Swiping in from the right brings up several buttons including ones for searching, changing settings or returning to the start screen. When you first set up the device, an explanatory graphic pops up to walk you through it. You hold the device with both hands and the screen lengthwise, and you do the swiping with your thumbs. This is very different from the idea of holding the tablet with one hand and touching it with the other, which Apple’s iPad seems to favor.
Swiping down from the top lets you either discard an app completely (by swiping through the bottom of the screen) or create a split screen for multitasking (by pushing the app to the left or right until it snaps in place). Swiping up from the bottom brings up app-specific options.
The problem is swiping in from the left. When you do so, it takes you back to the previous app you had open. I was impressed with how snappy the tablet was flipping between programs.
But I got confused sometimes with websites. I wanted to go back a page, not leave the app completely. The difference between these two functions is swiping in from beyond the edge or swiping in from just near it. I often found myself in places in applications without knowing how to return easily.
Also, if you swipe back through apps quickly, you can zip past the one you want, but you can’t swipe forward to return to it. As a stopgap, you can swipe in slightly and then back out of the left side to get a list of previous apps. But this is not really intuitive and you have to be careful to touch the one you want when the list comes up.
This painstaking learning takes some of the fun out of having a tablet and makes it maddening to use at times.
Another quirk: The standard font was quite small, forcing me to hunch close to the screen to get a good look. You can scale up the size of everything in the desktop world, but not elsewhere. A function called Magnifier helps make small parts of the screen bigger, but at low resolution. And certain apps let you spread and pinch with your fingers to zoom in and out, but other apps don't. The lack of consistency makes the touch interface less enjoyable.
One other niggling complaint: Even though the screen size should make for perfect widescreen viewing in the 16:9 aspect ratio common for widescreen television, some Netflix movies with wider ratios continued to be shown with big black bars on top and bottom of the screen, wasting valuable screen space.
One big thing Microsoft got right was music. Xbox Music gives you a really clean interface, with beautiful moving graphics, and a ‘‘Smart DJ’’ feature, which plays entire songs in rotation in a genre — much like Pandora. You can also play songs or albums from a catalog of millions; it’s free, with ads. In rare cases, you may get only 30-second previews because of licensing reasons, but those songs are also available for purchase from the app.
I liked how Xbox Music plays in the background. When you toggle the physical volume rocker, a little box with pause, forward and back buttons pops up in a corner and fades away quickly. That works with whatever happens to be using the speakers, including iHeart Radio. It allowed me to easily catch up on the morning’s news and my email inbox at the same time.
Smart Glass, a feature that allows the Surface and other Windows devices to interact with the Xbox, was interesting but at times confusing. For instance, when I tried swiping through a menu of available videos, games and Xbox apps, I swiped right to left, but the menu on my TV screen went left to right. Same with up and down.
Microsoft says this configuration was intentional based on user research. But for me, it gave the impression that this was not, as CEO Steve Ballmer promised, a delightful product ‘‘right out of the box.’’
The software is far from flawless, but I'm hopeful it will get better over time as apps are developed and software bugs are discovered and fixed.
What’s important is that Microsoft got the hardware right — creating a light portable computer that has an ample number of fun features and a decent work environment. That combination could make Surface as addicting and as useful for extending the work day as the BlackBerry once was.
About the Surface:
The Surface costs $499 for a version with 32 gigabytes, though about half of it gets taken up by the operating system and pre-loaded software. A Touch Cover costs an extra $100 when purchased with the tablet (It’s $120 separately). A Type Cover — with real keys — goes for $130.
For $699, you get the 64 GB version with a Touch Cover included.
The Surface is available only at Microsoft’s stores and website.