Tech Tips - Blogging with the Surface RT

Professional writers and bloggers looking for a no-nonsense work tool need look no further than Microsoft's Surface RT. The $499 $299 slate delivers a comparable typing experience to using Word on a notebook, yet does so at a size/weight that makes it more portable than even a svelte netbook.

The secret to the Surface RT slate's amazing capability lies not only in part to the Windows RT OS, but the slate's ability to pair and work with both keyboards and pointing devices. Full desktop browser support also means you can forgo those watered-down blogging apps, allowing native access to your site's content management system. Watch as I show how you can effortlessly create and publish a complete article with Blogger's web interface using the Surface RT paired with just the Type Cover keyboard attachment and my Logitech M570 wireless trackball.

BACKGROUND:

While I won't be writing this off as a full review of the Surface RT (that's coming later), I do have a beef with certain mobile dabblers and armchair experts who claim the Surface RT doesn't work for them. In particular, I felt it necessary to address the writing aspects of the device, as it is precisely this area where the Surface RT not only shines, but beats every other slate on the market.

Long-time users of Word such as myself know that it is an extremely powerful word processing tool, bordering on desktop publishing software. Yet finding this productivity application on an inexpensive slate platform has been impossible in the past. App developers' attempts to make readers and compatible "viewers" for iOS and Android have done little or nothing when it comes to implementing full editing capabilities and file saving. More often than not, you're left to opening the file on a notebook/desktop to make any changes to your document.

In a similar fashion, using software such as Word requires more than just a stellar typing experience from a keyboard - you need proper cursor control. That means not only a keyboard with isolated, inverted-T cursor keys, but a method to position the blinking cursor on the screen via a single click/touch. The latter is simply impossible to do attempting to accurately land a finger on the space between two characters. Consider as well that touching the screen is an unnatural gesture when using a slate set up on a desk in notebook mode.

The Surface RT manages to tackle both these issues. The first is taken care of by supplying the slate with a preview/full copy of Office 2013. Designed to work with Windows RT, the Office software includes full versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. You get full document creation and editing capability, and with a few minor exceptions such as macro support, can do whatever Office does for you on the desktop.

Accurate cursor control is taken care of with the Type Cover keyboard attachment. Not only does it provide cursor keys, but you get a usable trackpad with left/right mouse buttons. This points to the fact that Windows RT offers standard mouse support with a pointer available on-screen for navigation, text selection, cursor placement and window dragging/resizing - far beyond what is possible with just a touch UI, and something many serious users crave.

As a bonus, the USB port will work with any standard mouse/trackball, allowing me to use my Logitech M570 for the ultimate ergonomic convenience, never mind providing single-pixel accuracy and fast pointer movement. While it's definitely possible to use the Surface RT without an attached mouse/trackball, the ability to do so adds to the productivity potential, and in many cases will greatly speed up your workflow - important for writers who must adhere to tight deadlines.

DETAILS:

Working with a blog or online publishing engine entails the use of a CMS, or content management system. The issue this has presented in the past was that it required a desktop browser to access. Tablets running a smartphone OS and mobile browser lacked the ability to handle complex java/flash/html code used by CMS, failed to accommodate a minimum display resolution to properly show the editing interface, or would limit you to a single screen without the ability to scroll. Such constraints make productivity impossible.

Those CMS solutions that provide a tablet "app" for access get around this limitation, but do so at the expense of features and/or functionality. It's not unlikely to see a stripped-down editing interface with limited capability and advanced/complex tools removed. You may even be restricted to what you can post or be forced to work with a word limit. In any case, the app will be a novelty solution at best, making you finish your work on a notebook/desktop later on.

Just like working on the desktop
Enter the Surface RT. With a default display resolution of 1366x768, it has the screen real-estate to display even the most complex CMS interface, and have multiple tabs/windows open. More important, however, is that desktop version of Internet Explorer 10 Microsoft includes - it will support all the underlying code used by the CMS and present you with an experience comparable to firing up a browser on your notebook. For the uninitiated, that includes WYSIWYG composing, full HTML editing, window scrolling, dialog pop-ups, context menus, input fields etc. complete with full cut/copy/paste functionality.

Add the convenience of a physical keyboard and mouse to this, and you begin to understand how it all comes together.

Need to include photos and video in your article? That can be done too. Want to rock out to Pandora while you do your thing? Need to reference multiple sources and research while you write? Perhaps you've shot material with your smartphone's camera or digital point-and-shoot and need to transfer it over? All easily doable!

GETTING STARTED:

One very important disclaimer I should make is that the Surface RT allows you to use Internet Explorer in both slate and desktop mode. While you can certainly create blog posts using the former, the latter is far more powerful allowing you to multitask and have multiple windows/tabs open. The desktop experience in Windows RT is in fact practically identical to working on a notebook, providing a very familiar productivity experience for millions of existing Windows users, and a key reason why it's so adept for writing tasks.

