Microsoft Surface RT: A review roundup

Microsoft Surface RT: A review roundup

Summary: The reviews of Microsoft's Surface RT and the version of Windows tuned to run on ARM are mixed. The hardware largely gets higher marks than the software.


At last, the reviews are in.


Microsoft invited about 20 journalists to Redmond a week ago and gave them SurfaceRT tablet/PCs to take home and review. As of late last night. (One reviewer seems to have had the unit longer; more on that later.) At 9 pm ET on October 23, the embargoes officially lifted.

For the first time, we now have some third-party opinions on Microsoft's first real foray into PC hardware and finally some takes on Windows RT, the version of Windows built for ARM processors.

Just to get this out of the way, since I've gotten this question a few times already: I was not among those chosen to get a Surface RT to take home and try. I don't know exactly how Microsoft chose the initial reviewer pack, but it looks to me like the selection committee decided to include a mix of Apple fans, a number of newer and younger bloggers, and some reporters who've got experience reviewing Windows machines. I am not surprised I was not among the group, as the Windows client team a few years back decided I was more foe than friend. But I am surprised some other well-knownMicrosoft watchers were not among the first group of Microsoft-sanctioned reviewers.

Internal politics aside, what did those who did review the Surface RTs think?

Most of the reviews I've read so far gave Microsoft's hardware high marks. Some reviewers didn't love the Type keyboards, claiming they were too flimsy and thin to make typing on one's lap practical. Most reviewers admitted, as Microsoft officials themselves have, that there's a learning curve for the Type keyboard, typically lasting a few days, in order to make its use practical.

There was some disappointment about battery life, which several reviewers are saying comes in around seven to eight hours. I was hoping for 10 or more, myself. Seven is OK, but still would mean to me I'd have to carry a charger to feel safe if I were to take a Surface RT out and about for a full day. There also is quite a bit of skepticism about the screen resolution being comparable to Apple's Retina Display, in spite of Microsoft's attempt to convince reviewers of that fact. I also noticed a few reviewers said the built-in speakers on the Surface RTs don't play loudly enough.

Almost all the review I read predictably noted that there just aren't a whole lot of high-quality Windows Store apps -- which are all that can run on Windows RT machines (other than Office 2013 RT and IE 10) -- on Windows RT machines. WinAppUpdate claimed earlier this week there were just over 7,000 Windows Store apps (4,000-plus in U.S.). Around 90 percent of the U.S. apps will work on both Windows 8 and Windows RT, WinAppUpdate estimated.

It's on the operating system where Microsoft got the most dings. In some ways, this surprised me; in other ways, not. Microsoft has been working on porting Windows to ARM for several years -- at least since it was working on Vista (Longhorn). I guess I'd have thought it would be more ready for prime-time than some of the reviewers claimed it was. But I also had suspicions that Windows RT might still be buggy, since Microsoft has kept it away from independent testers until just a few days before PCs and tablets preloaded with it are set to go on sale.

The Wall Street Journal's Walt Mossberg -- who notes he has had a Surface RT for three weeks, not just one -- was far more upbeat about the product than I expected, given his usual pro-Apple/anti-Microsoft stance. "If you can live with its tiny number of third-party apps and somewhat disappointing battery life, it may give you the productivity some miss in other tablets," Mossberg said of the Surface RT.

The New York Times' David Pogue, also a known Apple fan, was hard on the Surface. The title of his review, "Sleek Tablet, But Clumsy Software," is a good summary of his thoughts. His conclusion: "(T)he Surface is a brilliantly conceived machine whose hardware will take your breath away — but whose software will take away your patience."

The Verge's Joshua Topolsky gave the Surface RT a 7.0 out of 10. The operating system dragged down his score. He wrote: "The Surface does not seem like a better tablet than the iPad or the Nexus 7 (the two best products in the category as of this writing). Even though it has a very unique and useful interface, and lots of hooks into Microsoft's ecosystem, it still lacks the polish and apps of those two devices." He did gush about the Type (real keyboard) cover, though.

