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Does Your Tablet Need a Keyboard? Microsoft Surface RT Absolutely Does



Since the days of Microsoft’s Tablet PCs there have been debates about Tablet PCs and keyboards. Many die-hard Tableteers insisted that the Slate (without a keyboard) was the key to the future of Tablet PCs. Many, like myself, preferred a convertible or hybrid Tablet PC because the keyboard provided options to use the Tablet PC as a laptop. Those debates don’t have the same fire today with modern Tablets. Microsoft is pushing keyboards with its Surface Tablet, having created two pretty nifty keyboard covers. But then accessory makers have been selling keyboards for the iPad in great numbers for awhile, and the consensus seems to be that if you want to do any real work on a modern day Tablet you need a keyboard. My favorite for the iPad is the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover. (You can read a number of GBM reviews of keyboards here.) In fact, if you remember when Apple unveiled the first iPad, it was pushing its Wireless Keyboard dock as an accessory at the time. Back then, I thought Apple was hedging its bets for consumers who might be afraid to go touch only.

Like everything else with Tablets, “needing a keyboard” depends on what you you do with the device. However, If you’re choosing a Microsoft Surface Tablet, in my opinion, you absolutely need a keyboard. More on that later. If you’re using another Tablet and want to write you’ll probably end up wanting a keyboard. There are certainly many options out there for you to choose from. Keyboard cases, roll up keyboards, keyboards that stick to your Tablet, projected keyboards, the list goes on. In fact, you can use quite a few existing keyboards with the Surface RT and not rely on either of the new keyboards designed for the RT. That said, these keyboards are designed with special keys to take advantage of some the Surface RT features and they do double as a screen cover.

IMG_1481 I picked up both the Type and Touch keyboard covers when I bought the Surface RT. I was eager to see what Microsoft had created with the accessory. My preconceptions were that the Touch keyboard would be interesting, but I would probably settle on the Type keyboard. The Touch keyboard has no moving or mechanical keys. It relies on capacitive touch technology. The Type keyboard is mechanical and therefore feels more familiar to anyone who has been pressing keys up and down, which I think is most of us. There is not a lot of travel to those keys, but they work very well after a short period of adjustment.

Like I said, I thought I’d end up using the Type keyboard more. I’m certainly seeing that choice as a trend among tech bloggers. But as I’ve been using the Surface RT for a little over week, I actually prefer the Touch keyboard. Microsoft warns up front that using the Touch keyboard comes with a learning curve. And it does. In my experience, once I gave into it, the learning curve began to flatten out relatively quickly. I’m able to type as fast as I need to after testing things out for a week on the Touch keyboard. And as I’ve been alternating between the two models there is a sense of relief when I go back to the Touch keyboard. Don’t get me wrong the Type keyboard works like a charm and feels very familiar, but the Touch Keyboard seems to make more sense to me on the Surface RT. There are a couple of reasons for this.

First, in the picture below, notice that small line on both trackpads. (The Touch keyboard is on the left and the Type keyboard is on the right.) This line delineates the distinction on the area that you press for a right or left click. On the Touch keyboard it is actually below the physical area of the trackpad. On the Type keyboard it is actually within the area of the trackpad. In my experience I’m more accurate with the separate selection area on the Touch keyboard. I get less errant touches. Both trackpads offer the same gestures for swiping things back and forth into focus on the Surface RT. I find the Touch keyboard trackpad more consistent when I am using these gestures.


Second, both keyboards serve as screen covers for the Surface RT. Fold them over when you are read to carry the device around and your screen is protected, and the keyboards turn themselves off. That’s a good thing, because the keys are exposed to your fingers when the keyboard is folded over in this position. You don’t get errant key presses because this “turn off the keyboard feature” works well, but I find it very odd when I’m holding the Surface RT with they keyboard in this position because I constantly feel the keys moving under my finger tips. Tablets are tactile things and this tactile sensation just feels wrong to me.


The Type keyboard in the screen cover position

Your mileage may vary. Let me repeat that. Your mileage may vary because what works for me may not work for me. As mentioned earlier I’m seeing the majority of folks who are talking about this preferring the Type keyboard. I think there is comfort in the familiar, especially given that the Surface RT is anything but. I’m equating this to similar reactions to Apple changing the trackpad scrolling direction on its MacBooks. Many quickly turned this new feature off because it felt odd, and well, different. I kept with it, and within a day or two it actually felt more natural to me.

Note that both of the black keyboard models come with a wool-like textured backing. The colored models of the Touch keyboard do not. I haven’t had one of those keyboards in my hand, but my understanding is that they have the same polyurethane like treatment that the front of those keyboards do. I was skeptical about this wool-like textured backing when I unpacked the keyboards. I figured they would be magnets for picking up any piece of dust or gunk laying on my desk or whatever surface I had the device on. That proved true, but a quick brush of the hand removes things quickly, and I don’t see this an a problem going forward.


