As posted on Technology news, comment and analysis | guardian.co.uk
There are trade-offs and compromises to be made with both tablets – not least with the Apple product’s display
A couple of hours after landing in San Francisco from Paris, I find myself setting up two new tablets: a Microsoft Surface and an iPad mini. While on the road, I had read much on both products and felt reasonably well prepared for the tasks.
This proved correct. But the product experience was another thing.
First, the Surface: unpack, plug in, boot up, no problem. The magnetic touch keyboard and power adapter latch onto the tablet-PC without ado, the machine’s launch is a breeze: I answer a few simple questions, enter my Hotmail credentials and I’m in business… sort of.
In order to get a taste for the full Surface experience, I fire up Word 2013 (included with the tablet) to write this Monday Note. Not so slick, the keyboard and touchpad aren’t very helpful. When I ordered the Surface, I chose the slim $119.99 Touch Cover combo rather than the thicker $129.99 Type Cover. Building a keyboard into a protective cover is a great idea, but, as the name implies, the Touch version doesn’t have a real keyboard. Instead, you have to work with an unsatisfying, felt-like surface without tactile feedback. For “real” typing, I need the “real” Type Cover. I’m off to Stanford’s Microsoft Store to correct my expensive mistake.
Keyboard problem solved, I hit another snag. While Word 2013 does a good job zooming using a two-finger touch, the Control Panel and other essential parts of Windows RT are (barely) touch-enabled retreads from Windows 7; they ignore your zoom. I discover this when I need to type accented characters such é or ñ, characters that, of course, don’t appear on the keyboard. Normally, this isn’t a problem; go to the Windows Control Panel, select the English International keyboard as the input mode, and you’re set. You type ~ followed by n to get ñ.
But how does this actually work in the reimagined Windows RT? I fumble around and finally find my old friend, the Control Panel:
From there, I go to Clock, Language, and Region, pop open the Input Method menu… and select the wrong mode. Because of the lack of zoom, picking the right option in a list a game of chance. You need the sanded fingertips Steve Jobs famously derided when asked about smaller tablets.
If I use the Touch Cover trackpad instead of directly touching the Control Panel on the ironically named Surface screen, things improve dramatically: My fat fingers now become delicate. This might explain why Microsoft insists on selling a keyboard with its Surface tablet. Without one, in my admittedly limited experience, it’s not quite useable.
Then there’s the UI formerly known as Metro. In the current state of Windows 8 and Windows RT, it’s only skin-deep: Using Office apps or modifying system settings quickly calls up the old Windows 7 UI. It’s not the end of the world, the UI will evolve with future versions but, in the meantime, the much-hyped Surface tablet cum PC feels far from polished and consistent. And the no-less-touted reimagination of Windows doesn’t go much deeper than the very neat and imaginative UI on its… surface.
At least the vaunted Surface kickstand works quite well… although only in landscape mode, and, even then, only if you’re sitting. If you type while standing or want landscape mode, forget the kickstand.
I’ll keep using the product in personal writing and presentations to make sure I’m not missing some killer feature. In the meantime, I’d be interested to know if Steve Ballmer or Microsoft board members use a Surface tablet rather than a MacBook Air running Windows 8, a truly excellent combination in my own paid-for experience.
On to the iPad mini.
Like its forebears – and its current competitors – setup is fast and easy. If you already have an iPad or an iPhone backed-up in iCloud, everything syncs and downloads nicely.
But what about the “mini” part?
I bought a Nexus 7 when it came out and liked the fact I could pocket it, whether in jeans or in jacket. The iPad mini is larger than the Nexus, slightly more than half an inch (14.7mm) wider. Still, the “mini” will fit inside the front pocket of most jeans. Unfortunately, it’s too tall for most shallower back pockets, but it’ll fit nicely in outside jacket and topcoat pockets (as measured in this 2 August 2009 Monday Note where I hoped for a pocketable Apple tablet) – and doctors’ and nurses’ lab coats…
Regardless of how you carry it, the iPad mini’s hardware is neatly detailed. It’s thin and light and the “aluminium”, as Sir Jonathan Ive rightly pronounces it in the Queen’s English, works well with the white front bezel. The (stereo) speakers sound good although, to my ears, they’re surprisingly no better or louder than the latest iPhone’s, themselves a marked improvement over earlier generations.
Turning to the screen, I agree with the many who are less than thrilled with the mini’s display. I think this is the result of a compatibility decision: the mini has the same number of pixels (1024 by 768) as the iPad 2, but at a higher density (163 pixels per inch v the original 132 ppi). With the same pixel count as the iPad 2, all apps run unchanged, their screen rendition is just smaller. The visual experience isn’t as pleasant as on the iPad 2 itself, let alone the iPad “3” and its higher pixel density display.
When you read a Kindle or iBook novel, a magazine such as Bloomberg Businessweek, or the NY Times on your iPhone, the content isn’t simply the iPad version squeezed to fit into the phone’s tiny display. These applications reformat their content, they adapt to be legible… no squinting, no eye strain. Let’s hope these apps will be updated to make better use of the iPad mini screen, as opposed to offering squished iPad 2 rendering.
(We’ve also read the complaints that the mini isn’t a “Retina” device…but on this topic, I must recuse myself: I’ve twice mistaken an iPad 2 for the higher resolution device. Last spring, as I had just gotten a new high-resolution iPad, at Soho’s Les Amis bistro, I watched a gentleman at the next table flip through beautiful pictures on his iPad. I leaned over and asked how he liked his new iPad “3”. ‘What? No, it’s last year’s iPad 2…”
A few days later in Paris, I reset my iPad 2 in order to hand it to my mother-in-law, a replacement for the MacBook Air that was giving her – and me – headaches. Oops, I actually reset my new Retina iPad, mistaking it for the older iPad 2. No harm done, the iCloud backup resuscitated my new tablet.)
So, which of these two devices will enjoy the brighter future? The “inadequacy” of the mini’s screen quality is an issue – and could become a problem as both Android and Amazon ecosystems keep improving (and continue to undercut Apple’s prices). But I think the improved portability (size, weight), the elegant design and material quality, plus the instant compatibility with the hundreds of thousands of iPad apps will count for a lot.
As for the future of Microsoft’s Surface, as Peter Bright (a noted Microsoft analyst) concludes in his review of Redmond’s new tablet, it really needs a keyboard and pointing device in order to be usable with Office applications. This makes a good case for Apple’s decision to keep laptops and tablets separate, freeing each to do what it does best.