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Rating: Surface Versus the iPad

Surface tabletMicrosoft Surface has shipped, and I was one of the lucky people to get one of the very first units. We are going to see many new tablets released this fall including the iPad Mini, which I have on order ($634.99), as well as the new iPad4 and replacements for the Google nexus7 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 that I own, like and use. The tablet operating systems, usability and applications improve daily.

I I am the most productive on a tablet with a keyboard, but that may not be true for you. My skin type requires touching a screen multiple times for the touch to be recognized. For example, it is normal right now that I have to touch my iPhone 5 2-5 times for each character I type. This past Friday, I counted 17 touches to type a single letter. Interestingly, though, is that the Microsoft Surface has not required me to touch the screen multiple times. I'm not sure if there is a technology difference that makes this touch actually work, or if it is something else, but it is fun to have a correctly working touch Surface!

It is helpful for you to know that I have used every Apple iPad and every Apple iPhone since release. I "get" how Apple's technology is supposed to work. For business purposes, the Microsoft Surface may be a better product. I have made all of my tablets run Virtual desktops and configured them to support Microsoft Exchange for business purposes. I add keyboards and covers to these units, when possible, to make them fit my business needs more. I naturally like the smaller size and lighter weight of the 7? tablet size. I enjoy my Apple iPad3 ($1231.30), Kindle Fire ($287.24), Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 ($301.47) and Google nexus7 ($304.91). But wait, there are good things and several shortcomings that you will see about the Microsoft Surface ($841.69) below. After using the product for only three days, here's a summary:

This tablet is different in use and style than any other tablet released to date. And that is a good thing. The Microsoft Surface is thinner and lighter than my comparable iPad(3). On my postal scale today, the iPad3 with the Zagg Keyboard weighs 210.0 ounces and the Surface weighs 115.2 ounces. The iPad with keyboard is about 1? thick and the Surface is 1/2? thick. The Surface is about 1? longer with a better shaped HD screen and is about 1/2? less wide. All around the Microsoft is a lighter, smaller unit. I do have the new Zagg Professional keyboard on order which should make for a lighter, smaller iPad combination. However, after trying nearly 20 keyboards, the model I currently have was the best fit for me until the Zagg Professional was released.

The Microsoft Surface just reeks of quality. The metal stand that holds the product up for you, and the way the keyboard attaches, turns the unit off and on and protects the screen is clearly well thought out. The cover keyboard is so much better than the Apple "refrigerator door" covers that fall off so easily. I have only gotten the keyboard off with some direct effort, so I don't expect the cover to fall of accidentally, like most Apple iPad covers do.

The included keyboard is flat and has an audible click noise. This works fairly well in low sound situations but not so well in noisy situations. My hands fare poorly on flat keyboards such as those made by Apple (and now by a lot of other manufacturers, too), but oddly enough this keyboard has not hurt my hands. I'm not sure why. I was appalled that different color keyboards cost such a large premium ($120-130) that I was not willing to pay that premium for white, red, cyan or magenta. So like Henry Ford, I chose black. I was interested in the Touch Keyboard, but wanted to experience the standard keyboard first, and had no motivation to spend the extra money since the touch keyboard was the same weight (.46 lbs.) and thickness. The mouse movement on the touch keyboard is sluggish, but acceptable. I did not try to change the mouse speed default settings.

The connectors on the Surface unit are solid and good with two key issues. First, the USB port worked just like a USB port should. Plug in a USB stick and files appear in a typical explorer view. As you would expect, the file structure on the Microsoft Surface is similar to what you see in Windows 7 or Windows 8. The network drives in my home office were accessible (the same as a computer) but this was a tablet doing the job. The Micro SD card slot also worked flawlessly. It is not located in the most convenient spot under the flip metal stand, but it is in a very protected location.

Both the USB and Micro SD can expand your storage capability or allow you to work with large files offline. Now for the complaints. The power connector and massive power block were both proprietary. I hate stuff like that. Apple has done better with both the old connector and the new Lightning connector. The Apple power block approach is probably better, too. Simply give me a cord that has a USB plug so I can plug it into computers, airplanes and other power adapters of my choosing! Second, the VGA and HDMI projector adapters should have been a Micro USB connector, not some proprietary form factor that is similar to Micro USB. The connector block of the VGA adapter seemed excessive, but the HDMI adapter was slim. On a good note, both VGA and HDMI worked exactly right on the first try. I could present a presentation from the Microsoft Surface with far greater confidence than I can from any Apple iPad, and I have presented from them all.

Setting up multiple users was interesting, too. The setup process asked if the user was "a child" so security restrictions could be placed on the second user. Remember that the Microsoft Surface that shipped on 10/26 was the "personal" version, not the business version.
Both Portrait and Landscape modes seem to work equally as well. Clearly the device was designed to be used in Landscape mode with the keyboard. The Microsoft Surface is far more natural to run with some touches and some keyboarding. It is clear on the iPad that Apple intended you to only run this with touch, so adding a keyboard is not the most natural.

