Microsoft Surface RT Australian Review: Little Black Book

It took Microsoft almost a decade to design its first piece of tablet hardware. Seven years of hard development, refinement and tuning before it wound up with what we now know as Surface. Two models of Surface tablet will hit the market in the next few months. The Surface RT is first off the rank, so how does it stack up to other ARM-powered tablets?

What Is It?

First things first: this isn’t a laptop. It isn’t an ultrabook, or a convertible. It’s a tablet. The Surface RT runs a version of Windows 8 designed specifically for ARM-based tablet devices.

What’s this ARM-based nonsense I keep going on about? Well, that refers specifically to the CPU the Surface RT uses as its brain. It’s a different architecture to CPUs used in laptop and desktop computers, and it’s designed for portable devices like tablets and smartphones due to its size, power and relatively low power requirements. Other ARM-based devices include the iPad, the Nexus 7, the Asus Transformer tablets, the Nintendo DS and some GPS devices.

The Surface RT packs an impressive quad-core, 1.3GHz Tegra 3 processor from NVIDIA, 2GB of RAM and either 32GB or 64GB of storage, depending on what you shell out for. It also packs expandable storage via a microSD card and a glorious, full-sized USB 2.0 port that supports file transfer.

It’s set to be succeeded in January by the Surface Pro: an Intel-based version of the same tablet that will, among other things, be able to install legacy apps (More: What Windows RT Can’t Do)

The Surface is a Wi-Fi only device and it’s available through Microsoft’s online store for $559 for a 32GB version, $679 for a 32GB device with a bundled Touch Cover or $789 for a 64GB version with a bundled Touch Cover. If you’d prefer the more tactile Type Cover, you’ll be paying $149.99.

The covers are expensive, but as far as the tablet goes, it’s priced around the same as the iPad and other ARM-based tablets.

What’s Good?

The Surface is as good looking as it looks in photos. It’s made out of a lightweight magnesium-alloy dubbed VaporMg by Microsoft. It’s incredibly thin but still maintains the texture of brushed aluminium, thus making it feel incredibly sturdy in the hand.

I haven’t yet met a piece of Windows 8 or Windows hardware that I didn’t like the look ok. So far in that bunch the Surface takes out the prize for “best in show”.

Microsoft’s big selling point with the Surface isn’t just the big, beautiful, black tablet. It’s also flogging a couple of nifty keyboards for you to get stuff done, too. There are two: the Touch Cover and the Type Cover. The Touch Cover is about the size of three stacked credit cards and it feels like a wetsuit might. It comes in all the incredible-looking Windows 8 colours you’d expect. The Touch Cover is remarkable. I thought that using it would be like using one of those flat, roll-out keyboard mats that never work. I was wrong.

While there’s hardly any tactile feedback from the Touch Cover, typing on it is still incredibly easy, smooth and responsive. There are a few issues with the way that it’s designed, but we’ll get to those.

The Type Cover takes less noticeable wear and tear than the Touch Cover and it gives you a tactile keyboard response thanks to the keys you can fully depress. It’s a little more expensive, but if you plan on really getting things done when you’re mobile, it’s the keyboard you should pick. There’s less of a learning curve to get used to it and it takes less wear in the long run. It also feels better on the outside with the material that ought to be on someone’s smoking jacket.

Both keyboard covers come with tiny scrolling trackpads at the bottom of the device, so that you can turn your tablet into a full Windows RT-powered laptop at the click of a cover. The trackpads are just large enough for general web browsing, but could get annoying if you’re blessed with larger hands.

One of the best things about the Surface RT is the presence of a real, fully-fledged Office suite. It’s called Office RT, and it includes Word, Excel, Powerpoint and OneNote. I always try to type a review out on the device of which I’m reviewing, and thanks to Word and the impressive Type Cover, I got it done in a jiffy.

All that power is a welcome addition to the Surface. Unlike other tablets, the Surface RT multitasks like a dream. Windows 8 lets you snap apps into the left hand side of the screen with just a swipe and when you go back to an app, it looks the same as when you left it there.

