Back to school with technology's perfect tablet: The Microsoft Surface

Back to school with technology's perfect tablet: The Microsoft Surface

Summary: The Microsoft Surface might be the industry's illegitimate, red-headed stepchild but the road less traveled for some is the perfect tablet for students and for those who can ignore the murmurings against Redmond's fruit.


The Surface has taken quite a beating since its release last October. Analysts write everything from, "The Surface is doomed" to "The Surface is already a failure". It's true that the Surface didn't grab the world by the throat like the iPad did but sales to the tune of a billion dollars is no failure. If that's a failure, please give me failure—success doesn't pay as well. But, as you know, analysts will say or write almost anything to boost readership or watchership. Even I was affected by some of the industry naysaying over the Surface. My son Connor was not. He loves his Surface and has dubbed it, "The best tablet for school".

And he should know, since he's in his second year of Chemical Engineering at Oklahoma State University. He wanted the Surface. He tried out Android tablets, iPads, and the Surface before deciding emphatically on the Surface.

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I tried to convince him otherwise.

I tried to steer him toward the iPad because of its sheer ubiquity but he stood firm. It was really the Surface or nothing. I relented.

He already had a new Windows 7-based Asus laptop for college but he wanted the Surface to take to class with him.

Begin digression:

When I was in college, most of the students brought in their various technologies, which at the time consisted of cassette tape recorders, mini cassette tape recorders, some very expensive oddball* computers, and the dead tree type notebooks. I opted for dead tree technology and a cassette recorder. Eventually I stopped taking the recorder to class out of embarrassment and disgust** for those who used them.

I can remember wishing for what I described as an "electronic clipboard" so that I could take notes, draw pictures, scribble, and keep track of everything on it. Alas, my graduation came long before the "electronic clipboard" would surface (No pun intended. That was a total fluke). 

End digression:

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To be honest, I wasn't really behind the Surface at first. When I finally got to work with it and discuss its features with Connor, I realized how superior the device is. 

It's more portable than a laptop due to its size, weight, and battery life. At it's core, it's Windows, so it has all of the features that other Windows-based computers have. Plus, you have Microsoft Office, the ability to print locally or through a network, and you have a keyboard.

One of the "hidden" features of the Surface is that keyboard. Not all keyboards are created equal. The Surface keyboard is perfect for student who take their computers to class because it's silent. Silence is golden in a classroom. Instead of hearing everyone banging or tapping away, you hear nothing. 

Another feature is that the keyboard to Surface setup allows you to prop up the Surface as you would with a laptop screen, so that you can type, look at the monitor, and look up over the screen to see your professor or teacher, and the white/black board, overhead, or demonstration at the front of the class.

Unfortunately, the iPad and Android tablets don't have this same advantage. You can't type directly onto the screen with it propped up and have fun typing silently with the Apple bluetooth keyboard, which I'm using right now to write this post—it's noisy—really noisy. My wife walked in the other day to see what all the noise was about. Now I notice it. I'd never use the keyboard in class, the library, or anywhere silence is necessary.

Printing, although a dying technology, is still important. The Surface can print to a local printer via USB cable. And, hey, it's Windows so printing works. No local printer? Then connect via wireless networking to a networked printer. Easy.

"Using the same interface across all your devices is a great advantage because it makes you more efficient when switching from one device to another."

Printing from an iPad is not so easy. 

I purchased Printer Pro Desktop for my iPad but it requires another computer connected to a printer to work. Air Print, Printer Pro, and Print to ALL Printers are all decent apps for printing but why do I need to spend money to print when it comes free with the Surface?

Printing is also free with Android through Cloud Print, if you can get it to work. If you can't, you'll have to spend some money and use Printer Share. If you've ever setup printing on a Linux system, you know that it's not perfect nor is it easy. I've setup Linux printing to print to IP-networked printers, and to Windows SAMBA-shared printers but generally you have to use some sort of non-specific driver with mixed success. 

Fortunately, as I wrote, printing is almost dead. Electronic delivery via email, cloud upload, or USB thumb drive are excellent alternatives to printing. If Connor needs to print, he has a printer that works with both of his systems.

The much-hated Metro interface is another "hidden" advantageous feature of the Surface. It's an advantage because all new Windows-based computers and Windows-based phones use the Metro interface. Using the same interface across all your devices is a great advantage because it makes you more efficient when switching from one device to another.

The interface difference is one major reason why I don't care for Android devices. While it looks similar to iOS, it isn't iOS. After using iOS-based devices, I feel that Android is just too difficult to deal with. And Android isn't "Linuxy" enough for me either. If it had some sort of familiar interface(GNOME, KDE, Unity, AfterStep), I could like it more. 

For students, a familiar interface is important because who has the time or the patience to chase down printing or apps from one device to another? The Surface is Windows and that's comforting for students and users of all ages. Once you get past the Metro interface, that is. Yes, his laptop and his Surface don't have the same interface initially but if he switches to the Desktop view, it looks like any other Windows OS version.

