Surface RT: My week on the road with Microsoft's tablet

Surface RT: My week on the road with Microsoft's tablet

Summary: The reviews may be in, but what's it really like to use a Surface tablet as part of your workaday toolkit?


It's been over a week since the Windows 8 launch in New York, and that means it's been 12 days since I bought a 64GB Surface RT device with a Touch Cover in Microsoft's Times Square pop-up store.

It's been a week of travel, of conferences and meetings, of small hotel rooms and sleeping in friends' spare rooms and on sofa beds. In short, pretty much the ideal circumstances to get to grip with a new device. In fact, the ideal circumstance to use it in anger and write a 1,300 word post in coffeshops and motels on the long drive from Seattle to Las Vegas.

It really is a carry-along PC, much more a laptop replacement and companion than a traditional tablet.

The first thing you notice about Surface is the packaging. There's been a trend to simplicity in Microsoft hardware's design language, and Surface's box is part of that trend. Don't expect anything fancy in the unboxing videos — it's just a cardboard box with a few words on it — including a clear note that Surface RT won't run all your desktop applications.

There's more than enough battery charge to get online and get set up — and to do at least half a day's work. You'll need a Wi-Fi connection to start the sync with your Microsoft Account, which can take some time over slow Manhattan motel connections.

Surface itself is light, and easy to carry thanks to its chamfered edges. It's about the same weight as a naked iPad, and with the TouchCover is lighter than an iPad in a third-party case. The 16:9 form factor is very different — it's naturally landscape, not portrait, and the batteries are placed to balance it nicely in two hands, ready for thumb-typing.

We'll need to wait for third-party cases for Surface, because it's not even worth trying to squeeze a wide-screen device like Surface into an iPad case.

Surface and TouchCover

The TouchCover is Microsoft's main selling point for the Surface, and it turns out to be surprisingly comfortable and easy to use. It does take a while to get used to just how you type on the pressure-sensitive keys, but for a relatively fast two-finger typist like me it's only an hour or two before you're typing at 70 to 80 percent of your normal keyboard speed — which for me is also about twice my speed on a screen keyboard.

I also spent time with the more normal-looking TypeCover, but found myself going back to the TouchCover again and again — it was easier to use, and more amenable to my hard-hitting two-fingered typing style.

It is possible to use Surface on your lap, but it's not the most comfortable typing position, and you do need to get used to how the TouchCover flexes as you type. One option is to type with the Surface on your lap with the kickstand folded away. It's a reasonable way to use the Surface when taking notes, when you don't need to look at the screen — but it's a lot easier to put it on a table or a desk when you're interacting with applications.

Of course there's also the option to use the on-screen keyboard, and there I've found the split-keyboard option good for taking notes via thumb-typing while talking to people, or for when you don't have much space.

Perhaps the weakest part of the Surface design is the power connector. While it's magnetic, it's not the forceful click of the keyboard covers. You do need to seat it carefully, and there's a distinct preference for one specific orientation — which isn't the most obvious.

Even so, it doesn't take too long to get used to the connector, especially when you get the feel for the angle of the Surface's chamfered sides. You'll know you've made a connection when a small white LED in the L-shaped power connector starts glowing. Charging is fast, from flat to full in a couple of hours.

Windows Store content ramp-up

In anticipation of Surface, I'd spent the summer only using Windows Store applications on one of our test Windows 8 machines, so I knew that Windows RT would be able to handle most of my needs. As the Windows Store content ramped up in advance of launch, I was able to fill many of the gaps — including finding a good Google Reader-linked RSS reader, a version of OneNote, Skype, along with a good mix of travel tools and casual games. For basic system administration, I can use Remote Desktop to connect to my servers.

No matter how you think about Surface, one thing is clear: it needs to work with cloud services

Of course I've been able to use them all from my Android tablet, but I've been finding the Android UI less than intuitive, and for the past couple of months have been trying to control it with Windows 8 gestures.

The Galaxy Tab ended up relegated to the bedroom, where it picks up overnight emails for the morning, and lets me read webcomics in bed. That doesn't seem to be the destiny of my Surface, as it does one more thing.

What I've been looking in a tablet for years now has been something that's light, powerful, and above all, able to run Office. That's why my last four laptops have been tablet PCs. They've all been powerful, they've all run Office, but they have never ever been light. That's where Surface has the advantage.

