Today I got a chance to take my first hands-on look at the new Windows 8 tablet from Microsoft the Surface RT.  My expectations were pretty low because most of what I had read had talked about how there was no software for the RT version and that overall it wasn’t a great experience.  So, off to the new Microsoft Store in North Star Mall in San Antonio to see what the reality was.

 

 

First Impression:

The surface is a very sleek device with a nice form factor.  It seems to be a bit thicker than the new iPads, but I am not sure if that is true or not.  I do like the beveled edge and how that feels in your hand.  The kickstand is a neat idea…but when I was testing it at a kiosk at the store, the viewing angle was a bit off for me.  Since it isn’t adjustable that may prove to be more of a problem in the future…but is a vast improvement over the iPad (sans after market case).  It is also possible that a third party after market case might resolve that issue completely.

 

WP_000476.jpg
 

Touch KB versus Type KB:

The next big concern for me (and it comes from a complaint about my iPad) was how easy will it be to type on the Surface.  Once you add in the $120 touch KB or the $130 Type KB the price of a Surface matches the iPads (however I also spent that money on an Apple KB).  Since the Surface has a standard USB port, you can plug in your own USB KB and mouse and it will work just fine.

 
First I tried out the Type KB because I figured that I would like it the most.  It feels very similar to a laptop with a satisfying click and the mechanical depression to click the key.  I had a bit of trouble with the “e” key, but I think that was more of just my crappy four finger typing style as opposed to a real problem.  I was very impressed by the feel and ability to type quickly with few errors (well no worse then I am on any KB).  It felt very natural and my biggest surprise was the ease with which I could work with the document I was typing (see below).
 
WP_000479.jpg

I then tried out a Touch KB cover and it was a bit of a struggle for the first 20 words or so.  I made many mistakes and it was very odd.  The keys themselves are slightly raised and that lead to me being able to learn to type on it rather quickly.  You can almost touch type (not that I can touch type), but I was able to start to type pretty fast after just a short time.  Not as easily as the Type KB, but decently well.  I did miss the tactile feel of a key press that lets me know that I really have hit the key (which for me is really important because I have to look at the KB when I type instead of looking at the screen like a real typist does with out that tactile feeling.  I do like the neat colors that it comes it and I wish that the Type KB came in neat colors.
 

What REALLY Matters:

So, the really important question is…can it be used for anything?  When I got an iPad I said that it was an amazing content consumption device.  I loved to read books on it, to watch movies, to surf web pages (although that really fell apart with later released of iOS and now I refuse to surf any web page on my iPad because it invariably blows up and the response time is abysmal).  Perhaps it would be better if I was still running an older version of iOS…but that seems ludicrous to suggest that their later versions of iOS make earlier hardware unusable.  This was the primary reason that ended up getting a Kindle Fire and givng my iPad to my six year old.  It works great for him.

So, one of my biggest complaints about the iPad was that I could not do any REAL work on it.  A co-worker would send me a Word document, or an Excel workbook and even after I purchased Pages, Numbers, and Keynote…I could not edit them and send them back.  Each App fundamentally changed the Office document and saved it to the older version of Office.  I had thought that Surface RT would not be valuable since most of the talking heads said that software was going to be scarce and that only RT apps would work.  I took this to mean that only the "Modern UI" apps would be available.  Then I found out that this is not the case.  The SurfaceRT includes a copy of Office.  Word, Excel, Powerpoint (but not Outlook) all version 2013.  One of the best parts is that it actually runs on what looks like a traditional Windows 7 desktop (actually the Windows 8 desktop, but they are very similar).  This means that unlike in Pages, Numbers, or Keynote, I can actually work on multiple files at one…what a concept.  I can open up last weeks status report and this weeks status report at the same time and see them side by side and cut and paste between them…what a concept.  This is what makes Surface a real device that can be used in the office for day to day tasks.

WP_000475.jpg

As you can see from this photo, this isn’t an App that I am running that is some Word funcationality…this is teh real deal.  I didn’t dig deeply into all of the featuers to see if they were all there…but it certainly looked like they were.  I didn’t have time to dig into Excel or Pwoerpoint, but they looked like there were there as well.

Laptop Relacement or Toy?

When I got my iPad back in 2010 I was looking for a laptop replacement for sales meetings, or casual use both at home and the office.  For a while it seemed like the iPad would come through, but it was the lack of Office, combined with the difficulty of creating content without a KB (and even after yuo got one the slow switch from App to App that made the iPad into a toy eventually.  Surface is not a toy…and while I am certain that great games and content will be developed for it…this is a working persons device.  It goes back to a post I wrote a long time ago when Apple passed MS in Market Capitalization.  "Apple makes products that we want to use, Microsoft makes products that we have to use".  You don’t have to use Surface, but if you want a real work device that is a tablet form factor…this is the device for you.

So, does that mean that it can be a laptop replacement?  This remains to be seen.  It will not run any software since it does not have an Intel processor, but the selection of Apps if great if you want to do standard style office work.  Development of new Apps is also going to be much easier than iOS since all you will need is a computer with Visual Studio.  As a laptop replacement for an Information Worker, SurfaceRT is a great tool.  For a developer or pwoer user…they are going to have some issues.  If your people need to access an app that runs on their desktop they might have a problem as it may not run (and you may not be able to recompile it easily for Windows 8 RT).  Those people may want a Surface Pro (coming in January).  This will have an Intel i5 processor and be significantly more capable and may even be able to run Virtual PCs or Visual Studio.  For me…I likely will wait for a Pro for myself, but I am fairly certain that for my wife (a writer) a Surface RT is exactly what she would need and want. 

 

WP_000478.jpg
 

Last Thoughts

 

A few things that bear being talked about.  If you work in an office, you often need to be able to connect to a projector.  SurfaceRT makes this a cinch with a built in  Mini-HDMI port.  You can purchase an "official" Surface HDMI cable for $40, or you can find one elsewhere for less ( isaw a 6′ one on Amazon for $2.52).  You can also purchase a standard VGA adaptor from Microsoft for $40 and that may be a decent price I found as Amazon has them for about $35.  One question I do think about is if I should purchase a more robust case.  My iPad has taken many a spill and as a result the On/Off switch no longer works.  I have been lucky that the glass has not broken.  The Surface is supposed to have a Gorilla Glass face which should make it quite durable, but I do worry about spills and tumbles.  You can purchase two years of insurance for $99 which covers drops and liquid spills…sounds like a great deal to me.  I have not seen any after market cases in leather or like an OtterBox…but I suspect that they will come with time.