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Options for accessing Exchange Server mail on Surface tablets

With tablet usage on the rise, users should know how to access Exchange Server mail. Outlook isn't included on the Surface, but other options exist.

Although Surface tablets do not include a copy of Microsoft Outlook, there are several other ways users can access...

their Exchange mailboxes.

By now, you're probably familiar with the Microsoft Surface tablet, which runs on Windows RT. The Windows RT operating system is designed to run on ARM processors, similar to those used in smartphones, rather than on traditional x86 or x64 CPUs.

Because Windows RT relies on ARM processors, the OS is somewhat limited when it comes to running certain applications. Case in point, Windows RT can run certain Modern UI-based apps and embedded desktop apps, but cannot run legacy Windows applications. This made me curious to see what options Windows RT offers for connecting to Exchange Server mail.

Forget about Outlook 2013

Although Office 2013 is built into Surface tablets, Outlook 2013 is not included. Because Microsoft designed the Surface tablets to be consumer devices, only Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote are included. In contrast, Surface Pro devices can run traditional x86 applications, but do not include Microsoft Office.

Exchange ActiveSync

Microsoft Surface tablets connect to Exchange Server via ActiveSync. While Surface tablets have an ActiveSync client built in, it is not as full-featured as Outlook, and there are a few limitations that might prove confusing to end users.

Unlike Outlook, the Surface tablet uses a separate app for each type of Exchange data. For example, there is a Mail app, a Contacts app and a Calendar app.

Another issue that could prove confusing to end users is the fact that when they set up their Surface tablets, the Windows RT operating system asks them to sign in with a Microsoft Live account. Upon doing so, the Mail app automatically connects to However, after the connection is established, the app does not provide any obvious mechanism for connecting to Exchange.

In order to connect, you must understand exactly how the Windows RT interface works. If you swipe the right side of the screen, you'll reveal a series of icons: Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings. Although the icons are accessible from anywhere in the OS, they are context-sensitive. For example, if you tap the Settings icon, the tablet reveals the settings of the specific application the user is working with. Therefore, if you open the Mail icon and then tap the Settings icon, you can access mail settings.

If you're on the Settings page, tap Accounts, then tap Add an Account. You will see a list of messaging services you can connect to. Since we want to connect to an Exchange mailbox, tap the Outlook icon. You will be prompted to enter an email address and password. After you do, the ActiveSync synchronization process begins. The Mail app now displays the account, as well as the Exchange mailbox, on separate tabs so that you can easily move from one mailbox to the other without switching apps.

POP3 clients

Another option for accessing Exchange Server mail from a Microsoft Surface tablet is to use a third-party application from the Windows App Store. At the time of this writing, the only third-party app that is compatible with both the Surface and Microsoft Exchange is called Modern Mail Monitor. The app sells for $3.99 and is a POP3 client capable of connecting to multiple email accounts.

Outlook Web App

Users looking for the most full-featured messaging client should turn to Outlook Web App (OWA). The Surface includes Internet Explorer 10 (IE 10), which works very well with OWA. Shortly after I purchased my own Surface, I used IE 10 to connect to Microsoft Office 365. Upon doing so, I was able to read and compose mail using the OWA interface, without any noticeable restrictions or performance issues.

ActiveSync mailbox policies

It's worth noting that Surface tablets do in fact support ActiveSync mailbox policies. So if a user accesses his mail from the Mail app, policies affecting passwords, device restrictions, and others will be applied to the tablet.

About the author
Brien Posey is a ten-time Microsoft MVP with two decades of IT experience. Before becoming a freelance technical writer, Brien worked as CIO at a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as network administrator for some of the nation's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox.

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