The whole experience is centred around the don’t-call-it-Metro UI that forms Windows 8 ‘s backbone. Scrolling around the menus, snapping and unsnapping apps, browsing the web and using various apps from the Store is smooth and simple. The only slowdown came from the Type Cover which occasionally missed a word here and there.

Under heavy use, you’ll get a few days of battery life, which is seriously impressive. Light use like content consumption, irregular browsing and book-reading, for example will definitely snag you a longer battery life. It’s comforting to see a Windows 8 Desktop on here. Even though it can’t do much, it reinforces that you’re on Windows 8 and you’re getting a very similar experience to what you’re used to.

The screen is great to look at. Blacks are deep and whites are crisp. Everything in-between is incredibly vibrant.

More: Microsoft Surface Display Shoot-Out: Does It Beat The iPad?

Finally: stop believing what other manufacturers are telling you about USB file transfer support. After the first round of Android and Apple tablets came out a few years ago sans-full USB connectivity, the collective tech faithful raised a few eyebrows. USB is an industry standard, and to have a computing device ship without it was a tad disappointing. The Surface RT comes with a fully-fledged USB 2.0 port, and it's amazing. Transferring files, videos, photos and other gear to and from devices is so easy with that port. It's such a relief to have it back.

What’s Bad?

The beautiful VaporMg material used to put the Surface RT together does make the device a little weighty. It’s only an ARM-tablet, but you’d think you were carrying a small ultrabook between meetings with this thing.

The gorgeous Touch Cover is good for light typing, but if you’re going to be doing anything more than over 100 words, get the type cover. It’s more resilient, easier to use and it’s not going to wear down and pick up all the junk that the Touch Cover does. That’s right, the beautiful Touch Cover is great at being sexy, but it also picks up all the gunk from the bottom of your bag in its sleek top hinge, and because of the rubbery, wetsuit-like finish, it’s damn near impossible to get off without a damp cloth.

The only other annoying thing about the Touch and Type covers is that they both come with trackpads that default the scrolling direction to natural, or inverted. Up is down, down is up. There is a way to turn it off but I’ll be damned if I have found it yet.

Also, if you watch all of Microsoft’s ads for the Surface, you’ll see that they’d have us believe it’s for all (sorry) surfaces. It isn’t. Because of the way the beautiful VaporMg kickstand rests on a benchtop, you’ll need to ensure that there aren’t any slats, grooves or marks. If there are, the tablet could either fall into one of these and make viewing it super obnoxious, or it could even break if it falls through hard enough. Using it on your lap is pretty awkward, too due to the angle of the kickstand and how it sits on your legs, which at the best of times, will always be angled downward. You have to keep a pretty tight hold on the Surface keyboard you’re using to make sure it stays on your lap. If you don’t you risk stowing the kickstand and dropping the device altogether.

Holding it sans-cover is fine though. The screen is plenty-big enough for a good on-screen keyboard but don’t use it in portrait mode unless you’re doing something like reading an e-book or browsing a long webpage. The 16:10 aspect ratio paired with a big bezel makes the portrait orientation look rubbish.

Design aside, there are a lot of things that Windows RT can’t do when compared to Windows 8. You won’t be able to install legacy Windows applications, nor will you be able to choose from the range of apps you might get on the iOS or Android store, for example. There are a lot of apps missing from the store (Spotify and Instagram just to name a few). It’s a case of buyer beware, here. There are a lot of places you can look to figure out if it’s right for you though. Start here.

Should You Buy It?

The Surface RT isn’t the Surface you’re looking for if you want a laptop replacement. If that’s what you’re after, you’ll have to hold your powder until January when the Surface Pro comes along to blow your socks off. No, the Surface RT isn’t a laptop replacement. It’s a mobile refinement. It’s setting out to fix everything that’s wrong with ARM tablets in the first place. Let me explain.

