The Case for the Kickstand

The most notable hardware feature on the Microsoft Surface line of computers in the kickstand. Not a single commercial for a Surface will go by without them showing you that sweet kickstand at all sorts of crazy angles. While I’m far from the biggest Windows fan, I have to get something off my chest:

I love the kickstand.

And one more thing while I’m emphatically stating things:

The iPad would be better with a kickstand of its own.

Whew! That feels good to get out there, but I fully believe it. The kickstand accomplishes a few things for me that the iPad simply doesn’t do today.

First, the kickstand being built into the tablet itself means that I can stand the Surface up on its own and I don’t need to have a cover or case with me. I like to use my devices naked (the devices are naked, to be clear) and that means I’ll find myself using the iPad and want to stand it up in front of me, which means I need to get up and find the keyboard case. The keyboard case is wonderful for typing, but it' adds significant bulk to the device, so I don’t use it unless I’m actually using it. The comparative simplicity of flipping out the stand on the Surface is so much easier.

Second, the kickstand allows me to stand the Surface up at ONE MILLION different angles. Okay, maybe not that many, but anything from closed to 165 degrees possible and works great. Whatever angle I need it at now is possible. So if I’m typing away on an article, I can have it tilted slightly up towards my face. If I want to slouch down a bit, I can pull in the kickstand a bit to face a little lower. And if I’m using it in the kitchen and want to lean over it, I can open it up all the way and have it sit at a very pleasant drafting table-style angle. And if I want it totally flat on a surface like the iPad, I can do that too.

Finally, and this may just be a me thing, but I find the kickstand to be a pretty decent way to hold the Surface in the air when I’m just using it to watch something. I can’t quite explain it, because I don’t think physics is necessarily on my side here, but I really like being able to flip out the kickstand a bit and hold it from there.

The bottom line is that I really enjoy having a stand built into the Surface Go, and it might be my favorite thing about the entire product. Yes, the Surface Go is a lot thicker than the newest iPads, and some of that may be attributable to the kickstand, but it’s really just a millimeter or two thick and feels like nothing. Maybe it would add too much bulk to the iPad and would make Apple retreat too far from the thin and light form factor the iPad has today, but I think I’d still be okay with the trade off. Or maybe there’s another way to do this whole thing, but being able to stand your tablet up at all times? Yeah, that’s a great idea and one Apple should steal.

Surface Go and iPad (2017 model) Speed Test

https://youtu.be/P-werjTSYGs

My biggest concern with the Surface Go so far has been it's overall performance. Things have sped up a little bit since I first got this, but it's still not a very zippy computer. To see how it stood up to something more my speed, I compared it to an 18 month old iPad (non-Pro), which goes for less than $299 these days. The two devices are closer than I expected them to be, but if a speedy tablet is your goal, the Surface Go is not the best option for the price, unless you really need Windows on a Microsoft-made device.

Oh, Hello

I'm just a normal guy with an iPhone 8 Plus, not an X, so I'm not used to having a device that unlocks just by looking at my smug mug. But Windows has a feature called "Windows Hello" that does exactly that. Of course I turned it on as soon as I got my Surface Go.

What I Like

Windows Hello works...fine. It's not a life-changing way of unlocking my tablet, but it's convenient enough that I'm keeping it active on the Go and have intention of switching back to a regular old passcode.

I like that I can just turn on the screen, wait a few seconds, and then be into the device. It's minimal effort and feels relatively effortless.

When it doesn't recognize you, it will show a notification that says something to the effect of "we didn't recognize you, please let us scan your face again to get more data." Ideally it would automatically do this when I entered my PIN, but I still like that it's trying to get better.

I also like that, like Touch ID, Hello can be utilized by third party apps, so 1Password will let me access my passwords via my face and not with my long, secure password. Note that all entries shown in the GIF below are bogus.

Finally, this works in the dark. I turned off all the lights in my office at night and held the screen in front of me: it worked. The screen was on, so it provided a little light, but for all intents and purposes there was not light. Love this.

What I Don't Like

The experience is inconsistent enough that I can't get totally on board.

First, and this may be the slower device I'm using, but the recognition takes too long sometimes. A few times it's quick, but often it takes 3-5 seconds to recognize me. After 3 seconds, the seconds start to feel like days, and you start to wonder if it's going to work at all.

