Surface RT vs. Samsung Chromebook: On the road

Surface RT vs. Samsung Chromebook: On the road

Summary: While there is a fair difference in price between the Microsoft Surface RT and the Samsung Chromebook, they share plenty of similarities. But which is better suited for working on the road?


The Microsoft Surface RT and the Samsung Chromebook are quite different machines--and neither are traditional laptops.

Both point (reluctantly in the case of the Surface) toward a world where a web-connected desktop is the norm, wherever you are.

Surface RT and Chromebook
On the left, the Microsoft Surface with Windows RT, on the right, the Samsung Chromebook running Google's Chrome OS - but which would you choose?
(Credit: Ben Woods/ZDNet)

If you're more of a numbers person, you can see the bare specs of the two devices laid out side by side below--but here is my personal take based on working with the two devices for a week each.


Chromebook: The good and the bad


At £229 (from US$314), the Samsung Chromebook (303C12) is a tempting low-cost option for someone aiming to carry out basic online needs.

The first version of the Chromebook was not only hampered by its limited OS, it was also pretty much useless without a web connection. While you'd want regular access to the internet if you're considering a Chromebook, there's now plenty you can do with one when you aren't online.

The Chromebook has a search key in place of the Caps Lock, but provides a good typing experience overall.
(Credit: Ben Woods/ZDNet)

For example, Google has provided an offline Drive app so you can still edit documents, images, PDFs, and emails while offline, which will then sync when you're connected. You have to remember to enable offline mode in the settings, though, as it's off by default.

There are also some apps pre-installed such as a media player for watching videos or listening to music. That said, I spent most of my time on the Chromebook fully connected.

The same is true of the Windows RT: You can edit documents, listen to music, watch videos, and play games that you've downloaded from the Windows app store. In both cases, developers have the capabilities to build apps that work offline as well as online.

There were a few initial quirks in using the Chromebook, from unfamiliarity as much as anything; not having a Caps key on the keyboard (instead, it's a search key that pops up a search bubble), but that can be permanently changed back or enabled on a one-off basis.

That's not to say it was all plain sailing. A few other teething troubles came up, such as having to switch to the dev channel build of the OS to get it to support two screens simultaneously, but this was simple enough and took care of itself while I carried on working waiting for the updated OS to download.

It was also a bit strange having to use an online photo editor to crop photos for other articles I wrote on the Chromebook, but the tasks were basic so it performed well enough. I wouldn't want to use it for trickier photo-editing jobs, though.

Nevertheless, the hardware on the Samsung machine keeps it all ticking along nicely. The keyboard, in particular, is pleasant and accurate to use. The touch pad too, although even on the fastest pointer speed it was still a little slow for me when using multiple monitors.


Surface RT: The good and the bad


My time with the Surface RT was a similar story: I was carrying out the same day-to-day tasks with it as I had been with the Chromebook.

However, I noticed a strange feeling developing as time went on. Whereas with the Chromebook, the more I used it, the more confident I felt with it for my needs, I had the opposite situation with the Surface RT. Every time I reached for it before running out of the door, I had to consider what I needed it for and whether it would be able to perform.

For example, while it was easier to quickly resize and edit photos on the Surface RT than the Chromebook, there were other situations where I needed to access services that didn't support IE.

I also don't particularly like the way Windows 8 deals with some JavaScript items either, making selecting items of sub-menus somewhere between difficult and impossible. Some might say it's a minor foible and specific only to certain use cases, but I imagine there are an awful lot of small incompatibility issues that people come across.

While I stopped short of being complimentary about the Surface's keyboard last time around, I did discover that I preferred the Touch Cover to the Type Cover. This time around, I found out I preferred neither and would rather use the Chromebook's keyboard all day long. The Surface RT's actual keyboard isn't that bad, but I couldn't live with the touch pad.

That's not to say there are no positives to the Surface. The hardware is well designed and does a reassuringly good job of feeling like a premium product. Thanks to its UI, it's also far better at displaying updates and keeping me plugged in to various services without needing to open them every time. I'm still a big fan of the new way of navigating the system using the Search "charm," but when it comes down to on-the-road working, simply knowing I had a machine in my bag that would do what I needed it to was the most important thing.


Different needs, different devices


You'll be making a buying decision based on what you need to do with these machines. As such, I'd keep in mind how much typing you need to do: Browsing might be just fine on the Surface RT but I didn't like either of the keyboards that came with it enough to use it for extended periods of time. By contrast the keyboard and touch pad on the Chromebook were excellent. The Chromebook is also far cheaper.

At a glance, the Chromebook looks suspiciously like a MacBook Air.
(Credit: Ben Woods/ZDNet)

That's not to say there are no positives in favour of the Surface, such as the better-quality screen, and far higher-quality webcam. There's also the webcam on the rear, too. As a preference, I'd go with the Windows UI, too.

