Microsoft’s shocked the world a few months back when they decided to reveal a new device that was half tablet and half PC. The Surface family of tablets (and perhaps future products) are Microsoft-branded devices which combine Microsoft software (Windows 8) and Microsoft-designed hardware. On the surface (no pun intended), one would think that this hybrid PC is the greatest computer in the world. Is that really the case? Read on to find out.
Hardware & Design
Microsoft has a long history with making hardware. As Steve Ballmer noted at the Surface event back in June, they have been making mice and keyboards for many, many years. They also have experience in hardware with their Zune line of personal music players as well as the Xbox consoles. In that hardware mix there are some huge triumphs and some deep lows. The Surface RT is a huge hardware triumph.
The Surface is a sleek black slab that, in Microsoft own words, brings the software and your information to the surface. The 10.6-inch 16:9 ClearType display is covered in Gorilla Glass 2 and is the prominent feature on the face of the device. Besides a front-facing camera, the only other items on the front of the Surface is a capacitive Windows home button. The rest of the device is covered in a material Microsoft calls VaporMag. The lighter-than-aluminum magnesium alloy material is just 0.65mm in thickness all the way around the device and feels great to the touch.
The back side of the device has a built-in kick stand that is fantastic in everyday use and also durable. The kickstand holds the device at a 22-degree angle and closes with a firm snap that would make a fine automobile maker jealous. Also on the back is a rear camera, which is not fantastic for snapping pictures, but extremely serviceable for video chatting. A microSD card slot for expandable storage is available underneath the kickstand.
The sides of the Surface RT contain dual stereo speaker grills, a volume rocker, headphone jack, proprietary magnetic charging port, keyboard dock magnetic port, USB 2.0 port and a video-out port. The top of the device holds a microphone slot and the power/wake button.
Simply put, the Surface RT is a slim, fantastic-looking device which is great in the hand to hold and just the perfect weight to give it a substantial feeling without feeling cheaply made.
Microsoft opted for a 10.6″ ClearType HD Display with a resolution of 1366×768 pixels in a 16:9 widescreen format. The display is also a 5-point multi-touch panel. In use, the display on the Surface RT is fantastic. Images, text and videos are super-sharp and also boasts a much higher contrast ratio and is much less reflective than the current iPad. When compared with the current iPad, the Surface RT stands toe-to-toe. A close examination, however, might give the sharpness of the iPad’s display the nod due to it’s much higher resolution.
Performance & Battery
Microsoft opted for a Quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3 processor and coupled it with 2GB of RAM. Needless to say, this thing flies. Windows 8 moves fluidly on this hardware. I never once noticed any lag or skipping around when browsing or scrolling on the device. I even opened a number of apps at a time to see if I could strain the Surface, but it remained fast and smooth.
The Surface RT would be an utter failure if it didn’t compete with devices like Apple’s iPad in terms of long lasting battery life. In this area, the Surface RT competes proudly. In my own unscientific tests, the Surface RT’s battery performed just as well as the iPad, which is a good thing. Typical use would net close to 10 hours on a single charge.
Microsoft also included a special proprietary charging port which is said to speed up the charging of the device considerably.
I can only speak to the touch cover for the Surface RT as that is the only model I have, but it is surprisingly good. The Touch Cover is a modern marvel straight from Microsoft’s vast experience in keyboard and mice design. The slim keyboard is spill-resistant and has a soft, almost fleece-like, feel to it. I expected to have an issue getting used to typing on the Touch cover at first, but I jumped right in and was typing nearly as fast as I do on your typical keyboard.
Microsoft also included a trackpad on both the Touch and Type covers and it is impressive to say the least. Swipes and click were registered the first time, every time.
The Touch and Type covers serve as great keyboards, but also as covers for the Surface RT. The keyboards snap into the magnetic connector and feel solid doing so and then swing around to act as a protective covering for the device. Microsoft certainly has a winner here with their keyboard covers.
Software, User Experience & Apps
Microsoft‘s Surface tablets will be running versions of their Windows 8 operating system. The Surface RT runs Windows RT, a specially–made version of the OS made to run on ARM chipsets. What this means in layman’s terms is that Windows RT can take advantage of the ARM processors low power consumption and impressive battery life.
However, there is a trade-off with using Windows RT. The Surface RT is not compatible with your typical desktop applications, with the exception of the ones included and specifically written for Windows RT. These apps include a number of Windows-specific programs like Notepad and Paint, but also Microsoft’s Office 2013 suite (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote…no Outlook). The good news here is that every Surface owner will get the RT Office 2013 suit for free. This suite of apps will run in a desktop mode that is included in Windows 8.
This desktop mode takes us to the user experience portion of this review. Microsoft wanted a no-compromise version of Windows that could be used on both regular (non-touch) PC’s and touch-enabled PC’s, like tablet computers. This way a user could have the convenience of a tablet PC when the keyboard wasn’t connected, but still have the power and versatility of a full PC when using the desktop and file explorer.
At first, I wondered how Microsoft might pull off this feat, but it’s pretty simple. If you want the desktop then it’s there. If you don’t, it’s not. It is that simple.
Apps on the Surface RT consist only of the specially made and included desktop apps from Microsoft and apps which come from the Windows Store. The Windows Store comes on every Windows 8 PC and includes full screen modern apps for Windows 8. This is where the majority of Windows RT users will get their apps and games.
Right now, the app store is small, but is growing at a fast pace and should be very competitive in no time. I was pleasantly surprised while recently browsing the Windows Store to see first party apps beginning to appear in numbers.
Pricing & Availability
Microsoft has priced the Surface RT competitively with other tablets. There is a base model in 32GB minus the keyboard covers for $499, a 32GB model with black Touch Cover for $599 and a 64GB model with black Touch Cover for $699. You can also order additional Touch Covers in white, cyan and magenta for $120 each or a Type Cover for $130 each.
I believe ZDNet’s Ed Bott put it most succinctly when he said that Surface RT is “more than an iPad and less than a PC.” With Windows 8 as its software platform, Microsoft is able to create more than just a consumption device, like the iPad. Users can now consume and create on a device that is just as much tablet as it’s competitors and just enough PC for the majority of users.
There will be some who simply cannot get by with just the RT alone. I think Microsoft expects this. After all, they are releasing a Pro version of the Surface in a few months which will have the ability to run regular desktop applications. I believe that the majority of computer users in the world fall in between an iPad and a full desktop PC and this is where the Surface RT is positioned. Sure, there is going to be a learning curve to Windows 8 and sure the app store needs to grow, but for the average person who turns on a PC and needs to simply browse the web, check their email or play some music and edit a Word document, the Surface is more than capable.
Fantastic hardware, Windows 8, Office 2013, Touch and Type covers are just a few of the reasons I can highly recommend Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet. This is the next generation of PC hardware.