The educational discounts are also a huge advantage for students. With the price of college these days, who needs to spend another thousand dollars on a device plus peripherals? Not me. The Surface RT price has dropped to very affordable levels in time for back to school shopping.

My opinion is that the Surface is an excellent student computing system. From its ultra-portability, to its Windows interface, to its easy printing, and to its silent, classroom-friendly keyboard, the Surface is the perfect tablet*** for students.

What do you think of the Surface as a student tool? Do you think it beats the competition or is there something better? Talk back and let me know.

*I don't remember the names although I believe one small computer was a Casio brand. Too much brain cell death since those unthrilling days of yesteryear. Sorry.

**Tape changing and tape flipping time was annoyingly noisy plus who had time to relisten to all those lectures? I had work, beer, and the pursuit of the fairer sex to occupy my free time. I think I've just discovered why I never made it to Medical School.

***Before you assume that I'm a Microsoft lackey and subsequently accuse me of it, Microsoft doesn't give me anything for free nor does it loan me anything to review. I just happen to see value where there is value.

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Topics: Microsoft, Mobile OS, Mobility, Microsoft Surface, Windows 8


Kenneth 'Ken' Hess is a full-time Windows and Linux system administrator with 20 years of experience with Mac, Linux, UNIX, and Windows systems in large multi-data center environments.

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  • Very nice post and I agree 100%

    There is only 1 reason to ever get a tablet that isn't a Windows 8 tablet and that is if you need something smaller than 10".

    Anyone who buys a 10" ipad is a fool. I was tricked into buying one and they are terrible, really terrible.

    My only advice is to go with Windows 8 instead of Windows RT. Windows RT has been killed by Atom.

    iCore Windows 8 tablet > Atom Windows 8 tablet > ARM Windows RT tablet > Paper + pen > etch-a-sketch > finger + sand > finger + knife + blood + paper > ipad
    • Fool? Pot, kettle, black!

      "My only advice" Oh, if only…
      • It's true

        ""My only advice" Oh, if only…"

        I do give a lot of good advice. Thanks for reminding me.
    • Atom

      "My only advice is to go with Windows 8 instead of Windows RT. Windows RT has been killed by Atom."

      I tend to disagree. RT on a companion device is quite good and requires less maintenance than Windows 8. It's usually cheaper than comparable Windows 8 devices with Office too. If it's the only PC then yes, get Windows 8 instead of RT.
      • Not in my experience

        I own both a Windows 8 laptop and a Surface RT. The maintenance on both is the same (very little maintenance required). If anything, my Surface RT has proven to require a tiny bit more maintenance if we count firmware upgrades as maintenance (I'm being a little facetious here).

        Point taken about Office. However, student licenses for Office are VERY inexpensive.
        • crapware and driveby installs

          With maintenance I mean crapware and drive-by installs (ask com, softonic, etc.)Sometimes even malware. Not much of an issue for the PC savvy, until they get to fix their friends' PCs. None of that is on RT yet.
          • Good point

            I was going to write:
            "They won't run into any of those issues if they stick to the Windows Store"

            but if they are just going to stick to the Windows Store then the fact that Windows RT won't run legacy apps isn't an issue at all.

            So in the sense that Windows RT is unable to run "bad" apps then yes, I see your point, Windows RT requires less maintenance.

      • Windows RT (ARM) is the future for the masses.

        For the masses, RT (ARM) is much better then Intel based tablets.

        + Thinner then intel based
        + Cheaper then intel based
        + Works without a cooler
        + Better battery life
        + Office is included
        + Safer for users. They do not install any crap on those machines which will make them slow after a year!!!

        - Cannot run Windows desktop apps (first ask yourself, if you need them on a tablet machine)

        So, if you are thinking about a tablet and you just use it for browsing, checking e-mails, working with office - RT device is perfect for you.
        Don't let yourself listning salesman crap, that you NEED full Windows 8 tablet!
    • toddbottom3: "My only advice is to go with Windows 8 ... Atom"

      Depends entirely on a student's field of study. Some fields of study such as science, engineering, architecture, economics, etc. may have requirements that necessitate a more powerful processor than an Atom. In these cases, a Windows 7/8 laptop, Surface Pro or MacBook Air/Pro would be a much better choice than a Windows 8 Atom-based tablet.

      As for tablets, any Samsung tablet with an SPen would also be a fine option for students.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
      • I didn't specifically recommend Atom over i3/5/7

        I don't see where I wrote the quote that you have in your subject unless you make VERY liberal use of the ellipsis.

        Here is what I wrote:
        "My only advice is to go with Windows 8 instead of Windows RT. Windows RT has been killed by Atom."

