A second look: The mighty Surface RT tablet

It might work best as a laptop, not a tablet

NEW YORK -- The Surface RT tablet goes on sale starting at $499 for the 32 GB version at 12:01 a.m. Friday, and it seems to be a rough-and-tumble device.

After a Microsoft official intentionally dropped a Surface RT tablet onto a carpeted floor without damaging it, reporters at the Windows 8 event were allowed to try the tablets for a few minutes. Several reporters did just about everything but drop the devices, but there was still a lot of poking and prodding.

The Microsoft Surface tablet comes with a built-in kickstand.In pictures: Microsoft Surface -- 'A PC, a tablet and new'

The metal case of the Windows RT is a big change over Android tablets. It's not nearly the elegant, sleek design of the iPad either. I'm not sure I like the sharper edges of the Surface, as I wrote back in June. But if you add either the Touch or Type cover that doubles as a keyboard, with the magnetic hinge, you can't tell if the edges are sharp.

The metal kickstand on the back of the tablet opens and closes with a click and is essential for using the Surface and cover/keyboard to make it stand upright.

I tried out both cover keyboards for touch typing (sold separately) as well as the on-screen touch keyboard. For my typing skills, which are pretty fast, only the Type cover would work. I found that the keys on the Type cover kept track of my typing, while the Touch cover's keys don't give much. I found that trying to type fast was an effort just to avoid leaving out spaces between words.

The touchscreen keyboard was no better for me, even though it offers some impressive shortcuts for finding other symbols and letters. For example, by striking a lower right key like the question mark, a user can slide off to the right in a gesture (since it's a touchscreen) to type the important @ symbol. That's impressive, but I'm not sure I'd ever use those shortcuts.

A big question for buyers will be whether to buy the Windows RT machine to use at work, but IT managers might advise against it because the tablet won't run older Windows apps. It ships with OneNote, Word, Excel and PowerPoint in the Office Home and Student 2013 edition. That edition excludes Outlook email, but it can be set up to contact an enterprise email server, Microsoft said.

The touchscreen functions on the Windows RT device were snappy. Swipes were as quick as on any iPad or Android tablet that I've tested. That was a reassuring ingredient in the new machine.

After trying it for a while, I found the home screen with its live tiles to be easy to understand. I could touch a tile and jump right into an app or other function. As with Windows Phone live tiles, it is a big achievement for Microsoft.

The only thing I found confusing with the interface was that I kept wanting to use the tablet like a laptop with the cover keyboard. Instead of touching the screen, I kept reverting to using the touch mouse on the cover keyboard or the directional keys. I would think using it as a standalone tablets device for work tasks might take a while to master.

Overall, the Surface RT looks like a solid machine. At $499 to start, it comes with a premium price compared to other tablets sell for as low as $199 (with less storage), but Microsoft is positioning Surface as a competitor to the iPad, albeit a more rugged one.

Potential buyers will want to spent a while trying out the touch commands after it goes on sale Friday at Microsoft stores and other retailers. Even though the tablet is obviously physically durable, the real question is whether users will adapt to the touch interface quickly. Some like me might just want to use it as a modified laptop with the Touch or Type cover in place.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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Tags Mobile/WirelessNetworkingMicrosoftwirelesshardware systemsWindowssoftwaretabletsoperating systemsmobile

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