Hands on with Microsoft's Surface RT: Can it hit the sweet spot?

Hands on with Microsoft's Surface RT: Can it hit the sweet spot?

Summary: I've spent the last week using Microsoft's new Surface with Windows RT. It does some things remarkably well, but it's not a PC. Is it right for you?

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On a busy Sunday evening a few weeks ago, I was sitting in Terminal 4 of the Phoenix Sky Harbor airport waiting for a connecting flight. The guy sitting next to me was clearly an experienced business traveler.

I watched out of the corner of my eye as he pulled an iPad from his briefcase, checked some football scores, and played Words with Friends for a few minutes.

Then he put the iPad away and pulled out a well-worn Dell notebook (I swear it had duct tape on one corner). He waited (more patiently than I would have) for Windows XP to load, and then he worked on an Excel spreadsheet for 30 minutes until our flight was called.

That guy. The one who has to carry around two devices because neither one by itself can do everything that needs to be done. That’s who Microsoft’s new Surface with Windows RT was designed for.

After using a Surface RT for the past week, I can explain it in one sentence:

It’s more than an iPad, and less than a PC.

The Windows RT-powered Surface will not replace your desktop PC or your full-strength notebook. It is, instead, an ideal companion device for a Windows PC, with great mobility. It is powerful enough that it alone can handle most work and play duties, even on an extended business trip or vacation.

The hardware itself is drop-dead gorgeous, and the build quality is exceptional. This thing feels good in the hand, and the kickstand works exactly as advertised: propping the device at a 22-degree angle for watching a movie or working with an Office document. It is very thin (a millimeter or two thinner than the third-generation iPad) and very light (a fraction of an ounce heavier than that same iPad, despite having a much larger screen).

Surface; Black Touch Cover Side View

Closing the Touch Cover turns the device off, and the back of the cover has just the right amount of gripping quality so that you can carry this device comfortably, like a book.

“More than an iPad” doesn’t mean “better than an iPad.” Making that final judgment has a lot to do with what you want out of a portable device and whether you already have an investment in or a preference for Apple’s enormous app ecosystem.

But, objectively, the Surface with Windows RT does five things an iPad simply can’t:

  • It allows connections to external devices. You can plug a micro-SD card into the slot hidden beneath the kickstand and instantly increase available storage. My review unit came with 64GB of internal storage and a 64GB SD card, giving it a very impressive 113.5GB of storage. The availability of a USB 2.0 slot means you can connect USB flash drives for easy file transfer, or connect to a printer to produce a hard copy of a document without having to jump through hoops.
  • It supports Adobe Flash in Internet Explorer. Yes, Flash takes some much-justified abuse for its performance and security woes, but it also powers a lot of web-based applications that people depend on, especially in educational segments.
  • It has a keyboard (and a touchpad!) Technically, theTouch Cover and Type Cover are optional accessories for the Surface RT. But I can’t imagine using this device without it. Yes, you can equip an iPad with a third-party keyboard to make data input faster, but the Surface covers have multiple advantages: they’re integrated into the cover, so you don’t have to carry an extra device, they work on a direct connection instead of requiring finicky Bluetooth and an external power source, and they include a touchpad, which lets you use Office apps and the Windows RT desktop without having to mess with the touchscreen. (The touchpad, by the way, scrolls in the opposite direction from most existing PC touchpads when you use the two-finger scroll gesture, a feature it shares with Macs running OS X Mountain Lion.)
  • Microsoft Office is included. Windows RT includes four apps from Office 2013, all of which were updated this week to the final release. For creating and editing documents, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote work exactly as they do on a Windows PC. Trying to open those documents on an iPad offers only a vague approximation of the formatting, with no editing capabilities unless you pay for a separate app.
  • Multiple users can share a Surface. An iPad is an intensely personal device, designed for a single user. By contrast, Windows RT has full support for multiple Windows accounts. And because it synchronizes settings, bookmarks, email and calendar items, and saved passwords with Windows 8, those individual accounts are personal and private.

In fact, if you switch from a PC running Windows 8 to a Surface RT, you might not notice any difference right away. (Except, perhaps for the fact that the device never gets hot, thanks to a low-powered Tegra ARM processor whose design allows it to run cooler than an Intel CPU.)

