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Microsoft Surface 2 and the working journalist, day one

Doing real work is the only sensible way to review a device like the Surface 2. I my book readers are more interested in knowing how a device performs in real life, not on a test bench.

I’m a journalist, so I used the Microsoft Surface 2 to share my first impressions of using the tablet as a digital portable typewriter. Here I just deal with the out-of-the-box experience, I'll tell you more about the everyday practicalities of the device when I've a little more testing under my belt.

From the moment you take the Surface 2 out of its box, you know it’s a contender. It’s small, thin and light. According to the paper specifications it weighs 680g – that's about 10 percent heavier than the iPad 2 and 25g more than the iPad 4.

Microsoft Surface 2 is solid


It’s solid and well-engineered. It doesn’t flex worryingly when you hold it and although it is by no means heavy, it has a comforting degree of heft. The case is made of magnesium, which only adds to the sturdy, industrial feel. It fits neatly into a briefcase. I use a leather document case for my iPad and that works just as well with Microsoft’s device.

All of which means the Surface 2 certainly looks up the punishment it’ll get being taken to and from press conferences or interviews. When I'm running around, I tend to pull out my working devices between gigs to writing up stories in Wi-Fi equipped cafes. While you can say the same about the iPad, few Android tablets have this kind of physical build quality.

The Surface 2 is fractionally larger than an iPad, mainly because it has a longer, narrower 10.6 inch widescreen display. This display format works well with writing apps like Microsoft Word when the tablet is used with its keyboard and the screen is in landscape mode. I find it a little narrow when I'm holding the device in portrait orientation, but that's nothing I can't get used to.

Kickstand


On the back there’s a kickstand, which supports the display at one of two angles when you work at a desk. At the Auckland product launch a Microsoft demonstrator used the kickstand to rest the Surface on his lap. That’s not something I would do, but if that’s how you roll, it could work for you.

Although a first sight the kickstand seems trivial, even cosmetic, it turns out to be a notable point of difference between the Surface and other tablets.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference between the Surface 2 and the original Surface is the screen. It is crisp, particularly when displaying black text on a white background while word processing practical.

Beautiful type


Microsoft is a long way ahead of rivals when it comes to displaying text. Presumably the Surface 2 uses Microsoft's Cleartype technology. I've no idea. Whatever is going on here, it works. Type is important for a writer, apart from anything else, better quality presentation makes it easier to proof-read your own work.

I had no trouble reading the screen at all. There display has 1920 by 1200 pixels – that’s better than low-end laptops but considerably less than in current iPad models. In practice, it's more than good enough for my journalism work. I suspect if I was a photographer I might be more inclined towards an iPad with a Retina display.

Touch works fine on the screen, Microsoft says the display can handle five points of contact at any time. I wouldn’t know about that, I never use more than three.

Keyboard


There's no keyboard in the Surface 2 box. Instead users have a choice of keyboards which are purchased as extras. The review Surface came with the Touch Cover 2 which is largely good. On the plus side it is remarkably tough despite being less than 3mm thick. I love the way the keys are backlit – it's a wonderful addition and can help productivity in low-light conditions.

Keys are touch sensitive. They make a click sound to provide feedback as you type. In practice I find the clicking sound stops and starts seemingly at random. That could be down to my unknowingly switching the feature off and on. I need to investigate this.

I’m an old school touch typist. I learnt my craft on the big heavy typewriter keyboards you used to find in newspaper offices. Despite this, I don't run into problems with the lack of travel. My problem with the keyboard is it is just a touch too small for my clumsy hands. At first I found myself making more errors than normal and after a while I had a touch of discomfort in my hands. There’s no real way around this, it isn’t possible to squeeze a full sized keyboard into a space that’s only 270mm wide.

Having said that, I’ve managed to type this review only marginally less quickly than on my normal computer – so perhaps this isn’t the problem, it appears to be.

To the front of the keyboard is a trackpad for moving the cursor or mouse around the screen. I find myself using this frequently as it saves moving my hands from the keyboard to the touch screen.

Interesting problem


During my first day with the Surface 2 I ran into a teething problem. It's not a design fault, more a case of operator error. The device's power supply is a square shaped block that plugs into an outlet. Or in my case it didn't - I have a distribution board designed to accept round plugs and so the Surface power supply block didn't make contact and wasn't charging when I thought it was.

Helpfully there's an LED where the power supply plugs into the tablet which lights when it is recharging the battery. This didn't come on and, because the device is new, I wasn't looking for it. So I was blissfully unaware the device was running out of juice until I got a software warning.

Overall the Surface 2 is a big improvement over the original Surface. I would be wary of using the older device for my work. The screen and keyboard on the newer version seem right, there's enough power to do my work. While others are negative about the Windows RT software, at this stage that doesn't look to be a problem for my day-to-day needs as a journalist. That conclusion may change after I've spent a bit more time with the Surface 2.

[digitl 2013]

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