With the company trailing behind in the tablet market, both on the hardware and software front, can the Surface RT capture users with it's blend of Windows OS running on ARM and product design? Are the features of the Surface RT good enough to make it a viable work tool and netbook replacement, aside from content consumption? Read on as I explore these aspects and more.
PROS: Windows RT OS, Office preloaded, mouse/trackball support, native Windows file system, expandable storage, USB connectivity, all-day battery life, solid writing tool, runs OneNote, well-designed accessories
CONS: proprietary power connector, no x86/legacy software support, still does not do all that a netbook can, palm rejection missing, fingerprint magnet
I wouldn't call myself biased against slates, or a hater by any means. I've expressed time and time again that a touch UI simply doesn't provide any improvement to productivity, an aspect that continues to revolve around the use of a keyboard and mouse. Past slate efforts have been mere consumer gimmicks at best, attacking the content consumption side with marginal success, while failing to provide a tangible content creation experience whatsoever.
Then came the clamshell keyboard attachment. Looks like a notebook, costs as much as a notebook (when you factor in the price of an iPad), yet ends up being nothing more than a glorified word processor. Do we blame the watered-down apps? Is it a lack of connectivity? Is the form-factor a bottleneck for utilizing performance hardware? What about price?
For a long time, I argued in favor of inexpensive netbooks since the full desktop OS did far more than a smartphone OS. Given how netbooks were an extension of the notebook, and slates an extension of smartphones, both devices maintained roots to their ancestry.
For slates, that meant a crippled OS tied to smartphone size, capability and functionality. You essentially got just a device with a bigger screen, and little else different. With netbooks, you carried the burden of a full desktop OS, even though the capabilities of the netbook may have been inadequate to run that, or the user simply didn't require all the software/features.
Windows RT takes an entirely new approach. Since it is an OS based on Windows 8, it has none of the drawbacks a smartphone OS exhibits, meaning you have an operating system designed from the get-go to work on a slate. But it isn't a full Windows 8 product either, meaning you get none of that system and software overhead accustomed to seeing on a notebook. Add a layer of touch UI and a start screen with live tiles, and you have an operating system now able to take advantage of slate hardware, while retaining critical productivity features and functionality common to existing Windows 7/8 users.
The end result is a slate that when necessary can function as a netbook when paired with the proper accessories, and when done so, still offer a productivity experience as good as a netbook. How good it is at that, of course, will depend on what you've been using your netbook for. Likewise, for existing slate owners that have been looking for an experience beyond content consumption, you will be happy to know that the Surface RT goes beyond just keyboard support.
I've spent a considerable amount of time looking at the Surface RT making sure I evaluate every angle there is to cover, and there is a lot! Out of the box, the device was quick and easy to set up. I bypassed creating a Microsoft account, but doing so will open up features such as app purchasing and syncing between devices. One thing I did immediately notice is the proprietary power connector, meaning I can kiss goodbye to charging the slate with my XP8000 external battery.
But I didn't just buy the Surface RT on it's own. I also got the Surface Type Cover keyboard attachment. Unlike the Touch Cover, this uses real keys to provide a typing experience more like a normal notebook keyboard would, although you do give up color options and the spill-resistant design. Together I paid $630 - expensive for a slate, but not too bad value for what the complete package is capable of.
There's not much to look at around the device, hence no Glamor Shots piece for you to peruse over this time around. The top has just a power button and a pair of mic arrays. Around the left is a volume rocker, headphone jack and left speaker. The right has the USB port, mini HDMI connector, right speaker and 5-pin power. Go to the bottom and you will see just the 6-pin keyboard connector. That's it for connectivity.
Revealing the kickstand exposes the microSD card slot, something I would definitely use to increase the 32GB on-board storage. The system only has around 15GB storage space left for use with the 32GB model. The front and back include a 720p camera useful for taking still shots as well as video, and will work with Skype.
|Thinner and lighter than a 10" netbook|
Of course, unlike a netbook, you sacrifice that proper display hinge meaning you cannot adjust the viewing angle. Also, you cannot really use the Surface RT with the keyboard cover on your lap, as the kick stand won't hold the screen up properly, while the keyboard requires a firm flat surface to provide feedback. These together indicate the product is more slate than netbook.
