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.

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 well
The 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 only with  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.)

InfoWorld Scorecard
Business connectivity (20.0%)
Web and Internet support (20.0%)
Application support (15.0%)
Security and management (20.0%)
Usability (15.0%)
Hardware (10.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Microsoft Surface RT 8.0 7.0 6.0 6.0 6.0 8.0 6.8
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