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Microsoft Surface RT review

 Review: October 2012  
 

Last updated July 2013

Rating: 4 stars

In a nutshell: The Microsoft Surface RT is a unique tablet/laptop hybrid with a touchscreen and a snap-on keyboard. It's more powerful than rival tablets, but the choice of apps is limited, it's not fully mobile, and Windows RT has its limitations.



 

Review

Update (16th July 2013): Microsoft has announced a drastic price cut for the Surface RT from £399 down to £279. That makes it a much more attractive option and we've uprated it from 3 stars to 4.

The Microsoft Surface for Windows RT. It's new. It's different. But what exactly is it? We're not certain that it's really a tablet. It looks suspiciously like a laptop. We're going to assume that it's a laptop unless it can prove otherwise.

On the outside

Let's start by taking this thing (whatever it is) out of its box. We still don't know what it is exactly, but it has a quality feel about it. We already feel we've probably got our £399 worth.

The Surface is made from a magnesium alloy with the futuristic name of VaporMg. We're used to our devices being made from exotic materials, but this feels very good, though heavy. Microsoft claims that it's three times lighter than aluminium, yet it has a highly durable exterior. It certainly feels well built. An anti-fingerprint coating is supposed to stop the surface from getting messy, and seems to do its job well enough.

Now wait. There's something else in the box. It's a keyboard, or Touch Cover. This is in fact a combined cover and pressure-sensitive keyboard, just 3mm thick and available in a choice of colours. It snaps nicely into place to reveal a full QWERTY keyboard with Windows shortcut keys, media controls and a trackpad. Now this is both a blessing and a curse. It's a curse because portability has just gone out of the window (excuse the pun). This is absolutely definitely a device to be used sitting down at a desk. But get over it, because the keyboard is so much easier to use if you're planning to do any serious typing. Prodding a screen may be cool and fun, but it's simply not very productive when you have a job to do and a deadline looming. The Touch Cover can be removed, but you're vastly reducing the potential of the device if you do so. If you want to get really serious about typing, you can replace the Touch Cover with a Type Cover - a dual cover and mechanical keyboard, which will give you a typing speed and accuracy close to a real laptop.

When you've finished using the Surface, you just flip the cover (either kind) closed and the screen switches off, preserving battery life and protecting the display from damage. Interestingly though, the device stays connected to an available network even in standby mode, automatically updating apps and messages.

At the back, the Surface is equipped with an integrated kickstand that supports the device at a good angle for desktop use. It's yet another give-away that this isn't a tablet at all, but a laptop in disguise.

The display measures 10.6 inches diagonally, making it 20% larger than the display on a third generation iPad. It's a HD display with a 16:9 aspect ratio. Now, while a widescreen 16:9 display is great for watching movies, it's not so good for editing documents. It's another trade-off between the old-fashioned PC world and the groovy new tablet world that Microsoft so wants to break into.

The screen resolution isn't as high as we'd like. Whilst it's perfectly usable, it's pixel density is low at 148ppi compared with the iPad's 264ppi. Even the iPad Mini has 163ppi.

Under the surface

The Surface RT is powered by a 1.3GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor, as seen in the Google Nexus 7. There's a full 2GB of RAM. As tablets go, this delivers a lot of grunt, and certainly the RT user interface speeds along without trouble. It's enough to run Office applications too, although it won't match the power of a laptop costing the same amount of money.

The Surface RT comes with either 32GB or 64GB of built-in memory, and a microSDXC card slot lets you add up to 64GB of extra memory.

SkyDrive gives you 7GB of cloud-based storage.

Windows RT

Now we get to the crux of the matter. This first version of the Surface doesn't run Windows 8. It runs Windows RT. Windows RT is a reduced version of Windows 8. It's an operating system that's designed for the mobile era, using the now-familiar "tile" system to place interactive buttons and widgets on the home screen. These tiles are live, with the mail tile showing recent messages, the weather tile showing the latest forecast and the photo tile working like a mini photoframe.

So far, so good, but Windows RT works exclusively with apps available from the Windows Store. At the time of launch, it's fair to say that the range of apps available from the Windows Store are limited. Windows 8 will offer desktop apps too, including Outlook, PowerPoint, Chrome and all the software you're used to running on a Windows machine. Be aware that Windows RT doesn't support this functionality. Windows RT also has limited networking, security and IT management options.

Pre-installed apps include:

A final Office version will be installed for free via Windows Update when available.

In addition the Surface integrates with Xbox so you can access games, movies, TV shows and music. Xbox Music gives you free access to millions of songs that you can stream to your Surface when you're online.

Cameras

The Surface comes with front- and rear-facing 720p HD cameras. The rear-facing camera is angled upwards so that when the device is resting on the kickstand, it points straight ahead. To be honest, we're not convinced by this. Our Surface faces the wall, but even if you're lucky enough to have a desk that looks out on a more interesting vista, are you really going to want to photograph it? Perhaps you can us it at work to video your colleagues and make sure they don't steal your biscuits when you've just nipped out for a moment.

