwise a perfect device for the exam room.  A desktop or notebook remains necessary, but the iPad at least works as a highly useful complementary device on which many routine exam room tasks can be accomplished.

The ability to print is the only, repeat only, feature of the Surface that will result in any medical eyebrows being lifted in its direction.

Reply #25 Wednesday, November 7, 2012 8:40 PM

Using my surface to write this. In refinement, its an iPad 1. But its a pretty decent notebook.

Reply #26 Wednesday, November 7, 2012 9:03 PM

Surface is a tablet is it not? By definition a notebook has a DVD-RW drive unless it's an ultrabook.

Reply #27 Thursday, November 8, 2012 3:44 AM

Surface is a tablet is it not? By definition a notebook has a DVD-RW drive unless it's an ultrabook.



please provide a source for that  definition.

i guess the first iMacs were not desktop computers then as they did not come with floppy drives.

Reply #28 Thursday, November 8, 2012 8:08 AM

The W8 Pro Surface should be a full blown "notebook" substitute... but at the rumored $1,000 plus, is it really worth it?


Reply #29 Thursday, November 8, 2012 9:52 AM

Quote reply 17....

    Why not expand the use of the mouse pad. On a laptop, over the keyboard area, let it be a touch screen similar to Icars. If they can do it on the screen itself why not on a keyboard like device. Touch an icon to open a folder or start an app the same way you do it with a mouse. Sysmetrix does it with an enter/exit option, just mouse over it. They should be able to make a simple touch pad that can do that.

Reply #30 Thursday, November 8, 2012 2:04 PM

If I was going to buy a Windows tablet at this point it'd be the x86 version (not that I currently have the cash, but anyway.)

Probably a Z-60 build since it looks like CloverTrail stuff is going to be absolute crap and the Core i5/7 models are too rich for my blood.

The ARM version quite frankly isn't ready yet to play with the big boys.  I expect it to be upgraded and much better in the space of a year to eighteen months.

I can't say I'm surprised given its their first ARM build, but I admit to being disappointed.

Reply #31 Friday, November 9, 2012 2:32 AM


Quoting DrJBHL, reply 6The Surface is no bargain... An iPad 4 apparently is quite a bit better, according to Chris Pirillo.

The iPad 4 doesn't come with Office, can't be hooked up to a mouse and used as a regular notebook PC.

and who in their right mind would use a tablet as a workplatform? One thing is for sure, send your kids to study ophthalmology, it's going to be a booming business.

Not to speak of the RSI victims, with f'd up shoulders joint, neck problems from the repeated switching from screen to keyboard.

A tablet is a gadget bought by the masses at christmas and such. After that they play games on it. The salesfigures are hugely inflated with such sales. 


Reply #32 Friday, November 9, 2012 2:45 AM


I use a stylus... works fine.hmm this got me thinkin down a broader tangent.. i wonder about the effects of Metro on the evolution of external pointing devices. PCs merge towards ever smaller form. Legacy pointing schemes are not well suited for the apparent future of Mobile and Disconnected computing. But touchscreen computing dont cut it either. Has big and wide use, but far short of universal. [i'd love a big screen attached to a multi-position drafting table. Before which i would stand and have full range of motion and gesture. For me it would be art with a little design, and some amateur engineering and architecture, and brainstorming sessions and educational safaris and more. oh man the magic and speed/performance of that level of interface put to inspired and motivated use, makes me hard thinking of it]

Seems like could be ..with some capital and talent making it so. 


You would do well to study up on ergonomics, and keep in mind that people have to use these gadgets on daily basis for hours. Even with desktop computers many people suffer from various afflictions resulting from the use. 

If you scale all that down, everything harmful gets scaled up. I wrote this in 1992, it's still valid:

             The Ergonomics of Graphical User Interfaces revealed   


Sometimes it can happen that a group of people accepts a basic concept on a false premise, and from that basic concept they evolve a complete belief system, surreal in its nature but thoroughly convincing in its logic. In the course of the world's history we have seen, mostly to our detriment, the consequences of such blindly following the path of logic. 

Such a situation seems to be happening concerning the total acceptation of the Graphical User Interface, or GUI for short, as a valid ergonomical solution to computer use. What is this basic concept? Well that is a rather long story, too long to fully discuss here but in its essentials it goes something like this:

the rest:



Reply #33 Saturday, November 10, 2012 8:44 AM

the rest:

Link's a dud.

Reply #34 Saturday, November 10, 2012 12:04 PM

petrossareply 32the rest: Link's a dud.


 Works fine, it's a standard dropbox link.

Here is the integral text then:

             The Ergonomics of Graphical User Interfaces revealed  


Sometimes it can happen that a group of people accepts a basic concept on a false premise, and from that basic concept they evolve a complete belief system, surreal in its nature but thoroughly convincing in its logic. In the course of the world's history we have seen, mostly to our detriment, the consequences of such blindly following the path of logic.


