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.