Review: Surface Touch Cover 2

Windows tablets present a design challenge because they include desktop applications which are designed for keyboard and mouse, rather than touch – not least Microsoft Office, which for some of us accounts for a significant proportion of the time spent using the device. So far there has been consensus therefore that Windows tablets need some easy way of using a keyboard and mouse or trackpad. How to achieve this without losing the benefits of a tablet  is not easy. Bluetooth is one solution, but means three devices rather than one in your bag. Screens that twist over to form tablets are another, but the devices tend to be heavy and the twisting action inconvenient. Detachable keyboard/trackpads are the favoured solution, but leave you the problem of a loose keyboard to look after once you have detached it. If it stays always attached, perhaps you should have bought a laptop.

Microsoft’s Surface tablet has the most elegant solution I have seen. When it was launched a year ago, it included two optional keyboard covers. The Type cover is a thin keyboard with real clacky keys.  The touch keyboard is almost flat, though the keys are slightly raised. You can detach them, but they fold back behind the device, automatically disabling the keys, at which point they are unobtrusive.

Many people liked the idea of the touch keyboard, but found typing frustrating with more errors than they normally make. For this reason, the Type keyboard is more popular among Surface users. It is possible that more Touch keyboards were sold, since they are slightly cheaper and more often bundled with the device, but in actual use I see more Type keyboards.

That is a shame, because the Touch keyboard is design-wise a better solution. It adds very little bulk to the Surface, and when folded back under the device for tablet use, it feels perfectly natural, whereas the Type keyboard feels odd because of the keys that are then on the underside.

When Microsoft announced the Touch Cover 2, it said that by adding more sensors (14 times as many apparently) and more intelligence to the cover and its drivers, it had improved the typing accuracy. As a Surface user I was excited to try the Touch Cover 2 and see if it lives up to these claims. If it does, I will happily ditch the Type cover.

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The Touch Cover 2 is the same price as before, £99 in the UK or $120 in the US. It is compatible with every Surface, including the original Surface RT. It is also fractionally thinner, 2.5mm as opposed to 3mm. Third, it is now backlit, which makes a big difference on those odd occasions when you are typing in dim light, such as on an aircraft when the cabin lights are dim.

Looking at old and new side by side though, you would be forgiven for thinking not much has changed – the new one is the lower of the two, and note that my original is a US layout and the new one UK:

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Here are a few more points of detail:

  • The new keyboard has function key labelling F1-F12. As is now common, the default is the non-Fn meaning, and you have to press Fn first to get the function key. The old keyboard also has an Fn key, but you have to work out which top key to press. The right Alt key is now labelled Alt Gr.
  • The purpose of two of the special keys has changed. The new keyboard no longer has volume keys, though it does have a volume mute. In their place are two keys controlling the brightness of the backlight.
  • The design of the trackpad has changed slightly. On the old touch cover, the left and right “buttons” are on the edge of the keyboard outside the etched area that represents the trackpad. On the new cover, these buttons are within the etched area, which means that the trackpad seems slightly bigger, but in reality is not.
  • The underside of the touch cover used to have a fabric finish. On Touch Cover 2 it is now smooth plastic. This is one detail where I prefer the older cover, though maybe it helps to get it that 0.5mm thinner.

The following picture shows the backs of the old and new keyboard covers side by side, with the new one on the left:

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Touch cover 2 in use

Now for what really matters. How is the Touch Cover 2 in use?

My first thought was to try a speed test. I went along to this online test and tried it several times with the old touch cover, then with the new one. The results favoured the new cover, perhaps by around 20%, though how you evaluate it depends on the weighting you give to errors versus speed.

Then I sat down to write this review. This is where my opinion of the new Touch Cover began to swing in its favour. I find real-world typing on the Touch Cover 2 substantially more pleasant than with the earlier version. Measuring words per minute does not fully represent the improved experience. Of course this is a personal thing and your experience may vary.

The backlighting is low key (ha!) but improves usability. The way this works is that the white lettering on the keys is illuminated so it stands out more.

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Note that if you think it is not working, you probably just need to increase the brightness using the special keys.

Is it as good as a real keyboard, or even a Type Cover? I doubt it ever will be, especially if you are someone who does not look at the keyboard while you type. The problem is that the slight etching round the keys makes it harder for your fingers to know where they are, though typing with audible key clicks helps.

Another factor is that if you are not at a desk, the lightness and thinness of the touch cover counts against it, since it flexes slightly on your lap.

That said, with practice you can get good speed and accuracy. As a cover, it is so much more elegant than the Type Cover that overall I might just prefer it, even though I still rate the Type Cover slightly better for typing.

One caveat though: I used the Touch Cover 2 with both Surface RT and Surface Pro, and had an annoying problem. If I stay typing in one app everything is fine, but if I switch apps than sometimes the keyboard stops responding. Oddly, opening Device Manager and pressing the up and down arrows a few times seems to fix it. Perhaps my Touch Cover 2 is faulty, but I suspect a driver issue, which means hope for a fix soon. I will be trying it soon with a Surface 2 and will be interested to see if the problem remains.

The keyboard also seems to mark easily. I have only had it for a day, but can already see slight fading of the black finish on the keys I type most often.

Mobility always involves compromise. If you want the very best keyboard for typing, it won’t be a touch cover. In fact, for best productivity I prefer a high quality Bluetooth or USB keyboard to either of the Type or Touch covers.

That does not detract from what Microsoft’s engineers have achieved with the Touch Cover 2. Flip it back, and you have a tablet; flip it forward, and you protect your screen; place it on a desk and you have a productive typing machine.

Glitch aside, I recommend the Touch Cover 2 as a good option with a new Surface and a worthwhile upgrade from the first Touch cover.

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  4. Microsoft Surface is coming: Windows, but not as you know it
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