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Surface tablet's touch cover is ZX81 REBORN

Hands on with Redmond's Typoslab

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FIRST FONDLE The Surface tablet's Touch Cover is eerily reminiscent of typing on a ZX81, The Register can report after fondling one of the elusive (to non Microsoft-adoring press) computers at the Australian launch of Windows 8.

To do so, we elbowed aside other media and scored a few minutes on a Surface running Windows RT. We were able to use both the Touch Cover and Type Cover and can report that both are decent input devices.

The Touch Cover, however, offers absolutely no tactile feedback, a sensation - or lack thereof - your correspondent cannot recall experiencing on a keyboard since last millennium when wrangling Sinclair's classic micro. Touch typing therefore produced results rather less accurate than your correspondent would produce on another unfamiliar keyboard, but was still easier than working a ZX81.

Typing on the Touch Cover is a little odd compared to the experience of using an on-screen tablet keyboard, as when typing on a 'classic' fondleslab one's eyes don't have to travel far between the (virtual) keyboard and the data one enters. There's more ocular action required to ensure accuracy on a Surface when using the Touch Cover, but we expect that as with any keyboard that effort will decrease over time.

The Type Cover is rather better. To offer an apples vs. apples comparison we can report it's more responsive than the experience of typing on the ZX Spectrum's infamous dead flesh keyboard and maybe a little more immediately welcoming than a first experience using recent Apple keyboards. The keys have decent travel, click just a little, and made it possible to touch-type with the accuracy your correspondent generally achieves on the first try of a new keyboard.

Overall the Surface is a slick machine. The keyboards snap in with a satisfying click. The touch screen is swift and responsive. The overall package was clearly superior to other small Windows 8 laptops on show at the launch. An ASUS model, for example, could only detach the screen from the keyboard if one found a special sliding switch and then negotiated a fiddly pair of latches. Connecting a keyboard to the Surface is as easy as using a magnet to fasten something to your fridge.

Where the Surface - and all Windows 8 devices - challenge the user is their insistence on learning a new interactive vocabulary to get them doing clever and/or useful things. For example, the trick to accessing important navigational elements of The Interface Formerly Known as Metro (TIFKAM) is to start a swipe off the screen, a technique pioneered on the BlackBerry Playbook.

That ill-omened machine infamously failed to make much of an impression on the market. The Surface is a slicker creature and we can imagine users will find plenty of reasons to climb its learning curve.

Just how steep that curve will be and whether many will reach the summit remains to be seen. Your correspondent can recall taking a week or so to feel sufficiently familiar with Palm's 'Graffiti' text input system when the Palm III emerged in the late 1990s. That effort required the user to memorise around 30 pen strokes, but after that week left me feeling well and truly in command.

It's not clear how many new gestures, mouse clicks or menu options one will need before feeling all of Windows 8's best bits are mere putty in your hands. But if our brief time using a Surface proved anything, it's that figuring it out will be quite fun. ®

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