The Surface Of Mars: My Date With A Microsoft Kiosk

“What’s the best feature of the Surface?”

“Um, everything.”

Thus began my experience at a local mall buying a Microsoft Surface.

Yes, I bought a Surface — me, the lover of all things Apple and perhaps the biggest fan of the iPad out there. It’s important for me to have the competitive landscape context for my continued musings on Apple’s tablets. It’s the same reason why I played around with and reviewed the Nexus 7, which I liked quite a bit. And, if something is the best, I will use it — made by Apple or not. Shocking for some of you to read perhaps, but the truth.

Unfortunately, while Google was happy to send me a Nexus 7 (well, maybe “happy” isn’t the right word, but good on them for wanting to know my take), Microsoft went out of their way to make sure I would not get a Surface review unit. A few people tried to get me one both inside and outside the company, but were shot down. I’m still not clear if it’s because they view me as biased or because they feel the device simply isn’t good enough.

Either way, it’s silly. If I write something that’s not honest, I’m only shooting myself in the foot. If I say the Surface sucks and it’s great, I look like a fool. Plus, it’s not like Microsoft can stop me from going into a store and buying one myself and writing whatever the hell I please. Which is what I did. And what I’m going to do.

The review will come later (I want to actually take the time to use it first). First, I wanted to write a bit about the experience of buying the Surface. When I tweeted that I was going to buy one earlier this week, a large number of responses came in asking for this. I assume it’s mainly because of Marco Arment’s excellent post about his experience inside a Microsoft Store. My story is a bit different because I wasn’t actually in a store. Instead, I bought it from a pop-up kiosk Microsoft installed in the mall in downtown San Francisco.

It’s a nice-looking kiosk. It looks like the type of kiosk Apple might do if they did kiosks. Lots and lots of solid, clean surfaces. Lots of illuminated glass. Lots of Surfaces sitting around for people to try. Unlike most Microsoft Stores, this kiosk wasn’t right across from an Apple Store, but that’s only because there is no Apple Store in this mall. Instead, it’s outside a J.Crew, which is perhaps the next-best thing since J.Crew chairman and CEO Mickey Drexler is an Apple board member.

There were about a half-dozen employees wearing bright, solid color shirts hovering around to answer any questions and to demo some of the Surface features. Listening to a few of them, there was clearly a script to follow in terms of what to show off, namely Office support and the Touch Cover. Aside from the asinine “everything” comment above, “amazing,” “fantastic,” “great,” and “cool” were thrown around a lot.

Yes, it’s the same type of stuff you hear in an Apple Store — but that’s the point. It’s weird and sort of creepy how closely Microsoft is trying to mimic that experience.

But the employees were all amicable and seemed well-trained. (Well, aside from the one with a cough who I did not want anywhere near anything I would be touching — Surface: Germ edition.) At one point one of them joked that they couldn’t pick up an iPhone on the table because Microsoft might have cameras watching for such hostile foreign objects. At least I think it was a joke.

There were a good number of customers at the kiosk — it wasn’t packed, but people kept shuffling in and out. Though during the half-hour I was there, I only saw one Surface actually get bought — the one I bought.

Asked how sales were going, one employee said they were “selling a ton”. Another said they were “selling lots”. When asked if I could buy as many as I wanted (asking, of course, if they still had a lot in stock), the answer was “sure!”

At least two other customers asked about the forthcoming “Surface Pro” which will run a more full-fledged version of Windows 8. Here, the employees were less helpful. “I don’t know” was the answer when someone asked when the Pro version would be coming out. “They don’t tell us those kinds of things.”

Many of the customers had problems figuring out the Surface gestures, so the employees would step in to help. Swipe from the right to open one menu. Swipe up from the bottom to open another. Swipe an app down to close it. This confusion is understandable since there is a tutorial when you start the Surface to show you these gestures, but obviously a customer just stepping up to play with a running unit wouldn’t see that.

Just from a few minutes of demos, the software seemed fairly buggy. The built-in social app kept hanging. Maps were very slow. People would remove the Touch Cover and rotate the screen but the software didn’t respond, so they would make an even bigger rotation gesture. This was obviously not an ideal demo experience.

Lots of people wanted to try the keyboard in particular — both the touch and type one. Many of those people had problems at first typing on the Touch Cover (as did I), but the Type Cover one seemed to work well. Only one of the demo units had a Type Cover, the rest were all fitted with different color Touch Covers. There were no Surfaces on display without a keyboard — this is supposed to be a tablet, right?

One kiosk employee said that “99 percent” of people who bought a Surface were also buying one of the keyboards (or one of the more expensive bundles which come with a Touch Cover). The split was about 50/50 in terms of Touch versus Type keyboard sales, this employee said.

The kiosk also had an ample supply of Halo 4. I thought this was a bit odd since they weren’t selling Xboxes. But I guess it makes sense — “Hey kid step right up, we have candy bars!”

To check out, I was asked for my name and email address, but promised I wouldn’t be spammed. When I paid, I had to go behind the counter to sign with my finger — it sort of looked like the Square signature process, but it wasn’t. Roughly $650 (after tax) got me a Surface plus a red/orange Touch Cover.

Overall, I didn’t find the experience quite as negative as Arment did. But again, I was just at a kiosk, not an actual store. The employees weren’t too pushy or annoying, a few of them even seemed sincerely excited when explaining the product’s features (one clearly loved split-screen mode, which is pretty cool). They certainly didn’t push me towards a sale, which I very much appreciated. In fact, when I said I wanted to buy one, I swear they almost looked surprised.

The employee who made the sale happened to be wearing something interesting on his wrist: an iPod nano watch. “It was a gift,” he said with a laugh.

Sure it was.

Update: And here’s my full review.