Volkswagen recently recognised that the Golf — its sporty, seductive and obscenely popular four-door hatch — was the yardstick for the premium small car market. It created an ad that saw characters compare everything from the door noise right through to the price of the Volkswagen Golf. The moral of the ad — more or less — is why settle for something that isn’t the industry yardstick?

How many times have you heard a productivity suite referred to as “just like Microsoft Office”? How long have rumours existed that Office is coming to the tablet? How many companies took this long to design something that looks and feels beautiful? This is Microsoft’s last-word. It’s ARM-based yardstick.

Say what you like about the “post-PC era”, but Microsoft pioneered desktop computing. Sure, it fell down in the portable market ever since Apple strolled in with the iPad, and since then has always been a few paces behind. The Surface RT is Microsoft’s shortcut to the front of the pack.

Don’t focus on what Surface RT can’t do when it’s compared to an Intel-based Windows 8 machine, compare what it can do next to all the other ARM-based tablets out there. None of them have a conventional desktop. Surface RT does. None of them have Microsoft Office – the industry’s productivity yardstick. Surface RT does. None of them are manufactured over the better part of a decade to look this luxurious. Surface RT was. This is a tablet with capabilities beyond a cut down version of a great operating system. It’s built for purpose. It’s for people who want to consume content while still being able to stay productive. If maximum productivity is your aim, then get a different convertible like the Asus Taichi, for example.

If you want an ARM-tablet that straddles content consumption, productivity and content creation, then the Surface RT is for you. If you need all the performance and productivity dials up to 11, though, wait for the Surface Pro. If it’s as good on Intel as it is on ARM, it’s going to be a real treat.


    stop teasing me! I can't order one for another few weeks still! enough with all this temptation

    With every new review you put out, Luke, I respect your opinion more and more. You always give the right details and a proper unbiased look at capabilities rather than unfair comparisons.

    This is a great review and it's gotten me all the more excited for the Surface PRO.

    Good stuff, Giz.

      I agree. Good to see a review that doesn't spend the entire time complaining that RT isn't a laptop replacement, when it's not designed to be. Keep up the good work.

        It proves just how far apart Gizmodo US and AU are, Sam Biddles review of the Surface on Giz US set a new low for product reviews in my mind.

    Looks like a nice, functional tablet. I especially like the standard size USB port, something that isn't seen often enough with current tablets. It will be interesting to see when the Intel based tablets arrive whether Microsoft will carve a further niche into the post-pc market with this tablet design.

    Yup it's been a long road since the original HP Compaq Tablet PC running Windows XP Tablet PC Edition :)

      Ive got one of them at home!
      Cant wait for the surface pro...whats the expected release date?

    Great review Luke, far better than the US version, which basically said it's crap. Having a Win8 RT Surface I have found it to be a great replacement for things like an iPad or Android. The programmes aren't there yet but like the old saying "If you build it, they will come" and MS has built an amazing product. The programmes will come, give it time. As it was for iPhone/iPad when they were first released. I also don't mind the weight of the Surface, kind of an insurance that you do have something solid and isn't too easy to break.

    I would strongly recommend this for anyone that wants something like an iPad where they just wish to get Emails, do a few docos and browse the web. I'm currectly using it for work and I've sent it up so I can remote into different computers plus other little extras.

    So... it's incredible? I count 15 "incredible"s :P

    Big <3 for Surface, but not the device for me. Waiting on Samsung or ASUS to release a 7" Tegra 3 WinRT tablet, ideally with a SAMOLED screen. Perfect size IMHO for mobile and couch-bound video/music/reading/games/browsing.

    What is the thickness of the type cover guys?

      about 8 business card stack on top of each other :P actually too sure, though I heard it's quite flexible still.

      The Touch Cover is 3mm. The Type Cover is 5mm.

        Thanks Jordan!

    An interesting review Luke.

    Having been entrenched in iOS since an early grey import it has been hard to break out of the ecosystem, but after playing with a Windows phone I was pleasantly surprised with it. After the release of Windows 8 having lived with it in my work pc from the msdn release I decided that it was time to finally purchase a tablet pc.

