Typing on a Microsoft Surface RT: great, but no sale

Typing on a Microsoft Surface RT: great, but no sale

Summary: Microsoft's Surface RT is a great tablet and good enough to do real work in Office, if you invest in a Type keyboard. But it's still a bit less than a full laptop replacement….

TOPICS: Tablets, Laptops, Windows

I've just spent a week using a Surface RT outfit on loan from Microsoft, from which you'll gather that I didn't rush out and buy one -- unlike many of my ZD Net colleagues. While I enjoyed using it, particularly as a tablet, the loaner didn't change my mind. But if you're thinking of treating yourself for Christmas, or whatever, I can tell you that the Type cover is a good deal.

The first thing I did with the Surface RT was test my typing speed in words per minute using one of the online services: typeonline.co.uk. If you'd asked, I'd have said the Type cover felt a bit slower than a "real" keyboard such as the Microsoft Comfort Curve 2000, which I happen to be using at the moment. When the result came up, I was surprised to find my Type cover score was 1wpm faster.

Surface_RT_two_covers (600 x 196)
Touch cover (left) and Type cover keyboards for the Surface RT. Credit: Microsoft

With the standard, non-responsive Touch cover, my typing was two-thirds as fast, and I didn't really enjoy the experience. You can probably get used to it, and thus narrow the gap to a "real" keyboard, but why would you? The Type cover is only 6mm thick, compared to the Touch cover's 3mm, and there is no practical value to the extra thinness.

Trying to touch-type directly on the Surface RTs screen was a bit of a disaster, and my wpm score tumbled to only 40 percent of my normal speed. I usually resort to more of a two-finger style with onscreen keyboards, because screens are not very good for touch-typing. (You can't rest your fingers on the home keys.) I was a bit surprised how low my score was, though it was still rather better than the 25 percent speed I managed with the same test on my Google Nexus 7.

Both keyboard covers are extremely convenient to use, because they click on and off in a second. I found this contrasted with my use of an Asus Transformer running Android. With the new hinge design, it's very easy to remove the tablet part of a Transformer from the keyboard dock, but not as easy as with Surface RT. The result is that you do it much more often, and thus make better use of the device.

Surface RT kickstand
Surface RT kickstand

The Surface's built-in kickstand is another very convenient feature, and thus gets more use than a separate stand. The drawback is the fixed viewing angle. I would often have preferred the screen less upright, which is simple with a laptop, and more or less impossible with the kickstand. (It might be even worse if you're taller.)

The Surface RT is such a gorgeous bit of hardware that I might still buy one, but it would probably be a Surface Pro with an Intel processor. In effect, this would be a replacement Windows laptop that happens to come with a "free" tablet. However, I suspect I'm more likely to go for a touch-screen Asus or Lenovo PC that works better as a laptop than as a tablet. Good as the Type cover is, by tablet standards, I wouldn't want to use one for the extended keyboard work I often need to do.

Surface RT is a great tablet, and it has a much better user interface than either an Apple iPad or an Android tablet. It's also more than a tablet, and the bundled Microsoft Office and a Type keyboard means it's capable of doing real work both for home and enterprise users. However, it's still a bit less than a real Intel-based laptop, and more of a companion device than a replacement.


Topics: Tablets, Laptops, Windows

Jack Schofield

About Jack Schofield

Jack Schofield spent the 1970s editing photography magazines before becoming editor of an early UK computer magazine, Practical Computing. In 1983, he started writing a weekly computer column for the Guardian, and joined the staff to launch the newspaper's weekly computer supplement in 1985. This section launched the Guardian’s first website and, in 2001, its first real blog. When the printed section was dropped after 25 years and a couple of reincarnations, he felt it was a time for a change....

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  • I always chuckle when

    Microsoft Office is assumed as the vital tool without which no work can ever be accomplished.
    • Yeah.

      No "REAL" work, especially. :)
    • One City thinks so.

      In Germany, where they are very much for FOSS.

      • That is because OpenOffice blows chunks

        when trying to do anything that requires more than just 2 level of bullets.

        I like OpenOffice, but it still sucks at what it is supposed to do. Particualary, it still sucks are re-opening documents written on the same version, same machine.

