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Microsoft Surface RT Review: Finally A Tablet Worth Showing Off
As I’ve said before, I’m an early adopter. I buy every new thing in tech that pertains to cell phones, gaming, tablets, and PC hardware. I have to have the newest thing. Part because I want to test them all. Part because I want to show things off. My friends are big into tech as well but they are smarter than me and wait. They know, just like I do, that what I’m buying can be considered beta products. I’ve been burned before when doing this but I can’t stop myself. I guess that’s one of the many reasons why I decided to help start a site like this. I know I’ll always have the latest thing to talk about.
Since we’re talking about tablets I’ll name the ones I’ve owned: iPad, Zoom, iPad 2, Galaxy Tab 10.1, Transformer, Kindle Fire, iPad 3rd Gen, and now, the Microsoft Surface RT.
As a tech fanatic I’ve been following the imminent release of the latest generation of Microsoft products including Windows 8, Windows RT, the Surface, other Win8/WinRT tablet hybrids, and of course Windows Phone 8. The one product that found me scouring the net every day for new information was the Surface. I was entranced by Microsoft’s own product entering a world where only Apple has ventured before: releasing a brand product. Normally you’d expect the normal names to take care of the hardware business: ASUS, Samsung, Acer, Lenovo, Toshiba, etc. Google doesn’t just make a Google phone and be done with it. They work alongside companies to make special phones called Nexus products. Apple makes everything themselves and sets aside those companies. Microsoft technically didn’t even need to make their own product. They set forth basic guidelines that companies have to adhere to, just like they’ve done with the Windows Phone platform, and then companies create.
So why did Microsoft create the Surface? Why are they entering a fray in which carries huge risks? Surely the other companies would feel threatened by a product being released alongside their own variations, especially from the company making the operating system. Turns out, there was plenty of hubb-lubb, mostly from Acer. To be honest, rightfully so as well. As a hardware company like the ones I mentioned it’s your main priority to create something that stands out on a shelf. You hope the operating system will carry your product beyond that but you have to make the hardware something that appeals to both casual and power users. I like to think Samsung has done a wonderful job as finding a balance between the two. ASUS has also done a great job.
Now we have a Microsoft product launching alongside other companies vision of a Windows 8/RT tablet hybrid device. Honestly, the only thought that comes to my mind is: how can the other companies compete?
First off, let me just say that the Surface is a beautiful device. The design of this thing is elegant and subtle. There is a minimalist approach to this device even with the ports, rockers, and buttons that decorate the sides. Everything about the Surface’s design just screams greatness.
The front is a solid piece with no physically buttons to be had. You’ll find a capacity Windows logo at the bottom that serves as a way home and a front-facing camera up top. Besides that, you’re staring at the screen and a modest bezel. Up top you’ll find the power button and two microphones. To the left you’ll find one of the two speakers, a headset jack, and the volume rocker. On the right is where you’ll find the most intrusion to the subtle design. We have the other speaker, mini HDMI port, USB 2.0, and the charger slot. The bottom just has the connector for your type or touch cover. Turning the Surface over you’ll find the kickstand which when pulled out reveals the micro SD slot.
Although you may think that sounds like plenty of ports and buttons to make this not-so subtle, looking at and holding the Surface will make you think differently. The dark titanium color of the body masks the ports and buttons nicely enough that just a cursory glance at the Surface will make them difficult to point out. This thing is just a beautifully designed product.
Aside from design you’ll find yourself holding a powerful device. The Surface RT contains a 1.3GHz Tegra 3 quad-core processor, and 2gbs of memory. Those specs are more than enough to suffice for what RT is meant for. In fact, I have yet to see any slowdown caused by the specs. Everything zips by quickly.
You’ll also get a beautiful 10.6″ ClearType HD display that has a resolution of 1366×768 and is in a widescreen format. The display itself is crystal clear and does not give off a dim picture like some tablets. You’ll have a vibrant picture and plenty of room thanks to the HD resolution. The RT version of the tablet comes with a 5-point touch screen and I have yet to see any delay in my touch and the device actually acting on that. The hardware communicates with the software flawlessly here.
The Surface RT also comes with the essentials: Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n), 4.0 Bluetooth, plenty of sensors (light, accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass), and a front and rear facing camera.
This device is ready for just about anything when it comes to hardware and in comparison to the tablet competition. The may not be the best in some regards but it contains just about everything you would want in a tablet.