    The iPad really has never impressed me, and to this day I can't shake the feeling of it still being an oversized iPod touch. Android tablets and phones all appear to run an os put together buy a bunch of drunk university students and half finished when they ran out of Hahn ice. I won't even go into some of the mangling done by the hardware manufacturers.

    So, even after vowing to wait for the surface pro, I pre ordered an RT which arrived last week. This little slab of black and grey magnesium has met and exceeded my expectations in all regards. Having the office suite (bar outlook) at my fingertips is a god send for walking around sites and note taking during meetings (interesting Luke, I've found the touch cover to work well for touch typing, but I may just order a type cover when the surface pros come out).

    The build quality of these devices really does set the yardstick, the kick stand and covers are really well integrated, and never feel fragile, the weight of the device, well, its like the Lumina 920, the heft makes it feel like a premium bit of kit. I liken it to amplifiers, an onkyo and Integra are ostensibly the same reference design, but the better componentry in the Integra (PSU, transformers, caps) give it the added heft that denotes quality (yes yes, I know I'm not going to be carrying around a HT Amp, but infelt it was a good analogy o quality to draw).

    I never purchased, or expected the RT device to be a laptop replacement, I wanted a tablet for consumption of media, and to aid my productivity (I hate wandering around a building site with a laptop balanced on one hand, or trying to take notes on my phone, and before you start, I can barely read my own handwriting so that's out) whilst out in the field. To this end, the surface tablet is a masterpiece in what a tablet should be.

    A few niggles have popped up, at the moment there is a software issue that also sleeps (it appears to me in any case) the sd card slot and some of the sound backend when the device goes to sleep, so the system notifications or media playback from the sd card will be really choppy, this doesn't occur with playback from the SSD though.

    The media apps support of meta data is, well, annoying to say the least. If you use the old Zune client to write meta data into your video files, this will kind of work, but I can't get constant results. Getting this meta data in is vital unless you want to basically trawl through a never ending list of names to find your video.

    Having a command prompt, access to regedit and a desktop is wonderful. Oh noes, Microsoft have a compatibility list for flag sites... ok, I'll just edit the file, or add my pled servers ip address into a debug domain in regedit and bam, full pled web app playback through the ie metro browser. 720playback through flash seems fine, if you are trying to over sample for what ever reason, the playback will hog down a bit, but then I've had this issue for a while when dealing with iptv interface playing back on some set top boxes, even the original eeepc's had problems with higher res flash content.

    There is a mute issue that some users are seeing where the audio will mute of its own accord, at this stage Microsoft are saying it may be due to a faulty touch cover and are replacing these where it is needed.

    That is about it for issues, personally everyone I've given the device to for them to have a play with has been impressed although a few people have asked if it was the new iPad

      Thanks for the brief response. I almost read some of it, but the sun went down, then it was bedtime.

      Last edited 25/11/12 9:16 pm

    I bought the Surface RT and one thing that bugs me a little is that currently no internet dongles or ethernet to USB adapters are drivers. I can however Hotspot my phone but that chews up battery a lot.
    I guess this is the price i have to pay for being an early adopter. Hope people come out with drivers soon.
    Good review BTW!

      Use a mobile WIFI hotspot instead.

    Good review Luke. Just one thing:

    "It’s set to be succeeded in January by the Surface Pro..."

    It's something of semantics, but really this should read "It’s set to be COMPLEMENTED in January by the Surface Pro..."

    "Succeeded" in the context of the original statement could be taken to mean that the RT is going to REPLACED by the Pro, which it is not :)

    But is it an Ipad???

    Natural Scrolling is the right way to do it when you're pushing content around. Microsoft should make it opt–out for all future Windows devices with a trackpad.

    Damn good review. Thanks for being so thorough - and even-handed. Something that's severely lacking in too many other reviews I've read... I suspect in the light of what you've outlined that I may end up going the route of 7" "something" plus Surface Pro...