Such a situation seems to be happening concerning the total acceptation of the Graphical User Interface, or GUI for short, as a valid ergonomical solution to computer use. What is this basic concept? Well that is a rather long story, too long to fully discuss here but in its essentials it goes something like this:


Mankind is mostly visually oriented. He appraises his position in the world based for the largest part on visual stimuli, supported by the other senses. So one smart kid some while back thought, if mankind is visually oriented then his interaction with the computer should also be visually oriented so to best fit with his natural inclinations.


Also the visual cortex of the human brain is very highly developed, with an enormous visual memory capacity. It all stands to reason then, let's make an computer interface mainly based on visual entities, graphical representations of the functions man wants his computer to execute.


This is the basic premise of the Graphical User Interface. So what's wrong with this premise? Well several things are wrong with it; let's start from the input of the visual information: the eye.


The human eye has a natural resting point which puts its focus at a few yards in front of the eye, which we inherited from the old days when man was a hunter/gatherer and mostly focused in the distance. In order to focus close by the muscles controlling the lens need to be constantly active so looking intensely at a computer screen puts enormous strain on the eye.


The next problem we encounter is that of color images. The eye is best fitted for black/white perception, that is black/white contrast. Because when trying to differentiate between the contrasts, black/white contrast requires the least amount of energy level differences for the eye to react. Apart from the biological reasons (the retina of the eye reacts to white light stronger then to colored light) it is simple physics which demonstrates that the difference between no photons coming in (black) and photons of almost all visible frequencies all at once coming in (white light) is a much stronger stimulus then differences between photons of the separate frequencies of color.


So the eye has an easier job seeing black background/white foreground then color/color or even black/color. Because the difference between energy levels of black/white can be so small, obviously since seeing the difference between no light and some light is easy, the image presented to the eye in black/white needs less contrast. Which in its turn is more restful to the eye. In short, color images are less ergonomical then black/white images.


In order for the brain to correctly recognize pictures or forms it needs to scan them at an intense rate, so to give the pattern recognition modules of the brain the chance to make heads or tails of it. This is a very complex and energy consuming process, since the brain dissolves the picture in distinct angles of lines to make a sample for the recognition modules. Having finally recognized the picture as an picture, it then needs to link the visual information to the (let's call it) main memory banks of the brain to elicit a response to the picture. Then in order to make the picture aware to us, the language interpretation module needs to link it to the words describing the picture so we can form the conscious description of the picture.


All in all in a very lengthy, complex and extremely energy hungry process, just to be able to interact with a computer, so in its basic concept directly opposed to the principles of ergonomics.


A more efficient way is to offer the brain letters, which get recognized more easily, as they are less random in their patterns. Furthermore, the letters themselves directly elicit a response from the language interpretation module, thus cutting out the whole lengthy route of visual interpretation, thereby saving a lot of energy and as such very much in touch with ergonomical use of the brains resources.


Then we come to the windows concept of GUI's. It is a simple fact that the more cluttered a picture, the harder it is to find that part you're interested in. The best way to present data, is to present only that information which at that point in time is what you need. Pretty looking windows, with action lines filled with nice little colored pictures, making no real sense in themselves is about the most un-ergonomical way of presenting data one could possibly imagine.


Then we get to the next point in question, the pointing device. A must for a GUI, with it's basically random access method. For discussions sake we'll concentrate on the mouse, most often used as a means to access the GUI. Mouse movements require an enormous amount of brain power, as the hand/eye coordination is one of the most difficult processes the brain can be burdened with.


Not only does the brain constantly has to update the visual information of the target, it also has to calculate the movement of the hand controlling the mouse. This also is directly opposed to the principles of ergonomics. A more efficient way is using key sequences, such alt-f1 or crtl-f2. These movements are not random, but always the same (on the same keyboard obviously) Therefore they get hardcoded into the brainstem, where all other repeatable movements are stored as distinct neural patterns. Walking, driving a car, swimming all are stored there.


This has the big advantage that the brain needs not be conscious of the actual process of moving the hand, it just needs to activate the correct pattern and let the pattern run its course. This is an enormous energy saver and as such is also very much in touch with ergonomical use of the brains resources.


Summing up the best possible way of presenting data to a human:

A black background with a white foreground, with the least possible contrast, only letters and numbers, with the least possible amount of irrelevant data onscreen and a keyboard controlled input.


What is a GUI?


A colorful image with lots of contrasts, pictures letters and numbers mixed, with an enormous amount of irrelevant data onscreen with an mix of mouse and keyboard controlled input. Where does all this leads us to? Well, not to immediately dump all GUI's. There are a number of special circumstances where a GUI does offer distinct advantages over a character based interface. However it is advisable to first look at the task you want the computer to do for you, and on that basis decide which interface will best suit your needs. One thing is clear though, when an application is in itself character oriented, such as for example most forms of data-entry and word-processing, then a character based interface will be the best choice. This being about 70% of corporate computer use, the current trend in corporate computing towards GUI's is somewhat ill advised and will in the end lead to diminished returns on their investments.


And what's even more important, will cause the regular user unnessecary strain when using the computer and cause a higher instance of sick leave. Much has been said recently about Video stress, theories abound on the causes of such an infliction, from ELF radiation to bad seating arrangements. It can be easily demonstrated however, just by the enormous amount of different symptoms, that video stress is a composed affliction, combining the effects of bad seating arrangements, overhead lighting with fluorescent lights, a badly designed user interface and irritating software, and monotonous work.