It's also not wildly reliable. I'd say about one in ten tries doesn't recognize me at all. It's not a ton, but combined with the sometimes slow response, makes me think it's not going to work, even if it usually does. Knowing that it will fail a couple times per day plants the seed of doubt.

While it's mostly reliable indoors and works well in pitch black, it's less reliable outdoors. I've had more failures outside than anywhere else. If the success rate is 90% indoors, I'd say it's closer to 40-550% outside.

Inconsistent behavior is the final hurdle for me. On the lock screen, sometimes the device unlocks and takes me to my desktop without me needing to do anything besides look at the thing. Other times, it tells me it recognizes me, but needs me to swipe up on the screen to unlock the device. I'd prefer it did one or the other every time. This carries over to third party apps, where apps like 1Password will recognize me for authentication, but then require me to click a button to continue. Why not continue as soon as you see me?

Takeaway

I like Windows Hello a fair bit. It's not a complete gamer changer that makes me want to throw my iPad Pro out the window, but it's a nice feature that makes me enjoy the Surface Go a little bit more.

I sincerely wish I had an iPhone X to compare this to, because I'm really curious how this stacks up, but it seems slower and less reliable overall. I'd be very curious to see if that's the case.

Things This Apple Fan Loves About the Microsoft Surface Go

I've made my concerns with the Surface Go clear, so let's talk about some of the things that just make me happy when using this thing.

The Surface Type Cover

Microsoft knows how to make keyboards, and this mini version is no different. As someone who uses an iPad Smart Keyboard most of the time, the slightly compressed size is not a problem for me, and I was comfortable typing on it in just a couple hours.

The keys are regular old chicklet-style keys and are very satisfying to type on. There is 1mm of travel, and it feels perfectly fine to me. It's more than the Smart Keyboard, and feels very similar to my 2015 MacBook Pro.

Then there's the trackpad, which is smaller than a laptop's, but is by far the most responsive trackpad I've used on a Windows machine. It's still not quite as nice as the MacBooks' but it's right there.

The fabric on the keyboard is nice and soft, and is generally nice to rest your palms on.

Moreover, the keyboard is fully lit as well! The caps lock and "fn" keys have lights to let you know when they're active, and the whole thing lights up if you want so you can type in the dark. If Apple added this to a new Smart Keyboard, I'd buy it in a heartbeat.

And finally, it snaps into the Surface's connector with a strong snap that would make any iPad Smart Cover lover happy.

The Kickstand

Having a kickstand built into the body of the Surface Go is an unabashed win in my book. The iPad stands up, but only with a case or cover. That's fine for the most part, but it's even better to be able to stand up the tablet whenever I want, case or not. The fact that the stand is infinitely flexible and can go from closed to a full 165 degrees (basically flat the other direction) means I can always get an angle that works for ever situation.

You might think this would be annoying to have on the device at all times, but I find the way Microsoft has integrated it into the body of the device to make it basically disappear.

My only problem with this is that it is so thin, the edge is sharp and leaves a mark when using it directly on my lap. It's generally fine on jeans, but I definitely notice some irritation when it's on exposed leg.

Connecting to an External Display

I keep asking for Apple to allow this on the iPad, because the ability to plug this into my 27" screen and use it at that higher size and resolution is wonderful. This wouldn't work on the iPad of course unless you had a larger touch screen, but it would totally work if you had one of those (not that this is impossible, of course).

Timeline

Windows has this cool feature called Timeline that shows you things you were working on or looking at in the past. You get to this by pressing Windows+Tab, which will show you the currently running windows, and you can scroll down to see previously-closed documents and websites.

Apps have to opt in to have their content display here, but if your apps support it, it's great. They even have a search box where you can search for whatever you want and it'll show you things in your timeline that match your query. This is really nice for those "wasn't I just looking at that?" moments.

Takeaway

While I have things that bother me about the Surface Go, there are things that are really nice about it.

Microsoft Surface Go Design Details

The design of the Surface Go is currently my favorite part of the device. It’s not quite as nice as the iPad Pro, but it’s certainly a compelling product by any other measure, especially when you consider this is a $399 tablet (plus $129 for the keyboard).

The Go has more ports than the iPad (and many MacBooks!) but they’re nicely built and each port results in a snug, fit when you plug something in. This is a problem on basically every non-Apple device I use, so it’s nice to see Microsoft ensuring the port situation is on point.