One of those aspects that it just isn’t the best in is cameras. The cameras on the Surface RT are not very good. The front facing one does a good job for Skype but when you switch to the rear one, you’ll feel very underwhelmed. The picture is very grainy and lighting is an issue. To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of using a tablet as a camera but I understand that given the situation you may need to pop out the big screen and snap some shots. You may want to have a back-up device just in case as you will not enjoy the results with your Surface.
I find myself wishing Microsoft placed one of the Lumia 920’s amazing cameras on the back of this bad boy. The lighting and quality of those lens are fantastic and could have let a hand in making the Surface even better.
Either way, below is a sample shot of what the Surface RT’s cameras can do. Click for the original size.
It’s a shame that Microsoft couldn’t even put a flash on the back. I guess they felt that having an indicator light next to the camera so people know when you are taking a shot is more important than the actual quality. As you see, I had to ensure all my lights were on in order to get that shot to look that clear. A night shot will result in a near black screen. This is not a tablet that you should be taking pictures with.
That being said, I did mention that the front facing camera does a good enough job with Skype. You really can’t expect much from front facing lens. Companies tend to use the most compact sized cameras to take the least amount of space from the front of a device. Microsoft is no different. You’ll be fine with what the front lens does for you.
The Surface RT comes with a 31.5 W-h battery built-in and uses a 5-connector charger port. I must say that the charging speed for this device is pretty snappy. I was able to go from a red battery indicator to half full in little over 40 minutes. I’d love to be able to tell you the actual percentage of the battery but unfortunately Windows RT does not disclose that information. More about that later.
From full to empty I was able to get nearly 7 hours out of the Surface RT. That’s with almost constant use. I may have put it down for a few minutes here and there but I chose to use nothing but the Surface during my stress test. I was downloading apps, using them, playing Adera and GameDev Tycoon, switching back and forth, messing with the screen brightness, writing documents, using the internet, checking e-mail, and snapping some test photos.
I also measured how much time I was able to get when using the Surface sparingly. With slight app use, e-mail checking, internet exploring, and checking the weather thanks to Hurricane Sandy I got almost 9 hours out of the battery before having to finally plug it in.
Overall I’m pretty happy with the battery life on this thing. It doesn’t quite hit iPad level but I found the drain of app and game use to be better on the Surface than Apple’s tablet. I always felt that playing games or using graphic-intensive apps on the iPad made my battery work too much. On Microsoft’s debut tablet, it seems to not have that much effect. There is an obvious drain from using apps and games but it doesn’t impact the time you have without charging as much as other tablets, including Android ones.
If you have somewhere to go for several hours, you can depend on the Surface RT to be alive and kickin’ for most if not all of it. With the moderate use I described above, this thing lasted me for my entire work day and then some. That’s about all I can ask for in a tablet.
To be honest, a lot of people are going after RT like it’s a red-headed step-child. RT is definitely meant to be a tablet user’s operating system. Nothing more. It isn’t meant to be a full blown PC operating system in any sense. However, that being said, you’ll find that you can do a lot more with RT than any other tablet OS. Without being a full blown PC operating system, it sure does a great job at mimicking that.
The biggest difference, but not the only one, between RT and Windows 8 is that you cannot download and install “legacy apps”. That means any program that you use on your Windows 7 PC or any version of Windows before that is incompatible. Since RT is built for ARM processors, the architecture is very different from a normal Windows OS, including Windows 8. Regular install files and .exe formats will not work in RT.
You’ll feel confined to the Windows Store but that isn’t a bad thing, either. For many reasons, I feel safe using the Windows Store. I bought the Surface RT because I wanted a tablet. The prospect of the Surface Pro is tantalizing but I own a powerful laptop and even a great desktop PC. I don’t need a so-so spec’d tablet hybrid with a full operating system. I won’t be playing games like Fallout 3 or Diablo 3 on a Surface Pro. I’d rather whip out my laptop and use that. I wanted this as a tablet and the Windows Store is the perfect compliment to that and one that both Apple and Google should be looking at for pointers.
The Windows Store for RT is going to show you two things: apps you can use and desktop apps. Right now you won’t be able to download any desktop apps because they are all built for x86 and x64 processors, not ARM ones. The reason why they still show them is because the Windows Store will allow devs to put up their apps/programs so Windows 8 and RT users can see them and venture out to the dev site to download and install them. That means ARM-based apps that devs make can be found on the Windows Store and installed not using the store. So far, there isn’t any to test that out on but I’m sure that will change.
