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

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.
Written by Ken Hess, Contributor

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:

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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