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11/11/2012
08:18 AM
Dino Londis
Dino Londis
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Microsoft Surface: Keyboard Is Key

The Surface succeeds where the iPad fails in one important area: Document production. The optional keyboard for the Surface has a touchpad for doing practical work, whereas the iPad is limited to Bluetooth keyboards that make you reach out and touch the screen too much. Too bad the Surface costs so much.

The keyboard is the fundamental hardware difference between the Microsoft Surface and iPad. The iPad is a "lean-back" device -- one you use mainly from the couch, not at a desk. The Surface promises to let you do both, provided you spend an extra $119 or $129 for the keyboard.

Of course, the iPad allows input via third-party Bluetooth keyboards such as the highly regarded Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover. Many problems remain, such as the absence of a trackpad, which makes the user lean in and touch the screen far too much, a.k.a. "gorilla arms". In fact, iOS, the iPad's operating system, doesn't even support pointing devices other than the touch screen.

I learned this first-hand. Given that the iPad has a longer battery life than any laptop, and is instant on, I thought I could use it to replace my aging Asus Eee netbook. I could even reduce the number of devices by one. I bought the Rocketfish RF-iCAP12 Advanced Series iCapsule keyboard. Rocketfish adds some hot keys and seals the iPad in a shell when not in use.

It doesn't work. Though the keyboard is well-made -- albeit oversized -- having to touch the screen to do something typical is more than a bother and there are limited hot keys and no way to program more. I didn't like touching the screen for every little edit, especially to insert a letter or punctuation. So when Steve Ballmer introduced the Surface a few months ago, I thought Microsoft had seen and exploited one of the weaknesses of the iPad.

The Surface is $499, but that does not include the Touch Cover, which doubles as a keyboard. The cover is an extra $119.99 -- or $129.99 for a thicker cover.

I was eager to see the Surface as netbook replacement. The Microsoft Store in the Freehold Mall in New Jersey was crowded a few days after the release of the Surface. It had a bit of a forced party atmosphere -- it was no more crowded than the Apple store a hundred yards away. There were a lot of clerks on hand to answer all my questions. At times the ratio of clerk to customer seemed one-to-one.


Click here to see a slideshow of Dino's visit to the Microsoft Store.

I tested the Surface for document production. I had forgotten that the keyboard cost extra, and was surprised to find that Microsoft sells more than one keyboard for the Surface: A leaner 3-mm model of the Touch Cover, and a marginally thicker 5-mm Cover.

Click image to enlarge.

While the cheaper spill-resistant keyboard is serviceable and surprisingly effective considering just how thin it is, it's similar to other non-spring loaded keyboards, which are good for short bursts of typing but won't do for real any document production. And production is why I would buy the Surface in first place.

The clerk who said he preferred navigating the interface with the keyboard agreed with me, ran to another table and returned with the 5-mm Touch Cover. The two millimeters made all the difference. I don't think a lot of people who make their living with document production would tolerate the thinner keyboard.

Still, I didn't buy a Surface. I felt the pressure-sensitive, spill-proof keyboard that's advertised with the Surface is like the device itself. It's trying to satisfy so many users -- consumer, business, lean forward, lean back, tablet, notebook -- that's it's not serving any of them well.

For the Surface's starting price of $628 I could get a killer laptop with Windows 7 or 8 and save about $100. As things stand now, the Surface is a luxury.

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