But you will, sooner or later, discover why this Windows RT-powered Surface is less than a PC. It is missing these key features:

    • You cannot install desktop apps. If you download a program written for the Windows desktop and try to run it, you will be stopped in your tracks, with an error message that tells you, politely, to go look for an equivalent app in the Windows Store. If you need to edit a video with your favorite desktop tool, or if you want to run through your finances with Quicken for Windows, you are out of luck.
windows-rt-desktop-apps-error
  • That copy of Office isn't complete. If you want to check your email, you'll need to use a browser or the built-in Mail app, because Outlook isn't included. You'll also need a business license to use the Office apps for commercial purposes. In addition, some advanced features (including the ability to run macros) are not supported. For a full list of the differences between Office 2013 on Windows RT and on Windows 8, see this page.
  • You cannot install an alternative browser. If you’re addicted to Firefox extensions, or if you’ve built a completely tweaked Chrome experience for Gmail and Google Apps, you are out of luck. Internet Explorer 10 is the only browser option available to you. And you can’t add any browser plugins except those included with the base installation. So no password manager, no third-party ad blocker, and (ironically) no Silverlight.
  • There’s no SkyDrive synchronization. This one surprised me when I first discovered it. If you want to access files stored in your SkyDrive account, you’ll need to do so via a web browser or the built-in Windows 8 app, using a live Internet connection. The Windows desktop app that syncs files between a local drive and SkyDrive isn’t available for Windows RT. (You can open an Office document from SkyDrive, disconnect from the Internet, and continue editing it offline. The Office Upload Center will upload your changes later, when you reconnect.)

Some of those shortcomings would be dealbreakers if you were depending on this device to be your only PC. But if it’s your go-to mobile device, you can tolerate some of those shortcomings in exchange for greatly improved battery life and the ability to carry a single device instead of two.

A week’s usage is barely long enough to make preliminary judgments about performance, but here are some impressions I can share.

Battery life

I didn’t perform any formal assessments, but over the course of the week I typically charged the Surface in the morning and used it intermittently all day long. The battery never dropped below 20%.

At one point, I set the Surface to play a two-hour-long movie, and followed that with an hour’s worth of streaming music playback from Microsoft’s new Xbox Music service while I edited a Word document. During that three-hour stretch, the battery level dropped by roughly a quarter, from 63% to 39%. That performance suggests that it’s reasonable to expect 10-12 hours of steady battery life from this little device.

In addition, I found that the included power supply delivered as promised: charging the battery from nearly 0 to 50% in about an hour, and completing a full charge in less than two hours.

Display quality

Microsoft’s engineers say they deliberately chose not to get swept up in the pixel wars, concentrating instead on precisely manufacturing the custom display to give it excellent contrast. The resulting display, despit its nominally low 1366x768 resolution, is gorgeous, especially in environments where there’s a lot of glare. I gave the Surface RT to a half-dozen friends and visitors, and each one commented on how bright and crisp the display was.

In a side-by-side comparison with Apple’s third-generation iPad, using the New York Times home page as a reference, both my wife and I found text on Apple’s Retina display slightly crisper and sharper. For image quality, though, the two displays were practically indistinguishable.

Keyboard feel

Microsoft’s two keyboard options double as covers that switch the device into standby mode when closed. The TouchCover keyboard is impossibly thin, with keys etched on and raised ever so slightly so to accommodate a touch typist. The TypeCover keyboard is a few millimeters thicker, with discrete keys that have a distinct travel.

The layout of the two keyboards is identical, with the top row (where function keys normally reside) given over to volume and media playback controls, four special keys for the Windows 8 charms, and the Home/End/PgUp/PgDown group.

On the Type Cover, those keys are also identified as function keys (F1 through F12), which are activated through an Fn key on the bottom row. On the Touch Cover, the F-key labels are missing, but the Fn key still unlocks their functionality.

The experience of typing on the Touch Cover keyboard is initially odd. It reacts to firm pressure and ignores light movements, which meant that I never accidentally found myself typing something by dragging a hand across the keyboard surface.

I quickly adapted to the feel of the Touch Keyboard and found myself typing at full speed within a day. (Full disclosure: I am a terrible typist. Mavis Beacon would avert her eyes if she saw the way I torture a keyboard.) The Type Cover keyboard has a more familiar feeling and is likely to appeal more to someone who plans to use the device for extensive data input.

The small touchpad with tiny left and right buttons beneath it also has a short learning curve but works well. The magnetic hinge (which includes the electrical connection for the keyboard) is extremely robust. When you flip either cover behind the surface and use it in tablet mode, the keyboard switches off completely. In that position you can feel the keys on the Type Cover, whereas the Touch Cover feels more like a cover.

And to answer an oft-asked question: Yes, the kickstand/keyboard combination works extremely well when balanced in one’s lap.

Digital media and apps

The Surface RT includes Microsoft’s new Xbox Music streaming service, which I used to play and download several dozen albums. The service worked flawlessly, although I noticed some brief audio glitching when the screen blanked as a power-saving measure.

Playback of video content was smooth and glitch-free. The included Videos app includes a Play to Xbox 360 option that I didn’t test. Microsoft updated the Xbox SmartGlass app as I was wrapping up my tests, and I look forward to spending more time with it later.