Nowadays much attention gets put into diminishing the effects of most of those factors,

( for example in the Netherlands just recently a law was passed  which makes it illegal to work more than two hours at time with a Video Display Unit. This obviously misses the point, since it is not the Video Display Unit which causes stress but what is (and how it is) displayed on it. Research has shown most radiation (if any) extends towards the sides       and back of a VDU, so the safest place is right in front of it. But at       least it diminishes the time spent getting frustrated by the software so     it should help somewhat.)


but it is rather strange to see that exactly the opposite gets done int he case of the user interface by introducing GUI's on the workplace! In conclusion one could say the age old error gets made all over again, where we confuse sensual satisfaction (pretty pictures) with what is good for us. As in alcohol and other drugs the gratification gained by this sensual stimulation can't be held against the detrimental effects. This process also can be brought back to brain function whereby the limbic system, which controls amongst other functions our emotions, takes over and controls our thinking processes to such a degree we can't decide on a rational basis but just on an emotional basis.


Which would be just fine if you want to fall in love, but is somewhat less helpful if you want to make a decision which influences your daily work. What's even more unfortunate however, is that the link between harmfull effect and chemical substances is easily proven, but in the case of video stress will be somewhat harder to do. Which makes that we'll all have to suffer headaches, being tired every day, lack of concentration, not being as fast in our reactions, diminished tolerance of mental pressures, irritability, disturbed sleep, pains in back and neck, rapidly diminishing eyesight, mood changes and most other vague but none the less disturbing psychosomatic complaints for some time to come yet .For those interested included is this short literature listing, which covers most points discussed here:

M.S. Gazangia, The social Brain,D.C. Dennet, Brainstorms,J.A. Fodor, The modularity of the mind,A.D. Baddely, The psychology of memory,R.W. Brown, Phonetic symbolism in natural languages,T.N. Cornsweet, Visual Perception,P.   Davies, An effective paradigm for conditioning visual perception,W.N. Dember, Psychology of perception,N.F. Dixon, Subliminal perception,J.J. Gibson, The ecological approach to visual perception,P   Geert, Transparent self-reference and the structure of perceptual                   awareness,L.M. Hurvich, An opponent process theory of color vision,P.D. Maclean, The limbic system in relation to central gray and reticulum              of the brain stem,F.   Jacob, The possible and the actual,S.E Micheals, QWERTY versus alphabetical keyboards as a function of typing               

Reply #35 Saturday, November 10, 2012 12:34 PM

All is not well in the land of the Surface...


Reply #36 Saturday, November 10, 2012 1:27 PM




Excellent write-up; and vaguely familiar.  You have an extremely acute sense of awareness, thanks for sharing.  Forwarded around to colleagues.

Reply #37 Saturday, November 10, 2012 7:50 PM in 1992 you had to do a thesis for school....

Strange that after all that scholastic endeavour it took you 16 years to get to one of THE centres of modern GUI development.

Your premise is that a GUI interface is inefficient and/or effort-intensive....yet much of it is no different to reading and/or watching television.

Perhaps we should all give up those too....cut up all the words of the book.....insert into a syringe and hot-shot them directly into a vein.

Much more efficient ergonomics.

MOST of a modern Computer system's SHELL was developed thanks to the humble office stenographer's typewriter keyboard, not some clandestine attempt to make it as badly/wrong as humanly possible.

And earlier interfaces were via binary punch cards.....been there...done that...and it was as CLUNKY as you can get....but so was a computer.

GUI skinning has long been misconstrued as gilding a lilly ....'oh it looks purdy but it's the same old shit' when so much of it is also altering methodology of SHELL interaction.

A guy called LoneRunnr decided one day....[close to the time you were writing your Tome]  that the Explorer SHELL [GUI] could be bettered and did so.  It was called Litestep and is probably THE most successful FULL-Shell replacement as it enabled the [competent] user to adopt any sort of GUI manipulation possible within the constraints of hardware.

The reality of human ergonomics and anthropomorphics is a long-established symbiotic relationship between the human eye and the human hand.

If a 'GUI' does not accept and adopt that REALITY it is both NOT a 'GUI' and doomed to fail.

Thought control and manipulating a computer whilst dreaming is always going to be that.....



Reply #38 Saturday, November 10, 2012 8:23 PM

I find it off-putting that the best MS has.. can bollocks something up so badly. Windows 8 UI, this tablet, I could go on for a while...

Reply #39 Saturday, November 10, 2012 9:12 PM

My main laptop is a ThinkPad X1-Carbon (the brand new one)


How does Fallen Enchantress run on that thing? 

Reply #40 Sunday, November 11, 2012 12:49 PM

All is not well in the land of the Surface...


Yeah they said the Nexus 7 wasn't perfect too.

Well, someone did.  Practically noone actually knew what the hell they were talking about.

Probably the same thing.  A few people have issues and blow it out of proportion.

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