If you're a Windows or Mac user looking for a second device to take on the road and know you'll definitely need a keyboard, then I'd opt for the Chromebook over the Surface RT.

It's small, it's cheap, it's light, and looks like a MacBook Air, even if the plastic feels a little thin and the paint might rub off if you use it without a case. It's cheap, but you can feel where the money has been saved.

If you're buying on budget before most other factors, the Chromebook is a no-brainer.

The Surface RT is, despite its faults, a great companion device with premium-feeling hardware.

But whichever you opt for, it doesn't change the bottom line for me: Although you can run apps on both devices, they're both still essentially glorified web browsers.


Surface with Windows RT

Samsung Series 3 Chromebook (XE303C12)
  • Surface with Windows RT comes with Microsoft Office Home & Student 2013 RT Preview
  • Chrome OS
  • 274.6x172x9.4mm
  • 680g
  • VaporMg casing
  • Dark titanium color
  • Volume and power buttons
  • 289.6x208.5x17.5mm
  • 1.1kg
  • Silver
  • Quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3
  • 1.3 GHz Cortex-A9
  • Samsung Exynos 5250 dual core
  • 1.7GHz
  • 10.6-inch (1366x768 pixels) 16:9 ClearType HD display
  • 5-point multitouch
  • 400-nit brightness
  • 11.6-inch (1366x768 pixels)
  • 200-nit brightness
Memory (RAM)
  • 2GB
  • 2GB DDR3L
  • 32GB or 64GB
  • MicroSD slot
  • 16GB
  • SD card slot
  • Stereo speakers
  • 2x 1.2-megapixel 720p HD LifeCams (front and rear)
  • 2x internal microphones
  • 3W stereo speaker (1.5W x2)
  • Internal mic
  • 0.3-megapixelweb camera
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 (a/b/g/n)
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n
I/O Ports
  • 1x USB 2.0
  • Microphone-in/headphone-out combo
  • Mini HDMI
  • Cover port (for Touch or Type Cover)
  • HDMI
  • USB (1x USB 3.0 and 1x USB 2.0)
  • Microphone-in/headphone-out combo
  • 3-in-1 card reader (SD/SDHC/SDXC)
  • Ambient light sensor
  • Accelerometer
  • Gyroscope
  • Compass
  • 31.5W-h
  • Claimed 8 hours use
  • Claimed ~6.5 hours use
Price at time of writing
  • £399 (US$632--32GB tablet only), £479 (US$759--32GB tablet + black Touch Cover), £559 (US$886--64GB + black Touch Cover)
  • £229 (US$363)

Topics: Cloud, Google, Hardware, Laptops, Samsung, Tablets, Windows 8

Ben Woods

About Ben Woods

With several years' experience covering everything in the world of telecoms and mobility, Ben's your man if it involves a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or any other piece of tech small enough to carry around with you.

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  • Has the world changed so much

    There will be more sites that don't work right in IE than Chrome?
    x I'm tc
    • Problem with "compatibility mode" maybe

      A lot of the sites out there are used to having to jump through hoops to do it the MS way, and when an IE user goes to the site, the page that's loaded might still do things based on IE's past idiosyncrasies.

      In IE9 at least you can hit F12 and it shows "browser mode" and "document mode"; depending on the site, this can fix some of the issues.
      Third of Five
      • @Ben Woods

        "I also don't particularly like the way Windows 8 deals with some JavaScript items either, making selecting items of sub-menus somewhere between difficult and impossible"

        I also experienced this on several websites. It seems I am not alone
    • Sites that don't support IE?

      I would love to know which sites don't support IE, leaving the author with concerns that he wouldn't be able to do his work.

      Care to be specific Ben?
      • I agree, unless that site is just a fanboy site

        who doesn't like IE at all. Otherwise most of the sites run on IE.
        Ram U
        • IE9 is more or less able to handle HTML5

          and most modern sites are HTML5, meaning they are not fully operational on IE9, IE8, IE7 and IE6, meaning a lot of Windows machines gave you a subpar web experience.
          • EXACTLY.

            It's not a case of people picking on IE.. it's a case of Microsoft not supporting standards fully until IE 10.
      • Good Comparison

        Thank you, Ben, this was the first head to head comparison I have seen between these two devices, fair and balanced, as FNN likes to say. The only thing I can add is that for less than the price of a Surface RT or an iPad, you can buy both a Chromebook and a Nexus 7. It's a case where the value of the sum is greater than the cost of the parts.
      • What's happening is that webkit is the new IE6

        Folks are coding sites using webkit-only features now. Browsers that support only HTML standards (like modern IE) can't use those features.