Used as a slate, the Surface RT works phenomenal. You can flip the keyboard over and reverse the whole cover when holding it in one hand - that's not something you'll see other clamshell type keyboard/case covers do. While 1.5-2 lbs is still heavy to an extent, it's not unworkable, especially if you can rest you hand while holding it during use.
|The best on-screen keyboard for a slate|
With the bulk of the details out of the way, it's probably time to focus on how well the device performs. It's difficult to evaluate the Surface RT as a slate alone given that it can function as a Windows notebook when used in desktop mode with the Type Cover, and especially once you begin attaching USB devices and start using Office. My past experience with slates running smartphone operating systems shows that Windows RT is an entirely different animal.
I'm going to start with the Surface RT running in slate mode, as that is the first screen to appear when you turn the device on. Windows offers a choice of tiles for things such as Email, calendar, maps, messaging, weather and the app store. As these are live tiles, you'll see updates when you get a new email, message alert or friend update. It's also from here that you can access your photos, movies, music, get to the camera app for taking photos/video and also launch the Office software, which takes you to the desktop mode in Windows RT. Any new apps you download can easily be placed on the start screen, as can a set of admin tools for detailed tweaking.
Swapping between screens and apps is just a matter of swiping in from the left. Swiping in from the right takes you to the charms panel where you can access all your system settings. Swiping down from the top and up from the bottom also opens options depending on what app it is you are using.
WMA/WMV playback also comes standard - something I have yet seen from any other slate. Given that I use WMEx64 heavily and already have an extensive collection of movies/music saved in this native Windows format, it opens up yet more multimedia playback options other slates fail to accommodate.
Netflix and Hulu work well, although trying to use Hulu through Internet Explorer either doesn't work, or I've yet to figure out a workaround. It does again make me question why I need to pay $7.99/month to watch Hulu on a slate when I can do it for free on my netbook. Tally up that cost over just three years, and your $300 netbook would almost pay for itself. Maybe the Surface PRO will save me that money.
Web surfing is particularly impressive. You can add tabs, have multiple tabs open and switch between them by swiping down from the top or bottom. This also exposes the address bar for punching in a URL, let's you go back to the previous page or forward from a page, refresh the page and pin a particular website. Scrolling and zooming is very smooth and accurate, and with a few exceptions, I have found I rarely need to touch my trackball or keyboard to surf at all.
|Create online content like a pro|
Focusing on content creation, a big selling point for many will be the built-in suite of Office 2013 software. You get full-featured versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Running these is akin to using Office on a notebook, meaning that existing Windows users will be at home when it comes to opening their existing Office documents, creating new files, as well as easily edit/save changes.
|OneNote on a 1.5 lbs device = Killer App|
Working on the desktop also allows access to native Windows exe's such as notepad, calculator, regedit, msconfig etc. with the option to place shortcuts on the desktop as well. I particularly like being able to multitask with notepad and calculator running, especially if I'm working on a blog post, researching online or running one of many spreadsheets I use.
Another huge plus is the fact that Windows RT uses a native file system. That means I can access my 6TB NAS connected over my network via wifi using File Explorer as if it were directly attached storage - no special app required! In a similar fashion, you can attach any USB storage device from thumb drives, external hard drives and even read files off optical media using a CD/DVD drive.
Got a digital point-and-shoot? Plug that camera in with a USB cable and browse/upload photos using File Explorer just as you would if using a notebook - without the need for a full-size SD card slot or pricey adapter!
|This ain't your grandpa's slate|
Should you want to boost the capacity of the C:\ drive, you can easily do so by merging the storage from an inserted microSD card by going into Disk Management. You can grab a 64GB microSDXC card today for around $64, boosting free space from 15GB to around 75GB. That's actually the more sensible purchase than plunking down $100 extra for the 64GB RT model. With microSDXC supporting capacities up to 2TB, the Surface RT is future-proof (and with better resale value) when it comes to ensuring ample room for all your files, software and apps. And this is in addition to the cloud storage you have available on SkyDrive.