Again, I haven’t used one of the colored Touch keyboards, but the texture of the actual typing surface on the Touch model I have has a slightly rough texture to it that I find helps me in my typing. The Type keyboard’s texture feels like the plastic that it is, and is also creates a great fingerprint magnet. Both keyboards clean off with a damp wipe or two.

The reason you do need a keyboard for the Surface RT is actually one of the problems I, like so many, have with the Surface RT. I spoke about this in my review of the Surface RT. Yes, you can use Office (and some other Windows utilities) on a Windows 7-like desktop on the Surface RT. (You can not use x86 Windows Apps.) The problem here is none of these “desktop” Apps have been designed with touch in mind. The targets for opening, closing, and manipulating things on the screen are just too small for touch and you need some other method to make things work. Yes, you could hook up a mouse, but I find the trackpad to be more than sufficient to handle this puzzling, and to some degree insulting, UI design choice that Microsoft chose for its first Tablet.

In the end, it is easy to see why Microsoft focused so much on the new keyboard options for the Surface RT. You have to have one to really take advantage of what the Surface RT offers. While other Tablets don’t necessarily require a keyboard, increasingly, I think those who want to use Tablets for work will continue to find keyboard solutions to make getting work done easier on these very personal device. Thankfully there are a large range of choices from you to choose from.



  1. Jeff

    11/04/2012 at 12:34 pm

    Warren – We must be using different Surface RT Devices, Office 2013 is very touch friendly and I find explorer again very touch friendly. My eyes are aging so I increased DPI to 125. Did you turn off the Touch Interface in Office?

    Also I find the 10.6 inch tablet perfect for the split screen osk.

    • Warner Crocker

      11/04/2012 at 1:57 pm

      I just find that I miss the touch targets far too much. I wouldn’t describe Office 2013 touch friendly at all, but then different (touch) strokes for different folks.

  2. hi

    11/04/2012 at 1:41 pm

    You absolutely do NOT need a keyboard. Those of us who have been using Wacom pens know the truth! Shame on you GBM.

    • Warner Crocker

      11/04/2012 at 1:59 pm

      I take it you haven’t used one of the RT devices. This isn’t a Wacom screen, though it is capacitive. Because of that using a stylus on this device is not successful in my view.

  3. ctitanic

    11/04/2012 at 2:12 pm

    I’m using most of the time the on screen keyboard. I like the fact of having a screen cover and the fact that it’s a keyboard, in case I need it. But my recommendation is not to buy the keyboard and later on once you have used the device, decide if you really need or want one. This could have saved me $100.

    • Warner Crocker

      11/04/2012 at 7:45 pm

      I think the on screen keyboard is well done. But my problem with using it is that in the landscape orientation that the device wants you to be in by design it covers up too much of the screen. I don’t care for using the device in portrait mode.

  4. Tommy Jonq

    11/04/2012 at 4:11 pm

    In other words, you never wanted a tablet in the first place. You wanted a MacBook Air. I’m a professional author and video editor and it took me abut ten minutes to get used to typing on an iPad 3. And I’m 47 years old. I ped this on my iPad.

    Let go of the twentieth century. It wasn’t that great.

    • Warner Crocker

      11/04/2012 at 7:46 pm

      I think you just proved my point on a level that I hadn’t thought of. Thanks for that. Actually I do want a good Microsoft Tablet. I’d just like to have one where the Office Apps have some relation to touch that make sense to my fingers.

  5. Jeff

    11/04/2012 at 8:25 pm

    Hi Warren – Re-enable the Touch Interface in Office 2013 and go to the upper right hand corner and hide the ribbon to maximize the screen real estate and you should find it very touch friendly.

    • Warner Crocker

      11/05/2012 at 4:57 am


      I do have the Touch Interface (instead of the Mouse interface) enabled and have used the Apps with both the ribbon hidden and exposed. The issue for me(and it may not be for you) is that the touch targets are still too small for for my fingers to hit accurately.

  6. Jeff

    11/05/2012 at 9:10 am

    Warner – Let me apologize for not catching the auto-correct changing your name in my other posts, I should have checked before submitting.

    I assume that increasing the DPI on my Surface to 125 has assisted me but I also use the Touch UI on my Samsung Series 7 without issue at normal DPI. The Surface RT is quickly becoming the best mobile device I’ve used, Office to me is the killer app and this has tackled every task I’ve thrown at it….easily it has hit the sweet spot for the companion productivity device using the 80% rule.

    Office Document Reading and Editing and Creation
    Corporate VOIP Client including Conference Calls
    PDF Reading
    eBook Reading
    Internet and Mail

    • Warner Crocker

      11/05/2012 at 9:42 am


      No worries on the name thing. That happens and with a name like mine, I’m more than used to it. I’m glad you are finding the Surface RT working for you. I’m enjoying working with the device. I just wish I enjoyed working with it more.

  7. RossNWirth (@RossNWirth)

    11/07/2012 at 4:37 pm

    I agree with Jeff – best tablet I’ve used.

