Review: Surface for Microsoft Office users

INTRODUCTION

I believe that you can not review a modern computer without referring to a certain use case. Since today's computers can do almost anything, there are no universal criteria for the evaluation of the usefulness of a device. While e-readers, for example, can generally be evaluated by weight and size, screen quality, ease of use, battery life and content availability, and that way be categorized as "good e-reader" or "bad e-reader", PCs can not be labelled as "good PCs" or "bad PCs" (or by a 0 to 10 rating scale such as the Verge's). A grandmother who wants to stay in touch with her family by e-mail and look up recipes online needs a simple device with a browser and a printer. A businessman travelling the world needs a portable device with good connectivity and app support. Both kinds of devices are equally good, as long as they serve well in the specific use cases.

So I want to review the Surface for my specific use case, which I think is pretty common for people who would consider buying this device. I am an Austrian (German speaking) medical student who uses Microsoft Office a lot for note taking and for writing papers. Besides that I use PCs for E-mail, calendar, browsing, consuming audio/video content and getting information (weather, dictionary, news, public transport, et cetera).

I use the touch cover, so unfortunatley I can not review the type cover

BUILD QUALITY

Very (very) sturdy, hardware buttons feel good, capacative home button sometimes does not respond despite giving vibration feedback (home buttons on the keyboard and in the charms menu work fine though), kickstand is sturdy, charging port magnet is a little too weak, touch cover attaches easily and firmly, touch cover is a little flexible but still looks like new after a month of use, tying on or moving the touch cover sometimes mutes the tablet which I hope is a bug that will be fixed soon, no scratches on the device after carrying it around for a month.

PORTABILIY

The device is smaller than the ads make it seem. It definitely looks and feels tiny compared to regular laptops. It feels heavier than a book of the same size and thickness, it feels more like carrying a thin brick of magnesium than carrying a big smartphone. It noticably adds weight to your bag. You definitely can use it on your lap, but typing on the touch cover on your lap is hard (because it is pressure sensitive), so you need a table for getting productive.

BATTERY LIFE

I charge the battery at night (with my phone charging via the Surface's USB port), and usually get all day battery life. If you take "all day" literally though you will need to charge during the day. Charging from 0 to 100% is pretty fast (2 hours according to other reviewers). Unfortunately low battery notification sometimes does not work for some unknown reason, so the PC shuts down without warning

NOISE & HEAT

No fan, no noise at all (much easier to be productive that way). No noticable heat (even less than with my smartphone). Due to the magnesium case the device feels metallic and - depending on air temperature - cold in your hands.

WIFI

Wifi seems to work fine. It's the only way to connect to the internet. You can have it automatically connect to wifi networks. I use smartphone tethering a lot. There are some settings for limiting/reducing data use when using tethering. According to other reviewers UMTS-sticks do not work with Windows RT.

PORTS

You can check the compatibility of your peripheral device at Microsoft's compatibility website. Keyboards and mice all seem to work by just plugging them in, as well as most recent printers (my HP printer, which is just a few years old, unfortunately does not work). USB sticks work just like with any PC. I could not access data from my Windows Phone 7.5 device via USB. I can not review MicroSD, HD video out and bluetooth, because I have not used those features.

DISPLAY

Very nice display (brightness, blacks, colours, automatic or manual brightness adjustment), reflective but readable under most conditions. I had no issues with text readability at all (despite the average pixel density). The display is very small for a producticity device, so I would recommend setting the scaling of the desktop to 125% (via control panel). That way you get better readability and touch interaction, but less screen real estate. So for users who prefer having multiple desktop windows side by side, the Surface is definitely too small. For those who prefer having their desktop apps fullscreen, the Surface's screen size should be ok.

TOUCH INPUT

Responsive touch screen. Touch interaction in the Modern UI ("Metro UI") is very easy and intuitive (you should read some articles on Windows 8/RT gestures though, because not all gestures are self explanatory). Touch input in desktop mode is great if you set the skaling to 125% (the default scaling of 100% is ridiculously touch unfriendly and too small for the average human eye). That way even office apps are faster and easier to use by touch than by mouse, especially with the adjustable quick tool bar at the top of the window. I personally have not experienced any pain in my arm/hand from touching the screen with the Surface set up in "laptop mode". I found that instead of reaching up and tapping with my index finger, it is much more comfortable and precise to rest your fingers on top of the device and tap with your thumb. The only actions which I find touch input is not precise enough for are tapping check boxes, resizing windows or cropping images, and putting the cursor in the middle of a word.

TOUCH PAD

The touch pad on the Touch Cover is small. Its surface is not very smooth. So it is not the best touch pad, but usable when you need precise input and don't have a USB or bluetooth mouse.

TOUCH COVER

It is just a little bit smaller than a regular keyboard. It has all the functions of a regular keyboard, apart from the lack of a caps lock indicator. The keys are pressure sensitive, so calling it "touch" cover is a little misleading. After a few days I figured out that the most accurate and fastest way of typing on it is to find your home position and not let your fingers get off the keys while typing. Instead of tapping the keys you slide your fingers across the surface and slightly press down on the keys to type. That way you have the best tactile feedback (you feel the edges of the slightly raised keys while moving your fingers across the surface), and not taking your fingers off the keyboard makes typing very fast. Since I got used to it I type just as fast as on a regular keyboard. One big advantage of the Touch Cover is that it is absolutely silent (there is a pleasant audio feedback though which you can disable). The biggest disadvantage is having to get used to typing on it, and I still tend to miss certain keys (mostly ctrl and space bar). I have not experienced any pain in my finger tips (probably because of the typing method I described).

USER INTERFACE

Great. Everything is accessible with very few taps, charms menu and app bars are intuitive and useful. Being able to search apps, files, settings and within apps by just starting to type while on the start screen is a very useful feature. Desktop mode (including File Explorer) works just like with Windows 7, except for the Start menu being replaced with the Start screen.

MICROSOFT OFFICE APPS

Office 2013 RT is included for free (Word, Excel, Onenote, Powerpoint). No Oulook (Mail, Calendar and Contacts apps instead, which do not include some of the advanced features of Outlook). The preinstalled apps are preview versions, which can be updated to the final versions via Windows Update (for free). As explained above, the office apps are very touch friendly when the desktop scaling is set to 125%. The RT versions of the Office apps are basically identical to the regular Version, except for the lack of just a few advanced features which are listed at Microsofts website. Performance with Office apps is good (after installing all Office and Windows updates), no lag while typing, scrolling through large documents can be a little laggy. Apps load fast. Good Skydrive integration with offline file access (there also is a nice Skydrive app available through the App store, which does not feature offline file access though). Nice clean design (you can choose different designs if the default white design is too bright for you).

PRICE

Considering that with comparable Windows 8 devices you need to purchase Office separately, the Surface is a good deal for those who do not need legacy Windows apps. As far as I know, the 32GB Surface RT with Touch Cover is the cheapest Windows RT device with a keyboard. (Please correct me if I am wrong)