My only concern is with the alignment, as the spacing is weird all around, with only one centered port on the whole thing.

The Surface Go comes with 64 or 128GB of storage, depending on the model, so you very well may want to get additional storage, and you can do this via the built in, and tastefully hidden micro-SD card slot, which Microsoft says can use up to 512GB cards. I’m looking into getting a 128GB one for mine. You can also use the USB-C port to plug in any external hard drive you’d like, but that’s not really a full time solution for a portable device like this.

I really wish Windows was more like iOS in terms of how much space things take up. I have never felt like I needed more storage on my 64GB iPad Pro, but my 64GB Surface Go already feels mostly full after installing just a few apps. The OS itself is the real culprit here, filling up almost half of the hard drive out of the box.

I’m in love with the kickstand that’s built right into the tablet as well. This blends very well into the back of the device so you don’t even notice it when using it handheld. This kickstand has infinitely tweak able angles, so you can go from anywhere from closed to 165° open. Whatever you need it to be, it’ll do for you. This is much more convenient than the iPad Pr’s Smart Keyboard’s single angle.

The keyboard wraps around the back of the device as one would expect, and it actually doesn’t go quite to the edge of the device. This is a little weird because it makes it feel a little bit wrong, but it also makes sure that the camera is open at all times and can be used for taking photographs, even if the keyboard is still connected to the device. I don’t know if this was worth it, since one almost never takes pictures with a tablet, but if you do want to do that, this case design has you covered…or not1.

And finally, here are a couple videos showing the rotation on the Go (yuck, slow, and ugh)…

https://youtu.be/QJPBFANVfJo

…and another showing the keyboard connection (awesome) and a quick demo of basic performance…

https://youtu.be/EDQlBRmYSsM


  1. I couldn’t resist the pun. 

Surface Go: Touch UI and the Type Cover

My first day with the brand new Microsoft Surface Go has been an interesting jump into a whole new world. I got this device because I wanted to see how it matches up with the iPad Pro in terms of productivity, as well as fun & games.

My initial impressions are that this is not the iPad-like experience I am used to. This is full on Windows 10, and it feels like almost zero effort has been put into making this operating system touch friendly. Everything about this operating system feels like a PC living in a tablet body, not necessarily an operating system that was built for this form factor.

The very first thing I've noticed is that everything on screen, even at the 150% zoom the device defaults to, leaves all UI elements far too small. I'm often squinting to see things and navigating the interface with touch is an exercise in precision. I need to play with the zoom settings a bit, but this feels like a struggle, while everything on the iPad is an appropriate size for touch interactions.

It's a small thing, but I think it's worth noting that Windows shows a little "blip" animation whenever you touch the screen, showing you where you tapped. This is the sort of thing that's nice for demoing touch interfaces on video, but in person it really feels like something tacked on and made me feel like taps were mouse clicks, which is not the feeling I want from a touch UI.

This feeling of being not touch-first continues when it comes to the on screen keyboard. The keyboard often takes a couple seconds to come up, and typing on it exhibits more lag than I'd expect. Some of this may have to do with the fact I'm using the most affordable Surface out there, but I use an iPad (2017) for a lot of my work at my day job and it has a far better typing experience than this.

This has all meant that I use the Surface Go in laptop mode most of the time, using the Type Cover from Microsoft. This keyboard really is excellent, with keys that travel more than they do on some laptops (you know the ones I'm talking about) and feel really good. It's not quite full size, but as someone who does most of his computing on an iPad with Smart Keyboard, this is pretty normal for me. I don't know how much I'll like this in the long run compared to the Smart Keyboard, but it definitely one-ups Apple's offering by having a full function row with media controls, brightness, and even home, end, print screen, and delete keys.

In addition to a nice keyboard, the Type Cover has a very nice track pad. It's smaller than most modern trackpads, but it's about as big as it could be and is quite responsive. I don't think it's as responsive as a MacBook trackpad, but it's far and away the best I've ever experienced with Windows.

Oh, and did I mention that the keyboard is backlit? Yeah, pretty sweet.

I have a lot to uncover in the coming days and weeks, but the early signs are already pointing to this being a journey with many highs and lows. I'm encouraged by the Type Cover, as well as a few other features I'll be talking about in later pieces, but there are also some major concerns I have in terms of how this will work as a tablet interface, and not just a tiny PC.