Surface RT hands-on: Not a good tablet, not a good laptop

Surface RT hands-on: Not a good tablet, not a good laptop

Summary: My Surface RT arrived a couple of days ago and I have not put it down much other than to munch some turkey. It is early yet but my initial experience is mixed. I believe it is a good mobile solution for some but not for me, yet.


My shiny new Surface RT arrived in a nice box and was up and running in just a few minutes. Since the first boot I have spent far too much time with the Surface in front of me with the goal of figuring out how it will best fit my needs. After a couple of days of using the Surface in different ways and in multiple locations I have found its use to be mixed for me.

Surface box

The ultra-thin Touch Cover with "keyless" keyboard is a wonder of engineering. Microsoft nailed this keyboard perfectly.

I know a lot of new Surface owners are quite happy and my goal is to reach that happy place. I do insist that any new gadget fit my needs and my requirements and I am still trying to discover how the Surface RT will work in the long term. I am not giving up on the Surface by any means but I am still trying to get a feel for when it will serve me as a good tablet. I'm not quite clear on when it can be a good laptop for me, either.

Great hardware

Most reviewers of the Surface RT have declared how good the hardware is on the device. I echo those praises as I love everything about the hardware on the Surface. It is gorgeous and sleek from every angle.

The 10.6-inch display, specially chosen my Microsoft for good reasons, makes the Surface feel a bit unwieldy when held in portrait orientation. This is my preferred method to use tablets in the hand, especially when surfing the web. I like the page to display down in the longer direction.

The portrait handling of the Surface also causes an unforeseen problem for me. The Windows logo that appears in the middle of the bottom bezel when used in landscape is a capacitive touch button. I have a tendency to accidentally touch this logo when holding the Surface in portrait as the button is on the side. In Windows 8/RT hitting this Windows button immediately sends you to the Start screen, throwing you out of whatever app you are running at the time.

When I mentioned this on Twitter I received a number of responses from Surface owners that they never hit this button as I do. Turns out that's because they use the Surface in landscape as a tablet. I have used it that way and while it works and avoids accidentally hitting the Windows button it doesn't feel right in my hands.

Touch Cover is da bomb!

Touch Cover keyboard

I ordered the Surface with the black Touch Cover for $599. I have long practiced using a keyboard with tablets for writing work and I knew I'd need a keyboard.

The ultra-thin Touch Cover with "keyless" keyboard is a wonder of engineering. Microsoft nailed this keyboard perfectly. I am a fast touch typist with a tendency to hit keys precisely when typing and the Touch Cover keyboard is designed for me. I expected to require a learning period to get used to typing on the Touch Cover but I was blazing away from the first session.

The trackpad on the Touch Cover, while a bit small, works just as well as the keyboard. It is extremely useful for using the Surface as a laptop and I can't imagine doing so without it.

I can't state strongly enough how much I love this keyboard. It is unique and serves a great purpose.

Out of box

The out of box experience (OOBE) started out great with the Surface, with a simple log into my Windows Live account getting things underway. I was then faced with updating the tablet since a firmware update had just been released addressing some problems.


This went much the same as on Windows PCs of old, with the 11 updates taking a good while to complete. The system required two reboots along the way.

Once those updates were complete I was then faced with updating the Office 2013 Preview that was preinstalled. This update was highly recommended by those in the know as it optimized it for operation on the Surface. I had to search for the method to get this updated.

It turned out you have to find the Control Panel to get this update. Not the Windows Update in the Metro interface, this was reached in settings and kicked me to the desktop interface. Once I found it the update went similar to Windows updates of old. It was a 586MB update to get Office 2013 Preview up to snuff.

Is it a good tablet?

As a long-time tablet user of all makes and platforms I was most excited about a Windows RT tablet. I spend hours daily with one tablet or another in my hands and had looked forward to using the Surface the same way.

As stated earlier I strongly prefer using tablets in portrait orientation. That is strictly a personal thing as many owners are happy using it in landscape orientation. My way is not better nor worse than that of others, it is simply my way.

No matter which orientation I use the Surface just doesn't feel very comfortable. It may be the length and it may be the weight, for whatever reason it doesn't feel that good being used in the hands for very long. My experience with tablets dictates that comfort is a primary need for a tablet to be good to use, and the Surface just isn't comfortable for me. Again, that is strictly a personal opinion but we are talking about my Surface after all.

