A second look: The mighty Surface RT tablet

Microsoft's device might work best as a laptop, not a tablet

NEW YORK -- Microsoft's Surface RT tablet, which goes on sale at 12:01 a.m. on Friday at a starting price of $499 for the 32GB version, 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. There was a lot of poking and prodding of the new devices, as several reporters did just about everything but drop them.

The Microsoft Surface tablet

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 model is a big change from 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 covers -- which both double as keyboards -- with their magnetic hinges, 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 with the cover/keyboard add-ons (sold separately) because it makes the device stand upright.

I tried out both of the cover/keyboards, as well as the on-screen touch keyboard. I'm a pretty fast typist, and I found that only the Type cover, with its mechanical keyboard, worked for me. I found that the keys on the Type cover kept track of my typing, while the ultrathin Touch cover's soft 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 will be whether you want to buy the Windows RT machine to use at work. IT managers might advise against that, because Microsoft's tablet won't run older Windows apps. It ships with OneNote, Word, Excel and PowerPoint in the Office Home and Student 2013 software suite. That suite excludes Outlook email, but it can be set up to contact an enterprise email server, according to Microsoft.

The touchscreen functionality on the Windows RT device was snappy. Swipes were as quick as on any iPad or Android tablet that I've tested. That was a reassuring feature of 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. Like Windows Phone live tiles, that's 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 a 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 that using it as a stand-alone tablet 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 at a premium price compared to other tablets, which sell for as low as $199 (with less storage). But Microsoft is positioning the Surface as a competitor to the iPad, albeit a more rugged one.

If you're thinking of buying Surface RT, you might want to spend a while trying out the touch commands after the devices go on sale Friday at Microsoft stores and other retailers. Even though the Surface is obviously physically durable, the real question is whether users will adapt to the touch interface quickly. Like me, some people 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.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

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