Most surprising review (to me) came from Sam Biddle at Gizmodo. I didn't think there was a Microsoft product, strategy or ad that Biddle didn't love, love, love. But he didn't fall head-over-heels with the Surface RT. He called the product "undercooked." Biddle added: "Surface is a fantastic promise, and holds fantastic potential. But while potential is worth your attention, it's not worth your paycheck."

ZDNet's Ed Bott gives a succinct rundown of what is/isn't included in the Surface RT. (For those who've asked, Internet Explorer 10 on Windows RT does allow whitelisted Flash sites to run in the "Metro" version of IE, as well as the Desktop version of IE 10, Bott confirmed. Bott said he'd "enthusiastically recommend" the Surface RT.

When Microsoft unveiled the Surface earlier this summer, I wondered whether it might be the platform that made Windows RT and Windows 8 palatable. The new Microsoft Windows 8/Windows RT release desperately needed new, cool devices that would make the OS recede into the background, I argued. I still won't buy a Surface before I try a Surface, but at least I now know what to expect.

Topics: Windows, Microsoft, Tablets, ARM, PCs


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • wait for surface Pro

    IMO There's no doubt surface Pro will be a success. Windows8 is stable, fast and solid plus you wont rely only on metro apps for your needs, you can install virtually anything. The RT version tho you must take some cautions. You're not free to install anything and there's not many of the essential apps available atm so you gonna have to balance that to your needs before buying one. Im pretty sure Microsoft is gonna update all their apps, fix the bugs and release new and awesome apps but how long will it take? Maybe you just have to wait a couple months and grab the Pro version instead.
    • bnlf@...and what do you with the reported sticky key board?

      It looks pretty but any rubber based key board is susceptible to finger moisturre and stickyness feeling in avery short period of time. After only a few minutes it becomes increasing hard to speed type.and than what do you do? bring out some sort of cleaner? and if the cleaner screw up the key board who pays for a replacement? ...............
      Over and Out
      • Which reviewer are you?

        Since there were a limited number of reviewers, which one are you? And why didn't you report this in your review that you submitted to your editor? So far, every review has stated that the Surface RT sucks for a whole variety of reasons but not one of them has stated that this "sticky" keyboard is one of those reasons.

        I guess I'm just surprised that you would focus all your attention on a fault that doesn't seem to exist when there are clearly hundreds of other fatal flaws in the Surface RT that you COULD go after with backing from real reviewers who had real hands on time with a real Surface RT.
      • Type Cover

        Type cover is always there to fulfill your hunger.Btw, no other tab has such portable duo you atleast should applause MS for making a right step in this direction.
    • Don't Think So

      Surface Pro at around $1,000 after taxes and only 3-4 hrs battery life will almost certainly fail. At that price point, why not just get a laptop for same functionality half the price and better battery life? MSFT is not new to the game of tablets. They came out with the first tablet over ten years ago. They offerings were so dismal nobody knows about them. They have had years to get their app ecosystem up to speed. You are dreaming if you think they will have everything together in a few months. MSFT needs a few more years to put things together before they finally make a product that can compete with Apple.
  • Microsoft Surface RT: A review roundup

    Overall the Microsoft Surface RT is a huge hit. The apps will come as developers start creating them so that is a non-issue. Any software glitches can easily be ironed out with updates. The battery life is ok too at 8 hours. Its not like someone is going to have the Microsoft Surface on the full time for 8 hours so you are looking at a much longer time to use it. Microsoft is on top of their game with the Surface.
    Loverock Davidson-
    • "a huge hit"?

