It's not the iPad, but Microsoft's new tablet will actually help you get work done with great design, a real keyboard that doubles as a screen cover, and a free copy of Office Home and Student 2013 RT.
I didn’t expect to like Microsoft’s tablet. But I did. The hardware is simply excellent, and while the software offerings are limited, the Surface is designed to let you do something really important: get some work done. Should you buy it? Maybe. But I’d probably wait for more apps to come down the chute and for Microsoft to launch a version running Windows 8 and see which you like better.
To be clear: the Surface RT runs a version of Windows called “RT,” and that means it doesn’t run traditional legacy Windows software such as Photoshop, Quicken and Windows Media Player. The only apps you can run are those that are pre-installed or that you buy from the Windows Store. Sure, that’s a drawback, but don’t forget: The iPad doesn’t run standard Mac apps either, and when the iPad first appeared there were far fewer apps, particularly on the productivity side, then there are now.
The Surface looks good. Microsoft has gotten the message (thank you, Steve Jobs) that a consumer device should look and feel cool. You won’t feel like a loser when you take it out in the café, and at 1.5 pounds it’s easy to carry and to hold. You can read the exact specs here, but I’ll note that the 10.6-inch screen is bright, with excellent resolution and good viewing angles; it’s got two cameras and stereo sound.
But what really makes the Surface worth considering is the innovative Type Cover and the unglamorous USB 2 port on one side. Taken together, along with the pre-installed copy of Microsoft Office 2013 Home and Student, you’ll actually be able to get some work done on this tablet, as well as consume the various types of media any tablet will help you to consume. The USB port lets you connect an external drive or a camera or a mouse or pretty much any standard device.
If you buy the Surface today, it will come with a preview edition of Office 2013, but Microsoft will provide the full version by free download in the near future, the company promises. Annoyingly, Office feels awkward when you use it with gestures, so you may want to tote a mouse along if you’re going to do any heavy editing.
The Type Cover is really a very thin keyboard that acts as a cover when you’re not using it and clicks into place on the Surface when you want to write something. It costs a hefty $130, but it has real keys that travel and click when you type, making it much easier to use than a virtual keyboard, or the $120 Touch Cover keypad that you can also buy for the Surface. The Touch Cover keyboard has keys printed on cloth-like material that don’t travel and feel awkward when you type. I don’t recommend it.
That does bring up an important downside: price. The 32 GB version of the Surface costs $499, add $120 for the keyboard and you’re spending as much as you would for a decent laptop.
The Surface RT is the first major piece of hardware Microsoft has ever manufactured. It’s built around an ARM-type processor from NVIDIA, another departure for the software giant. In a few months, Microsoft will introduce the Surface Pro, built around an Intel processor and running Windows 8, but not until January.
The Surface Pro will certainly be able to run a wider variety of familiar Windows applications than the Surface RT.
In either case, you’ll be running Windows 8, which is very different than any version of Windows you’ve ever used. As I’ve written more than once, I don’t think Windows 8 is well-suited to a standard PC, but I had no trouble using it on the Surface tablet. With a little practice, you’ll be swiping and pinching like a pro.
Is it the iPad? No. But if you’re more comfortable in a Windows environment, the Surface RT is worth a look — then decide for yourself.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.