Another last-minute addition to the app lineup was the native Skype app. I was able to briefly use a preview version of the final app (which will be available in the Windows Store on launch day). Picture quality was excellent with the front-facing 720p camera, and the quality of the Wi-Fi connection was perfect.

Conclusion

For a first-generation product, the Surface with Windows RT is astonishingly polished. It’s not a replacement for a full-strength PC, but as a companion device that offers light weight, excellent entertainment options, and the ability to use full-featured Office apps, it’s irresistible.

I also expect the ecosystem around the Surface, notably productivity apps, to improve by leaps and bounds in the next year or so. This is a product that will get better with age.

Enthusiastically recommended.

iPad (third-generation) versus Surface RT, by the numbers

Weight:

iPad (no cover): 1 pound, 7-5/8 ounces

Surface RT (no cover): 1 pound, 8 ounces

iPad with Smart Cover: 1 pound, 12-3/4 ounces

Surface RT with Touch Cover: 1 pound, 15-5/8 ounces

Screen size (diagonal):

iPad: 9.7 inches

Surface RT: 10.6 inches

Cost of entry-level device:

iPad (16GB): $499

Pages/Numbers/Keynote: $30

SmartCover: $49

Bluetooth Keyboard: $69-99

Total iPad cost: $647-677

Surface RT (32GB) with Touch Cover and Office 2013 RT: $599

Surface RT (32GB) with Type Cover and Office 2013 RT: $628

 

Topics: Hardware, Microsoft, Tablets, Windows

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120 comments
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  • Dual Monitors

    Great article Ed.

    Have you tried hooking up to an external monitor while in PowerPoint, do you get the dual monitor experience that you typically get with PowerPoint?

    David
    davidsmi
    • Dual monitor support is a good point but it would be a seldom used option

      The above opinion is based upon personal experience.

      I have a 13" MacBook and an iPad 3. Both can be used wirelessly together with the iPad display screen acting as a secondary monitor to the MacBook. (via AirDisplay)

      It works great and this combination is highly useful.

      It also isn't needed in 99% of the time either Machine is used alone. BTW, when used together, viewing or working on an edited Photoshop digital image on the HiDPI resolution setting of the iPad 3 screen while displaying the Adobe Photoshop menu items on the MacBook display is a mobile device use joy.

      But again, the need for a mobile dual display option, IMO, is not all that necessary in day to day normal activity. Now, if you were to take that Surface Tablet home and use it as a secondary display screen for your home or work desktop PC system, I could appreciate that. However, it is again my opinion that if a desktop system could use a dual monitor than that system already has that setup in place.

      Then again, just for the sake of being a geek at heart, AirDisplay (which does have drivers for Win7 systems) supports a "Three display" desktop system. I've done it a few times using my home 27" iMac, 24" secondary Samsung monitor and my iPad. It's really cool in a geeky kind of way! Grin.
      kenosha77a
      • But the point is...

        The point of the Surface RT is that for a certain group of users it can replace a PC entirely. Steve Jobs wanted people to ditch PCs in exchange for iPads, but the vast majority still need some PC functionality despite an iPad covering most bases.

        The Surface RT can become a PC for those kinds of users who want to type a document every now and again (using a keyboard, mouse, and monitor if they wish) or any other task that is not suited well to touch input.

        And with the Windows 8 devices you will be able to replace a PC completely even for a relative power user.
        allusernamestaken
        • The Desktop in WindowsRT Makes Me Nervous

          I'll be picking up my Surface on Friday. I thought I had done all my research but the one thing that was a total surprise was that there is still a Desktop in WindowsRT. While it's sort of an exciting surprise, it also makes me wonder if MS has any more plans for it than for simply running Office. If other developers could develop WinRT desktop apps then, that's great. It makes that HD out even more important because you could easily connect it to a display and have a light desktop PC all ready to go (and I've heard the WinRT supports dual displays).

          ...BUT...If all it's going to be there for is to run Office and access a file system along with some other settings you can only get from the desktop, I'm in agreement about user confusion. It's like turning you bathroom into a grand ballroom, but leaving behind the toilet just in case people can't learn where the new bathroom is.

          I'm getting this weird feeling that two people on the MS team couldn't come up with an agreement so this is the compromise.