Blogger offers a very easy to use yet powerful interface for creating and publishing content, all doable from within your browser. Starting with a title for your post/article, the editing window provides full text formatting control. While I'm not going to go through a full tutorial here on how to use the CMS, you will see how I can take advantage of every feature available to me.

Formatting text is child's play, as with any basic word processor. Just click on the text effect you need and the editing window shows the result as it will be displayed live.

Adding a link? Simply hit the link button. The popup let's you insert a link you have previously "cut" and define the underlined text.

Adding photos made easy
For combining images with text, simply click on the insert image button. The popup window allows you to select your source, so photos stored on the Surface RT, on a drive connected to the slate, a NAS via wifi, your Picasa album or photos already uploaded to Blogger can instantly be used. You can choose the size of how the image should be displayed as well as include a one-line caption underneath the image. Freeform placement of the image is also possible by clicking and dragging.

Rotate and crop as you like
Photos taken with the Surface RT camera can be cropped with the default photo application. The image you see here was taken with the rear-facing camera, cropped and inserted directly into the paragraph complete with word-wrap and caption. No jumping through hoops, no photo editing apps needed, no need to exit the editor or switch screens constantly, and most importantly, no time wasted trying to figure out how to get it to work.

Using Bluetooth allows you to transfer photos and video from your smartphone to the Surface RT without requiring a data connection and without needing to carry a USB cable with you - handy when working on the move.

For folks that do have a USB cable, you can directly plug in your point-and-shoot and access photos you have taken, negating the lack of a full-size SD slot on the slate. Again, that's one of the benefits of having a file system on a slate as it can recognize attached devices as if they were directly attached storage.

Incidentally, it's also quite simple to take screenshots with the Surface RT - just hold down the Windows button at the bottom of the screen while giving the volume down button a tap. The display will dim slightly to let you know it has taken a full-screen capture.

Want to get video on your blog? The Surface RT shoots video very simply. The short mp4 sample you see here was saved locally and uploaded directly from within the interface:

video


Should you want to use the front-facing camera for doing videos or commentary, the process would be just as easy - record your content and upload. Upload times will depend greatly on the length of your video and speed of your internet connection. You do miss out on any editing options or overlays/intro, but for many folks that won't be necessary - the fact that you can shoot and upload video with the Surface RT this easily will make it an extremely useful tool regardless.

Alternatively, Blogger also allows you to pick anything from YouTube, and using Internet Explorer, upload videos to your YouTube channel. You can use the YouTube video editor for making changes as well before uploading. Here's one of the more popular YouTube videos for folks that have been living under a rock these past 6 months:


At any time you can hit the preview button during your editing to see how the work you've done so far will look like as published. This opens in a new tab showing the page as it will appear with all formatting, links, images etc. placed in their proper spot. It's also a great way to proofread material and make additions/changes to wording before it's published, never mind correct any typos.

On the far right you have options for changing your post settings such as adding labels, scheduling your post to go live at a set time, using a custom URL, adding a location to your post and enabling/disabling comments.

Finally, for those versed in HTML, use a custom template for their site or want to make more detailed editing, you can switch from the WYSIWYG compose view to the plain-text HTML editor. This allows full editing capability for everything that appears in the post, and switching back and forth between views, allows you to see how the edited HTML script will look like as it appears to viewers.

The Surface RT is also capable of editing existing content you may already have on your website, since anything created with the same CMS can be accessed in a similar manner. This makes the Surface RT a viable tool for web admins who may need to do maintenance work, including composing HTML code or adding/removing content.

BLAZING A PAPER TRAIL:

What about when you need your work in hard copy? What if you want the Surface RT to work as a full-fledged writing instrument with Office Word functionality? The Surface RT runs Word 2013 flawlessly, with the ability to open, edit and save files as you would using Word 2013 on a notebook/desktop, including full support for creating PDF documents.

Of course, printing is possible thanks to various options. If you have a mobile printer using Bluetooth, you can connect directly to the Surface RT and print your documents on the go wherever you are. Newer printers with built-in wifi will also work with the slate. Last but not least, you can connect printers directly to the USB port, or through a USB hub, and get your hard copies the traditional way.

CONCLUSION:

Working with multiple windows/tabs
The Microsoft Surface RT can handle any complex writing project you throw at it, and do so in ways no other slate will let you work. Those writers who say they cannot make the Surface RT work for them say so because they have a lack of basic technical acumen - folks that need to quit blogging and go back to sharpening pencils for their paper organizers. It is a groundbreaking device that offers what no other slate can and lets writers work in all-new ways, yet without tossing out any of the tried and true. This entire article, including photos and video, was created using nothing but the Surface RT. I have to admit it is a writing solution I feel spoiled using.

Of course, I shouldn't reveal any spoilers, short of presenting the full Surface RT review very soon. Stay tuned!

EDITOR'S NOTE: Pricing information has been updated in the introduction.

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