Review: Microsoft's Surface RT will make even a fanboy cry

Is it a laptop or a tablet? The Surface makes a valiant attempt at being both -- but leaves you yearning for one or the other

You have to give Microsoft credit for creating an iPad competitor that's more than a copy. Yes, the Surface RT is roughly the same size and weight as the iPad, but it's truly its own device. For one thing, it comes with Microsoft Office by default. For another, the bundled cover, which doubles as a keyboard, tells you the Surface is meant to be used more as a laptop than as a touch tablet. The built-in kickstand, which positions the touchscreen vertically, reinforces that fundamental difference with the iPad, which for the most part is meant to be used horizontally.

After using a Surface tablet, it became crystal clear that the Surface is really an Office appliance, not a tablet à la the iPad. But it's not a very good Office appliance. One reason is that the hardware doesn't work well for Office, even with the bundled keyboard cover, because the Office apps are nearly unusable with the touchscreen and just so-so with the keyboard's trackpad. You'll want a laptop's superior input hardware if you do a lot of Office work. Even then, you'll suffer from the poor Windows touch environment, where text selection is difficult, gestures are limited, and the heavy reliance on menus is interruptive.

If you're looking just for a tablet, not an Office appliance, the Surface is also a disappointment. Metro apps are few, and those that exist are largely limited both in their functionality and by their menu-oriented interface. You can do a lot more with an iPad or Android tablet with greater comfort.

It's enough to make a Microsoft fan weep over what could -- and should -- have been.

[ InfoWorld rates Windows 8's and RT's bundled Metro apps -- are they as good as the iPad's? | J. Peter Bruzzese explains Windows RT's security options. ]

Text and touch don't mix wellThe key software in the Surface is in fact Microsoft Office RT 2013 Preview, consisting of Word, Excel, OneNote, and PowerPoint. Sure, three good Office-compatible suites are available for the iPad, but many users want the "real" Office. You get it with the Surface, which provides nearly all the capabilities you get with Office on a desktop and more than you get from an iPad app. For example, Office RT supports linked spreadsheets, unlike the iPad office editors. And Office RT supports landscape printing, otherwise seen onlywith  Apple's Numbers on the iPad.

The Office apps don't support a zoom gesture as iOS and Android do, but they provide a touch slider you can use to quickly enlarge the document view -- which you'll want to do on the Surface's cramped screen. Your menu options and ribbon options don't resize along with the document, so you may need reading glasses if you're nearsighted.

Office on the Surface is Office sans Outlook -- essentially, it's the Student & Home Edition, so you'll know how to use it immediately. Because it's the home edition, you're not permitted to use it for business documents unless your company also has a business Office license for you. That's just silly. Fortunately, Microsoft can't check, so you can work with it as you please.

Though the Surface has the same Office 2013 you get on a PC, using it on a Surface is annoying. The big reason: Text selection is very difficult with the touchscreen -- in Office and other apps. You'd think you can tap on text to move the cursor position, but that doesn't work. Instead, the text is selected sometimes, and contextual menus appear other times. (It seems to depend on how long you hold the tap.)

What you need to do is use the trackpad on the Touch Keyboard cover bundled with most Surface configurations to position your cursor in text. I also found that using the cover's cursor keys rather than trying to use the trackpad was more accurate when doing fine editing, such as moving the cursor a few characters from the current location.

If you're not at a desk or using a surface such as an airline tray table that puts the screen at a hard-to-read angle (the screen angle is not adjustable), you have to go through the onscreen keyboard to edit and the touchscreen to select. My condolences -- you're in for a rough experience. The onscreen keyboard is well designed, but the default version doesn't have the cursor keys you'll realistically need if using Office. Instead, you have to switch to the full onscreen keyboard, which is not as well-suited for touch typing as the standard onscreen keyboard is.

It's ironic that Microsoft's premier touch device needs a traditional keyboard and trackpad to make Office useful. The Windows RT touch UI (the same as Windows 8's) simply doesn't work well with legacy Windows applications -- including Office 2013, despite a cleaner design than Office 2010.