        Anyone in the market for Windows RT is not likely wanting to spend twice as much to get a core processor though. So if someone is looking at ARM, I would recommend looking at Atom instead. If you are looking at a core processor, you were never interested in Windows RT to begin with.

        "As for tablets, any Samsung tablet with an SPen would also be a fine option for students."

        Yes to this if having an active digitizer is important and budget is tight. Actually, I wonder if the Galaxy Note 8 might not be the ideal tablet for a student with its combination of active digitizer and portability. Right now, as far as I'm aware, absolutely nothing competes with that.
      • Silvermont-Atom & Airmont-Atom are Powerful!

        Don't discount Atom. Time, time time...!

        Atom (22nm) near the end of this year is going to become very powerful while remain power friendly.

        Atom (14nm) near the end of next year is going to be extremely power while consumer near or less power than the comparable ARM SoCs
        • This is true but...

          As the Atom based chipsets become more powerful, the ARMs are not simply staying static but too are becoming more powerful, cheaper, smaller, thinner, less battery consuming, etc. AMD is set to release x64 bit ARMs soon and how great would it be to get a Surface RT with the thickness of a iPad Mini with 10+ hours battery, more powerful, 4 GB+ memory, etc. Heck, in a number of years RT could take over the handset space, thereby unifying the Windows code base. With advanced ARMs chips, they could put RT on a watch like device.

          ARMs has its place, it will even start appearing on servers. For a tablet, its not a bad choice as long as its a companion device to a full PC. If its your only device, than get a Atom based device.
          Rann Xeroxx
    • One place I dont agree 100%

      "Fortunately, as I wrote, printing is almost dead. "

      In what world is this???


      Wow. That statement clearly comes from someone who simply happens to work in an industry where "printing is almost dead" because the majority of the world by far that worked in an area a few years back that counted a lot on paper, the vast majority of those still rely on vast amounts of printed paper.

      The sad truth of this is, as my industry happens to comingle with a vast number of all the industries that exist, that's its rather shameful that all we do is go through more printed paper every year than the year before.

      So once again we see an individual who writes articles here who is declaring some faction of the world of IT being close to dead because of in his corner of the IT related world those he intermingles with I guess say so. But the whole rest of the world is burning through the printed paper faster than ever before.

      Just because newpapers for example are far less reliant on print than ever before, lets not get to thinking that all the offices smattered like a carpet across the world are following suit. Far from it.
      • @Cayble

        I print about 10 pages worth of material on my own per year. I never print anything at work. How much do you print onto paper these days? Most people use PDFs or some other electronic means. You can even sign documents digitally, in case you haven't heard. It's a brave new world, dude, chip away the ice covering and join 2013.
        • You are NOT the norm!

          We all have needs and habitual behaviour. I like hard copies. I can ready better with hard copies: fold it, hold it in hands and look at the content at different angles. NO paper, No, impossible. Perhaps in a few generation, when paper exist less and less, then human beings become more accustomed to "NO paper". But, not in CY2013, not in CY2014, ...
        • Step outside your silo if you want to be a tech "journalist"

          You can't simply look at your own use case but investigate how others in other segments use technology if you are going to make a proclamation about technology as a tech journalist. My use case is much like yours in that I hardly ever print anything nowadays. But I also know that my company still spends millions on printers, paper, maintenance, etc. And for teachers, marking up a physical copy of a paper is still far easier than an electronic one. Many will also have the students pass their papers around to other students for peer review. Heck, almost all schools still require physical textbooks.

          Paper is far from dead.
          Rann Xeroxx
    • "Windows RT has been killed by Atom"

      Finally the true comes out! Knowledgeable people already knew: Surface RT is DOA.

      Now the question for any shopper is, why I would be buying into a dying Platform?

      Is wise to invest on a growing platform, one being actively developed and supported all across the industry, meaning Android and iOS.

      Now the question is, what MS should do with Windows RT? Seems a valid option to base the next WP on RT. I wonder what will happens with the few people that seems are buying some apps, for RT or WP8. Will those apps will run in the next iteration, or we will have here another "Play For Sure" scenario?

      So my advise to the kids, buy into the future: OSX/iOS, or Android/Chromebook, you cannot go wrong. But if you prefer soon to be orphaned platforms, you can consider RT.
      • ...

        Did you just write that RT is a dying platform and therefore people would be wise to invest in a growing platform such as Chromebooks?
        • Yes, he did...

      • You always give bad advice, but then what else should we expect?

        The best way to go here where you won't/can't go wrong, to buy into the certain future: Windows first, OSX Second.

        Android/Chromebook, there are too many ways to go wrong, and history has shown that if a Google product doesn't hit a percentage point, it's gone, so chances are very good that Chromebooks will likely be an orphaned platform soon.

        But if you prefer soon to be orphaned platforms, you can consider Chromebooks. You won't lose too much money at least.
        William Farrel