      Um, Loverock, are you like Subliminal Guy from SNL? A huge hit? And what are you talking about? No one buys tablets because its fun to hold something in ones hands. It's about the computing experience and Loverock that comes down to apps, apps, apps. Apps are for many the whole issue. Do you work for Microsoft? These reviews say the software is glitchy, slow, split between two environments for some reason and confusing, requiring moves into different environments to find something as basic as battery life. Your whole post is 100% opposite of real users' verified and tested expectations: wide selection of apps, stable OS and software, 10-hour battery life, and a cherry display. Loverock: Microsoft is hardly at the top of their game. They're desperately stumbling into a market they already failed at- see Bill Gates early tablet attempts. Or see Zune. You might ask the Zune team how the lack of apps worked out, Loverock.
      • Yes its a hit

        It sold out in various models. As I said before the OS can easily be updated. The apps will come when its released. Battery power is not much of an issue because no one in the real world uses their portable devices for a constant 8 - 10 hours. The Microsoft Surface is putting portable computing on the map.
        Loverock Davidson-
        • Putting portable computing on the map

          My attempt to respond to that insight was thwarted by ZD Net, who apparently doesn't know the meaning of "profanity." Enjoy your Surface.
        • no one in the real world uses their portable devices for a constant 8 - 10

          Man, you are hopeless!

          Are you an portable device user? What do you know about actually using a portable device?

          The extended battery life is one thing that defines the device as "portable", not the fact that you can transport it.

          That reminds me the old time joke about portable software: "An software package is portable, if all punchcards fit in a briefcase."

          Not understanding portable and battery life is something that made Microsoft's experiments with mobile devices such a disaster. Apparently, they still don't get it.
        • Biased

          Loverock, YOU obviously work for Microsoft. Your comments have 'biased' written all over it. Sad.

          I have to agree with gregv2k, after reading ALL the reviews so far... not seeing the "hugh hit" either.
        • Windows RT

          There is a critical mass in terms of vendors writing code and the number of users buying apps making it lucrative enough for developers to do so. Android had Linux software basis to work from, RT is a port that hobbles all previous Windows software from executing. It has to be recompiled for the ARM processor. No Apple showed the world that they can pull this off when they went from Motorola 68000 series to the RISC based G series, then again when they moved to Intel x86. Microsoft on the other hand shipped Office without getting Outlook (too technically challenging) in time for shipping RT. If Microsoft can't get their own code running, what does this say about flagship product developers chances getting, Adobe products, Filemaker databases, and other specialized Apps compiled for Windows RT? You can hope and you can dream, but Microsoft needed to provide tools to make the transition transparent. All they showed was they themselves found the transition was more challenging than they could do.
      • eh

        well, they say its slow, buggy, etc but everytime i see an RT being tested on youtube i dont see any choppy performance on the contrary. I think some reviewers are having bad experiences with some bad written apps and labeling the whole OS as slow. I'll check on a microsoft store soon as it hits the shelves to see the real performance of this thing.
        • Old news

          Ever heard of video editing? :)
      • Apps...

        So, I'm guessing the first gen iPad shipped from the factory with millions of apps. You know, since apps are the only thing that make or break a computing experience.
  • Surface Reviews Make Me Cautious

    Admittedly, I was not planning to purchase a Surface RT on release day or any time soon.

    However, it does make me a little cautious about Windows 8 as well as Windows RT. If the Windows app store doesn't have enough apps, even a Windows 8 machine will suffer, either with frequent trips to the desktop or with web pages instead of Windows 8 apps.

    Now I am thinking that I may buy the Windows 8 upgrade at a reduced price, but put the download file on a DVD and wait to install it for a few months until things catch up and Microsoft issues some bug fixes.
    • just no

      Windows 8 wont suffer from no Apps in market place.. as you can still install apps the other way.

      MS are using their dominance in the market place to get people to build metro apps by allowing it on Windows 8 so that developers can get greater exposure for their RT apps.
      • You have it right...

        With "metro" apps written for x86 being able to be ported to ARM fairly easily, Microsoft will have the large scale to showcase apps for desktop and laptop users...this will greatly widened the library for the ARM tablets with RT.
        • All about apps

          Are any of us under the impression that Developers! Developers! Developers! have any interest in spending time writing Windows RT apps in a postZune, postKin world? Hello? Bueller?
          • x86 "metro" apps are just ported to RT

            Do you understand what that mean? It means that developers can develop for the 100s of millions of Windows 8 users and their app can easily be ported to RT...

            Some developers will develop for RT, but many will develop for Windows 8 and just port over. Part of the beauty of the new windows ecosystem. You can't really write an OSX app and just port it to iOS easily.