A closer look at how Microsoft’s Surface range really delivers

My preference is to write about tech that I use - an attitude shared with my colleagues. We like to get hands-on and write with authority, from experience. That's one reason I write so little about Microsoft now, not being immersed in the company's products. Lately, mine is the Google lifestyle.

But this week I started using the original Surface - the one frequently maligned by critics for so-called limitations associated with Windows RT. This is my first experience with the tablet, although I reviewed and frankly loved Surface Pro. Out-of-the-box impressions are great. This is a hugely satisfying tablet, and surely the experience is better with its successor. I was right on the money with my article published last weekend: The case in favour of Microsoft's Surface 2 tablet.

Lifestyle choice

Computing is no longer about specs but lifestyle. Major platform providers Apple, Google, and Microsoft sell digital lifestyles around their products. Amazon, Samsung, and Sony do likewise with devices and services built on top of customised, third-party operating systems. The Amazon Way will look loads more interesting if next week's new product is a smartphone, as speculated.

Microsoft and Google share something in common that sets them apart from Apple: Value. Both companies are steeped in traditions of delivering more for less cost to the consumer. The big G gives away valuable stuff for free, profiting from related information. Microsoft licenses or sells things, striving for quality at low cost. By contrast, Apple attaches big prices to high-quality goods, putting profits - and high margins with them - first. Google and Microsoft want everyone to use their products. Apple does not.

I am often baffled why Microsoft receives so much criticism on the Internet compared to Apple. All three Surface generations demonstrate attention to stunning design, fine details, quality construction, and value. They look and feel good, but cost less than Apple tabs. Consider Surface 2 and iPad Air. The Microsoft tablet comes in three configurations: $449 or £359 in the UK (32GB), $549/£439 (64GB), or $679/£539 (64GB LTE). Comparable iPad Air: $599 or £479 in the UK (32GB), $699/£559 (64GB), or $829/£659 (64GB LTE). Both tablets are capable enough laptop replacements, with bright, HD screens - 10.6in and 9.7in, respectively.

Microsoft Store

But my focus today isn't the new but the old. Besides the value seen on the newest tabs, Microsoft offers even more in the older model through the company's retail store in the US. Honestly, if you don't shop Microsoft Store, you really should. Sale prices are often exceptional. Some of the best in-store discounts apply to older products.

In April, I praised the often overlooked value of Microsoft tablets, asserting: "Surface, Surface 2, or the original Surface Pro offer tremendous value for what Microsoft sells them for. I may buy one myself, when budget allows". Budget doesn't allow, but there is need. The ophthalmologist treats me for non-diabetic macular edema, which makes reading or writing nearly impossible. It's the major reason my posting is so light and why this article, like other recent ones, is untypically disjointed; I don't back-edit as is my habit.

I have two eBook projects stalled because of the eye malady, and I delayed needed updates to three others. Two of the major booksellers I use - Amazon is one of them - prefer Microsoft Word submissions. That's something I could do, with some hardship, without ever using the application. But with my vision a mess, I can't trust anything less than the real deal. So I bought the original Surface, refurbished, from Microsoft Store - 64GB, with Office and Windows RT 8.1 installed, for $219 (£130) plus tax. I purchased a Touch Cover from Amazon for $53 (£31). Total cost: $287 (£170).

Apple's lowest-cost refurb deal is the ancient iPad 2, with 16GB RAM, for $249 (£148). Both companies offer 1-year warranties, but by most measures that matter, Surface is the better bargain. Construction and design are superior, there is a kickstand and optional keyboard cover, and Windows RT is kilometres closer to a real desktop operating system compared to iOS.

Better than new

As expressed three years ago, I am a big fan of refurbished tech, which should not be confused with open-box returns. The differences are chilling. I first wrote about refurbs for CNET News in November 2000. I contend that almost new is typically better than new, because companies often sell refurbished devices at a loss. Refurb returns mean greater losses and create dissatisfied customers. Be assured then, that manufacturer-refreshed is as good as, or even better than new, for a steep discount.

The tips I gave three years ago for PCs equally apply to smartphones and tablets. I present them, updated:

1. "Open-box" is not the same as "refurbished". I never buy open-box items and discourage everyone else from doing so. Open-box is a total "buyer beware" situation. You don't know with whom that device slept, so to speak, and probably don't want to know. Warranties are typically negligible, from none to as much as three months. Open-box items often are missing something, and I've seen few deals that warrant the risk.

2. Check to see if the product was refurbished or is new (i.e. cancelled order or overstock). You should know exactly what you're buying and from that assess how good are the savings. Generally speaking, refurbs should cost less than overstocks or cancelled orders. But don't complain if a manufacturer offers a deeper discount on a new system.

