After sitting on the fence about purchasing a MacBook Air or an Ultrabook, I finally decided to pass on those items (no Retina display!) and equipped my current iPad 3 with a Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Case. I had handed over my Macbook Air 2010 over to my son for school use (and Minecraft play), and was in need of some keyboarded mobile input device. This category used to be all about laptops and netbooks, but this past month Microsoft Surface was released and I did the due diligence of checking it out and rejecting it despite the fact I could have expensed it.
Finding a Microsoft Surface to try out is a bit like trying to find authentic takeout Thai food or a Porsche dealership -it’s only available in a handful of places in the US. In the Cleveland area, it means going to the Microsoft kiosk at the Beechwood Mall next to the kiosks selling iPhone covers and fluffy slippers. I thought it was a bust because someone had messed up the Surfaces which were all rebooting. More recently, I got to try the Surface at the local Best Buy. Microsoft in their marketing wisdom decided to widen the release of the Surface in the few weeks before Christmas.
Despite the bad marketing, I was impressed by the beauty and speed of the Surface. The keyboard cover was nice and far more responsive than expected. Unfortunately, without the tactile feedback of keypresses it was only a little bit better than a virtual keyboard. I grew weary of it in the first few lines of typing.
It gets worse. The Metro interface seems like a tacked on after thought. Launching Office apps caused the screen to jump back into the old Windows desktop screen which doesn’t work all that well with touch, but it keeps lurking in the background waiting to show its big fat corporate OS face whenever it gets the chance. Instead of the Start menu, you jump back into Metro, but how or when you did so was mysterious. I am sure that with use, I would be able to figure out how to turn off the Metro or stay out of the classic Windows desktop. As a casual shopper seeing Windows 8 for the first time, there is mystery involved, and that is not good.
I get why Microsoft put out the Surface RT. What Microsoft is battling is the constraints imposed by the demands of the consumer and corporate markets. It has designed Surface RT to the perceived needs of the consumer market. It is making the bet that Office is 90% of what people want on their computers. This is true of laptops and desktops, but not so much for tablets and smartphones.
For 90 percent of my work, content creation means translating ideas into text. Who really needs Word to record text? For example, I’m wrote this piece over a week at various intervals on my iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch, and MacBook Pro using Ia Writer, a text processing app that stores the file in the cloud. I never have to press SAVE because there is no such button. When I am ready to make a formatted document, I can do so in any number of apps like Word, Pages, or Google Docs. The fact is, I am using Word less and less because it is unavailable on iOS devices and smartphones, and I think Microsoft is uncomfortable with this trend.
Surface is basically recapitulating the most useful configuration for a tablet that you can also do work on -something that the iPad has had since launch which is variations on the keyboard case. The Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover greatly enhances the iPad as a productivity tool. It latches on like the original magnetic cover and when in laptop mode will prop the tablet with magnets in landscape orientation. The keyboard works perfectly and has many enhancements for iOS oriented shortcuts.
When closed, it looks like a MacBook Air, being clad in aluminum all around, but of course it is thicker. It does offer laptop functionality with a 10 inch Retina display. The keyboard charges via a mini-USB port, and claims a 6 month battery life with two hours of use. It has been seamless and tenacious in gaining and holding a bluetooth link, something that is not always possible with other keyboards. I have been typing on it, and I like it. I can type at full speed. My only gripe is the half height number row which also has a truncated delete key. I still rip off the cover to use it as a tablet and find that the keyboard is on and prevents me from using the virtual keyboard -just remember to turn off the keyboard when not in use.
The Surface is a beautiful product but is an evolutionary dead end because its OS, Windows RT, has no past and an arguably a shaky future. Despite creating a product that integrates Office, and makes it basically the only compelling reason to buy a Surface, it does so by making you work in Office in a way that is no different from the 10 pound laptop that IT will give you for business trips. The moment Microsoft releases rumored Office for iOS with full implementation of touch interface, it will have killed any argument for Windows RT. We will see Office for iOS in the App Store one day, but we will have to see Surface die the same way as RIM’s Playbook -in about 8 months before we get to buy it for $129 for the Student and Home Edition.