Microsoft Corp.'s new Surface tablet is quirky and occasionally awkward, and demands a fair amount of patience (and practice) from its users. But for lawyers thinking of buying a tablet, it warrants serious consideration. Flaws and all, the Surface does a better job of replicating the PC experience than any other tablet on the market including Apple Inc.'s iPad. It brings several innovative features to the table; it is compatible, right out of the box, with all manner of USB devices; and has one huge advantage: official, full-featured Microsoft Office software built right in.
Does the Surface get everything right? Not by a long shot. But even in its first version, this is an impressive device.
I spent a couple of weeks using the Surface with Windows RT tablet. At the time I gave it a test drive, this unit starting at $499 for a 32-gigabyte version was the only Surface on the market. Since then, Microsoft has released the Surface with Windows 8 Pro, starting at $899. The main difference between the two is that the Windows 8 Pro version runs Windows 8 and Windows 7 software, while the RT version is compatible only with special Windows RT apps downloaded from Microsoft's online app store. Given my experience with the current model, I'm not convinced that more is necessarily better, and think it's likely that the Surface with Windows RT is all the tablet most lawyers will need or want.
Positioned in landscape mode, the Surface is a bit wider and shorter than the iPad, thanks to a 10.6-inch display with a true wide screen aspect ratio of 16:9 (compared to Apple's 9.7-inch 4:3 aspect ratio screen). At 1.5 pounds, the Surface slightly outweighs Apple's tablet, but anyone who has lugged an iPad around shouldn't notice any significant increase in heft.
What you will notice is the kickstand a deceptively simple feature that, after a few minutes of use, will make you wonder why this hasn't always been standard equipment on tablets. Popping out from the back of the Surface, the kickstand solidly supports the device in an upright, landscape position. Although the kickstand's position is not adjustable, I had no problem with the viewing angle.
Then there is the keyboard cover. This is an optional accessory, but "optional" in the way employment is for most of us. Microsoft's strategy is to make a tablet that is far more like a laptop than any other device on the market; one that is as good at content creation (writing documents and editing presentations) as it is at content consumption (watching videos and reading PDFs). Virtual on-screen keyboards, such as the iPad's, are generally sufficient for quick emails and edits, but there is usually little joy in using them to create long-form content. It was vital, then, for Microsoft to integrate a physical keyboard into its device. And it hit the bull's-eye.
Both the Touch Cover ($120) and Type Cover ($130) are thin keyboards that double as protective covers. They attach to the tablet using surprisingly strong magnets you put the cover close to the tablet and the cover is pulled forcefully into place. With the kickstand extended, the cover's keys lay right below the tablet. Walking by this setup, you would be hard-pressed to tell that this was a tablet and not a small laptop an effect heightened by the cover's built-in trackpad (which appears small and gimmicky on first glance but in practice works well).
Of the two covers, I tested and recommend the Type Cover, which features low-lying keys that depress when you press them (the Touch Cover has flat, spill-resistant keys that respond to pressure but don't depress). While the Type Cover is not quite a full-size laptop keyboard the keys are a bit too close together for that I was able to type quickly and accurately. There is a small amount of bounce in the keyboard as you type little surprise given its thin design but I found that this was more of a visual than a functional effect.
Oddly, the 64-gigabyte Surface is only available bundled with the Touch Cover, at $699. There is currently no option to purchase the 64-gigabyte tablet alone, nor an option to bundle it with the Type Cover instead. The 32-gigabyte version, on the other hand, can be purchased by itself, and the desired cover can be added separately.
While there are a handful of big-name apps (including Netflix, Amazon Kindle, and Citrix) available in the online Windows Store, for many users, it will be the stuff preloaded onto the device that will be the big draw. The Surface's standard software includes much of Office 2013: Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote. These are the real deal, with full compatibility with desktop Office files and all the bells and whistles (including the ability to track changes in Worda critical function for lawyers). I didn't experience any strange formatting, and even highly marked-up documents were displayed perfectly.