Keep in mind as well, Windows gives you options to move that recovery partition to a thumb drive, trim down Windows updates, delete nonessential system files and make other tweaks to reduce the OS footprint. I wouldn't be surprised if Windows RT could be brought down to below what iOS takes up on the iPad - an amazing feat given the feature-advantage the former holds. Enthusiasts for sure will enjoy tinkering with the Surface RT, and do so in ways that makes the iPad look like an overpriced toy for old people.
The accessories Microsoft have made available for the Surface RT are probably some of the best-designed slate accessories I have seen made. Both the Type Cover ($130) and Touch Cover ($120) keyboards are magnetically attached, quickly removable and fully reversible, allowing you to set up your favorite usage mode with zero effort and in zero time. Should you need video out, Microsoft has you covered with HDMI and VGA adapters ($40 each) you can use for viewing video/movies on your home TV or doing PowerPoint presentations in the conference room. You can attach a screen protector ($30) to help prevent scratches, or go for a full privacy filter ($60) for those working with sensitive information. Need a matching Wedge mouse ($70) or a sleeve ($40-$50) for your Surface RT - you've got it!
The 31.5WH battery supplied with the Surface RT may seem inadequate for a device running Windows, yet it's more than enough to provide a full day of both work and fun. Netflix playback, for example, came in at 7 hours 8 minutes, a full 2 hours better than what I'm getting from my Atom N570 netbook. Even more incredible is WMV playback at 11 hours 27 minutes with all wireless off, beating my netbook by more than 4 hours.
Of course, given the outstanding writing and blogging capability of the Surface RT, the definitive metric will be web surfing time. My tests show an unplugged runtime of 9 hours 5 minutes. While that's longer than what you'll see from any other netbook/notebook, do keep in mind you'll be searching for an AC outlet when that time runs down, as you cannot hibernate and swap in a 2nd battery, or resort to an external battery because of that proprietary power connector. Fortunately, the AC adapter is a small pocketable type you can stash easily.
|Audiophiles will love this setup|
I had problems installing Skype, getting an error when trying to install, followed by a failure to log on. Getting around this required creating a fresh Microsoft account, logging off Skype on my other devices and finally merging my new Microsoft account - that's far too many hoops to jump through just to get a simple app working.
While OneNote is definitely the killer app on the Surface RT, getting the most out of it still requires purchasing extra hardware. Cheap rubber-ended styluses fail to provide the pinpoint accuracy for handwriting, and a lack of any palm-rejection technology means you cannot rest your hand akin to writing on a paper notepad. The solution is to use a Jot Pro stylus in tandem with a Smudge Guard. Given the unique opportunity Microsoft has with OneNote running on the Surface hardware, I find it puzzling that they didn't foresee these issues. Palm-rejection should be standard technology for a slate in 2013, even if it does mean that the consumer purchases their own stylus for maximum utility.
|Removable, reversible AND with trackpad|
Is moaning about a lack of a caps lock LED being too critical for a slate?
One thing I really do wish Microsoft hadn't done was put that smooth finish around the back and sides, as it makes the slate a horrible fingerprint magnet. A rubber-like textured finish similar to the BlackBerry PlayBook is by far the proper solution for a device that is meant to be picked up and handled constantly. It's a hassle having to wipe down the device daily when used all the time.
Are there things I would like to see added? Outlook for Office is one item Microsoft is already looking into. The ability to plug in a slim DVD drive on the USB port to watch movies would be handy, as Windows RT does not support VOB playback. While the USB port is a godsend, the lack of 2 or 3 along with other common jacks still makes it a mission at times to connect certain devices. A compact docking station with RJ-45 connectivity, 2.5" storage and 2 more USB ports would be a fantastic accessory. I also wouldn't mind a change to a regular barrel connector for power, as it would make using external batteries such as my XP8000 possible, rather than being forced to run for an outlet whenever the battery runs down.
I shouldn't really complain though, because the Surface RT is what the iPad should have been from day one - a fusion of smartphone and netbook with the best elements from each taken and put together.
