Review: Microsoft's Surface RT will make even a fanboy cry

Is it a laptop or a tablet? The Surface makes a valiant attempt at being both -- but leaves you yearning for one or the other

You have to give Microsoft credit for creating an iPad competitor that's more than a copy. Yes, the Surface RT is roughly the same size and weight as the iPad, but it's truly its own device. For one thing, it comes with Microsoft Office by default. For another, the bundled cover, which doubles as a keyboard, tells you the Surface is meant to be used more as a laptop than as a touch tablet. The built-in kickstand, which positions the touchscreen vertically, reinforces that fundamental difference with the iPad, which for the most part is meant to be used horizontally.

After using a Surface tablet, it became crystal clear that the Surface is really an Office appliance, not a tablet à la the iPad. But it's not a very good Office appliance. One reason is that the hardware doesn't work well for Office, even with the bundled keyboard cover, because the Office apps are nearly unusable with the touchscreen and just so-so with the keyboard's trackpad. You'll want a laptop's superior input hardware if you do a lot of Office work. Even then, you'll suffer from the poor Windows touch environment, where text selection is difficult, gestures are limited, and the heavy reliance on menus is interruptive.

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If you're looking just for a tablet, not an Office appliance, the Surface is also a disappointment. Metro apps are few, and those that exist are largely limited both in their functionality and by their menu-oriented interface. You can do a lot more with an iPad or Android tablet with greater comfort.

It's enough to make a Microsoft fan weep over what could -- and should -- have been.

[ InfoWorld rates Windows 8's and RT's bundled Metro apps -- are they as good as the iPad's? | J. Peter Bruzzese explains Windows RT's security options. ]

Text and touch don't mix wellThe key software in the Surface is in fact Microsoft Office RT 2013 Preview, consisting of Word, Excel, OneNote, and PowerPoint. Sure, three good Office-compatible suites are available for the iPad, but many users want the "real" Office. You get it with the Surface, which provides nearly all the capabilities you get with Office on a desktop and more than you get from an iPad app. For example, Office RT supports linked spreadsheets, unlike the iPad office editors. And Office RT supports landscape printing, otherwise seen onlywith  Apple's Numbers on the iPad.

The Office apps don't support a zoom gesture as iOS and Android do, but they provide a touch slider you can use to quickly enlarge the document view -- which you'll want to do on the Surface's cramped screen. Your menu options and ribbon options don't resize along with the document, so you may need reading glasses if you're nearsighted.

Office on the Surface is Office sans Outlook -- essentially, it's the Student & Home Edition, so you'll know how to use it immediately. Because it's the home edition, you're not permitted to use it for business documents unless your company also has a business Office license for you. That's just silly. Fortunately, Microsoft can't check, so you can work with it as you please.

Though the Surface has the same Office 2013 you get on a PC, using it on a Surface is annoying. The big reason: Text selection is very difficult with the touchscreen -- in Office and other apps. You'd think you can tap on text to move the cursor position, but that doesn't work. Instead, the text is selected sometimes, and contextual menus appear other times. (It seems to depend on how long you hold the tap.)

What you need to do is use the trackpad on the Touch Keyboard cover bundled with most Surface configurations to position your cursor in text. I also found that using the cover's cursor keys rather than trying to use the trackpad was more accurate when doing fine editing, such as moving the cursor a few characters from the current location.

If you're not at a desk or using a surface such as an airline tray table that puts the screen at a hard-to-read angle (the screen angle is not adjustable), you have to go through the onscreen keyboard to edit and the touchscreen to select. My condolences -- you're in for a rough experience. The onscreen keyboard is well designed, but the default version doesn't have the cursor keys you'll realistically need if using Office. Instead, you have to switch to the full onscreen keyboard, which is not as well-suited for touch typing as the standard onscreen keyboard is.

It's ironic that Microsoft's premier touch device needs a traditional keyboard and trackpad to make Office useful. The Windows RT touch UI (the same as Windows 8's) simply doesn't work well with legacy Windows applications -- including Office 2013, despite a cleaner design than Office 2010.

The Web doesn't quite workInput issues aren't limited to text entry and editing. I wanted to write this review on the Surface itself, but I couldn't. Why? Because the Internet Explorer 10 browser -- both the limited Metro version and the full version that comes with Office 2013 -- works poorly with websites using AJAX controls. For example, I could not select text in the Drupal-based InfoWorld content management system's text fields when using IE10, as I can in Android's and iOS's browsers. The TinyMCE plug-in that provides Office-like formatting features also does not work in IE10; the controls are visible but don't respond to taps. By contrast, they work in iOS, though only partially in Android.

I also experienced problems using Google Docs on the Surface's IE10. Text selection was very difficult, even with the Touch Cover's trackpad, though its formatting controls worked.

Then there was the problem of using menus in IE10 -- I often couldn't. If a menu had more entries than fit onscreen and thus required scrolling, I was out of luck because I could not scroll through them in IE10. The scroll gesture closed the menus, as did trying to tap the scroll arrows in the menus. IE10 often couldn't handle list-based menus (using <li> tags), where you tap the first displayed option to open the menu or tap and hold briefly the displayed option to open that option's page; it was difficult in IE 10 to display the list, and when it did show up, it disappeared in a blink of an eye. Both iOS and Android browsers work just fine with all such menus.

For HTML5 compatibility, IE10 also underperforms compared to other desktop and mobile browsers, even though it is the most HTML5-savvy version of IE yet.

If you think you'll use a Surface tablet to access corporate and other "rich" Web apps, think again. They may not work. Microsoft has long made IE incompatible with the Web at large, but given its efforts to converge IE with the standard Web, it's very disappointing to see that IE10 falls so far short.

App selection disappointsThe rest of the software provided on the Surface are Metro apps, lightweight widgets that are much less capable than their iPad counterparts. Two you're likely to use often, though, are serviceable: Mail and Calendar. That's a good thing because Outlook isn't part of the Surface's Office suite and can't be added. In fact, you can't install any traditional Windows apps beyond what Microsoft has preloaded (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, IE10, and File Manager).

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