The Web doesn't quite workInput issues aren't limited to text entry and editing. I wanted to write this review on the Surface itself, but I couldn't. Why? Because the Internet Explorer 10 browser -- both the limited Metro version and the full version that comes with Office 2013 -- works poorly with websites using AJAX controls. For example, I could not select text in the Drupal-based InfoWorld content management system's text fields when using IE10, as I can in Android's and iOS's browsers. The TinyMCE plug-in that provides Office-like formatting features also does not work in IE10; the controls are visible but don't respond to taps. By contrast, they work in iOS, though only partially in Android.

I also experienced problems using Google Docs on the Surface's IE10. Text selection was very difficult, even with the Touch Cover's trackpad, though its formatting controls worked.

Then there was the problem of using menus in IE10 -- I often couldn't. If a menu had more entries than fit onscreen and thus required scrolling, I was out of luck because I could not scroll through them in IE10. The scroll gesture closed the menus, as did trying to tap the scroll arrows in the menus. IE10 often couldn't handle list-based menus (using <li> tags), where you tap the first displayed option to open the menu or tap and hold briefly the displayed option to open that option's page; it was difficult in IE 10 to display the list, and when it did show up, it disappeared in a blink of an eye. Both iOS and Android browsers work just fine with all such menus.

For HTML5 compatibility, IE10 also underperforms compared to other desktop and mobile browsers, even though it is the most HTML5-savvy version of IE yet.

If you think you'll use a Surface tablet to access corporate and other "rich" Web apps, think again. They may not work. Microsoft has long made IE incompatible with the Web at large, but given its efforts to converge IE with the standard Web, it's very disappointing to see that IE10 falls so far short.

App selection disappointsThe rest of the software provided on the Surface are Metro apps, lightweight widgets that are much less capable than their iPad counterparts. Two you're likely to use often, though, are serviceable: Mail and Calendar. That's a good thing because Outlook isn't part of the Surface's Office suite and can't be added. In fact, you can't install any traditional Windows apps beyond what Microsoft has preloaded (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, IE10, and File Manager).

I noticed a bug in Mail: When you first try to use Mail, it crashes on launch. And it keeps doing so. The fix is to open Calendar first and set up your account. I thought the issue might be related to one of Mail's biggest flaws -- its lack of support for POP email accounts -- because my Microsoft account's email address is tied to a POP email account, but I had the exact same problem on a full Windows 8 laptop joined to my corporate domain and not my Microsoft account. There too I had to set up Calendar before Mail would launch. Others have reported the same problem.

Once Mail is running, it does a good job of displaying your email in each account you have, but it can't show you a unified inbox as iOS and Android Mail apps can. The biggest trick to using Mail -- or any Metro app -- is to know to open the App bar at the bottom of the screen to get the equivalent of a menu of options for whatever is selected or active. A swipe from the top of the screen or from the bottom will do that, as will the shortcut Windows-Z.

Calendar is likewise serviceable, offering the core capabilities you'd want for managing appointments, such as handling invitations. What you can't do is set complex meeting patterns, as you can in Outlook (but not in iOS or in most Android clients).

The most intriguing Metro app is People, a combination of contacts manager and social media monitoring tool. It's not a substitute for a Twitter or Facebook app, which let you monitor the full conversation set, but it's a handy way to see what a specific person is posting across multiple services.

Windows RT, like Windows 8, strongly encourages that you use its SkyDrive cloud storage service, to the extent that Office and other apps have hooks to it built in. If you use a different service, you're out of luck on the Surface. There are no Metro apps for Dropbox or Box as yet, and RT doesn't let you install regular Windows apps; you can't use their existing Windows apps instead. SkyDrive clients are available for iOS, Android, and OS X, so you could consider switching providers to SkyDrive -- but keep in mind that the major productivity apps for iOS do not support direct connection to SkyDrive. You'll find document management a real hassle if you have iOS devices in the mix. If you don't, SkyDrive should work fine, if you're willing to switch.

Windows RT comes with video and music apps, geared to getting you to buy from Microsoft's Xbox online stores. But you can play your own music and videos from those apps; just swipe to the left to find your media libraries. You transfer your files via the File Manager as you would any other files, from a USB device or network-attached storage device or PC. Keep in mind there is nothing like iTunes for Windows RT, and you can't install Apple's iTunes for Windows on it. If you use iTunes on your PC, you can't preserve that library or its playlists on the Surface.

The dearth of Metro apps greatly limits what you can do with the Surface. Right now, it's basically an Office appliance supplemented by basic communications capabilities and a good selection of news, finance, and sports apps. But the Surface falls behind Android and way behind iOS in terms of what you can do with it.

