Microsoft Corporation’s new Surface tablet is quirky and occasionally awkward, and it 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 version 1.0 form, this is an impressive device.
We spent a couple of weeks using the Surface with Windows RT tablet. Right now, this unit—starting at $499 for a 32-gigabyte version—is the only Surface on the market. That will change later in 2013, when Microsoft releases the Surface with Windows 8 Pro, starting at $899. The main difference between the two is that the Windows 8 Pro version will run 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 our experience with the current model, we’re 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, we 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, we 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—we were 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 we 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 Word—a critical function for lawyers). We didn’t experience any strange formatting, and even highly marked-up documents were displayed perfectly.
Other nice touches include a much-appreciated USB port, albeit of the older USB 2.0 variety (USB 3.0 will be available on the Windows 8 Pro model), and a microSD slot for additional storage and device encryption. One feature that you will not find, however, is any type of cellular option. Wireless connectivity is strictly via Wi-Fi.
The USB and microSD ports make it easy to move files on and off the Surface—something that has never been the iPad’s strong suit. And you can access, right on the tablet, Windows File Explorer, which gives you the same file management tools and visibility that are available on a traditional Windows desktop. This is a great touch, but it comes at a price. In trying to bring so much PC functionality to a tablet, Microsoft has made the Surface a device that is, at times, complicated to use.
Indeed, the Surface is almost like two devices—a tablet and a desktop—rolled into one. And the integration isn’t entirely seamless or intuitive. The tablet component works splendidly. You’re presented with a “Start” screen full of large (and highly customizable) tiles that will look familiar to anyone who has ever worked with Microsoft’s “Metro” interface (a core element of its Windows Phone and Xbox products). Touch a tile that corresponds to an app, and off you go. There is a button, too, for Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 10 Web browser, which works well on the device, with smart features specifically designed for touch (like swiping to access the next page in a web document without having to click on links). Navigating the Surface’s interface can seem a bit overwhelming at first—swiping from the right brings up a “charms menu” that lets you search and configure settings in an app, among other things; swiping from the left toggles between open apps; swiping from the top closes the current app. Play with it for a while, however, and you’ll realize what an elegant design this is.
But then there is the desktop component—and that doesn’t work nearly so well. Microsoft literally brings a “laptop-like” environment to Surface—that is, you can switch back and forth between the touch-friendly “Start” interface and a traditional Windows desktop, complete with all those components you know so well: File Manager, Task Manager, Control Panel, and so on. Navigating this interface is awkward on a tablet—icons are too small for fingers, and many features aren’t applicable to tablets or are just clumsy to use on one.
The awkwardness of the desktop interface is particularly striking when it comes to the browser. Click on the Internet Explorer tile on the Start menu and you get the slick, mobile-friendly IE 10 browser. Click on the Explorer icon on the desktop and you get the old (and not mobile-friendly) IE 9 browser. None of the slick new features are here; in fact, if you’re working without the keyboard cover, you’ll have to manually call up the virtual keyboard when you want to enter a URL (on other tablets, it pops up automatically when you tap the URL box). Our advice: Stick with the Start interface as much as possible, and use the desktop interface only when absolutely necessary, for tasks like file management.
There are other flaws. Mobile devices need an informative and easily accessible battery gauge, and the Surface misses on both counts. From the Start screen you’ll only see the gauge when you call up the charms menu, and even then you’ll just see an icon, with no “percentage remaining” given. The Surface also has an annoying, all-too-laptop-like habit of updating its software—sometimes for minutes on end—when you turn it on. That’s another tablet no-no; you want to get right to the action.
Battery life is not stellar: Microsoft claims eight hours, but vendor numbers are generally based on continuous use, with the screen brightness turned down significantly. Using the device sporadically over a few days, with Wi-Fi on and the screen at full brightness, we got 6.5 hours out of the battery: Not terrible, but not quite enough to leave the AC adapter at home on a workday. And the display is no iPad Retina screen. It’s fine for work, but it does not quite match the sharpness or vividness of the best tablet displays.
Finally, for all its Office 2013 functionality, this version of the Surface does not run Microsoft Outlook (the Pro tablet will). Instead, you have to use a bare bones Windows Mail app, which is sufficient for reading and replying to email, but will disappoint Outlook fans. (Calendars and contacts are handled by other apps.)
In all, however, the Surface is off to a great start. Its disappointments are largely minor, fixable with updates, or relatively easy to ignore. It brings some innovative features—and ideas—to the tablet space. Besides, what lawyer wouldn’t want a true, full-featured, portable Office suite to go?
Alan Cohen is a freelance writer in New York who covers law firm technology. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.