Aside from that, the Windows Store is only going to show you apps that are built for RT and ARM. You can search and find other apps such as the Google app or Microsoft Solitaire Collection which are only built for non-ARM processors but you cannot install them. Having the store only show you what you can use and correctly label the ones that you can’t is very helpful. With the very radical ranges of Android devices and apps that try and tell you which devices should be used with them, that can be a huge hassle. Especially if money is involved. Windows Store does a great job at alleviating that headache by just showing you what is good to go for your device.
Besides the Windows Store and which apps you can download, every version of Windows RT is coming with an ARM-based version of Microsoft Office Student Edition. This will give you access to Word 2013, Excel 2013, Power Point 2013, and One Note 2013. These are full versions of the regular desktop versions and open the desktop view in order to be used. Here is where you’re going to feel right at home. Office RT shows the potential that RT has. I expect that in the future we’ll see more ARM-based apps using the desktop view which is going to make PC users feel more in tune with this tablet OS. Which is a great thing to see. Microsoft isn’t totally abandoning the old school use for Metro.
I haven’t had any issues so far with using Metro over the desktop view, though. Sure there are apps I wish were available but for everyday use I’ve been fine with Metro apps (more on Daily Use later). So far I feel very confident in saying that Windows RT is the best tablet operating system out there. You can do way too much compared to iOS or Android. Thanks to the desktop mode and the best use of an app marketplace, tablet users coming from another device will find themselves with a lot more they can do and a lot less headaches. It may not have the most apps but the Windows Store is booming with new apps almost every hour. You can be sure that Microsoft is doing all it can to bring more apps over and the more Surfaces or other RT devices that sell, the faster that will happen.
Speaking of apps, the initial selection of apps from the Windows Store will keep you busy until more arrive. Windows RT provides users with the basic essentials: internet browser, music player, video player, photo gallery, calender, maps, weather, news, and an instant messenger. They all may not be amazing but they do the job.
Internet Explorer for RT is actually very powerful, fast, and reliable. The only issue I’ve had is the stupid decision to include a Flash “whitelist” which tells the browser which sites can use Flash and which ones to tell you to switch over to modern IE on the desktop view. That is quite annoying.
The music player also doubles are your entrance to Xbox Music. The player works well enough with playlists and a file explorer to get what you want to play. Nothing too flashy here but it isn’t very needed. I guess the only thing I could ask for is a built-in equalizer. Xbox Music is a great streaming service with a pretty fair subscription price. The selection is vast but it isn’t near iTunes level yet. Still, you’ll be happy with what you can find on Xbox Music.
The video player is a problem. The formats this thing can play is limited and for me that has hampered what videos I can play from my own collection. You won’t be able to play .MKV or other internet popular formats without converting them. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to convert thanks to programs easily found using a Google search (or a Bing search!).
The Messenger app is really nice but unfortunately only allows chat via Windows Live and Facebook. GTalk and AIM are no where to be found, as well as other chat sources. Right now you have to make due with 3rd party apps like IM+ or Chat. IM+ is free and supports a wide range of sources but it does not support background sync so when you get a notification and switch to the app you have to wait anywhere between 5 to 15 seconds to see the new messages. Still, it is the only free way to use GTalk right now.
Maps are from Bing and do a great job unless you are zooming all the way in. Bing Maps are very updated as long as you stay as aerial as possible. If you zoom in too much you’ll be looking at maps that are at least 5 years old. I work on a college campus and from an aerial view I can see our entire campus with every building. Zooming in and I see the campus as it was at least 4 or 5 years ago. Weird but honestly, the maps work very well aside from that.
This is just a small section of pre-installed apps on the Surface RT but the selection you can get from the Windows Store already include Netflix, Hulu, iHeartRadio, Comixology, Skype, Reddit, eBay, Kindle, and one of my favorite time wasters, Doodle God. There are plenty of already available apps to satiate you while you wait for something you want/need. If you want a Surface RT but are worried about app selection, I don’t think you need to wait. Like I said, the Windows Store is bursting with new stuff throughout each day. Sooner or later, you’ll get what you need.
One of the best things that comes pre-installed and integrated with the Surface is Skydrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage service.
You get 7 gigs for free but if you buy the Surface from a Microsoft Store you get a little pamphlet that includes a promo code for an extra 3 gigs of space. My Skydrive is 10 gigs and I am not paying for any of it which is nice.
Skydrive allows you to upload any file on your Surface and find it on another computer. If you are running Windows 8 on your PC or have a Windows Phone, this is really easy to do and share files between them.
I’m not one for cloud storing my files since I always forget that I have that service but since my tech ecosystem now includes this Surface and Windows 8, I’ve been using Skydrive frequently. It really is a useful tool that makes Windows 8/RT better and interconnected.