I also find that while using the Surface as a tablet I frequently run into situations that are better handled with a trackpad. That pushes me to regularly attach the Touch Cover and move to a stable surface to set the "laptop" down on. Sure I could struggle through doing whatever task I need to do by using the touch screen, but it's far easier to attach the cover and just get things done quickly.

This constant shifting between tablet and laptop diminishes the experience of using it as the former.

How about the Surface as a laptop?

The Touch Cover turns the Surface into a near laptop replacement by design. It does such a good job at that I find I end up using it as a laptop more than I do as a tablet. It is simply easier and less frustrating to use it this way.

That said, using the Surface as a laptop is not a bed of roses. The switching back and forth from the Metro interface to the desktop of old is no less jarring now than it was at first boot. This is especially true using Office 2013 Preview, the big advantage of the Surface over competing products.

Office requires the trackpad and cursor control in my opinion which means the Surface is really best as a laptop. Unfortunately that doesn't mean it's a good laptop, just adequate in my experience so far.

The hinged stand of the Surface only works in the one viewing angle and that doesn't fit every situation. While the Surface can be used in the lap, it's not very stable and is worrisome when used this way. I find my typing on the Touch Cover keyboard to be far less accurate when used in the lap than with it set on a firm surface.

The small trackpad is also not optimal to handle such a wide screen. It seems I am constantly moving the cursor around on the little trackpad when using the Surface as a laptop. Sure I can touch the screen to jump the cursor around, but that interrupts the flow of using the device.

It's not a bad laptop by any means when used with the Touch Cover, it's just not a particularly good one.

Continuing usage

I am not giving up on the Surface by any means, I intend to make this work for me. I see tremendous potential to the Surface with Windows RT and am determined to make it work for me. So far the Surface is not a bad tablet nor a bad laptop, just not particularly good at either.

Sadly, such devices shouldn't require determination to make them work well, they should just do so by design. Hopefully I won't find in the end that it is unrealized potential.

See related:

Topics: Windows, Microsoft, Tablets

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Hmmmmmmmmmmmm

    I wonder what this Talkback will look like?
    • It's time...

      Cue the article title-only readers of ZDNet! It seems they're a vocal lot. ;)
      • Consistent with earlier reviews, point by point

        Over at TechCrunch, M.G. Siegler concurs with ZDNet. "The bottom line is that the Surface with Windows RT is far too buggy, too slow, and has far too few apps for me to recommend this to anyone. If you’re a Windows diehard or absolutely need access to Office, you should wait to see the Surface with Windows 8 Pro — or just choose any other Windows 8 PC.

        I just don’t understand who would buy the Surface with Windows RT — let alone who would pay upwards of $600 for it (because it also makes no sense to get it without the Touch Cover). Take that money and get an iPad."
        • Surface RT will get cancelled, and go the way of the Zune

          It's now obvious that Microsoft's Surface tablet has failed.

          Microsoft needed to hit the ground running with this release. Instead, Microsoft has produced a product that is mediocre.

          There is fierce competition in this market with Apple and Google Android tablets already on the market. Any new entrant that brings out a mediocre product will fail.

          Surface will now get a place in Microsoft's hall of failed products, including Windows Mobile, Windows Phone 7, Zune and Kin. All of which were market disasters.
          • MicroKlunk Surface RT -->Another Zune

            The Asus tablet which has a quad core proc and a kick ass detachable keyboard running a real OS i.e Google Android BLOWS AWAY the Micro$haft Zunace oops I mean Surface.

            Better luck next time to you Mafiasoft.

            Keep those quarterly losses piling up, you're making us Linux users very happy!
          • I have seen the surface in a side by side with the Nexus 10

            And the IE10 browser completly murdered chrome on the nexus 10.
            It was way smoother and scrolled and panned faster.

            Guess what is done most with tablets.
            Using the browser...
          • Guess what's done with tablets? Viewing the screen:

            Surface resolution? 1366x768
            iPad? 2048x1536 Retina
            Nexus 10? 2560x1600

            Surface connectivity? Short-range WiFi only.
            iPad connectivity? WiFi, 3G, 4G, LTE.
            Nexus 10? WiFi only

            Surface processor? Nvidia ARM reviews as "sluggish"
            iPad? A6X, reviews favorably as faster than the A5X
            Nexus 10? Dual core, 1.7GHz

            CNET on speed: "The A6X speeds up the iPad back to levels you'd expect, and it handles Retina Display graphics even better. This is the iPad 3S, so to speak. Considering that the iPad still has the same price as before, starting at $499 for 16GB, it's an even better buy than it was seven months ago."