Integration to Microsoft Exchange and OneNote were phenomenal. The presence of Office 2013 (yes, in preview) was also seamless, quick and superb. The integration into SkyDrive was also completely flawless. Remember, though, that SkyDrive's security agreement makes me question if business confidential documents should be stored in this resource. I feel the same way about Google Drive, DropBox, SugarSync and Box.net.
The responsiveness of the Microsoft Surface overall is quite good. The Surface may outrun the Google nexus7 and Samsung Galaxy Tab 2, which both outrun the iPad, iPad2 or new iPad. The iPad4 announced on October 25 will have a faster processor, and I'll be able to report on the responsiveness of that unit at a later time. (BTW, if you bought an iPad3 in October 2012, take it back and get the new unit!).

The power up and down speed is quicker than any tablet I own. Not sure of the exact reason, but I'm duly impressed. The battery life seems good. I have recharged the unit once since owning it, and can't give you an accurate run-time estimate. An unexpected nice piece of navigation was the Windows logo at the bottom of the touch screen returned to the Windows menu. Scrolling left and right on the touchscreen is much faster than any Apple iPad or Android unit. Using the mouse to scroll is doable, but painful.

The Windows 8 interface (formerly known as Metro) is interactive, refreshing with information on a continuous and scrolling basis. This is a bit of a concern for confidential email and for appointments both on the Windows 8 screen and on the splash screen for calendar events. The first 35 or so characters who on the splash screen for your appointments, so you'll need to be careful that your calendar event naming doesn't contain client confidential information.

The email client connected beautifully to Exchange, but has some usability errors that will have to be fixed in future software upgrades. For example, the Reply button has Reply, Reply all and Forward, but you have to tap twice (once for the button and once to choose one of the options) to reply to an email. This should only require one tap! The email interface was threaded like Outlook 2007 or 2010, which is OK if you like that, and annoying if you don't. Getting to the settings of the email client is not easy. The biggest annoyance is the difficulty of filing an email that you have completed. Both Apple's email client and the Android email client have done this better.

I was pleased that my primary password manager, LastPass, was available in the Microsoft App Store and could run on the Microsoft Surface. A major objection to the App Store is no ability to search. The categories of apps is good along with the top free and new releases. The Store should have an easy way to exit back to the Surface and does not.
Camera quality is also marginal, but sufficient. I would have preferred much stronger cameras, than the two 720p HD cameras, (front and rear-facing) that were supplied. These are sufficient to work with Skype, which is one of the available applications in the App Store. One clear error I made was to merge my existing Skype account which changed the way I log in to use Skype. There was not sufficient direction to keep me from making this error. The Skype interface on the Surface was elegant and an indicator of what apps will look like in the future for Windows 8 as well as the Surface. Skype calls on the Microsoft Surface are a better experience than calling from a computer.

I was surprised how some apps worked on the Microsoft Surface. For example, USA Today is available on lots of platforms: Apple iOS for both iPhone and iPad, Android, etc. Everything about the Surface app was better than any other platform except the navigation to sections. The news was far easier to read, the videos and photos were more accessible and sharper, and it probably didn't hurt to have K-State in the running for the number two poll position. The picture and supporting text on the stories was much easier to read and more navigable. However, one caution on the apps on Surface in general. The developers are still trying to learn how to use the controls in the most effective way, and frequently don't have the right buttons programmed to return to the Surface Windows RT OS or to switch conveniently somewhere else. We saw this on the Apple iPad for at least two years after initial introduction.

The volume level of audio files is quite good and of high quality. This was one of the key objections I had to the original Kindle Fire. The navigation of the music player is confusing, but I have never understood the Windows Media Player well. The controls were on the Surface keyboard, but should have been equally accessible on the touch screen. It was interesting to watch the Surface tie into my Xbox account and profile.

The Kindle Reader on the Microsoft Surface was quite acceptable.

The built-in OneNote was superb. It was surprising that you could download the old version of OneNote from the App Store, but I suspect that is to maintain file compatibility with older versions of OneNote. I liked being able to write and draw on the screen, but could not get ink to text to work as I expected. The idea here is to take hand writing and translate it to typewritten text. If this works as expected, it may be the "killer app" that would lead me to recommend the Microsoft Surface as the business tablet of choice. BTW, I used my BoxWave stylus (a must for me on the iPad), but the stylus was no better than using my finger for drawing on the Surface.

Downsides, and I'm sure I'll find more:

There are only around 900 apps in the Microsoft Store as of today. Many of my favorite apps are missing including Audible (books).
The Windows 8 navigation requires too much scrolling, but if you don't organize your iPad with groups, you have too much scrolling, too. I observed a lady on my flight Thursday night that had 12 screens on her iPad...I wanted to reach over and help her understand how to organize the device to keep from wasting so much time.
The business unit does not become available until January. This unit will have the ability to join a domain. For most business users, this is a reason to wait to purchase.

The other versions of the tablets mentioned above also deserve a written summary like this as well and hopefully will be written up in due course.

Randy Johnston
Randy Johnston is a nationally recognized educator, consultant, and writer with more than 30 years experience in Strategic Technology Planning, Accounting Software Selection, Paperless, Systems and Network Integration, Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery Planning, Business Development and Management, Process Engineering and outsourced managed services.
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