        If I can't open a document and make it look the same as designed on the exact same software/hardware used to write it ... how the hell do you expect me to use the suite in a business environment??
        • Probably cause Libre Office is better...

          than Open Office.

          That said, neither is MS Office nor can they be without, in all probability, tripping over a patent MS has or some patent troll has or thinks they have.

          Software is a tool. If you like it keep using it. If you don't then don't use it.

          I don't have problems reopening documents and having them look the same as the original in OO.org and certainly not in Libre Office. Libre Office also does better than 4 levels of bullet points though I'd wonder what the author is up to should they need more than 4.
          • Libre better??

            I guess you have never really used Libre on real work.

            Libre is actually WORST at re-opening documents written with it and saved in "native" format. While with Apache it is a tossup, with Libre it is a guarantee that the document won't look anywhere near the original format.
    • True, Office is only useful to hundreds of millions

      I always chuckle when it is assumed that Apple has the better, more intuitive UI, just because it is Apple.
      • True, Office is slipping

        Sales of Office are driving profits in MS most successful division but Wall Street is not impressed. As Windows adoption decreases and sales of W8 languish, so go sales of Office. Office's sales are driven by Enterprise and guess where those sales go as Enterprise shifts quickly to BYOD. Hence the reason MS Marketers like Todd lead with Office in the W8 device pitch. It's the only bright spot at MS and its fading fast.
        • Office slipping

          The original business of Microsoft was to write software for someone else's computer system, for example Apple's. Then came IBM and convinced Microsoft they could have their cake and eat it. Then, IBM quit. Perhaps, to watch the show with a huge cup of popcorn.

          Microsoft's only salvation will be to bring Microsoft Office to as many platforms as they manage. Rival Office suites already do that and are quite successful.
          • 2 x iBaaa's in a row!

            Love these forums, with the iBaa's in one corner, the Windoze fanboi's in another and just to complete the triangle the Linux Greeks. lol
            At least you too are keeping it clean. ;-)
      • lol

        Apples UI is comparable to a Leapfrog toy for tots. Win 8 is the cream of the crop for UI experience on a mobile or touch enabled device. It's even great on a keyboard and mouse.
        • Ummm... No

          Definitely NOT great for keyboard and mouse. And once you get over the neat little squares, it's really drab and not that special. Very little customization available. Fail.
          Technical John
        • Says who?

          The early adopters weren't impressed. Both the Kin, and the Zune failed. WP is the demented offspring of that incestuous breeding.
          Troll Hunter J
      • more

        I've read several places where Office usage is approaching 1 Billion people
        • 1 billion people use Office?

          So, there are 1 billion adults that own computers?

          Actually no.
      • It may be more accurate, Toddy,...

        ...to say that it's USED by hundreds of millions, but the number of those who truly find all the features of this Masterpiece of Overkill USEFUL would probably be about.000000001% of that number.
        • It may be

          It may not be.

          It certainly didn't take me long to run into massive barriers with every office suite I could find on the iPad. These barriers were completely eliminated once I switched from the iPad to the Surface RT.

          Your experience switching from the iPad to the Surface RT may be different though.
    • Why's that?

      In the business world you can't accomplish much with anything less then Office. If I send out a report or spreadsheet with a rinky-dink substitute found on an Ipad or Android device I'd be out of a job. Office and business go hand in hand. Compatibility across all businesses is also a major factor!
      • Really?

        What makes you think so? Have you ever used any other Office suite?

        Most other Office suites produce better formatted .DOC files than Microsoft's Office itself.
        The iWork suite on the iPad at least, can produce perfectly compatible MS Office documents.
        Plus, it's way easier to work with, than MS Office.

        After a lot of resistance, Microsoft eventually followed with the Open Document Format.

        What you say makes absolutely no sense.
        • iWork compatibility and usability is very weak

          I actually found iWork to be the worst of all the office suites on iPad. I guess if your formatting never goes beyond bolding and italics, Pages does okay. Numbers, Keynote are pure disasters from top to bottom.

          I gave up using any of the office suites on iPad and stuck with Notes Plus. I would take whatever notes I needed and then when I was in front of a functioning computing device, would create my Office documents from my notes. Surface RT has improved my productivity about 100 fold.