LOS ANGELES -- Microsoft seems to have gotten the design and form factor right with its new Surface tablet computer. But the user interface, not so much. That's an odd conclusion to make about a device from a software company that usually lets others do the manufacturing.
Still, that's how I felt after feeling the heft of the device, examining it from all sides, and making a few swipes at the screen. The Surface has a touch keyboard cover that feels great and, to me, is a big step forward for tablets. The tablet's software interface, however, seems non-intuitive and sluggish.
Microsoft is clearly straddling the uncomfortable divide between the old world of mice and keyboards, where it dominates, and a future ruled by touch screens, where Apple and Android devices prevail.
Although the Surface won't go on sale until this fall, I had the chance to spend a few minutes with some devices in a group demonstration after Microsoft unveiled them in Los Angeles on Monday.
The removable cover comes across as a takeoff of Apple Inc.'s Smart Cover. Both snap into place perfectly with magnets. But instead of sporting foldable sections, Microsoft's cover is rigidly flat and has a full keyboard imprinted on it. Microsoft's cover seems central to the Surface experience, although it's not clear if it'll be sold separately.
The cover is thin -- about a tenth of an inch, or 3 millimeters. When covering the screen, its spine covers one edge and its outer fabric makes the whole package feel like a soft book. Where it attaches to the tablet, it's completely floppy, so it can be whipped around to close over the screen or folded back like a magazine.
The keyboard is imprinted on the inside of the cover, facing the screen. So when you open it, you can lay the cover on a table and use it to type.
As I said earlier, the tablet's software is what disappoints.
I detected a lag when swiping, which just seems wrong on a touch screen. After all, you can see exactly where your finger is touching. If the image doesn't come along in real time, that's noticeable. Apple's iPad and iPhone may still have Microsoft's Surface beat in this regard.
Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 operating system and its Windows RT counterpart for low-power chips are supposed to bridge the gap between touch devices and personal computers. But the company has made a perplexing design choice by hiding crucial navigation items off the screen. Finding them requires swiping in from the sides. I would need a tutorial on what actions lead to what results.
At Monday's announcement, CEO Steve Ballmer pounded home the message that this tablet will be as good as a PC for creating documents in a way that the iPad never was. It's true that the iPad has such shortcomings as an inability to run multiple programs side by side, the way you can on a regular computer. Surface can run at least two at a time.
So, users would seem to be professionals who want a tablet they can use for work and play.