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.
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.
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.
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.
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.