        This combined with sites that have code that says "oh, it's IE, let's code to the antique IE6 feature set" make modern IE (which is extremely standards compliant) look bad.

        Of course, when IE didn't support standard features it was IE's fault. But, now that it does support all the standards and sites are using proprietary webkit features, it must still be IE's fault. Because, you know, "M$ is just evil" ()
        • Agreed

          M$ used to be evil but now Google is evil and is doing everything to drive people away from healthy competition. Google wants a monopoly without any constraints.

          Monopolies are bad, competition is good. Supporting fireFox made Internet Explorer better. Supporting BING makes Google better. Supporting Linux .... Sorry that has had no effect :(
          Burger Meister
          • WOW

            Are you two major fanboys or MS employees? Google isn't in control of webkit, by the way, and its open source.

            > Supporting Linux .... Sorry that has had no effect :(

            Look around - Linux runs the world. Everywhere MS didn't have a monopoly, Linux entered and became the dominant platform - servers, stock exchanges, supercomputers, embedded, phones, etc. It probably runs your router, your car, your e-reader, the servers you browse web content from, and a lot more things in your home.
          • WRT: Supporting Linux .... Sorry that has had no effect :(

            ...I really think that Panw01 was casting a somewhat jaundiced look at Microsoft's inability to recognise superior technology when it sees it, and copy that.

            Windows is still a series of bolt-on efforts to create the sort of security that Linux handily does... simply. By superior design.

            Which is why Windows slows down.

            And Linux does not.
          • Linux

            I am a Peoplesoft Admin. I work on IBM AIX all day long so I am no stranger to the architecture of Enterprise systems, networks and hardware. Unix and Linux is crucial to the support of some Enterprise systems.

            Linux excels at Enterprise but fails at desktop OS adoption.

            Security of Linux is different than Windows but it is not better or worse. the attack vectors for Linux systems is completely different than that of desktops.

            Android is a lunix based mobile Os and android malware is rampant. Android malware is the fastest growing problem in mobile security today. Android has an extreme uphill battle to ever see widespread adoption in the enterprise.

            I apologize if I hurt your feelings but google is not the white knight that you think they are. Google is a corporation that is up to just as many tricks and shenanigans as any other company. They only care about profit. to think otherwise is childish and foohardy.
            Burger Meister
          • That's right....

            At least someone here isn't biased.
          • Huh?

            Learn the definition of monopoly before you actually use it in a sentence. This shows a longtime biasness that you have.
            As usual, if Linux is so popular, how come roughly 1.2% of the computers out there are running Linux and not [say] 70%? Must be a reason for that....
          • Linux, contrary to some folks beliefs, has an ENORMOUS effect

            Linux runs most web servers on the planet.
            Also, Linux runs Windows in a virtual space, which means that a Linux box with VMWare can run as many Windows "machines" as there is disk space and memory for.
            The fastest computers in the world run Linux.
            Sorry to tell you Panwo1, Linux has the LARGEST effect on computers today, and will have in the future. You just don't see them on the shelves of Best Buy, that's all. Oh wait, isn't Chrome OS a version of Linux? Sorry, you may even see them as those "evil" open source Google Chrome machines that you so hate.
            Roc Riz
          • You Settle Down

            Why are you so upset? I don't hate chrome books. I don't hate Linux. I don't hate any OS. See my other post. I use many different Operating systems in my work and they each have different strengths and weaknesses.

            Why does everyone on the internet act like a child? no one is going to take away your toy.

            I have news for you. As an adminsitrator I run virtualized Linux servers through the Oracle VM Virtual Box on my windows 7 Pro laptop. Within this virtualized linux I run Oracle EE RDMS and multiple supporting products like Peoplesoft, Tuxeo and WebLogic. This is just for my sandbox. Our enterprise servers are all IBM AIX based.

            So you just settle your fkcing ass down
            Burger Meister
          • ya....

            "The fastest computers in the world run Linux." Link please?
            "Linux has the LARGEST effect on computers today" Aside from you, according to whom?
            Chrome OS is just loike any of the 300+ Linux distros out there: limited in many issues. In the case of Chrome OS, depends on a web connection, limited support by Google, and Google will probably kill it off in a year or two.
        • Webkit-only?

          What webkit-only features are you talking about? Webkit displays HTML. It's open source and open source embraces open standards. If another browser is behind on implementing the HTML5 spec, that's not the webkit developers' fault.

          "Proprietary webkit features" - again, it's open source. You have no idea what you're talking about.
          • False, Google IS behaving like the old IE6

            The modern IE is not behind supporting open standards, but it only support aproved HTML 5 specs. Google is flooding the webkit engine with specs not officially aproved by the HTML standards body (W3C) and then they say that others are not standards-compliant when it is Google the one adding non-standards code into their webkit engine