            You were saying?
          • Not to put too fine a point on it:

            Surface resolution - 148 PPI
            iPad Mini - 163 PPI (yep, better than Surface)
            iPad 3 & 4 - 264 PPI
            Nexus 10 - 300 PPI

            Next year's iPad Mini with Retina Display (reportedly) - 497 PPI
            - by that time maybe Microsoft will have caught up with last year's iPad.

            CNET - "Retina Display also remains the same, and it's still as lovely as ever. The 2,048x1,536-pixel 9.7-inch IPS screen is unmatched among tablets. Color accuracy is superb, movies look great, and photos look even better. Text is crystal-clear, just like on the iPhone. It makes a big difference when looking at Web pages."
          • The average user only cares about the experience not the specs

            And the experience on the surface is much better than the ipad

            And it also looks better to me, I find ipads OS stale and boring, its fast because it can't do anything useful

            I can flick between programs easily on a surface and web surfing is much better due to flash compatibility
          • As far as browsers go ...

            chrome has been on the worst as far as browsers go for some time now ... with safari always running in close second. neither is even in the same ballpark as ie or firefox.
        • What absolute crap. Been using my Surface RT since 9 Nov

          What absolute garbage. As a Surface RT owner who has been using it all day almost everyday I have not had a single issue with it.

          I use it on the ferry into work with a small 4G dongle in my backpack. I use it throughout the day at work, on the couch when watching TV or using my Xbox and when I'm in bed.

          I'd say that's a lot of use and it has not been switched off once! I haven't experienced a single issue with it, no supposed lagginess or any bugs other than the odd crap App which might not work properly, ie. Shazam (and that is not a Microsoft or Windows 8 issue).

          There is absolutely nothing 'jarring' moving between the Metro interface and Desktop mode. Office 2013 is optimised for touch (not completely but more than adequately for what I do on it. When the Surface Pro comes out I will happily buy that but so far I haven't really needed any other Windows legacy software but I'll happily welcome that option.

          If you really want to understand why they made Windows 8 like they did, I suggest you watch this great UX Week 2012 video 'The Story of Windows 8'

          The problem here is the minority of vocal people who simply don't want to change their behaviour to learn a new UI. They also compare it to previous or current interfaces which is partly ridiculous when you are changing a paradigm.

          Further, the same old negative crap was heard from the same old vocal minority about the UI change from Windows XP to Vista/Win 7 and from Office 2003 to 2007 and on and on. Yes, it was painful to adjust from Office 2003 to 2007 and from Windows XP to Vista/Win7 but that was me not the UI and guess what after the pain of a few days I was actually much happier and way more productive.

          And for the people on here whining about it, how can you seriously complain about something or diss it when you haven't actually used it or don't own one?

          Everybody who see's my Surface RT tablet wants one and those who I demo the UI too also love it and want one. If you don't like it, don't buy it. If you don't own one or have extensively used one I couldn't give a crap about your ridiculous and uniformed opinion.
          • point of view

            I don't think James is against W8RT, it is simply is perspective view on using first time this tablet.
            It is very disappointing for me that no journalist has done OOBE and be happy after one hour. They all spoke on few days adaption. It was not the case with iPad, or Android.
          • I totally “agree”

            “There is absolutely nothing 'jarring' moving between the Metro interface and Desktop mode.”

            You can play Angry Birds in both modes and you will not notice the difference.
          • Browsers

            Don't forget that you can have separate browsers open in both environments. Not. Complicated. At. All.
          • Okay, you may be the only two people that don't find Metro-Desktop jarring

            First of all, I have a Win8 Samsung tablet, and will be getting a Surface Pro. I have Win8 on my laptop and use it as my primary workstation. I love my Win8 tablet, and so does my daughter (who gets it when my Surface comes in, and tends not to give it back after she "borrows" it). I think both the Surface and Windows 8 work well.

            That being said, I am jarred when I go back and forth between Metro and the desktop. While I agree that Office works well on the desktop, I've basically turned off the Metro IE browser and strictly use the desktop version (the only one that actually supports Flash and Silverlight), and I never use the desktop version of OneNote. The fact that I can't switch directly to the multiple applications I have on the desktop (you have to switch to the desktop first, and then switch the foreground application) detracts from the interface as a whole.

