Microsoft has created a wonderful tablet in the Surface RT. It feels well made, it's light, it's highly usable and it contains things that many tablet users have considered to be essential elements for a great overall user experience, such as a built-in stand and expansion ports. Furthermore, the Surface RT has been designed with productivity in mind, and to this end it's available with optional, touch or tactile keyboard covers. But while the hardware is versatile and makes for a very enjoyable user experience, the Windows RT software is (so far) limited in what it can run, and it could be a source of frustration for many users.
The Microsoft Surface RT hardware
Physically, Microsoft's Surface RT is very well made, it looks good and it feels good in the hand. It's a 10.6in tablet that weighs 700 grams on its own and 900 grams if you attach the optional Touch cover. While it's perhaps a little on the heavy side (if we're being nitpicky), it's a tablet that you don't constantly have to hold in your hands. Importantly, it's also a tablet for which you don't have to buy an aftermarket stand if you want to sit it upright on a desk.
There is a kickstand built in to the rear of the unit and it doesn't add any bulk to the design at all; in fact, it's more of a metal flap that flows pretty much seamlessly along the rear of the tablet, and if you didn't know it was meant to be there, you would probably miss it. It's easy to extend this flap when you want to rest the Surface RT on a table. It's a sturdy flap that makes a nice reassuring sound as it snaps back into place once you're done using it.
On the bottom of the Surface RT is where the interface is located for the optional keyboard covers. The two covers that are available are the $139.99 Touch cover, which is a 3mm thick screen cover with a touch-based keyboard, and the $149.99 Type cover, which is a thicker screen cover that has tactile keys on it. The latter is better for serious typing, while the former is useful for when you want to type a quick email or use the built-in touchpad to move the pointer around the screen. Our review unit, which is a 64GB grey import from Mobicity, came in a package with the Touch cover and cost $799 at the time of writing.
Strong magnets are used to keep these covers in place on the tablet, and if you hold the covers anywhere near the vicinity of the connector, they will be attracted to the magnets and guided into place with a satisfying snapping sound. It's a strong solution and a fun one to use. You can even hold the tablet upside down from the attached cover without fear of the tablet disconnecting from it. All bets are off if you shake it violently though.
With a cover attached to the Surface RT, and with its stand extended, the tablet can be used as a makeshift laptop, and it's this versatility that makes it such a good solution for anyone who wants to use a tablet for productivity as well as media consumption. That said, the Touch cover is not comfortable for long typing sessions. Hitting keys that are not physical can be tiring. Not all keystrokes will be registered and it can also lead to many miss-hits if any part of your hand brushes the cover as you type. If you really want to use this thing for long typing sessions, then get the thicker, but much easier to use Type cover for it.
The covers also make the Surface RT act as a laptop in that they can control its on/off operation. When using a cover, you can simply open it to switch on the tablet and close it again to switch off the tablet (that is, put it into standby mode). You never have to worry about pressing the power button at the top-right of the tablet. When the cover is folded all the way behind the tablet, its inputs will be disabled, so you can hold it easily without fear of moving the pointer or accidentally typing.
There have been some reports of these covers splitting at the edges. We didn't notice any damage on our Touch cover after using the Surface RT extensively for a couple of weeks. Initially, we had fears that we would end up accidentally bending the thin cover, especially when using it on soft surfaces (such as on a couch and bed) and that the soft material on the edges would start to fold and look awful. But it held up well — for two weeks at least. Of course, with regular use, and more vigorous use, there is a real chance it might become deformed or rip.
One absolutely lovely feature of the Touch cover is that you can use it in conjunction with the built-in stand in order to rest the Surface comfortably on your body. Simply open the stand, fold the cover under it, and you have yourself a tablet that can be rested comfortably on your chest or stomach as you lie in bed or on the couch. It can even rest in your lap as you sit up straight. It's great for when you want to use the tablet to watch videos or browse the Web, and you can still very easily type URLs, enter password credentials and update your Twitter and Facebook statuses by hitting the keys on the on-screen keyboard. It sure beats having to hold the tablet or resting it flat.
The screen has wide viewing angles, it's bright and it possesses great contrast. It's only let down by a relatively low resolution of 1366x768, on which text looked to us to be a little too messy around the edges. However, unless you're used to a higher resolution and pixel density on a 10.6in screen, then you probably won't be let down by it. It is glossy though, which means reflections from light sources will sometimes be a problem. Fingerprints will also need to be cleaned off regularly.
As for its touch performance, we had no problems with it. Swipe-in gestures worked perfectly all of the time, the on-screen keyboard was a pleasure to use (although it sometimes felt too sensitive) and the accuracy of the screen was high — we were even capable of hitting small icons such as the speaker in the Taskbar and the minimise and close buttons in windows on the Desktop. The screen only supports five simultaneous touch points, rather than 10, but if you type using the hunt-and-peck method, then this won't be a limitation. It should also be fine for most on-screen game controls. Auto-rotation was swift and not overly sensitive. The ambient light sensor didn't seem to work all of the time as far as we could tell, despite the adaptive brightness setting being on in the power profile.