3. When buying from a store, find out where that refurb came from. Was it returned to the store and refreshed, or did it come refurbished from the manufacturer? I recommend manufacturer refurbs over retailer. In the case of my Surface, the Microsoft Store staffer said that there was defect caught before the tablet left the factory - fixed, of course.

4. Warranty should be the same for refurbished models as new ones. If not, particularly if 30-90 days compared to 12 months, buy from somebody else. If the manufacturer won't back the device like it's new, the refurb isn't as good as new. My Surface came with a 1-year warranty, but Microsoft doesn't offer its attractive extended coverage package on refurbs.

5. There should be comparable return policy. Any refurb sold "as is" with no returns isn't worth your money. Make sure the store's return policy for refurbs is the same as new. While I contend that refurbs are as good as, or even better than, new, some devices were bad from the start and aren't getting better. The manufacturer doesn't really want to sell a lemon, and you most certainly shouldn't buy it.

Pleasantly pleasing

Having used Surface Pro and read so much negative criticism about the original RT model, I didn't expect much when starting up my refurb. Complaints vary from sluggish performance to the closed ecosystem (Windows Store apps and Internet Explorer-only). Caring only about Word, none of these things concerned me.

So I was surprised at how good the user experience actually is. Surface feels fast enough to me, and the experience switching between Desktop and Modern UI isn't as jarring as I recall from using Surface Pro. Maybe it's my crummy eyesight, the differences between Windows versions, or ways Microsoft improved version 8.1 overall.

What most surprises me about performance is the comparison to Chrome OS. Google's operating system running on HP Chromebook 11 isn't as good, and I would expect Windows - carrying decades of bloat - to be the sluggard. Both devices use ARM processors, which in my testing don't deliver as impressive a user experience as x86.

Surface user experience is otherwise comparable to Chromebook, but with apps running locally, free Office 2013 RT, touchscreen, tablet functionality, and considerably greater brightness. HP Chromebook 11 is 300-nit, but the majority of Chrome OS laptops are just 200-nit. Surface is 400-nit, and beautifully bright. Screen resolution, 1366 x 768, is the same for both devices in the same price and display-size class (around 11in). The refurb Surface I bought is better all-around value compared to even a new HP Chromebook 11.

I am one of the few fans of Modern UI. I like the motif's fluidity and liveliness. Microsoft's content presentation - from Bing to news to weather and more - easily exceeds anything Apple or Google deliver in Android or iOS, respectively.

Since I last used Windows, Microsoft has really tightened up cloud integration. Office saves to OneDrive, for example, but in a manner that is obvious and understandable - something I can't say about Pages on OS X. The approach feels more like Google Drive on Chrome OS, where to the user there really is little difference between local and cloud storage.

Based on how much I enjoy the original Surface, I must wonder about the successor, which packs a higher-resolution screen among other benefits.

Summer sojourn

My stronger attention turns to Surface Pro 3 (pictured above), with its larger 12in display and Microsoft rightly positioning the tablet against Apple MacBook Air - by marketing and pricing. I don't think many people "get" the price positioning and why it matters in relationship to diminishing OEM competition, while confronting OS X/iOS devices head to head.

As previously expressed, Surface 2 costs less than iPad Air, and what about Pro 3? The 64GB model with i3 processor starts at $799 (£639 is the UK price), or $929 (£749) with keyboard cover, or $979 (£794) when also adding the stylus. MacBook Air, with 128GB storage, starts at $899 (£749 in the UK). Actually, the Apple is more affordable comparably, but there is no touchscreen and the display resolution is lower. Fully outfitted, the 128GB Surface Pro 3 costs $1,179 (£1,004 in the UK) compared to $1,099 (£899) for the 256GB MacBook Air.

Microsoft's newest tablet marks an aggressive and risky push into the premium PC market, where Apple commands overwhelming market share. Buyers willing to spend more for better benefits build brand awareness, and that's something Microsoft really needs right now. Value is still the priority but with an emphasis on bang rather than bucks. Surface 2 is for people who are after a quality, handsome device, but who also want to pay less.

Three summers ago, I made Chromebook my primary PC, and the experience led me to eventually switch digital lifestyles - from Apple and Microsoft to Google. I wanted to do something similar with Surface Pro 3, to see if the tablet really can replace a laptop. Earlier this week, I contacted Microsoft PR asking about a review unit. None are available, and that's understandable. My colleague Brian Fagioli has the 12in tablet on loan.

I encourage him to take the summer sojourn instead, to embark on a Microsoft lifestyle journey starting with Surface Pro 3 as anchor. Honestly, with my eyesight so terrible right now, I shouldn't be the prime sojourner, much as I might wish to be. For now, my journey is the original Surface, which so far satisfies in ways I couldn't imagine a week ago.

Image Credit: Joe Wilcox