I’ve been enjoying myself since using Windows RT but it isn’t perfect. I mentioned above the problems with Flash on the Metro IE, the video format limitations, Messenger not supporting many source, but that isn’t where my issues stop.
Many apps that say they have background sync and use don’t seem to actually use it. Whenever I go to use Metro IE to write a post for this site and upload images or save a draft, I can’t switch to a different app. If I do, progress during uploading halts until I go back to the app.
Some apps have issues running the background whenever the lock screen comes up. I downloaded an alarm app since there is no built-in alarm system and when the alarm went off, the lock screen would play a different melody at a lower volume. I had to click on that notification to hear the loud alarm melody. Thankfully I tested this out before relying on it.
Sometimes when disconnecting the touch cover from the Surface, the device would still think that the cover was attached. The on-screen keyboard would not come up. I had to turn the screen off, re-attach the cover, turn the screen on, take the cover off, and then see the on-screen keyboard come up. This doesn’t happen all the time but it has happened a few times.
The screen adjusts way too much when you have auto-brightness on. It seems to change every 10 seconds. It got to the point where I had to turn off the auto setting.
The built-in app Reader does not allow for editing of PDFs. You have to use Word 2013 for that. The reader app is also slow at loading PDF pages.
Perhaps the most annoying part of my Windows RT experience has been the Wi-Fi issue I seem to be having. At random times my Wi-Fi will switch to limited instead of connected. I had to disconnect then reconnect to fix the issue. So far this has only happened on my home network, however, my other Wi-Fi connected devices never have this issue and always stay connected.
As you can see my issues can all be fixed with app updates and system updates. RT has been a blast to use aside from the above.
Using a tablet for daily use is something I feel this area of tech has struggled with. There is usually some type of situation that can be handled better on a laptop or desktop than to continue using a tablet. To see how the Surface does with daily use I actually spent a whole day using nothing but this device for my computing needs.
In short, it performs much better than the iPad or any Android tablet.
I was able to do most of what I needed to do without having a need to switch to a different device. Productivity is at its best on the Surface. Having full versions of Microsoft Office apps is a huge plus. Not only that but having both a Metro IE and a desktop IE means you can do anything you need to on a webpage. I can login to our site, write a post, upload images, and then publish. On other tablets you need to use the WordPress apps which are far less usable than a full browser.
Checking e-mail, sending them out, and receiving them is just as quick as on a regular PC. The push notifications work great. I couldn’t stand the pop-up notifications for iPad and it was something I wanted to turn off for a long time. Thankfully the notifications pop up for only a set amount of time on the top right of the screen or the lock screen as small icons.
I was able to do everything I wanted to do for computing on the Surface RT for an entire day. That’s more than I can say for any other tablet that I’ve owned or used. I’ve always looked at tablets as a situational device or something that I can bring wherever I go. Since I’ve had the Surface, I’ve rethought that. This tablet is as close as you’re going to get to a computer with extreme portability with a fair price.
When I went into the Microsoft Store, I went in believing that I would walk out with the Type Cover.
As cool as the Touch Cover was, I did not think that I would like it since I am a very fast typer and am used to that style. I rely on auto-correct and/or later edits to find mistakes. Once I start writing, I tend not to stop as I get into a groove.
I tried both the Type and Touch Cover before making my decision (after some play times with the ASUS Vivo Tab RT, as well) and I found myself really liking the Touch Cover. Part of it is because of how thin the Touch cover is and how well it functions with the Surface when it covers the screen, is laid out, or is put behind the tablet.
Typing on the Touch Cover is easy but you have to get used to it. Typing fast is possible but you have to make sure that you are pushing your fingers down a tad harder when going fast to ensure that every letter is hit and registers. That isn’t to say that the Touch Cover doesn’t respond well. It does. However, going fast with your fingers will sometimes either skip over the letter or just skim it which won’t register with the cover.
You don’t have to punch the Touch Cover but you have to slightly push on each key to have it work right. Once you get used to it, you’ll feel at home on the Touch Cover and you’ll find the right speed to make sure your typing is as typo-free as possible.
I think the Touch Cover is the best accessory to go with your Surface right now. It is great to type with, protects the screen with its soft material, and keeps the tablet thin when it’s attached.
I’ve already talked some about what makes the Surface different from the iPad or, say, the Nexus 7 or Samsung Galaxy Tab. Let’s break it down even further, though.
