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Can you really live on the Surface? First impressions from a week leaving the laptop at home

Microsoft Surface in store windows 8 tablet rtAfter nearly a week with the Surface Tablet (more like a five-day work week), I’ve retired my laptop and large tablet, replacing them both with this one product.

This is a generation 1.0 product, and I had a lot of worries based on some of the first reviews. Some said it was slow and wouldn’t keep up with my typing; others were concerned that the kickstand wasn’t very sturdy; others told me the cool magnetic power cord was a pain, that there weren’t enough apps, that lacking Outlook was a deal killer, and that the cameras really sucked. Generally these early reviews were full of crap (though not always), and I think this may be the best first-gen PC product I’ve ever tried.

Let’s revisit what makes the Surface and other Windows 8 products different, cover some of the misconceptions, and then we’ll get down to my experience using the Surface Tablet.

What it does and what it doesn’t

The first Surface tablet out the door is the RT version, which means it competes most directly with the iPad, not computers. Ideally, users will be focused on Web browsing, apps, and entertainment; if you want a product more focused on work, you’ll likely prefer the Surface Pro and Windows 8 experience. If you try to position either product in the wrong use case, you won’t have the best experience. I think some of the more negative reviews may have come from reviewers testing the Surface against what should be a Surface Pro or Windows 8 benchmark.

False issues

The Surface isn’t slow. In fact, I wasn’t able to replicate the reported problem where it can’t keep up with typing. But right after I configured it, it pretty much updated every major piece of software off the Web, which may have corrected this problem. You aren’t going to edit video on this product any more than you would on an iPad, but it has Nvidia’s Tegra 3 processor, which has performed well on the best Android tablets. Compared to a typical three-year-old notebook running Windows 7, it feels far quicker, likely due in large part to the SSD drive inside.

The kickstand is actually pretty robust. Another reviewer testing a tablet did break his, but only by putting his adult body weight on it. I’m not going to try this myself just in case, but it isn’t fragile; you’d have to work to break it, as this guy did. However, it isn’t adjustable, meaning the front videoconferencing camera doesn’t point where it should, unless you push the tablet back. Microsoft needs to make it adjustable, but unless you do a lot of video conferencing with your tablet on a table, it’s a minor nitpick.

Magnetic cord issues do exist. First, the tolerances on the plug are pretty tight, which keeps dust and moisture at bay but makes it harder to plug in than a MacBook (the other product that uses a magnetic plug). I got over this after two or three times, but if Microsoft redesigned this a little bit by angling out the top part of the opening and putting on a color code so you didn’t put it in backwards (the tablet won’t charge) it would be a vast improvement.

Both Google and Apple have more apps available, and if you know which ones you use you’ll want to make sure they are on Surface before you buy it. As it turned out, I didn’t miss anything , but then again, I don’t use a lot of apps, so what isn’t a problem for me could be for you. The nice thing is that with fewer apps, it does seem easier to find the ones I want.

As a huge Outlook user who refused to use a Mac until you could run Outlook on it, I thought the lack of Outlook on the Surface would be a deal killer for me. However I also use a Windows Phone, and the new Windows Mail client is basically the same thing on a bigger screen. Turns out I’m OK, and unlike Outlook 2013, this mail client was designed for Windows 8, making it far easier to use with touch. One of the annoyances with my Windows 8 tablet is that Office menus are really hard to work with big fingers, which I have (though in this case, “big” might apply to anyone older than six). So while I still prefer Outlook if I have a mouse, the generic client is actually better for me on Surface. Go figure?

Microsoft Surface magnetic cover windows 8 tabletThe Surface’s cameras do suck. They are well below what you typically find on the back of a good smartphone. However, using a tablet as a camera outside of videoconferencing has to be the dorkiest looking thing you can do short of wearing wader pants. I see people doing this with their iPads all the time, and frankly, they look like idiots. With the screen glare and size, its just not practical. Most smartphones have both better cameras and cellular connectivity to send the picture straight to the Web, so I’m OK with crummy cameras on a tablet.

I didn’t mention keyboards yet, but I should. There are two from Microsoft: one with mechanical keys and one with a silicone membrane. The mechanical one is far better if you want to type anything of length, but the membrane keyboard makes for a better cover, and feels sturdier. Because I type a lot, the mechanical one suited me better, but if you only type occasionally, you may prefer the membrane keyboard. It’s both vastly better than a touchscreen, and protects the screen nicely. Oh, and disconnecting and connecting the magnetically attached keyboards is kind of satisfying, in a preschool way.

The iPad’s Retina display is sharper than what you get on the Surface, but movies actually look better on the Surface. The kickstand also allows you to avoid a lot of the typical glare you get from holding most tablets. (Though I still wish someone would get transflective displays to work to finally eliminate glare).

Unlike the 4:3 iPad, the Surface uses a 16:9 aspect ratio, meaning its longer and thinner. Personally, I prefer the newer “panoramic” shape of the Surface to the iPad, because for movies it doesn’t clip as much content for borders. I can also lay things up for work better (there’s a reason laptops migrated to 16:9 years ago and never went back. The iPad shape feels more like a clipboard, which I was never a huge fan of, myself.

From my perspective, most of those negative early Surface reviews are now out of date or were crap to begin with, but you should test the product yourself. What I like and what you like could be very different, but it is just nice to have a choice.

The Surface in use

The Surface tablet is now my carry laptop, and I’ve stopped using my Kindle Fire and gone to using the Kindle Paperwhite instead. Having the SD card slot makes this thing much better for movies than the iPad, and the screen size and battery life make it superior to the Kindle HD.

Why keep around the Kindle Paperwhite? Holding the Surface for long periods of time while reading gets old, while the Paperwhite is incredibly light, and has battery life that is measured in days instead of hours. Now, I’m also a Windows Phone user, and I’ve been on Windows 8 for months, so the interface was brain-dead easy to learn for me. However, long-time Windows users may struggle with it a bit at first. Once you learn it, this interface is far faster.

microsoft surface rt tablet windows 8 skydriveI’ve just started messing with Windows Phone 8, and the way it works together with Surface is pretty impressive. For instance, when the tablet is connected, moving pictures from the phone camera to the tablet via SkyDrive is pretty much seamless. Another cool thing across the latest Windows products is a unified login: Most of your stuff appears automatically (including your personalized settings) after you first log into the device. Migration was damn near automatic.

A friend of mine who took his Surface tablet overseas may have said it best: “I didn’t realize how limited the iPad was, until I started using this Surface tablet.”

After a week, that’s my take as well, except I’d expand from just the iPad to include Android tablets too. This has been one of the best first-generation PCs I’ve ever tried.