Windows Surface Pro in the Classroom – part PC, part Tablet

Pictured here with a keyboard cover that is an additional purchase.
Pictured here with a keyboard cover that is an additional purchase.

A previous post explored the Windows Surface RT as a classroom tablet. More recently, the Microsoft Surface Pro tablet / computer is now making its way into stores. Tablet and PC choices for the classroom continue to grow with Microsoft now entering into the fray. However if you think the Surface Pro is merely a spec bump from its Surface RT sibling, take a look at some of the important factors inherent with this tablet PC.


1. It is a PC. The Surface Pro runs a full version of Windows 8 and for teachers and students who want to access and install all the programs that they would normally use on their Windows 8 desktop PC or laptop, the Surface Pro will be able accommodate this need. This is great for schools and school districts who have already invested in Windows software titles. Furthermore, with a touchscreen you now take full advantage of the new Windows 8 metro-style desktop which is designed for a touch interface. The USB 3.0 port will offer the expandability that we have come to expect from our computers, allowing for the easy connection of peripherals, storage, hubs, etc.

However offering a PC experience on a tablet requires some compromises to the tablet experience.

2. Battery life is limited. Tablet owners are used to achieving 8 to 10 hours of battery life on their respective mobile devices. However with the Surface Pro offering the functionality and performance of a full Windows PC, the battery life inevitably takes a hit. There are reports of 3-4 hours of Surface Pro use from a fully charged battery. This becomes a significant factor for schools and classrooms who anticipate using these devices over the course of a school day.

Micro SDXC slot provides the option to quickly expand storage on the Surface Pro.
Micro SDXC slot provides the option to quickly expand storage on the Surface Pro.

3. Windows 8 takes up drive space. Early reviews reported that the 64GB and 128GB capacities of the Surface Pro actually offered 23GB and 85GB of usable storage respectively. Not surprising if we think about these devices as PCs housing a full operating system rather than your typical tablet or mobile device. Once more, it is something for schools to carefully consider when assessing the potential purpose and use of this technology. Having said that, the presence of a mini SDXC card slot and USB 3.0 port provide solid options to expand the storage on your Surface Pro.

So what does this all mean? Basically, if teachers and administrators are considering the Surface Pro, we need to weigh in the benefits and compromises that this hardware offers with a full Windows 8 operating system. Is the device appropriate for the age and ability of your students? What types of tasks do you hope to have students complete with this hardware?Are there additional peripherals (keyboard, external drive), accessories (cases, covers) and support (wireless access, training) that you will require for this device?

In the end, choice is a great thing and the Surface Pro provides another compelling choice for schools and classrooms. If you are curious about other Windows 8 hardware offerings have a look at these options:

1. Surface RT – similar form factor to the Pro but runs on a mobile Windows operating system that does not offer a full Windows 8 experience.
2. Acer Iconia W5 – a series of Windows 8 tablets complete with keyboard dock
3. Asus VivoBook – a series of touch screen Windows 8 laptops from Asus

What Surface RT Does Right as a Classroom Tablet

During the holidays I finally had some hands-on time with the Microsoft Surface RT Tablet. Up until now, purchasing Microsoft’s hardware offerings have been limited to their online and boutique stores/kiosks. Most recently they have started rolling out to the big box retailers.

What is Microsoft Surface RT?

The “RT” badge indicates that this Windows OS (operating system) is designed specifically for tablet and mobile use. Similar to the iOS platform from Apple Inc. that runs on their iPhones and iPads, Windows RT users can extend the functionality of the tablet through the download of applications from the online Windows Store.

“Surface” is the line of tablet hardware from Microsoft. Currently there are two versions of Surface hardware. As mentioned above there is the Surface RT and in early 2013 Microsoft will release the Surface Pro. Surface Pro is essentially their Surface tablet running a full Windows 8 operating system. Programs and software that you would run on a Windows PC (laptop or desktop) could technically run on this line of tablets.

But for this blog post, lets focus squarely on the Surface RT.

What Microsoft Surface RT does right…

1. Skype, Bing and Skydrive are important and welcome pieces of this platform puzzle. Finally Microsoft can bring to bear the assets it has been developing and acquiring over the past few years onto one platform/device. Speculation over the possible integration of XBOX elements and perhaps more importantly Kinect (motion capture) into subsequent versions of Surface are fascinating in their use as interactive teaching tools.

2. Microsoft Office is included on these tablets. Arguably the flagship consumer software title for Microsoft, the inclusion of this popular suite is a very compelling addition to the Surface RT tablet. Again, the ability to use this productivity suite in conjunction with Microsoft’s Skydrive as a cloud storage and syncing solution is very attractive. For students and teachers who are currently using the Office software in their classrooms and labs, the RT platform aims to complement and bridge the gap when working between PC and tablet.

3. The Surface RT has a USB port! The lack of USB ports and SD card slots on Apple’s tablet offering can be a point of contention for some in the market for robust tablet hardware. Looking specifically at the Surface RT the USB port allows for the quick connection of peripherals such as a keyboard, mouse, printer, external drive, etc. However, it is important to note that not all USB devices will work with RT. Similarly the SD card slot provides a convenient and quick way to add storage to the tablet as well as upload photos and media without the need to use an adapter or dongle. There is hopefully the potential to connect other USB devices such as probes, thermometers, sensors, etc. For more information regarding USB peripherals check out this ZDNet article from Mary Jo Foley.

4. Multiple User Accounts is a substantial feature over Apple’s iOS particularly for classroom teachers that want to be able manage and customize the device when it is used with different students across different classes. Accessibility and security features can be tweaked and customized for different users or for a variety of different uses.

What Microsoft Surface RT needs to improve upon

1. The price of the Microsoft Surface tablet is very much in keeping with Apple’s offerings. For a tablet new to this crowded market of mobile devices, Microsoft needs to garner some much needed attention to its own line of hardware. More specifically, the Surface protective covers that conveniently house a keyboard are a compelling feature for Microsoft’s tablet. Unfortunately, they do not come standard with the Surface tablet and they are not a cheap add-on purchase.

2. It would be unfair to expect Windows to offer a huge selection of RT apps at launch but they need to find ways of attracting developers to their platform… and quick. As an educator, the sheer variety and depth of educational, creation and productivity iOS applications has drawn me into Apple’s line of products and at this point competitors will have to provide a compelling alternative in order for me to switch to another platform.

For more thoughts on the Surface RT tablet, check out this info graphic and series of articles from Paul Thurrott – Why Surface RT?