Surface RT: Pricing details, spec updates, and impromptu Touch Cover testing

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Office on Windows RT

As for Microsoft Office, all Surface RTs will ship with Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 RT Preview—how’s that for an absurdly long product name? This suite includes new Windows 8 versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote.

The RT version of Office actually runs in the desktop side of Surface RT. It is not a new Windows 8 app imbued with what Microsoft calls the “modern” UI, though its design definitely refers to the new modern UI behaviors.

Also note the word “Preview” in the name—this isn’t the final version of Office for Surface RT. Sinofsky said the final version will be installed automatically via Windows Update, but wouldn’t comment on a timeframe other than to say the final build will be done “soon.”

Image: Microsoft
During our tour of the Surface design studio, we saw a number of early prototypes, including a cardboard version of the tablet, complete with a mocked up cardboard kickstand and cardboard Touch Cover attached.

It’s worth nothing that on the Surface RT’s updated spec sheet, the reference to Office has a notation attached: “Some features and programs unsupported. See” As of press time, the URL wasn’t yet active, but on Monday I asked Sinofsky to describe the RT-specific Office experience.

“Things like the ribbon—the controls are spaced out to ease in touch,” he said. “There’s also been a bunch of work within the Office code itself to work with the onscreen keyboard. The UI has been cleaned up overall to be more immersive and better mirror the design language of Windows Store apps. There’s less Chrome and more content. On the technical side, it’s been not just compiled to run on ARM processors, but it’s been tuned for power management as well.”

A brief session with Touch Cover typing

I didn’t get a chance to play with the RT version of Office on Monday, but I did spend about three minutes typing on a Touch Cover attached to a working tablet in one of Microsoft’s engineering labs—this is three minutes more than any journalist experienced at Microsoft’s June 18 product unveiling.

Yi-Ming shows off Touch Cover components in the Surface modeling shop.

Granted, three minutes isn’t long enough to form a fair opinion. And, granted, I’m not a touch typist, but rather a very fast two-finger hunt’n’pecker. Nonetheless, I did find typing on the Touch Cover to be immediately faster than typing on a virtual keyboard, and my speed steadily improved as I became accustomed to the unique feel and responsiveness of the keyless keyboard.

My typing problems were all related to finger pressure: Lacking the tactile feedback of actual key travel, sometimes I under-pressed the laser-etched keypad surfaces (leading to no text entry), and sometimes I over-pressed them (leading to clumsy mistakes). I also had trouble using the integrated trackpad for cursor insertion. Obviously, it’s too early to make a judgment, but I can’t wait to compare the Touch Cover to the Type Cover in a real-world setting with plenty of testing time. (Oh, and in case you're wondering, I saw not a single Type Cover during my entire day at Microsoft.)

The two cover accessories represent serious innovation on Microsoft’s part, and speak to the excruciating attention to detail—and engineering and science—the company has thrown at every element of the Surface RT experience. The tablet is neither a simply designed product, nor necessarily a device for people who crave simplicity. But it’s packed with great productivity potential, and it will be interesting to see if the relatively steep learning curve of Windows 8 is a trade-off consumers are willing to make.

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