Surface Vs. iPad (3rd Gen)
My biggest problem with the iPad is how limited it can be when it comes to conventional computing needs. Everything is dependent on the apps. The browser is way too limited and until HTML5 finally takes over that is going to stay that way. The iPad may have one of the best screens out there and the largest app selection but that does not translate into ease of use for your daily needs.
Surface or iPad (3rd Gen): Surface. For $620 you get a 32GB Surface RT with a Touch Cover. You can’t beat that compared to the cost for a 32GB iPad (3rd Gen) and a keyboard. Not only that, but the daily use factor is huge here.
Surface Vs. Android Tablets: Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, ASUS Transformer Prime, and Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1
I feel it’s best to use multiple Android tablets here. There are plenty of differences between them.
Surface vs. Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 – The Galaxy Tab 10.1 is a classic Android tablet and still viable for use today. That said, it is also the best example of how the Surface trumps Android tablets. I talked earlier about how the Android apps can be a headache due to device constraints. The differences between low, mid, and high range Android devices are too radical and that forces devs to implement requirements of certain tablets or phones due to processors and other factors. There is nothing really special about the Galaxy Tab 10.1 like the other two I will talk about. That means most Android tablets will have the same following result.
Surface or Galaxy Tab 10.1: Surface all the way. Normal Android tablets just cannot match up against what the Surface and Windows RT can go. Having flash with Android is nice but the available browsers have a lot of catching up to do to get close to IE10 – desktop or Metro.
Surface vs. ASUS Transformer Prime – ASUS has done a great job with Android tablets. The Transformer line is perhaps the best range of tablets using Android but for this example we’ll use the Prime. The Prime has the advantage of a great keyboard dock that doubles battery life. Typing on the Prime is a breeze and the dock’s keyboard layout is not cramped at all. The problem comes back to app selection for Android. The available word processing apps really can’t get the job done. Productivity limits on Android still keep the Prime below my recommendation not that the Surface is out.
Surface or Transformer Prime: Surface. The keyboard dock for the Transformer is nice and does a long way thanks to the battery increase. However, you just can’t beat the productivity that Surface can produce and that holds it over the Prime.
Surface vs. Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 – We’re back to Samsung as they bring a great feature to tablets with the Waco digitizer and the S-Pen. Samsung has a dock with a keyboard that works well enough but the main story here is the screen and stylus. Productivity is at its highest with Android here on the Note 10.1. While there still isn’t a worthwhile word processor, you’ll find plenty other apps that take great advantage of the S-Pen. For some people, productivity revolves around precision with a pen. Unless you get use to a Hand Stylus with the Surface, the Note 10.1 is a viable option.
Surface or Galaxy Note 10.1: Push. To be honest, it’s either type or draw when it comes to this decision. If your day involves drawing, planning, or designing, you’ll be more at home with the Note 10.1. If not and you need a keyboard or just access to a desktop view and Office, the Surface is the better choice.
Surface Vs. ASUS Vivo Tab RT
The other RT tablet out right now. Launching side-by-side with a Microsoft product, the Vivo Tab RT needed to stand out. Unless you are coming from a Transformer tablet, you probably won’t pick this up. The problem lies in two areas performance and the keyboard dock. The Vivo Tab RT just feels sluggish compared to the Surface. While the keyboard dock gives huge battery boosts, the keyboard is so cramped and makes typing a pain – literally.
Surface or Vivo Tab RT: Surface. The lag and cramped keyboard make the Vivo Tab RT a hard sell when it is sitting right next to a Surface demo unit. You can see a big difference in performance and the touch or type covers are much better keyboards. The only reason you may want the Vivo Tab RT is the battery in the dock but then you may not be using it as a tablet so much as an ultrabook. Which defeats the purpose here.
After using the Surface for three days, I can’t recommend it enough. Whether you are waiting for the Pro or are headed out to buy the RT, you will love this device. The way it performs is near flawless and productivity is just as great as on a laptop or desktop.
RT may have some issues but they aren’t dealbreakers. If you need a tablet that gives you the best chance to get a full day’s work done, here it is. Honestly, that is what is so great about the Surface, really Windows RT as a whole. You can take this with you anywhere and do work. Mostly without hassle or headache. That is so important for a tablet and with the Surface leading the pack, expect tablets in the future to make productivity a focus to try and catch up to what RT can do.
Will Surface remain the best RT tablet? I can’t answer that. However, if you want in on the party right now, you can’t go wrong with Microsoft’s own offering. This is the measure for which all future RT or Pro tablets should look at.
By the way, this review was written, edited, uploaded, and published on my Surface using the Touch Cover.