            I think it is best to be honest here. The desktop is a workaround to allow non-metro applications to run. When there is a Metro version of Office available, the desktop version will go away (although hopefully only for the WinRT devices).
          • why do you point people to stupid videos?

            It is not like the dawn of iPad.
            iPad has been out for several years, people know how to use it. Surface looks like a retarded older sibling of win Phone 7, which is mediocre on arrival (MOA)
          • Thanks for video link

            I watched the whole thing and enjoyed it. When he said they didn't want to waste one pixel on toolbars I couldn't agree more.
          • How do you reconcile the perfection of your tablet

            with the points made in this article and just about every published review?

            How do you use your Surface and your XBox at the same time?

            If it hasn't been turned off once, does that imply that you keep it plugged in most of the day?

            Why would you purchase this RT if your intent is to purchase a Windows 8 Pro tablet?

            You really don't miss or want any apps beyond what comes with the tablet?

            Who stops what they're doing so you can demo your tablet for them?

            Which part of this article is factually inaccurate or "crap"?
          • Reply from a different direction

            I also have had a Surface since it came out and I own a 3rd generation iPad too. I love my iPad and I treat it like a mobile companion. It's easy to carry, provides a lot of useful functions, and it doesn't require me to lug other stuff around with it to use it the way my laptop does. Functionally it does about 40% of what I use my laptop for and that's ok. The portability and convienience make the tradeoffs worthwhile.

            The Surface is just as portable and convienient. It it can serve about 70% of my laptop needs. So it's still a tradeoff, but less. I don't love using the touchpad for typing or using MS Office to edit documents on it, but I can and that's the point. A 5 minute Powerpoint edit, takes 5 minutes on the Surface. I can't do it at all on my iPad and my laptop requires much more commintment to hook up and use. Before the Surface the tradeoff was not making the edit at all or getting out my laptop.

            I love the handwring recognition with the Surface, and being able to use a stylus for note taking and casual edits. It works everywhere that you can type and the speed and accuracy is great. I've always wanted to use my iPad for that. Now I can sit with my feet up and write instead of type ... like I am now writing this comment. This alone is enough to make me switch. Microsoft has been working on handwiting recognition for years. It's a mature technology and seems to be Microsoft's best kept secret. No one talks about how good it works and how seamless it is.

            I really like the Windows 8 interface and the design ethos of not displaying gadgets on the screen that you aren't using. It makes the screen feel bigger than it is. With my iPad, I'm always aware I'm working on a mobile device screen. The Surface screen seems bigger. It shows more and IE 10 uses the desktop version of websites better. In fact because more websites work properly, I find less need for apps since many do nothing except provide a usable mobile interface for a website.

            The only app I miss is Words with Friends.

            I've turned my Surface off and on many times. I don't turn it off to charge it though. Ditto my iPad.

            People often ask me to show it to them, and when they do, for whatever reason they stop what they're doing to see it. My experience is that is shows really well. People seem particularly blown away by the handwriting recognition and note taking.

            There's been a lot of talk about the screen resolution and I'm not sure what the fuss is about. I have an iPad, but I don't really compare the screens. I use them on their own terms, and the screen on the Surface is gorgeous. I've never thought, "I need more pixels and this would look better". Ditto the iPad. I think it has a gorgeous screen too.

            The Surface isn't perfect. It's a lot more complex environment, and that environment intrudes at times. For me it has been with configuration. You have to use the desktop control panel far too much. So there are still some untablet-like aspects of the user experience. Using MS Office in desktop mode is not a problem. It's exactly like the version I use on my laptop and I'm kind of happy it is.

            The performance is also sluggish at times. It's not enough to frustrate me or make me feel held up, but that's a matter of personal taste. Trade-offs again. Windows is more complex and I expect that to translate into things I notice. I also expect that software updates and more Arm-focused apps will make it better.

            So published reviewers... I think they focus too much on raw specs and not on trade-offs. I think some are biased. I've read overly positive reviews also. I didn't see anything I'd call crap in this article. Everything in it was factual or a personal opinion, the writer was clear to disingush between the two.
            Russell Rowe
          • Erudite but inaccurate

            Of course you can open, edit, export and email cinema-quality PowerPoint presentations on iPad. Have you been unaware that Keynote, Pages and Numbers are 100% compatible with PowerPoint, Word and Excel? Or were you so enamored with Surface that you forgot that iPad has been working seamlessly in Office for years?