Surface RT vs. Samsung Chromebook: On the road

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?
Written by Ben Woods, Contributor on

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)
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