    Warner – I think the need for a physical keyboard is less about Surface vs. iPod vs. Android, and more about use case. I picked up a Bluetooth keyboard for my iPad but probably only used it a handful of times – because the productivity apps were so sub-par. I work for a huge IT consulting company so mobility is huge, but so is productivity. On the iPad the integration with Exchange and SharePoint sucked. With Office 2013 it’s amazing on the Surface. I used it as my sole work device for several days last week.

    In short I use the soft keyboard when “playing” or consuming (which is how I used my iPad. I use the Touch keyboard when I’m working (mail, Office, and Lync), I didn’t/couldn’t do this on the iPad.

    I wrote up some experiences last week as I was sharing with some mobile tech enthusiast colleagues, and reposted online –

  8. Pamela

    11/08/2012 at 6:56 pm

    As a college student, I find many of my classes have internet based coursework and full Windows compatibility is a MUST for any computing device I may use. Before I got my Surface RT tablet, I was constantly transporting my 17” Acer laptop to and from school. Despite the layers of padding and careful placement in my bookbag, I was always terrified I would crush the screen, or otherwise crack the plastic casing, not to mention trying to fit the laptop on my postage-stamp-sized desk to take lecture notes was an ungodly pain. (I type much faster than I can write.)

    To say the least, having the Surface has totally transformed my experience in school. I can slip it in a side pocket of my bag or tuck it under my arm, leaving extra space in my bag for the myriad of books, supplies, and folders always lurking within. The computer is so small I can have it up on KickStand with my Touch cover in typing position, and still have room to comfortably accommodate a textbook as well. With split screen mode (a feature I’ve yet to see in any mobile device) I can keep a video recording of my lecture snapped to the side of my screen, and One Note in my main view. The rear camera has a very wide angle of view, and the resolution isn’t too bad (My fiancée has an ASUS Infinity with a pretty B@ camera for comparison), it’s not great for poor light conditions and still photos have that circa 2005 pixelated effect if you look close, but, for a tablet with this type of functionality, I can compromise. I

    As far as my Touch cover, I’m quite impressed. I was leery of buying the Touch cover, but the bundle saving $20 plus I’d get it a week earlier than a unit with a separate Type cover suckered me in. I expected a horrible experience comparable to typing on flat glass, but was pleasantly surprised when I found home row markers and the keys slightly raised to help touch typists find home row. I have found you can actually type on Touch with LESS pressure than a standard keyboards, and my typing speed has suffered very little (after the initial learning curve everyone speaks about).

    Windows 8 RT is what it is- a Windows OS with a few more functions here and a few less there. Once you get used to the new commands, it’s not so bad. After all, we all had to adjust from Microsoft Office 2003 to 2007- a pretty big shift that isn’t really thought much of anymore. (Was I the only one that played hell with the new “Ribbons?”)

    Sent from my Surface RT and Touch cover.

  9. Somename

    11/17/2012 at 12:31 am

    Hi, Warner, long time no keyboard discussion.

    We’re almost to the first fairly portable laptops, I think; we just need that processor change early next year, and I of course hope we’ll see some innovative low-power screens shipping. Between this next processor generation, low-power screens, and solid-state drives, we’re almost to where it makes sense to carry a laptop around with a light enough but sturdy box that runs Windows adequately and is homing in on having adequate battery life, which would give us significantly more freedom.

    Obviously this is a shift for Microsoft and it will take at least a little while for the software to mature. I’m very much hoping that they’re up to it, and that a secure open-source OS for these devices will be forthcoming too.

    I’d like to see these below 1.5 pounds soon and run 21 real hours on a charge, but I’m guessing that it will take a while to get there still. Nonetheless, I think that the new year will bring advanced enough machines that it will start to make make significantly more sense for computer users to have their computer with them most places.

    By the way, Gottabemobile would benefit from a better way to find articles that are not about phones, i.e., are about laptops. I don’t come here much any more because it’s too hard to find a pertinent article amid the swamp of tiny-screened devices — not that there’s no one here who apparently cares about all that crap. Thanks for some continued coverage of the devices with more useful screens.

  10. Alex

    12/15/2012 at 2:29 pm

    The problem with the surface keyboard is that it does not allow you to really use it as a LAPtop. Without the kickstand the screen can not stay up even when the keyboard is attached, and i don’t know if you tried using the kickstand on your lap but it is not fun. I’d really like to see microsoft or logitech or some other manufacturer produce a keyboard attachment with a rigid hinge that will allow the surface to tilt at any angle and stay there so that it can actually be used on your lap.

    • Josh

      01/17/2013 at 10:27 am

      they call it a TABLET for a reason

  11. Alex

    12/15/2012 at 2:33 pm

    A keyboard attachment like fujitsu made for their q702, which includes a battery that makes the bottom heavy enough that the q702 slate will not cause the screen to topple over when you tilt the screen back.

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