It runs a version of Office with most of tools I need: Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. It's the non-commercial use Office Home and Student edition, but because I have an Office 365 Enterprise plan I have the licence needed to use them for commercial purposes.

While some have criticised Microsoft for removing VBA from Office RT, I don't need macros, so don't miss it at all. I suspect that most large-scale macro usage remains in Excel, and there Surface becomes an effective client for cloud or server-hosted Excel Services — which can run macros and deliver the data to Surface's Excel for reporting, analysis and viewing. Just remember to download the 500MB Office update to replace the bundled Office 2013 Preview with the final bits.

At its best with cloud services

No matter how you think about Surface, one thing is clear: it needs to work with cloud services. Office works best with SkyDrive to synchronise file between PCs and tablets, and phones. With SkyDrive and Office 365, Surface becomes a lightweight extension of your existing workflow, one that lets you pick it up and take it with you.

That means you do need a Wi-Fi connection, either direct or through a MiFi or a tethered mobile phone to get the most of Surface. Even so, it does work offline, as new documents are cached locally before uploading to SkyDrive as soon as you're back in Wi-Fi coverage.

Mark Anderson, the analyst behind the Strategic News Service mailing list, has been talking about the carry-along PC for many years. Carry-along PCs are small and light, fitting in a bag. They're instantly on, with access to information and to tools. They're not your primary PC, but they're the PC you have with you — ready to take notes, to handle email, or to waste a few moments with a game. They're what netbooks could have been, and what the current generation of tablets aspires to become.

That's certainly how I see my Surface. It's light, and if it's not yet got all the apps I use — or reasonable facsimiles thereof — in its Office suite, it's got the 20 percent that do 80 percent of what I need.

That means that if I don't want to carry my laptop with me, I can just grab the Surface, drop it in my backpack, and have a machine that will let me take notes, keep in touch with my social networks, write copy, read email — and play a few games as I go. It really is a carry-along PC, much more a laptop replacement and companion than a traditional tablet.

Topics: Microsoft, Mobility, Tablets, Windows

Simon Bisson

About Simon Bisson

Simon Bisson is a freelance technology journalist. He specialises in architecture and enterprise IT. He ran one of the UK's first national ISPs and moved to writing around the time of the collapse of the first dotcom boom. He still writes code.

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  • Another "week with the surface" review here

    I came across this review of "a week with the Surface RT" that is a bit long but goes into a little more detail:
    • When is it all going to stop?

      Is there any other tech news these days besides Microsoft this, Microsoft that. Lots of pro Microsoft writers here at ZDNet!!
      Arm A. Geddon
      • One more thing.

        Is Microsoft going to include some crayons with that toy UI formally known as Metro?

        p.s. Windows 7 + Aero FTW!!
        Arm A. Geddon
      • I'm so sorry

        I'm so sorry you are forced to read these articles. Most of us are lucky enough that we can read only the ones we want to.
      • So, since it's for the most part standing up on it's own merits

        and is getting favorable reviews, that means that Surface actually sucks, and any positives is because of Lots of pro Microsoft writers here at ZDNet!!

        Does that go for the iPad too? You know, it actually sucks, but lots of pro Apple writers here at ZDNet give it undo praise?

        You did read the last paragraphe, right?

        "I’ve had a lot of negative things to say, so you might think I’m going to return my Surface, but I’m not (though I might exchange it for a 64GB Surface with Type Cover). Despite the rough edges, I am quite pleased with the overall Surface experience. The hardware is awesome, Windows RT is stable, and the Metro user interface creates a great tablet user experience. There is work to do to polish the experience, and the platform needs apps, but the Surface works well today as both a content creation and content consumption device. I’m looking forward to watching the platform develop over the next few years."
        William Farrel
        • Another way of identifying troll reviews

          We have people like James Kendrick who love their iPads + keyboards because he can be so productive on it. It is a tablet. It is a PC. It is everything he hoped it would be once he added a keyboard to it.

          Add a keyboard to a Surface tablet? Suddenly it doesn't know what it wants to be. It is a tweener. It isn't a tablet (because it has a keyboard). It isn't a PC (because it can't run legacy Windows apps - we'll just ignore the fact that iPad can't either).