We love the inclusion of a USB 2.0 port on the right side of the tablet (it's the fastest that's supported by the chipset) and there is also a concealed micro-SD card slot on the right side under the flap so you can add some more storage to the unit. You also get two cameras, a headset port and a video out port, but you'll need to purchase an adapter if you want to use it (an HDMI adapter costs $44.99). You also get built-in Bluetooth and 802.11n Wi-Fi. It's dual-band Wi-Fi and its best transfer rate was around 4.5 megabytes per second in our tests when transferring MP3s and video files to the tablet.
The one thing we don't like about the hardware design is the power port. It's magnetic, but it sits at an awkward angle and it can be hard to use. The connector from the adapter's cord doesn't snap in place as easily as the Touch cover and it disconnects from the tablet very easily. Coupled with a short length of cord to the power adapter (only 1.5m), it very often disconnected from the tablet during charge sessions. We had to sit quite close to a power outlet whenever we wanted to use the tablet while it was charging.
The Microsoft Surface RT software
The CPU that runs the Microsoft Surface RT is an NVIDIA Tegra 3 with four cores and there is 2GB of RAM installed. The Tegra 3 is an ARM-based chip that's designed for low-power mobile devices such as this tablet and it means that the tablet can run for comparably longer times than a tablet based on an Intel Core i-series or Atom SoC CPU, and also much cooler and practically in silence (there is no fan in the Surface RT that we could hear). It also means that it can't run native Windows software. You can't just load any Windows software that you are used to running on your laptop or desktop computer, and this is one of the major drawbacks of the Surface with Windows RT for most typical Windows users.
In order to install software under Windows RT, you must go through the Microsoft Windows store. Only software through this store can be installed. You can't just go to a Web site and download the latest version of Firefox or Chrome; you can't just go to the Adobe site to get the latest Reader or Flash Player; you can't just download and install iTunes or Spotify. Until versions of these programs (and any of your other favourites) are created to run on the ARM architecture for Windows RT, you'll have to do without them. This means you'll have to use the pre-installed software on the Surface RT, including Internet Explorer — although it's not such a bad experience.
Not being able to install regular Windows programs on the RT is made all the more frustrating by the fact that the interface looks exactly like Windows 8. It even has a Desktop component. The desktop component of the Windows RT operating system is present to facilitate the productivity side of things. It runs as its own app on the system, and you can open up programs and system windows within it. You can re-arrange windows like you can on a regular laptop or desktop computer, and you can use the File Explorer interface to copy, move and manage your files. It really is an essential part of the operating system, even though we feel that Microsoft should have looked to create a different solution for ARM-based tablet devices. As we said earlier, the mere fact that the Desktop is there might end up confusing many users who then try to install software from a Web site or a USB stick.
We tested the 64GB version of the Surface RT, which has a formatted capacity of 54GB, and about 6GB of this is taken up by the operating system itself. The micro-SD expansion slot will come in handy, especially if you elect to go for the 32GB version of this tablet. During regular operation, that is, browsing Web sites and switching between the desktop and Windows 8-style native apps, the performance of the tablet felt swift and responsive. However, there were times when the performance was sluggish. These times were mostly when we wanted to access the store to see what new apps were available to download. Oftentimes, the message that we were not connected to the Internet was presented to us, and other times we had to wait a long time for the white screen of the store present us with information (despite using a fast Internet connection and sitting in an area with a maximum wireless signal).
The performance of the store was not always smooth, which is perhaps understandable given how new all this is, but at the same time could be considered inexcusable for a company of Microsoft's size. We even had problems during our first purchase. Not only did the store stop responding as we were entering our payment details, we had to then restart the tablet in order to make the store responsive again. This did not fill us with confidence, to say the least, but we found that our details were actually saved and we subsequently made our intended purchase with a minium of fuss.
We played games easily on the Surface RT. Riptide GP, in particular, was lots of fun, and we were able to use the on-screen controls comfortably, as well as the built-in accelerometer sensor to move the table side-to-side to control the game. The graphics were vibrant and the frame rate was fast.
Local video files played back smoothly on the tablet — it supports AVI files (Xvid and DivX), as well as MP4 files (H.264) but it won't play back MKV files natively. However, streaming video was a mixed bag. Low bit-rate streams from the likes of the ABC's iView played just fine, but when we fired up our NBA LeaguePass to watch some basketball games at 1600Kbps, the video started losing frames after a short while. We put it down to the amount of processing required for the network component as well as the video component, as 800Kbps game streams played back just fine. When streaming movies or TV shows at a relatively high bit-rate, the dropped frames won't be an issue, but for fast-paced sports like basketball, you really can miss a lot of the action.
