"Ma'am, we need you to take the laptop out of the bag," the TSA agent says as he hands me my backpack.
But I've already taken my laptop out of the bag. All that's left inside are an iPad and Microsoft's Surface tablet. He pulls out the Surface with its Touch Cover on top and says "It's a laptop, right? It needs to go through in its own bin." I pull the keyboard off the Surface and toss the two pieces -- tablet and keyboard -- into a bin.
Microsoft's Surface RT ($499) is a 10.6-inch tablet that runs Windows RT, a version of Windows 8. It is also more than a tablet when you pay an extra $100 and get the Touch Cover with a built-in keyboard that clicks onto the bottom of the tablet. Microsoft has spent millions of dollars and hours perfecting the Surface hardware and software so people will, well, replace both the iPad and the laptop in their carry-on bags.
Hardware Built to Fall
I don't worry about tossing – and I mean really tossing -- the Surface into the bin. That's because a few days earlier I watched the tablet fall 30 feet onto the floor of Microsoft's testing lab. Constructed of VaporMg, a new material engineered by Microsoft, the tablet is built to withstand the toughest bumps and bruises. And it feels really durable when you hold it; there's no flex to the screen or the back casing. The screen itself is covered with durable Gorilla Glass, too.
And yet, despite the rough-and-tough build, the tablet is only 0.06 pounds heavier than the new iPad, and even then it has a full-sized USB port, mini-HDMI port, larger screen and built-in stand. According to the spec sheets, it's the same thickness as Apple's tablet, but the way the edges flare inward, it actually appears a bit thinner.
A Wide Screen With a Kick
The tablet is much taller than the iPad since Microsoft used a 10.6-inch screen to accommodate a wider keyboard and to provide more horizontal space for the software. iPad users will notice the difference instantly; when holding it horizontally, your hands are further apart and it's a wider tablet to manage. New iPad owners will also notice the difference in the display. While the display on the Surface appears to be just as bright and vibrant, its 1366 x 768 resolution screen doesn't always make for as crisp a picture as the iPad's Retina display.
Having become a master at creating a pillow stand for my iPad, I've been delighted with the kickstand that pops out of the Surface back. The metal stand lies flush with the tablet when it isn't in use, but when you extend it, it holds the tablet almost vertically. Unfortunately, you can't adjust the angle and it's harder than it should be to pull out the metal stand. (My manicure didn't appreciate it!) But whether it is propping the tablet up on a plane's tray table or in bed, it's an extremely handy feature.
Both that wider screen and the kickstand help set the stage for the last important piece of hardware: the attachable keyboard covers. The Touch Cover is a lot like Apple's Smart Cover – it uses strong magnets to latch onto the bottom of the tablet – but there's a keyboard built into the seriously skinny 3mm cover. The keyboard is flush with the cover, but underneath it lies a thin layer of touch sensors. It creates an entirely new typing experience – one that falls between typing on the glass of a tablet and a regular keyboard.
At first, typing on the tablet cover felt odd. It took me about two hours to get entirely comfortable but now, after a week's experience, I am able to type 75 words per minute. That's less than I type on a regular keyboard but about equal to my speed on some popular iPad keyboard covers. The magnets attaching the cover and the tablet are so strong that you can even hold the tablet upside down by just holding the cover.
There's also the Type Cover, which is similar to a traditional keyboard with physical keys. I can type faster -- 86 words per minute – on the Type Cover but it isn't nearly as much fun to use as the Touch Cover. Both covers have small trackpads that are useful when navigating cramped menus in Office 2013. They support two-finger scrolling, but not pinch-to-zoom.
The Touch Cover, which is available in a number of colors, flips over the tablet to make it appear like a book. Word to the wise: The white cover is a lot like white socks; it gets dirty easily, so expect to clean it often.