Impressions of the iPad mini and Microsoft Surface, and the realization that I just don’t know what the hell is going on anymore.

It started out innocently enough; I thought it’d be good to get out of the apartment for once and take an aimless drive in Marin County. And hey, there’s an Apple Store in Corte Madera, so what could it hurt to stop by and take a quick look around?

It ended with a descent into craven tablet-computing madness. In a shockingly short time, I’ve gone from thinking that tablet computers were a vulgar, unnecessary display of conspicuous consumption; to thinking that tablet computers were a vulgar, unnecessary display of conspicuous consumption and I want all of them.

I’ve already conceded that the iPad for me was a case of blowing a wad of cash on a gadget, in the hope that it would create a use for itself at some point down the road. And it did; even if I weren’t still calling myself an iOS developer, I’d still have gotten enough use out of the iPad to justify the expense. But what happened today is much worse.

iPhone Gigante Más Pequeño

I should explain something first: my reaction to the Apple “event” where they announced the iPad mini. Now, I’m about as shameless a whore for Apple products as anybody you’ll find outside of Daring Fireball, but I still saw nothing in that batch of announcements that interested me in the slightest. New MacBook Pro with “retina” display? Please; they hit exactly the sweet spot of size vs. power with the Air. New iPad with a thinner “lightning” connector and faster processor? I don’t think even Apple seriously expected anyone to consider an “upgrade” after just a few months.

And the iPad mini was just baffling. Who could it possibly appeal to? It’s smaller than the iPad, but not enough to be a recognizably different product, and not quite small enough to be really called “handheld.” It’s not as if the iPad is uncomfortably big and bulky anyway; in fact, it’s the perfect size for comics and magazines, and is actually a little bit too small for playing board games. And the price of the iPad mini is way out of “impulse purchase” range like the Kindle or Nexus 7, and too expensive for an e-reader. It’s been getting stellar reviews pretty much across the board, but those are just tech reviewers buried under such a mountain of gadgetry that anything with Apple’s fit and finish is going to make a great first impression. It couldn’t possibly pass the real-world, practical test. It seemed like Apple had once again done the impossible: creating an Apple product that I had absolutely no desire to buy.

Then I went into the Apple store and tried out the iPad mini, just for yuks. I don’t know what kind of gas they were pumping into the store, but whatever it is has the same effect on my brain chemistry as a nightclub singer has on a Tex Avery wolf. This is the perfect size. How was I ever able to imagine reading in bed with such a freakishly enormous iPad? I would totally read more with a tablet this size. And the display is so sharp and the text so clear that it doesn’t even need a higher-resolution display. We have always been at war with the 10-inch diagonal. Go away, old woman, I don’t care that you’ve been waiting in line; I just want to keep holding this and never stop.

I’m not a complete idiot; I left the store without buying anything. And even though I see an Apple Store the same way Angelina Jolie sees African orphanages, I don’t plan on buying another iOS device anytime soon. When they release version 2 of the mini, though, it’s going to be a tough time for me. I’ll admit to spending a few minutes in the car trying to envision scenarios where my bulky, cumbersome iPad 3 met with an unforeseen “accident.”

A Small-Ass Table

In what I’m sure was a completely coincidental bit of retail zoning, a new Microsoft Store happens to have opened up just a few doors down from the Apple Store in Corte Madera. I checked in to take a look at the new Surface tablet, and came out almost as surprised as I was by the iPad mini.

Another thing I should clear up: even though I’ve gone all-in on Apple, I’m actually kind of excited by Windows 8. The last time I considered Windows to be anything more than a necessary evil was back in 1995. (Yeah, I genuinely got excited over Windows 95. Come on, you could put spaces in filenames. Just try and tell me that wasn’t cool). But Windows 8 seems to be a case of Microsoft getting it right to such a degree that I’m surprised it’s from Microsoft.

I installed the upgrade on my Windows machine, and I’ve spent the time since trying to come up with excuses to use it more often. (Until now, it’s just been The Machine That Runs Steam). As a desktop OS, it’s reassuringly Vista-like in its clunkiness: stuff takes more clicks than it should, basic system settings are confusingly split into several different places, it’s hard to tell what’s clickable vs what’s decorative, and the UI on the whole requires a tutorial or cheat sheet to be usable at all since there’s absolutely no discoverability. Basically, there’s enough wrong with it to remind me that I haven’t fallen into some alternate dimension where Microsoft is no longer Microsoft.

