Hands on: Microsoft Surface review

Microsoft's Surface touch-activated tabletop computer has been wowing audiences at trade shows for several years now, but there's still a thrill at spinning and zooming effortlessly through Virtual Earth's global satellite imagery with finger power alone. That's just one (and, to be honest, the best) of three applications that Microsoft has created and customised for Sheraton hotels.

Virtual Earth is part of the Sheraton City Tips digital concierge: a list of seven categories (transportation, recreation, entertainment, bars and clubs, restaurants, services and shopping), each of which contains ten destinations selected by the real live human concierge at each hotel. These can be updated daily.

From the list, you can view address and phone numbers, then get directions at the touch of an icon. The map auto-scales cleverly, gives clear waypoints and a choice of schematic or aerial views, but there's currently no way to print out the map or Bluetooth it to a phone. As this is America, there's also no pedestrian navigation option. Anyone who can afford to stay at a Sheraton (from $215 a night in Seattle) will prefer to take their Lexus anyway.

Music and postcards

The other applications are Sheraton Snapshots, which comprises picturesque but rather useless postcard views of Sheraton's international B&B empire, and Sounds of Sheraton. This lets you assemble and play a personal playlist from a selection of soft country 'artists' including Sara Evans, Matt Kearny and Kenny Chesney, the latter a personal favourite of George Bush. All we can say is that perhaps they sound better in a Lexus.

The Surfaces themselves are tough, waterproof, virtually silent, and cool to the touch. The screen is a DLP rear projection, with five near-infrared cameras enabling the vision-based touch interface for up to 50 simultaneous touch points, according to Kyle Warnick, Senior Marketing Communications Manager for Surface.

"The Sheraton is a great environment for Surface," he told TechRadar, "You can explore the city from the comfort of your seat." Warnick wouldn't be drawn on the cost of the units, but drew an analogy with plasma screens: "The first ones cost $15,000 and were only in bars and shops. Now you can buy them in a supermarket." He hopes to have a consumer version of the Surface on sale within "two to four years".

We're not sure we can wait that long. With its sharp, full-sized screen, decent build quality and seamless touch-friendly graphics, Surface feels more like a super-sized iPhone than a PC in a box. Forget fake 'Mojave' adverts and 'cranking up the wow', if Microsoft wants to change opinions of its operating system, it could do a lot worse than pop a Windows sticker on one of Surface's glossy flanks. That's right, this beauty is running on – whisper it – Vista.

Mark Harris is Senior Research Director at Gartner.