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Hands-On with the Microsoft Surface RT

At the Microsoft Surface launch event on Thursday, 300 Surface devices were made available to the press to test for about an hour. Here are my first impressions from my limited time with the device:

Look and Feel: The device, with its VaporMG casing and its 200 custom-fit parts, feels very light but completely solid. The click as the keyboard attaches to the tablet is satisfying. More importantly, the click is useful in the sense that you know for sure that the keyboard is properly seated. I tested Microsoft's claim that the aligning magnets make it possible to attach the keyboard without looking, and it's true. As for the kickstand, which holds the tablet component up at an angle for use with the keyboard or for watching videos, it also worked perfectly. I'm not sure I buy the design point that it feels like closing an expensive car door when shutting the kickstand, but it's about as good as personal electronics get.


Ergonomics: The ergonomics of the device are very nice. I used it mostly standing at a table, but found it pretty comfortable. It would have been nice to be able to adjust the kickstand to be able to angle the screen a little higher, but I completely understand why Microsoft chose to do what it did. I wouldn't be using the device in this standing position for a long time (or any time) in any circumstances other than this limited test, anyway.

Touch Cover: The Surface can come with two types of magnetically attachable keyboards. The main option is the Touch Cover, which has keys that don't move. Typing on the Touch Cover takes some getting used to. I found myself making a lot of mistakes, but I'll take Microsoft Surface team leader Panos Panay at his word during the keynote that it takes four to five days to fully get used to. The feel of the Touch Cover is unique -- the closest thing I can compare it to is tapping lightly on cement through a light rubber cover. That might sound negative; in fact, it's a reassuring feeling.

Type Cover: Microsoft also made available the Type Cover for testing. I greatly preferred it. It's not as aesthetically pleasing as the Touch Cover -- it's slightly thicker and comes only in black, while the Touch Cover comes in black, white, blue, orange, pink and red. But the Type Cover has movable keys, which feel much more like a laptop keyboard. Typing on the Type Cover takes no time to get used to and is very accurate. It costs $10 more, but it's well worth it for people expecting to do a lot of typing.

Durability: So, for a while I lived in Missouri, the "Show Me" state. When Panay hung the Surface by its Touch Cover during the Surface keynote, it impressed me. The minute I got to the table, I tried it. The magnets held and I'm happy to report that I didn't break one of Microsoft's first Surfaces. One of the journalists next to me was even braver/more reckless. He took Panay's claim that the thing could be dropped 72 different ways very literally and immediately dropped his test unit on the carpeted floor from over waist-height. It kept on working fine.

Laptop Use: Some reviewers have complained about sitting down and using the Surface. I sat on the floor for a bit and found it easy to use. There were some periods when the keyboard (the Type Cover, in this case) didn't register some keystrokes, but I suspect it's a matter of getting used to putting the right amount of pressure on it. I didn't experience that problem on the table.

Video Mode: I launched the Netflix app and started the first episode of "The Walking Dead." The 16:9 aspect ratio worked well with the video and the picture was sharp and bright.

Tablet Mode: As a tablet, the device was indeed "fast and fluid," as Microsoft is fond of saying. There's a slight but noticeable delay when shifting from portrait to landscape mode, but otherwise the screen was extremely responsive. Having tried a number of Microsoft's gestures before, the learning curve was fairly slight to use the various apps available on the system.

Office 2013: I wrote most of this review in the preview version of Word 2013 that comes with the Surface RT and found it virtually identical to using Word 2010 on a Windows 7 system in that limited use-case. Also present are Excel 2013, PowerPoint 2013 and OneNote 2013. A Microsoft tech also downloaded a version of OneNote optimized for the new user interface. I didn't get much of a chance to test that, but it looked promising. The one annoyance in Word was in the dual-screen multitasking mode for Windows RT. When Word is in the small column view, it appears only as an unusable icon on a desktop background. You have to click on it to see what's in it, and then it goes back to taking up the larger screen. This is a multitasking problem for people like me who live in Word for notetaking, although the new UI OneNote is one way around it.

Multitasking: The multitasking scenarios in the Surface RT were refreshingly robust. As a power user, I had fairly low expectations for the two-app limitation on open windows. However, the way the system handles tasks like clicking on links from one of the apps by switching that app to the browser was nicely thought out. As a journalist who interviews people, one of the demos in the keynote struck me as especially useful. It's using the Surface's rear-facing camera to record the room on a third of the screen while taking notes in OneNote on the rest of the screen. The rear-facing camera's angle makes it possible to record an interview subject on video while simultaneously typing notes. A test on the Surface worked well for me.

Apps: I didn't have time to surf through the Windows Store so I can't say how many of the few thousand available apps look useful to me.

My Snap Judgment: I could work and play on this device and will consider it as my next PC. I suspect the Surface Pro version to come in January would be far more robust for work environments (and more expensive), but in a short test, the Surface RT was surprisingly strong.

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Posted by Scott Bekker on October 25, 2012


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