Review: Surface mostly bridges work-play divide

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LOS ANGELES (AP) - I’ve been conditioned just like any other consumer to expect certain things from certain companies. When it comes to tablets, I expect Apple’s to look and feel amazing, Google’s to seamlessly blend online services such as Gmail and search, and Amazon’s to have easy access to its online store.

So when Microsoft came out with its first tablet computer, the Surface, I wanted and expected a machine that is good for work. After all, its Windows operating system runs most of the world’s computers, particularly in corporate environments.

The Surface is Microsoft’s first attempt at a general-purpose computer. In the past, it made the software and left it to other companies to make the machines. But to catch the tablet wave led by Apple’s iPad, Microsoft felt it needed to make its own device.

The Surface’s price tag starts at $499, the same as the latest full-screen iPad, but if you are going to buy one, you’ll want to spend the extra $100 or more for an optional cover that comes with a working keyboard.

After several days with it, I felt that Surface comes close to becoming a replacement for my work computer, but it doesn’t make it all the way. Some elements designed for “play” make Surface surprisingly good, while others verge on being frustrating.

INTERFACE:

There’s no doubt that Surface has a split personality, steeped in its very physical design. It’s a tablet, but transforms into a personal computer with the keyboard cover, snapped on using its magnetic spine.

Trying hard to be both means compromises. For instance, a kickstand lets you prop up the screen on a flat surface so that it feels more like a laptop with the keyboard attached, but the setup is clumsy for typing on your lap. On the other hand, you can flip the keyboard cover upside down and use the kickstand to form a supportive triangle for the screen. In this position, the device is a comfy companion while watching TV on the couch.

A big aspect of the split personality comes in the software. Surface’s start screen has a bunch of square tiles that represent apps _ akin to the round icons on iPhones, iPads and Android devices. One touch, and an app opens full screen. But there’s also a tile that takes you to a very different operating system called the desktop. Presumably, this is where the “work” begins.

Because the desktop interface takes on the old Windows style of boxes and icons, your suddenly big-seeming fingers become less well-suited to navigating. I had to give up on touch and use the keyboard cover with its trackpad (The pricier Type Cover with real keys is far easier for typing than the soft, flat Touch Cover, by the way). Swiping around on the cover’s built-in trackpad quickly brings up the mouse pointer, whose precision you’ll both need and appreciate in the desktop world.

WORK:

The Surface that went on sale Oct. 26 comes with Windows RT, the slimmed-down version of Microsoft’s newest operating system, Windows 8. While I understand the need for a slimmer OS to run on low-power chips that extend battery life, RT makes the device clearly not a PC.

Although the device has Microsoft’s latest browser, Internet Explorer 10, third-party plug-ins that have helped power the Web for years don’t work correctly. I couldn’t get behind my company’s firewall because a Juniper Networks plug-in couldn’t be installed. IE 10 is meant to be plug-in free, but the Web hasn’t caught up to it yet. Devices with the full version of Windows 8 won’t have the same plug-in problem, Microsoft says. But a Surface with Windows 8 Pro isn’t due out for a few months.

Surface gives you free copies of the Office programs Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, which is a big bonus. The RT versions of Office operate much like the full versions, but lack some meaningful conveniences such as the ability to email files as attachments with a couple of clicks. Microsoft says that’s because Outlook isn’t included in the package. Instead, Surface uses a program called Windows Mail, but it makes little sense to me why it can’t be integrated with Office.

Still, in my testing I was able to save and access Word and OneNote documents on Microsoft’s Internet-storage system, SkyDrive. As a result, I could access those files back on my office computer without the hassles of USB and other storage drives.

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