    I wouldn't say this is the yardstick yet. Having used Windows 8 I still think it's a hobbled halfway house that tried very hard to appeal to all inputs, but doesn't successfully execute any of them.

    Microsoft should have been really ambitious and made RT a completely metro experience. The multitasking experience is ripe for a metro style file manager, and office, hobbled as it is already by lack of macros etc. should have just gone full metro anyway (especially considering a lot of people dislike the ribbon anyway. I think it's one of the better microsoft interfaces but whatever). windows 8 pro should have prioritised the desktop, launched straight into the desktop and allowed resizing of metro apps in the main desktop, since they support multiple resolutions anyway. I think their ambition to go for consistency across all screens has failed to acknowledge that not all screens act the same.

    Basically, microsoft should have distanced rt from the desktop more than they did, and made more of a priority of the desktop in the pro version, not trying to sideline it as an app.

      *formerly known as metro

        Honestly, that is symptomatic of the Windows 8 dichotomy. Microsoft doesn't even know how to market their product. How many different reports have we had now saying this is now called this and this is now called this. When a company doesn't know what it's doing with it's product, it'll focus on rebranding. At least Apple sticks to its guns with product names, and Samsung just makes an entire new product.

        (I know part of it was legal, but if they really believed in their product like they say they do then they would have paid to keep the name for the design language that everyone uses)

    Sorry Luke, I won't be buying this, I'll wait until one of the other brand names comes out with a proper keyboard that doesn't need a stand on the back of the tablet to be comfy in my lap. I honestly don't know why MS went this stupid kickstand direction, there are plenty of ways they could have done that better.

      The kickstand is really not that bad. I use it in my lap a lot and as long as I don't sit crosslegged, it works. I was very concerned about the lap-useability but it's really not that much of an issue.

      So you want to buy a laptop or ultrabook then? Tablets are not in any way designed for lap use (not with a keyboard anyways) and saying you will wait for another company to make one that is is a little crazy.

    I liked reading the review and like to hear so much that is positive, but gizmodo keeps misrepresenting the productivity aspect of ms office: it does not come licensed for business use.

      If you buy your own device, it is your personal assistant and belongs to you. If the company buys you the device, then maybe I'd say your assertion comes into play.

      ....and who is going to stop you from using it if you do?....yeah thats what i thought.

    Why are these stories getting pined to the top of the home page?
    They should just show up in top stories. The problem is that if i refresh to see whats new I have to scroll down every time. This only one I understand is when there is going to be a live blog in it.

    Lucky you didn't give this thing a bad review - otherwise you would have been accused of being an Apple fanboy, and told that you're a sub-par journalist.

    But seriously, I have to wonder whether the Giz commenters don't influence the reviews. If you're paid by readership, and your readership hate it when you give a non-apple product a bad review because you must have some sort of "apple-bias", then do we trust your non-apple reviews?

      You can trust that if a product is shit, I'll say so. Regardless of who wants to buy it or not.

        Well said

        You have to worry about the US Giz writers though. They have been very below par for sometime now. The AU Giz writers are more spot on with their product reviews.

      A bit of a silly statement. Like all businesses, of course they want to keep their customers happy. However, you need to keep in mind that the internet operates on clicks, controversial journalism is as successful if not more successful on the internet than harmonious journalism.

      But to the crux of your comment: Luke would have an affinity with Australians (being Australian and all and being exposed to the culture here) and thus his tastes would reflect much of the Australian appetites and trends. Same goes for the US writers of course.

      Like the saying goes: You're unique, just like everyone else.

