If you're going to throw down some cash for Microsoft's new Surface RT tablet, you absolutely must get either the Touch Cover or the Type Cover along with it. Without one of these keyboard accessories, the tablet's greater productivity package isn't complete. But which keyboard cover offers the better value for the money? Which one actually performs better under the scrutiny of empirical testing?
In my review of Surface RT, I chose the Type Cover, hands-down. The Touch Cover costs less at $120. It's also incredibly thin (just 3mm) and even spill-resistant. But because it relies on pressure sensors to record finger taps, and not actual keys, I found that using it resulted in way too many typing mistakes. The Type Cover, meanwhile, allowed me to hit typing speeds much closer to what I regularly achieve on full-size desktop keyboards. And why shouldn't it? It's an actual keyboard with actual keys and key travel. It costs $130 and is thicker at 5.5mm, but I think those are easy trade-offs to make.
Still, I wanted opinions from other PCWorld editors--touch typists who could challenge the two keyboards with ferocious flurries of fingerwork. I'm a two-finger hunt-and-pecker, and I wanted to make sure that my personal conclusions weren't anomalous.
To test the keyboard covers, I asked three of my coworkers to record their typing speeds with the tests available on Learn2Type.com. Each test evaluates one's ability to retype a short but challenging paragraph, and spits back three nuggets of data: your recorded typing speed, the number of errors you've made, and your adjusted typing speed (the recorded speed minus errors). We all acknowledged that retyping written text is a slower affair than composing original ideas. Still, the online tests provided an effective, consistent way to evaluate Microsoft's covers.
We ran each test only a few times per person. And according to Microsoft, performance on the Touch Cover improves with frequent use, so consider that when you're interpreting the data. We recorded baseline typing performance on each editor's personal desktop keyboard.
Two final notes before we get started: The online typing test will not report any words-per-minute stats if you make too many mistakes, and in the interest of brevity I report only adjusted typing speeds in the text below.
Alex Wawro, Associate Editor Baseline desktop typing speed: 84 wpm
Touch Cover: The Touch Cover is a light, compact, poor excuse for a keyboard. I spent the lion's share of my (admittedly brief) time using the Touch Cover simply relearning how to type without peeking at my fingers. Using Surface RT with a Touch Cover is doable, but it isn't enjoyable. Since the keys don't have any real depth, I couldn't easily feel where one key ended and the next began, forcing me to look down at my hands, or make a mistake roughly every third keystroke.
Here's a quick tip for typing better on the Touch Cover: Just hold down the Shift key at all times. You'll write like the Hulk (if you don't turn on Caps Lock), but keeping one finger on a known key at all times will help you mentally map out the cramped keyboard more quickly, and ease your transition to Touch Cover typing.
Touch Cover results: Unknown due to excessive errors
Type Cover: The Type Cover is much easier to type on than the Touch Cover because the keys have some travel and thus you can feel exactly where your fingers are on the keyboard without having to glance down. Although it's just as compact as the Touch Cover (my gorilla-size hands started to cramp after typing on the two covers for roughly 15 minutes each), I had no trouble adjusting from my desktop keyboard to the Type Cover, and I had no mistypes or frustrating mistakes. In fact, according to our typing tests, I typed faster with the Type Cover than I did on my PC.
Type Cover result: 91 wpm
Melissa Riofrio, Senior Editor Baseline desktop typing speed: 73 wpm (Adds Melissa: "When I'm really on a roll, I can type in the mid- to high 80s. Not that I'm competitive or anything.")
Touch Cover: Touchscreen typing can be frustrating for speed demons like me; it can't keep up. However, I recently spent a week typing on a tablet, and I became willing to trade off some speed for the relief from physical pounding. But the Touch Cover was harder for me to use than a virtual touchscreen keyboard. It is softly textured, like a freshly rubbed eraser. It felt great, but I think that slight friction caused my fingers to catch for just a nanosecond longer on the keys. It also seemed to impede dragging and clicking on the touchpad.
The lack of tactile feedback most affected my attempts to use the Shift key to capitalize. I found myself pounding the board to create my own feedback, much to the repetitive-strain dismay of my fingers. I made three to four times more mistakes than I did on either the Type Cover or my traditional keyboard.
Touch Cover result: 45 wpm
Type Cover: The Type Cover managed to replicate the traditional keyboard well enough that I experienced basically no slowdown compared with using a traditional keyboard. The keys are broad, which is nice. The travel was extremely short--I would have to train my fingers not to pound quite so hard--but it was enough to reassure me that I was hitting my mark. The touchpad worked smoothly; the clicking action on the touchpad was very subtle, but still easier than on the Touch Cover.
After all this, I actually prefer typing on a touchscreen. But if I had to choose one of these two keyboards, I'd pick the Type Cover, which offers the easier learning curve.
Type Cover result: 73 wpm
Melissa Perenson, Senior Editor Baseline desktop typing speed: 61 wpm
Touch Cover: I'm a touch typist. My fingers instinctively fly by feel over a keyboard, if not always at the fastest clip. Furthermore, I don't pound the keys; my touch is more middle-of-the road. For these reasons, my time with the Touch Cover proved to be a mixed experience. I had no issue with the key placement or finding my position on the keyboard--in spite of the flat, pressure-sensitive keys and the ever-so-minute key definition. However, I did tend to skip letters. Frequently. The more I typed, the more it became clear that I wasn't pressing firmly enough.
I found that my accuracy improved over the short time I used the Touch Cover, as I learned to slow down my typing speed, and to vary my pressure to increase the likelihood that I actually struck the keys. That said, I also felt my hands tire more quickly than they would on a physical keyboard. I felt the fatigue even as I dragged my finger over the integrated touchpad, which is made of the same textured material as the rest of the keyboard case. My typing speed reflected the need to adjust: My first take on the Touch Cover was 32 wpm, with one mistake, but when I really concentrated on the pressure I applied to the keys, I came in at 49 wpm.
Touch Cover result: 49 wpm
Type Cover: My experience with the Type Cover was just the opposite. Everything about this keyboard lends itself to touch typing. The surface of the keyboard is a soft-touch, rubberized paint that my fingers could just glide over. And the keys felt well defined. I wasn't error-free on this keyboard, either, but my accuracy was better from the get-go thanks to the physical hardware's feedback.
More important, I found that I didn't need to be conscious of the pressure I applied to strike the keys. Nor did my hands tire as quickly as with the Touch Cover. I also preferred the touchpad on the Type Cover: The smooth surface made navigation seamless, as did the physical feedback from the touchpad's left and right mouse buttons (integrated into the bottom of the touchpad, clickpad-style).
My one gripe: The keyboard itself flexed as I typed, particularly in the center part. Still, for my dollar, I'd pay the little bit extra and go for the Type Cover. The difference, for me, was just that tangible. And my typing speed was more comparable to what I achieved on my desktop.
Type Cover result: 57 wpm