Review: Microsoft Surface with Windows RT

Microsoft has taken a unique approach with the Surface, which is enabling it to gain some attention in a crowded tablet market. We wondered, though, where it might fall short and just how well it would hold its own against the competition.

NameTablet: Microsoft Surface with Windows RT
At a glance:First tablet with a keyboard and trackpad cover,10.6” touch screen, 1366x768 pixels with 16:9 aspect ratio,1.3Ghz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3,Expandable via USB port, Micro SD slot and HD video out
Summary:Microsoft’s first tablet is solid, stylish and breaks new ground in functionality.
Rating:5/5
RRP:US$600 (not officially sold in NZ)
Contact:surface.com

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Since its launch in the United States in late October, I’ve been using Microsoft’s Windows RT-based Surface tablet. Microsoft has taken a unique approach with the Surface, which is enabling it to gain some attention in a crowded tablet market. We wondered, though, where it might fall short and just how well it would hold its own against the competition.

Just to be clear, Microsoft has two Surface tablets. The first is the Surface with Windows RT and is built around an ARM processor. The second is the Surface with Windows 8 Pro which makes use of an Intel Core i5 processor.

Windows tablets? From Microsoft?

The only tablets that have sold in quantity in the past have used Apple’s iOS or Google’s Android, so it’s worth asking whether Windows is of any relevance at all. After using the Surface, I believe it is.

The Surface succeeds by delivering features that previous tablets have failed to adequately address – and by targeting the billion-plus existing Microsoft Windows users.

Windows RT

Since Windows RT is an integral part of the Microsoft Surface, I’ll be referring to features of this new version of Windows (and its bigger brother Windows 8) as I delve into the Surface.

Windows RT is effectively a version of Windows 8 that runs on the ultra-low power ARM processor technology.

ARM processors are standard in most smartphones today along with tablets from Apple and Google. Previously, Windows was designed for use with Intel and AMD processor platforms rather than ARM.

Windows RT changes that, but is unique in that it’s primarily focused on running new ‘modern’ or Metro-style Windows apps. There is no opportunity to run traditional Windows applications you might use on a Windows 7 or Windows XP computer today. The only exceptions are Microsoft Office and a few other bundled Windows tools.

It’s worth pointing out that the included Office bundle does not include Microsoft Outlook. Instead it’s recommended that you use the Mail app that is included with all Windows 8 and Windows RT installations.

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Style

There are not many brands which make truly stylish gadgets and technology. But as I started carrying the Surface with me into meetings or coffee catch-ups, I found it generating its fair share of ‘oohhs and aahhs’. And at least one person wondered aloud why Apple hadn’t released a product like the Surface.

Screen

It seems almost at odds with creating a small and light tablet to add a screen which is larger than most other tablets, such as Apple’s iPad and Samsung’s Galaxy Tab 10.1. Fortunately it’s a gamble which in most regards benefits users. When compared with the higher resolution display in the newest iPad, the Surface stands up extremely well. There is a real benefit to the extra 20% screen real estate on its 10.6-inch widescreen display. It makes a difference if you want to carry out real work (such as using Microsoft Office) or like to watch movies in widescreen 16:9.

The downside of the big screen is that it does add weight to the Surface RT. A little, but not much: the Surface RT weighs in at 676g compared to the current iPad at 652g.

Video playback

If there is one thing users expect from computers and tablets today, it’s the ability to watch video content acquired from a range of sources.

I’ve spent some time watching a range of video content and found it very smooth. Even Full HD 1080p movie trailers pushed to my TV screen via the Surface’s built-in mini HDMI connection worked well. I’ve heard some 1080p video may struggle on the Surface RT but that wasn’t the experience I had.

Audio

The Surface includes stereo speakers, which is less common in tablets. The sound was well above average for a tablet – although naturally, a larger device such as a big laptop can certainly deliver better sound – particularly when it comes to playback for lower frequencies.

Skype – voice and video calling

When you install Skype on the Surface it operates in a manner we haven’t seen on previous versions of Windows. What’s notable is once you’ve told Skype you’re happy to be interrupted with calls and messages once, you don’t need to leave it running (and using valuable system resources) in the background. This draws on the same technology Microsoft invented to help Windows Phone handsets use less power.

Apps and games

Other than the new Start screen, the other area I’ve heard the most discussion about in relation to Windows RT and Windows 8 is the new style apps – or lack thereof. This is somewhat odd in my opinion: this new version of Windows has just been released and it already has thousands of apps covering just about any category you could hope for.

There are some areas that really stand out in terms of app support – music, gaming, productivity and video calling. Each has been addressed with strong offerings.

Music is catered for with a number of third-party apps, but it’s Microsoft’s own Xbox Music app which stands out with its excellent music and music-video streaming capabilities.

Naturally, the freshness of this updated platform means there are gaps in the app catalogue, but I’m expecting that won’t be a problem for too long.

Expansion options

In a world where we’re starting to see tablets that can’t be expanded, it’s somewhat refreshing that Microsoft has included a very tidy microSD expansion slot in the Surface. Add any size you like up to 64GB.

When it comes to connecting mouses, keyboards, monitors and printers to a tablet the options are usually extremely limited. This is an area where the Surface excels in comparison to the competition – though don’t expect the same capabilities as a Windows 7 or Windows 8 computer. This is because the Windows RT platform needs new drivers for some devices, such as printers, to operate.

I’ll dive into more detail shortly, but the keyboard/trackpad options for the Surface are welcome additions to a tablet.

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Keyboard covers

Microsoft has taken a smart approach to covers – there are two on offer and both provide keyboard/trackpad functionality. The first is the Touch Cover, which is just 3mm thick and features a flat touch-sensitive keyboard. When compared to the typical keyboard and trackpad on a laptop it’s not nearly as nice to use, but convenience is king and it’s always handy, which is brilliant.

The Type Cover is similar to the Touch Cover but provides a traditional style of keyboard – one which actually has moving keys. This is a nice option but I found myself quite at home using the Touch Cover instead.

Durability

Though I couldn’t justify a drop test of the Surface, a demonstration during its launch suggests the Surface’s VaporMg Magnesium-based casing and overall design makes it extremely tough. It feels really well built and even its kickstand is sturdy.

Missing pieces

There isn’t much missing from this initial edition of Microsoft’s Surface. The main concerns for most – lack of 3G connectivity and a small app catalogue – will likely be dealt with over time. If these two are deal breakers for you, then there are plenty of other tablets on the market. If you still like the sound of the Surface, the only other missing piece is the lack of a launch date for the New Zealand market – currently the closest markets to purchase it are Australia and the US.

Conclusion

The Surface RT is truly a unique tablet which I really enjoy using. It’s also one which should help Microsoft pick-up some credibility in the coolness stakes. It’s not perfect and it’s unlikely to cause any immediate upset to Apple’s iPad sales, but the Surface shows Microsoft still knows how to innovate.

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Paul Spain

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