Synchronization and user accounts shineWindows RT (like Windows 8) excels in two areas. One is synchronization if you use a Microsoft account. Your settings sync automatically -- even Wi-Fi passwords -- across devices connected to the same Microsoft account. Your documents sync as well. More syncs across Windows RT and 8 devices than syncs across iOS and OS X devices using Apple's iCloud; if you like iCloud, you'll love Microsoft's version of it.

Windows RT (again, like Windows 8) is unique among tablet OSes in that it supports multiple users per device. Each user has a separate account they log into, with a wholly separate environment for each user. That's great for families and work groups alike. PCs and Macs both offer the same capability, but not iOS or Android devices.

Settings are straightforward, except for networkingThe Settings charm -- Metro's equivalent to a control panel -- offers a simple UI for configuring your Surface, way simpler to use than Windows' Control Panel and even simpler than iOS's and Android's Settings apps. Tap a pane's name, then set the switches as desired. Almost everything is handled through an On/Off switch.

If you connect a device to the Surface's USB port or MiniHDMI port, Windows RT is good at detecting it and setting it up. However, I found its bundled driver list to be inadequate, and Windows Update often didn't find older printers' drivers even though Windows RT correctly identified the printer. Of course you can't install drivers directly from vendor websites because Windows RT prohibits any installations outside of Windows Update and the Windows Store.

Accessing network printers is also a pain. They're not detected by the Add a Device control in the Settings charm, as they should be. Instead, you have to go to the Windows Desktop, open the Control Panel, go to the Hardware and Sound section, and tap Advanced Printer Setup. Like everything else in the Windows Desktop -- the File Explorer (what used to be called Windows Explorer in Windows 7), the Office RT apps, and the desktop version of IE10 -- the Control Panel is shrunk in size to fit the Surface's screen, making it both hard to read and hard to accurately tap.

If you want to access admin controls for networking, such as to override certificate settings, forget about it. These controls are gone in Windows RT. If your networks don't connect for some reason, the workarounds you likely use in Windows 7 or XP won't be there for you in Windows RT (or Windows 8). That's probably the right thing, to limit kludges and workarounds that muck up IT infrastructure, but there's a short-term cost of breakage when you bring Windows RT into such kludged environments.

Security is limitedWindows RT may sport Office and thus seem like a perfect business traveler's tablet, but Microsoft has undercut that use by providing just the barest security capabilities. There's no VPN client and so far none in the Windows Store. You can't use existing Windows VPN clients either.

Windows RT supports basic Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) policies, such as for complex passwords, remote wipe, and on-device encryption; in low-security environments users can connect to Exchange to access email, calendars, and contacts, as well as to SharePoint. But Windows RT doesn't provide a means for mobile device management (MDM) tools to apply the kinds of controls many enterprises require, nor does it work with Active Directory group policies via domain joins. Microsoft says the 2013 version of Intune will introduce MDM-style management to Windows RT, but details are few and adopting it means bringing yet another management tool into IT's portfolio.

Generally good hardware has some odd flawsThe best part of the Surface is the tablet itself. It's fairly lightweight and compact, and the screen is clear and crisp, even if the 1,366-by-768 resolution is a bit cramped when running Windows Desktop apps such as Office. Those apps don't adjust for the small screen housing and dense resolution like Metro apps do.

You get a USB port to support standard input and storage peripherals, as well as a MiniHDMI port for video-out. You can "dock" the Surface into a regular desktop environment as well as use it to give presentations at a conference or meeting. (There are plenty of third-party MiniHDMI-to-VGA connectors available, so you can connect to older monitors and projectors, too.)

The Surface has an SD card slot that can accept up to 64GB of storage. But note that the Surface doesn't encrypt SD cards, and it doesn't support the EAS policy for doing so, which will be problematic for some businesses. The mic and speakers are good, and the battery life is comparable to an iPad's 10 to 12 hours, which is fantastic. But the Surface uses a proprietary charger that does not work with USB ports, so you can't charge it via your laptop, a smartphone's charger block, or the USB ports increasingly found in airport lobbies and airplane seats.