          Reviews that are critical of the Surface are absolutely okay. There is plenty to criticize the Surface about. There is plenty to criticize the iPad and the iPhone about. None of these devices are perfect. It is reviews of the Surface that are critical of it in ways that simply can't be defended or in ways that are NEVER important when that reviewer is reviewing an iDevice that are absolutely not okay.
          • BTW, did anyone notice

            the iPhone 5 after updating to iOS 6.0.1 is not able to disconnect the calls after ending the call. It takes a minute to two and if the other side is answering system, it takes until the other side actually disconnects even if you are call originator?
            Ram U
          • No, none of the reviewers mentioned that

            But let's get back to something important since wasting voice plan minutes isn't a big deal for a phone.

            Did anyone notice that when you change the screen orientation in the Surface, the animation isn't the same as it is with the iPad? It is important things like this that make iPad so great and the Surface so sucky.

          • Two words for ya...


          • Sorry but no

            With two iPhone 5s running 6.0.1 I can attest that doesn't happen.
          • Actually Surface knows what it wants to be.

            A tablet or laptop depending on your need at that moment.
          • Every device/product in existence is worthy of some criticism

            I have zero issue articles that are accurately critical of the iPad or deservedly praising the Surface RT (even if I can't stand the UI) but what I don't sit back and lot slide is FUD or flat out lies posted by the likes of you.
      • You are right, I wish there was more reporting on Apple today

        AAPL is at $549.45 right now. $700 just 2 months ago. It has lost 22% of its value in 2 months. Why isn't there more reporting about this?

        I only feel bad for all those people who have made it clear they believe that a product is only as good as the share price of the company that hires Foxconn to design and manufacture that product. All those iPods and iPhones and iPads and iMacs and MacBooks are 20% worse today than they were 2 months ago. 20% slower. 20% less stability. 20% less intuitive.

        • A question of faith

          It is not interesting to know it is reliable, the truth or even if it has sense or value in our daily live. Christianism is going down the drain in many part of the world and nobody is talking about it. Why should we talk about the fact that Apple's economic future is not as bright? Believers will continue to believe.

          Besides, Ms has this new gizmo and Apple is old news.

          Besides. Ms has this new gizmo and Apple is old news.
          • If I understand you correctly

            you are stating that you kneel to the alter of MS and like any zealot believe whatever negatives you hear about others?

            Hey, to each their own but don't be a fool and blindly follow one.
        • Great point Todd.

          I have also noticed that some people/reviewers are putting negatives to the Surface for things it does better or as good as other tablets.

          -Surface doesn't run desktop applications, yet neither does iOS or Android and they are not criticized for it.
          -The kickstand isn't adjustable (yet it isn't listed as a positive feature of the tablet)
          -Office for home users doesn't come with a business license (most other tablets don't even have a office suite)

          The expectations seem really out of line sometimes.
          • Personal opinions and observations are what these are called

            Desktop apps: Of course iOS and Android are not criticized for not running desktop apps but neither is the Surface RT. MS is being criticized for blurring the lines with the average consumer and not making it clear to them that it won't run desktop apps but that is complete different than stating it's a negative for the device.

            Kickstand: Those that I have seen mention this have stated that it would be nice if it was adjustable as the kickstands on cases for the iPad and Android devices usually are. It's an opinion/observation not a negative don't buy because this comment.

            Office: Again a valid point that has bblurredured by marketing. Do other devices come with Office out of the box, no. But with those other devices you have option both for free and for a charge with are licensed for commercial use but even though the Surface comes with Office if you want to use it for commercial work you have to buy another license. Essentially including Office is only marketing for MS because it's no more of a benefit than the free options on the other devices.
        • As usual

          More FUD for bottom feeder. What's even more pathetic is the small minded people that go to the trouble of voting for FUD or hate posts like this one no matter what side they are on.
      • Why do you care what they write about?

        Is it really hurting you if other people like the Surface? It works for them, it's the tool they use. And that's all computers are, a tool.
        Michael Alan Goff
      • What are you mad about exactly?

        You are upset becasue it has good reviews? Search the internet for bad reviews then. You can do it with any product. If you dont liike how its got good reviwes, stop reading them.