          So Microsoft, what's with that Desktop?? Any more plans? Please let us know..
          oxHanoverxo
          • File Manager

            Desktop will along you to get at File Manager and transfer files, etc as well as make more advanced configuration changes. But who knows... it does leave the door open for future use ;-)
            thekman58
          • The "desktop" is only for

            Microsoft programs (Office, I.E. etc), and cannot be used by third party programs. Or at least that was the word from Microsoft.
            Troll Hunter J
          • Let's Call It Microsoft's "Contolled Desktop for RT"

            Office 2013, and IE 10 are indeed Desktop Apps (not Windows 8 apps). Only Microsoft will be able to supply these types for now. But, perhaps with clearance other 3rd Parties will be able to in the future. Just Expanding on Troll Hunter's reply.
            ITMedCEO
          • Desktop

            the desktop offers a few things to an Office user, using a mouse and keyboard it allows windows resizing rather than everything at full screen, snap to side for side by side comparisons. agree with Ed though I look forward to seeing the Skydrive and Skydrive Pro applications supported on the desktop level so you get that caching benefit
            mileshg
      • For dual monitor

        read also projector...

        If you are giving a presentation to a room of 20 or more people, they aren't going to crowd around a 10" display! ;-)
        wright_is
        • Both the RT and the PRO have video out options

          So the idea of crowding around any display is outmoded. The RT has a micro-HDMI out as well as accessories for a VGA out, if you need that for a projector. They have it covered.
          AirElephant
      • ipad 3

        poor guy I guess you are a bit annoyed that you bought an ipad 3
        John Ballekom
        • I would bet not

          everyone I know, myself included, that have iPad 3s are still very happy with our purchases.
          non-biased
    • Dual monitors

      If it hasn't been done already, I'm sure someone will write an app allowing you to use a second surface as asecond monitor.

      Yes, it's pricey as a second monitor, but unlike most second monitors it turns into a full blown computer when you want it to. So imagine the scenario: you've got two surface devices at home: one for you, one for your kids. When the kids are at school and you're working remotely you can "borrow" your kids' surface and use it as a second monitor, then hand it back to them when the workd day is done and they're back from school and need to work on their homework assignments.
      dsf3g
    • But nobody has really answered the original POWERPOINT question!

      All the comments about "dual monitors" and "people crowding around 10" screens" are nice, but I don't think that's what davidsmi was getting at: Since Office 2007, PowerPoint has had a fantastic feature called "presenter mode," which only works if you have a SECOND monitor attached. The audience sees the normal ppt presentation, but the presenter sees the slide, presenter notes, the upcoming slides, and various mark-up controls. And the biggest feature - a CLOCK that's timing your presentation (so you can tell how much time you've used and what you have left).

      So if I'm travelling to do a presentation, I want to know if a Surface tablet would be sufficient to have this experience: the audience will see the presentation on a conventional projected screen, etc., *I* hope I'm seeing "presenter mode" on my Surface Tablet screen.

      Any answer to davidsmi's (and my) question? Will be be disappointed here (with the RT version)? Or will we have to wait for the full Surface Windows 8 PRO version coming out in a few months?
      GrantRowson
  • What happens to Surface RT when Office for iOS arrives?

    "That Guy" may suddenly become even more enamored with his iPad, especially if it's got LTE.
    matthew_maurice
    • I see it as a win...

      Microsoft is making money either way, and it will be far more limited in functionality. Think of it more like what you experience on Office Web Apps or Windows Phone... usable but limited.
      GoodThings2Life
      • The gross margin on Office is surely substantially higher than Surface.

        While Microsoft _may_ make more profit on Surface, it makes a much higher percentage on Office. It makes me wonder if Office for iOS has generated any friction between EDD and MBD.
        matthew_maurice
    • "That guy" will probably continue using his old Dell...

      irregardless of Office for IOS availability or lack thereof.
      Judging from what Ed has written, "that guy" has made
      the determination that his iPad is a good viewing device,
      but to get any work done he trusts his old standby
      workhorse laptop.
      Some people use various devices long past the point that
      many have discarded similar devices, and still manage to
      get their work done.
      (w
      wizard57m-cnet
      • How did you conclude that?

        "'that guy' has made the determination that his iPad is a good viewing device, but to get any work done he trusts his old standby workhorse laptop."

        Given that Excel isn't natively available for his iPad, why do you think that offered the choice he'd switch away from that device to run Excel? From Ed's description it's highly likely that given Office for iOS, he wouldn't have to resort to the beat-up old Dell at all. Nothing else on that XP laptop is going to run on a Surface RT.
        matthew_maurice
        • How did you conclude that guy would purchase

          Office for IOS? I mean, sheesh, even a blind horse can
          find the water trough every now and again...he's using
          an old, duct-taped laptop...doesn't take much insight
          to conclude he probably isn't going to purchase Office
          for IOS, more likely scenario he will be issued a newer
          Windows laptop from the office with a new version of
          Office installed! Whether or not he continues to
          lug around the iPad after that is non sequitur.
          The other side is rather than Surface RT, this particular
          "that guy" is more likely than not a candidate for
          Surface with Windows 8 Pro.
          wizard57m-cnet