The star of the show, when it comes to the Surface's hardware, is the Touch Cover bundled with most Surface configurations. The cover's flocked back reduces the chances the keyboard will slide while you type on it or use its trackpad, though that makes cleanup of gooey liquids and lint more of a challenge. The lack of tactile feedback on the Touch Cover was not an issue for me, as long as I had the audio feedback on so that I heard a click each time I pressed a key. In fact, it took maybe 10 minutes of use to get comfortable with it, versus a week or so to get accustomed to the iPad's or Android tablet's onscreen keyboard. You have to press the Touch Cover's keys solidly, which will slow you down a bit, but accidental keypresses become rare occurrences.

When you fold the cover behind the tablet, such as to use a full-screen Metro game or other touch-oriented app on your lap, the Touch Cover's exposed keys are not at all susceptible to accidental keypresses, even if your fingers are over them when holding the Surface. Plus, the cover is reversible; you can detach it, rotate it 180 degrees, and reattach it so that the keys are inside when the cover is behind the tablet -- perfect for long sessions where you're not using the physical keyboard.

If you prefer a keyboard where the keys travel as you press them, Microsoft sells the $129 Type Cover, which is a little thicker and heavier but gives you a real keyboard. You could also use a Bluetooth keyboard -- typically chosen by iPad and Android tablet users with intense typing needs -- but Microsoft's cover comes with keys for the various charms and for playback controls, which third-party Bluetooth keyboards (so far) don't offer.

As noted, the typical Surface bundles include the Touch Cover, costing $599 for the 16GB unit, $699 for the 32GB unit, and $799 for the 64GB unit. You can buy Surface tablets without a cover for $100 less. And you can buy a Touch Cover separately for $119 and a Type Cover separately for $129. One reason to consider the Type Cover versus the Touch Cover is if you need to type on your lap. The Touch Cover is made from a flexible material, so it has to be on a hard surface to be used. Otherwise, it bounces like a trampoline as you type. The Type Cover is more rigid and thus usable on an uneven or soft surface such as your laptop or hotel bed (poor ergonomic settings, to be sure).

The Surface's built-in stand holds the Surface in place quite well; you don't get the slippage of the Apple's Smart Cover. But you can't adjust the stand's angle, which I found was often too steep for me, given my 6-foot-1-inch height. Tall people will likely want some other stand, if and when they become available.

The Surface's hardware is nice -- and kudos to Microsoft for taking the risk of offending its hardware partners to show a better way.

A key omission is support for cellular 3G and 4G networks; the Surface is Wi-Fi-only, so you can't stay connected when on the road as you can with an iPad and some Android tablets.

The Surface is the first "laplet"When you get down to it, the Surface is more of a laptop than a tablet -- call it a laplet. The keyboard and its trackpad are frequently essential to using it effectively, especially for Office and Mail. Windows RT's support for touch gestures is primitive compared to that of iOS or Android, so even Metro's touch-oriented apps aren't particularly touch-savvy, though they work without a physical keyboard. The Surface's touchscreen is not very useful when you're working with the Surface in laptop mode (that is, with its stand engaged).

If you're looking at a Surface to run Office and do email, you'll be happier with a Windows laptop or desktop. If you're looking for a tablet to do the kinds of things people do on an iPad -- entertainment, games, news and information services, social media, photo retouching, and some business productivity -- you're better off with Apple's offering or one of the better Android tablets such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1.

Though Microsoft proclaims the Surface RT to be a consumer device, it doesn't have the consumer software to do the job. The Surface's focus on Office suggests it's actually a business tablet, regardless of what Microsoft says. But it lacks too much in terms of corporate management to fulfill that role -- plus, traveling business users will want more access to legacy Windows apps, even if just for drivers and utilities such as iTunes and cloud storage services. In a few months, Microsoft plans to sell a Surface version running Windows 8 that supports such apps, which is probably a better option than the Surface RT.

That fundamental contradiction within the Surface RT is very frustrating. It could be a better business laplet if the software were improved. It could be a better personal tablet if it wasn't trying to also be a laptop and had good consumer-oriented apps. Microsoft doesn't seem to know who the Surface RT is truly for, and the result is neither fish nor fowl.

When all is said and done, the Surface RT is neither a good laplet nor a good tablet. The promise is there, but the delivery is not. What a crying shame.

This story, "Review: Microsoft's Surface RT will make even a fanboy cry," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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