Most streaming video sites that we tried on the Surface RT worked just fine, including YouTube, Live Leak and Vimeo, but some sites, such as Break, did not work. Again, it's worth noting that videos with a high resolution (especially those from Vimeo) did not play back smoothly on this device. There is pre-installed Adobe Flash support, which only works with Web sites approved by Microsoft.
Microsoft Surface RT: the tablet experience
Using the Surface RT as a tablet offers a good overall user experience. The Live Tile interface is intuitive for the most part, although sometimes the "live" nature of these tiles can make it hard to find the tile that you are looking for. But the main problem is that you need to switch back and forth between the Windows 8 tablet user interface and the Desktop in order to get things done. For example, if you plug in a USB stick full of photos and you want to open them up in the Photos app, you'll have to first transfer them to the Pictures library. If you open one photo (which opens in the Photos app by default) thinking that you can simply browse through the rest of the photos in the folder, you'll be disappointed. You can only flick through them once they are in the library. The app also allows you to flick through photos in your Skydrive and local network locations in addition to the library.
You can browse the Web using either the Internet Explorer browser on the Desktop, or the IE browser from the Start screen. The latter will let you browse the Web in full-screen mode and it offers a superior tablet experience to the Desktop version of IE. For example, you can simply swipe back and forth to navigate pages (a feature called 'Flip ahead' allows you to flick forward in a site, which is useful for comment threads that have multiple pages, for example); when you place the cursor in a text box, the on-screen keyboard shows up automatically.
Using the Desktop version of IE, there is no way to flick back and forth between pages instead of using the arrow keys, which are small targets to hit with your finger. You also have to manually invoke the on-screen keyboard any time you want to type in a text field. It's also worth noting that the two browsers are separate environments. If you are browsing the Web in Desktop mode and want to switch to the full-screen browser, you'll have to navigate to where you were and possibly log to a site in again.
Having to manually bring up the on-screen keyboard when using the Desktop (and not just the browser) was one of the most frustrating aspects of the overall user experience. Placing the text box in the Internet Explorer URL bar, or anywhere else we needed to type, always required that extra step of hitting the keyboard icon in the System Tray or from the Charms menu, and we always had to re-position the screen in order to accommodate it. Funnily enough, the on-screen keyboard did work automatically when we ran the pre-installed Office suite. The Office suite is only a preview, but Microsoft says that once the full version is released, it will be available for users via Windows Update. It's a suite that allows you to save directly to the cloud (that is, Skydrive), which is convenient.
Another annoyance (for us, anyway), was the inability of the tablet to share folders by default. We had to go into Services through the Computer Management screen in order to set the 'Server' service as 'automatic'. We were then able to share data from the Surface RT tablet to other devices on our network. The networking performance overall was rather slow though and, in particular, it took a good few minutes for the Surface RT to be able to access the Windows 7 computers on our network. Going the other way, our Windows 7 computers saw shared folders on the Surface RT in almost no time flat.
As for battery life, the Surface RT lasted a healthy 9hr 42min when looping an Xvid-encoded video non-stop at full screen brightness. When we ran an Internet video streaming test using battery power, it lasted 5hr 5min. Both are very solid results. It took just over 2hr to fully charge the tablet using the supplied power adapter (which is the only method of charging this unit). Only one power profile is present in the settings, but it can be modified. Sometimes the battery indicator in the Taskbar was buggy and showed that we didn't have a battery connected.
Microsoft Surface RT: our final thoughts
Frustration will abound for many users because this is an ARM-based tablet that runs Windows RT. You can't download and run common programs, such as Firefox and iTunes, that you might already run on a regular laptop. If you get this tablet, the chances are that you are most probably coming from a PC background rather than a Mac or Android background and you'll already have lots of programs that you are used to running. The likelihood is that they won't run on this tablet. The rule is, if the app is not available in the Microsoft Windows store when you check through your RT tablet, then you won't be able to use it.
Purely thinking of the Surface RT as a tablet, and not as a traditional Windows-based computer, we can see its appeal: it's light, silent, it can run happily for a whole day without getting warm, and the hardware is great. It offers a fun, full-screen Web browsing experience and it's responsive as a simple gaming platform, too, judging from the small sample of games that we ran on it. It can be used as a music and video player, even though we don't really care for its built-in media apps much at all and wish there were third-party alternatives. Perhaps most importantly, it can be used effectively to create and edit documents in addition to being a media consumption device and Web browser.
We think it's worth considering if you don't already have a tablet, if you don't mind that it can't run regular laptop and desktop apps, and if you want something with a semi-familiar interface rather than joining the iOS or Android camps.
Of course, the Windows 8 interface will take some getting used to, and the fact that you need to switch between the Desktop and Start screen to get things done can be very confusing. Be sure to check out our beginner's guide to Windows 8 for a rundown on how to use this environment.
Related Windows 8 device reviews:
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• Toshiba Satellite U920T hybrid Ultrabook
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