As for how well the quad-core ARM processor performs, you can multitask with multiple windows and tabs open on the desktop, but pushing it too far does begin to show the limitations of what the device can do. Again, this is just to show that the Surface RT is slate first and notebook second. As impressive as the underlying hardware is, I'm not sure I'd want to toss my Atom netbook just yet, at least not until ARM performance can realistically trade blows with Cedar Trail and RT pricing comes down to netbook levels. I give that less than 24 months.
Looking for 4G/LTE connectivity? Chances are you will already have that on your smartphone, as the Surface RT doesn't come with this built-in. Again, it's an easy workaround using your smartphone's mobile hotspot feature. And there's no need to worry about 4G eating your smartphone's battery when you can plug your smartphone into the Surface RT's USB port for a quick charge! Working nowhere near an AC outlet while still staying connected becomes second nature.
Some self-proclaimed tablet connoisseurs will cheerfully slam Microsoft for not fully disclosing the amount of free space available for storage, but I beg to differ. It's evident these critics simply don't understand mobile tech or enjoy making a fool of themselves. Are they seriously trying to compare the footprint of a smartphone OS with that of a SoC-optimized desktop OS? Do they not see the added features/functionality Windows RT offers over iOS and Android? Or is it they cannot tell the difference between a professional work tool versus a luxury toy? It's clear to me the Surface RT certainly is a slate, and it is more slate than notebook. However, this is not like an iPad, Nexus, TouchPad or PlayBook by any stretch of the imagination, being able to tackle content consumption and productivity in a way ALL these other slates have failed, and failed spectacularly.
All that said, though, only time will tell how Microsoft (and it's partners) ends up standing behind Windows RT. At present, only the Office software and a handful of Windows exe's run on the desktop. With a few key 3rd-party software developers jumping on board, however, it would be an interesting watch to see how far RT could be pushed as a productivity desktop. The lack of x86 software support would certainly be a moot point if "Runs on Windows RT" were to suddenly take foothold. Some may argue the market isn't ripe for a new OS at this time, yet I think Windows RT offers much potential.
While the iPad may have come to market far sooner, Microsoft have clearly done their homework with the Surface RT. Not only have they addressed many of the bottlenecks of Apple's hardware and iOS, but the Surface RT nails much of what the competition's offerings have been lacking, never mind what more serious users have for years been craving. And the same observations hold true of Android slates. The Surface RT simply is in a different league altogether from competing slates - it's an apples to oranges comparison putting an iPad or Android device next to the Surface RT.
Am I being partial to the Surface? I don't think so. I look at things entirely from an enthusiast's perspective - what can I do with this device that I cannot do with anything else? First and foremost, I don't think this is a product for the casual user and tech-illiterate. Second, the Surface RT can definitely do far more, thanks to not being held back by a crippled smartphone OS, and also because it has connectivity more in common with a notebook than a smartphone. Mouse/keyboard support, a native file system, Office 2013 preloaded, OneNote use with a stylus, a full desktop browser, 11 hours of battery life, HDMI/VGA output - these alone are all missing features from previous slates I have looked at, yet together make the Surface RT an evolutionary product far ahead of anything else seen. This is more than just a better slate, more than advanced - it is a game-changer! I feel iOS and Android slates with their smartphone-based software will be relegated now to just primitive content consumption devices, period.
Apple may have invented the tablet, but it has taken Microsoft to bring it out of the stone age and into the industrial era.
For a first-generation device, I have to congratulate Microsoft for doing the job they have (1 million units shipped just in Q42012). The negatives I did find aren't really deal breakers, aside from perhaps the price, but the Surface RT is such a better package of hardware/software one could argue $630 with Office 2013 included (a $140 value alone) is fair game for how much more you get, in features and capability. The fact that Microsoft provides not one, but a choice of two matching keyboard covers is a master stroke. More features and better capability than the iPad at a lower price? Now you're talking ultimate value for money!
Does this mean I'm keeping mine? Unfortunately, no - I'm still having way too much fun with my $400 netbook, and the jury is still out on the Surface PRO (it's sold out at many places today too). But this is, without question, the first slate I would want to own hands down and forever forget any smartphone OS-based slate. It is simply that good.