But as a consistent, cross-device UI, it’s outstanding. Text is big, legible, and just plain looks cool. All the hassle of writing WPF applications that required mark-up and screen resolution-independence finally seems to have paid off. The “Live Tiles” are such an ingenious way of combining widgets, icons, and full-blown apps that it seems obvious in retrospect, and it makes it look like other OS developers have been dragging their feet for not coming up with it sooner. It’s functional and actually is genuinely fun to use, from desktop to touch screen to tablet to phone to video game console.

And it’s instantly recognizable — even if, without “Metro,” there’s no good name for it — and unique, which is something that Android still hasn’t been able to accomplish. I was in a Best Buy the other day, and I legitimately couldn’t tell the difference between a bunch of Android phones and the iPhone 5 at the end. And speaking of phones: I like the iPhone 5, but I got one more as an obligation than anything else; it was as much to get rid of AT&T as it was to to get any of the new stuff in iOS. But I’ve looked at the new HTC Windows Phone and for the first time have legitimately considered jumping ship.

So I think that Microsoft has been doing a remarkably good job with the new Windows push, overall. And the Surface fits in with that. The commercial still offends me deeply on a philosophical level, considering what a fan I am of basic human dignity. But still, it does what it’s supposed to do. Above everything else, it sets it apart from the iPad and Android tablets. It shows you how you’re supposed to use it — not tossing it to your pals or dancing with it in a fountain, but then again, why not? — propped up and attached to the keyboard cover, like a super-portable laptop. It’s still Windows, and the implication is that you can do the stuff you use Windows for, instead of just putting your feet up on a table and reading the New York Times.

Finally seeing it in person, I was surprised by how well it works. It’s much lighter and less bulky than it looks in pictures. The display is bright and clear. The OS functions pretty much the same with a touch screen as it does with a mouse and keyboard. Having already learned the gestures on the desktop, I didn’t have any problem figuring out how to use the tablet, and there was absolutely no sense of translation between desktop/laptop OS and tablet OS as there is between OS X and iOS.

I had very little success getting efficient with the touch cover keyboard, but I think the touch cover is as much branding as it is technology. It’s undeniably neat that it’s functional at all, but I think its bigger purpose is to remind people that they have a keyboard and trackpad with them wherever they go — This is a Windows machine. Look you can run Office, it whispers in your choice of colors. The “type cover” adds an imperceptibly small amount of height and is infinitely more functional; it’s a super-slim laptop keyboard.

It feels ridiculous to hold the Surface vertically, but again, I get the impression that’s an essential part of the branding. They want you thinking, This is not a magazine or newspaper. This is like a laptop computer. I know this. I can be productive with this, as I laugh at the iPad users lounging on their couches swiping through vacation photos.

I’m not actually tempted to get one, but I will say that it’s the first product that’s gotten me to look up from my iPad and pay any attention to it at all. There’s absolutely no way I’d actually buy one.

And yet… this is the Windows RT version. The “Surface Pro” is coming out sometime next year, and it’s even more shameless about being a full-fledged notebook computer in tablet form. It’ll be thicker and heavier. I’ve heard it’ll actually come with a fan (other than Steve Ballmer, obviously). And it’ll undoubtedly be considerably more expensive than the current Surface tablet, which is already on the higher end of the iPad price range. But: it’ll come with a pressure-sensitive stylus. And I’ve wanted a tablet PC for as long as I can remember, as soon as I learned that they were even a thing. In fact, three years ago I described my ideal tablet computer, and it’s pretty much point-by-point the feature list of the Surface Pro.

Except for the “Apple makes it” part. And that’s the part that’s got me wondering what’s happened to the world. I just spent a considerable amount of time praising Microsoft. I defended an ad that has an old couple kissing and a tablet-covered dude doing the robot. I actually considered getting a third iOS device, for a not-insignificant number of seconds. The Apple Store seemed austere, black-and-white, business-like; while the Microsoft Store was colorful and fun. I’m actually envisioning a world where I might have a Windows device as my main computer. A time will come — but I must not and cannot think! Let me pray that, if I do not survive this blog post, my executors may put caution before audacity and see that it meets no other eye.