    Ok, so having finally received ours yesterday, (after I was one of a number of users globally who had their pre-orders cancelled), I got to play with it before having to hand it over to my wife when she got home from work (it was purchased for her).
    I will say, she nearly had to kill me in order to pry it out of my dead hands…
    I was extremely impressed with it. I am a network engineer, and as such have a pretty complex VM/Physical development environment at home, (vlans, soft and hard firewalls, 2012 domain, exchange, and trusted/non-trusted hardware, SCCM and SCOM).
    So having read the reviews, I fully expected to be a bit meh about it all. Au contraire… Firstly, it won’t join the domain (but neither do the Xboxes or the eeepad slider, nor phones). I expected that. What I didn’t expect though was being able to run an elevated dos prompt and being able to make symlinks, thus attaching the tablets “My Docs/Pics/Videos/Movies” to the network home drive and various shares… It works flawlessly (so yes, you can natively attach to file shares). I haven’ t had a chance yet to see if I can run a custom logon script which will map drives… That’s on my to-do list. It played blue-ray rips flawlessly over WiFi, and the picture quality was superb.
    Next was network discovery… It found and installed the two Xboxes, the media shares on servers, the HP Officejet Wireless printer, which brings me to my next discovery… The keyboard is important. This can’t be stressed enough. It was doing my head in how to print from a metro app on my laptop, and rather than research, I always dropped back to a desktop app. Well, lo-and-behold, I chucked the sads yesterday whilst swiping and clicking and went fck it, searching charms, you name it (the fact it didn’t crash impressed me as well) … Ctrl P… Yep, the print dialogue popped up. And it printed.
    I’ve read a common complaint is “but there’s no stalkbook app”… There are two… One’s called Internet Explorer, and the other is the “People Hub”. This is the primary reason why we ordered the Surface, as we live in a remote mining town, so my wife likes to keep in touch with family and friends in other places via sookbook. The eeepad slider is seriously crap, the browser pauses and hesitates and crashes, the thing with the official ICS update (reinstalled multiple times) is useless. Not to mention the hardware keyboard has lost functionality. She tried the official and store apps for facebook, but seriously? Compared to a full browser, ALL of the apps lack something. Facebook just works in IE 10 (both on the desktop version and the metro one). I did find that the lack of Silverlight in the metro version is crap, but seems to work fine on the desktop version (check out halo waypoint and try to watch any video content in metro ie10 on all versions of Windows 8). And sadly, there’s no Halo Waypoint App for the RT, although Smartglass launched the companion Halo 4 app (which is waypoint).
    Which brings me to the touch cover keyboard. Doing what I do for a living, I have to be fairly proficient at typing. I had zero issues, and was able to type straight away, as did my wife (who is in administration, so I expected her to have issues too). I did notice from time-to-time that the keyboard stopped working after being put to sleep, but clicking it back on fixed the issue.
    You also need to go through the guts of the settings in fine detail to maximize your experience (such as manually enabling sharing pictures etc from the people hub).
    So, my advice to you if you buy one is to learn keyboard shortcuts, they are as important as learning the touch interface (which is intuitive to me more often than frustrating, but at times becomes frustrating until you realize that there’s a keyboard shortcut that will perform the task). As for power users, there are enough Windows genes in RT to keep you intrigued (I only got to play with it for 3 hours), and it’s simple enough for the average person to just use.
    The only real annoyance my wife has is that Island Tribez hasn’t been ported yet… Hopefully it’ll come…
    Oh, and that the people app takes a bit to learn if you want to use it effectively.
    I am tossing up whether or not to buy a pro when they’re available, or go for something like the HP Elitebook 2760p (we have one at work which has been ahem enhanced with Win 8) with an i7 when it comes out. Windows 8 certainly makes more sense with a touchscreen…

      Glad to read someone elses experience. I have been really enjoying mine. And I to am tossing up the pro or not, I think I will, unless I see something with signicifantly better build quality than what is currently being offered by other OEMs

    Love the way at least 3 Windows8/Surface related articles have been stuck on the home page for about a day. Nothing else happening in techworld eh? How much is Gizmodo being paid by Microsoft or one of its agents to flog it? Do tell Gizmodo.

    I really love mine, I seriously never leave home with out it!
    but I think the black touch cover and the coloured ones are different materials, my black one is basically felt (not like wetsuit material) and any dirt literally just brushes right off

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