More convincing is the front-facing HD camera that can be used for Skype video calls.

Connectivity

As well as offering Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 for wireless connectivity, the Surface has a full-sized USB port. You can plug in a USB drive or a camera and drag and drop files between the drive and the Surface. Just like with a PC. You can also connect accessories like printers or mice, provided they're compatible with Windows RT.

A microHDMI video out port lets you plug the Surface into a HD monitor or TV.

The device can be charged via USB.

What the Surface doesn't have is any kind of cellular connectivity. There's no 3G; no 4G. There's no GPS either. But this makes sense given the nature of the device - it's a portable desk-bound system, not a fully mobile one.

Battery life

The battery is non-removable with a capacity of 31.5 watt-hour. Compare that with the 42.5 watt-hour battery of the third-gen iPad. You'll get less mobile use from a Surface RT than from most other tablets - 8 hours according to Microsoft. But if the device is mostly desk-bound, then maybe this isn't too much of an issue.

Pricing

The Surface for Windows RT starts at £399 for the 32GB. That doesn't include a Touch Cover, which will cost an extra £80. For the 64GB version including a Touch Cover, you'll be spending £559.

Update (16th July 2013): Microsoft has announced a drastic price cut for the Surface RT from £399 down to £279.

Conclusion - a brilliant product at the new low price

The Surface for Windows RT is a great product. It isn't necessarily a tablet, although you can use it without the Touch Cover if you want to. It doesn't have the full power of a laptop, but instead it's a super-portable touchscreen laptop or else a tablet with a snap-on keyboard. In other words, it's a unique device.

There's lots to like here. It's a very well-made piece of kit. The snap-on keyboard is handy. Connectivity is more extensive than most tablets. The Windows RT interface is powerful and fun to use. The software may lack the usual array of apps you'll find on a tablet, but includes MS Office 2013.

In our original review we recommended that you choose the Surface Pro or simply a Windows Ultrabook instead. But with the big price reduction, the balance has changed. The Surface RT is now what it should have been all along if Microsoft had priced it correctly - a very cheap alternative to a laptop that can double as a high-powered tablet. For the price of an iPad Mini, you get a really high-spec tablet that comes bundled with some serious software (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, OneNote, etc) and that is fully capable of replacing an entry-level notepad.


Microsoft Surface RT features include:

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Microsoft Surface RT user reviews

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Average rating from 2 reviews:

Reviewed by pan from uk on 31st Jul 2013
Bought the surface RT after the price drop, at this price is the best tablet out there. My friends couldn't believe how well it performs, I was little bit surprised by their reaction, it is just a very portable laptop, but you can't compare the surface to anything else, ipad etc are just toys. It's fast, reliable, battery last for ages, and has tones of apps. I love the live tiles. At this price is a steal, no other table comes closer, except for the surface pro of course! But that's more expensive and heavier. Very happy with my purchase for 279!
Rating:

Reviewed by Nicholas from London on 28th Oct 2012
Bit of a peculiar review S21, discounting the Surface as a tablet. Despite a form factor similar to other tablets as well as similar connectivity and UI attributes, it's not a tablet?

When you attach a cover to the iPad and use it as a stand (as it's not smart enough to be used as a keyboard) does that then transform it into another kind of device? Likewise when incorporating a built-in kick stand?

I guess that only 8hrs battery life makes the Surface something other than a tablet if the latest iPad can manage up to a whopping 10hrs!

Looks to me like you at S21 are keen supporters of all things Apple but you need to be slightly more objective with your reviews. To suggest buying a more powerful laptop or ultrabook instead of a tablet for the same money as you did above is a bit ridiculous as the same can suggested for other tablets.

As we are all aware there are entry level versions of tablets and there are high end versions of the same tablets.

One last point...NOTHING in the world of tablets (and in some cases, laptops) comes close to the screen resolution of latest iPad's Retina display so whilst that can be the leading benchmark, reference to other tablets with similar resolutions to the Surface makes for a better comparison!

The Windows Surface tablet looks like an interesting product that will be adding something different to the mix. I look forward to getting my hands on one for a test drive as it would be great to have a powerful PC like device with all the convenience of a tablet. I thought I had this with the Blackerry Playbook but that turned out to be a bit a damp squib!

5/5 stars for what looks like a promising device Microsoft. Hope it's a good one!!
Rating:

Reply by S21 from UK on 28th Oct 2012
LOL, keen supporters of all things Apple? Apple supporters are always accusing us of being Android fanboys! We try to be neutral - we have no axe to grind. Our comments about the Surface being a laptop in disguise should not be taken 100% seriously, but at the same time, the probability of finding someone using a Surface without the snap-on keyboard is about as high as finding someone using an iPad with one.

Reply by Me Again from London on 30th Oct 2012
Looks like the iPad has been comprehensively licked technologically by the new Nexus 10 tablet, including screen resolution. Can't wait to see what you make that Apple lover!... just kidding S21! ;)


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