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

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The star of the show, when it comes to the Surface's hardware, is the Touch Cover bundled with most Surface configurations. The cover's flocked back reduces the chances the keyboard will slide while you type on it or use its trackpad, though that makes cleanup of gooey liquids and lint more of a challenge. The lack of tactile feedback on the Touch Cover was not an issue for me, as long as I had the audio feedback on so that I heard a click each time I pressed a key. In fact, it took maybe 10 minutes of use to get comfortable with it, versus a week or so to get accustomed to the iPad's or Android tablet's onscreen keyboard. You have to press the Touch Cover's keys solidly, which will slow you down a bit, but accidental keypresses become rare occurrences.

When you fold the cover behind the tablet, such as to use a full-screen Metro game or other touch-oriented app on your lap, the Touch Cover's exposed keys are not at all susceptible to accidental keypresses, even if your fingers are over them when holding the Surface. Plus, the cover is reversible; you can detach it, rotate it 180 degrees, and reattach it so that the keys are inside when the cover is behind the tablet -- perfect for long sessions where you're not using the physical keyboard.

If you prefer a keyboard where the keys travel as you press them, Microsoft sells the $129 Type Cover, which is a little thicker and heavier but gives you a real keyboard. You could also use a Bluetooth keyboard -- typically chosen by iPad and Android tablet users with intense typing needs -- but Microsoft's cover comes with keys for the various charms and for playback controls, which third-party Bluetooth keyboards (so far) don't offer.

As noted, the typical Surface bundles include the Touch Cover, costing $599 for the 16GB unit, $699 for the 32GB unit, and $799 for the 64GB unit. You can buy Surface tablets without a cover for $100 less. And you can buy a Touch Cover separately for $119 and a Type Cover separately for $129. One reason to consider the Type Cover versus the Touch Cover is if you need to type on your lap. The Touch Cover is made from a flexible material, so it has to be on a hard surface to be used. Otherwise, it bounces like a trampoline as you type. The Type Cover is more rigid and thus usable on an uneven or soft surface such as your laptop or hotel bed (poor ergonomic settings, to be sure).

The Surface's built-in stand holds the Surface in place quite well; you don't get the slippage of the Apple's Smart Cover. But you can't adjust the stand's angle, which I found was often too steep for me, given my 6-foot-1-inch height. Tall people will likely want some other stand, if and when they become available.

The Surface's hardware is nice -- and kudos to Microsoft for taking the risk of offending its hardware partners to show a better way.

A key omission is support for cellular 3G and 4G networks; the Surface is Wi-Fi-only, so you can't stay connected when on the road as you can with an iPad and some Android tablets.

The Surface is the first "laplet"When you get down to it, the Surface is more of a laptop than a tablet -- call it a laplet. The keyboard and its trackpad are frequently essential to using it effectively, especially for Office and Mail. Windows RT's support for touch gestures is primitive compared to that of iOS or Android, so even Metro's touch-oriented apps aren't particularly touch-savvy, though they work without a physical keyboard. The Surface's touchscreen is not very useful when you're working with the Surface in laptop mode (that is, with its stand engaged).

If you're looking at a Surface to run Office and do email, you'll be happier with a Windows laptop or desktop. If you're looking for a tablet to do the kinds of things people do on an iPad -- entertainment, games, news and information services, social media, photo retouching, and some business productivity -- you're better off with Apple's offering or one of the better Android tablets such as the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1.

Though Microsoft proclaims the Surface RT to be a consumer device, it doesn't have the consumer software to do the job. The Surface's focus on Office suggests it's actually a business tablet, regardless of what Microsoft says. But it lacks too much in terms of corporate management to fulfill that role -- plus, traveling business users will want more access to legacy Windows apps, even if just for drivers and utilities such as iTunes and cloud storage services. In a few months, Microsoft plans to sell a Surface version running Windows 8 that supports such apps, which is probably a better option than the Surface RT.

That fundamental contradiction within the Surface RT is very frustrating. It could be a better business laplet if the software were improved. It could be a better personal tablet if it wasn't trying to also be a laptop and had good consumer-oriented apps. Microsoft doesn't seem to know who the Surface RT is truly for, and the result is neither fish nor fowl.

When all is said and done, the Surface RT is neither a good laplet nor a good tablet. The promise is there, but the delivery is not. What a crying shame.

This story, "Review: Microsoft's Surface RT will make even a fanboy cry," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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This story, "Review: Microsoft's Surface RT will make even a fanboy cry" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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