As part of my “great tablet experiment” I’ve been trying to live without a laptop using only my iPhone 5 and various tablets for all my work. Storing documents in the cloud, synchronizing between devices and for the most part it’s been a surprisingly easy and pleasant experience. I started with a Retina iPad and iPad mini, and in December switched over to an Asus Transformer Infinity and Nexus 7. Yet I’ve been tempted since before the holidays by access to a Microsoft Surface tablet with the Touch keyboard. I finally gave in this week and put aside the Android devices temporarily (a long post on them soon) to see what all the fuss is about with Microsoft’s first tablet.
Let me start by saying I am writing this on a borrowed Microsoft Surface tablet with the Touch keyboard. I am also writing this post for the second time. The first time I tried to write this post, just after finishing my New Year’s resolutions entry, some combination of my fingers on the Touch cover keyboard, the WordPress app for Windows 8 and dumb luck erased the half completed draft. Despite that frustration I’ve kept using the Surface and the longer I stay with it the more and more I like it.
Overall I like the device and the Windows 8 experience. This is coming from someone who was there at the launch of the Start menu in Windows 95 and has used mostly Macs for the last 10 years. The Windows 8 tile based home screen allows a level of easy customization that even Android lacks. The clear, crisp look really works for me, though I’m sure some users may find it a big change from the familiar Windows Start menu. The Surface screen is bright and easy to read and the default fonts work well, enhancing reading, typing and navigation.
I’m less happy with the Touch cover keyboard. It’s certainly better than no physical keyboard at all. As a solution for typing during brief periods, say taking notes in a meeting, it’s sufficient but not ideal. One reason is that if you’re used to having the audible feedback of a key “click” from pressing a physical key, it’s just not there with the Touch keyboard. I’m a touch typist but quickly missed hearing that feedback. You can of course turn on key click sounds via the device speaker, but that means you other device sounds have to be audible as well. In class or a meeting the chance of some other sound effect blasting out unexpectedly would worry me. No one wants to be the person who forgot to put their tablet on “vibrate”.
Another problem I have with the Touch keyboard is again related to the flat keys with no key “travel” or movement. After years of typing on all kinds of keyboards I’m used to hitting keys pretty hard. Since the Touch keyboard is just a flat membrane with raised bumps for the keys after a long typing session the tips of my fingers almost hurt. It’s like banging your fingers on a hard tabletop for hours at a time. If you type like I do that can’t be good for aging finger muscles.
Finally I had a hard time with some of the key placement, specifically the V/B/N/M/SPACE area under my thumbs. Consistently I would miss the “N” key or the Space bar, forcing me to go back for corrections or trust auto-correct. If I was going to use the Surface as my primary device I would get BOTH available keyboards. I’d use the Touch cover when I was going to meetings or going to sit in a coffee shop to catch up on email. For coding or any serious writing I would use a more traditional keyboard with keys that have movement and travel.
At this point I need to stop and sing the praises of the BEST FEATURE OF WINDOWS RT THAT BEATS ANDROID AND IOS: YOU CAN DELETE EMAILS FROM THE KEYBOARD! It’s been a long standing complaint of both iOS and Android tablets that even when using external physical keyboards the email applications didn’t allow deleting an email via a keystroke or key combination. This meant cleaning out your Inbox on a tablet was an ongoing process of picking your hand up off the keyboard to tap the delete button (usually a Trash icon) again and again, unlike a Windows or Mac desktop machine where hitting the Delete key made short work of removing email clutter. Thankfully Microsoft kept the behavior from their desktop Outlook clients when they built the email app for Surface. Using the Surface keyboard for blasting your emails is again fast and efficient. Now if Google and Apple would only get a clue…
Could I use a Surface as my primary computer? At this point no. It really lacks some of the photo editing and management apps I need, as well as official Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube clients. There’s no Google Drive app, though Box.net, Dropbox and Skydrive are all supported. The WordPress app is ok, but seems to have about 75% of the functionality of their iOS or Android offers. Those gaps are just too big for me. You can work around most of them thanks to the solid version of Internet Explorer that’s built in but that just complicates things more. In that mode the user’s forced to navigate some apps via the Home screen tiles, others like Office via the “Desktop” view and all your web apps as “tabs” in IE. That’s about two too many navigation modes for most people.
The issue isn’t the number of apps in the Windows Store. It’s about app quality and key missing applications. No, there aren’t as many apps in the Windows store as there are for Android or iOS. Anyone who counting by the total is missing the point. There are a lot of good apps and some real diamonds in the rough for Windows. Microsoft needs to re-learn it’s forgotten skills around developer evangelism to really succeed with Windows 8 (but that’s a topic for another blog post).
I would recommend the Surface for someone who is a heavy Windows user, or has switched over to a Windows phone. If for work or business you are already working within Microsoft’s ecosystem the Surface running Windows RT makes a solid accessory device for email and basic Internet functions. It’s not as livable as the Retina iPad yet, but has a lot of potential for the future.