Microsoft Surface RT Tablet Review
by: Howard Carson, November 2012
Requires: An interest in or a need for a good quality tablet
MSRP: US$$519.00-$719.00, £399.00-£599.00, 489,00€-694.00€ (depending on configuration)
The Microsoft Surface is a touchscreen computer tablet running Windows 8 RT (optimized for the tablet's ARM processor). The Surface has a 10.6" high resolution screen that will display full HD video, a microSDXC memory expansion port, and is available in 32GB and 64GB versions, both with WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0. The rectangular tablet has the now-standard 16:9 form factor, but the Surface - even from a distance - has a distinct look which attractively separates it from the main competition. A rigid, well designed integrated kickstand snaps out of the back plate of the tablet. Microsoft has designed the Surface with integrated, full-size USB 2.0, microSDXC card reader (usable as a memory expansion slot), headphone jack, HD video-out port, cover port, flush edge-mounted stereo speakers, mics, front and rear-facing 720p HD cameras. The microSDSX slot is accessible underneath the kickstand on the back of the tablet. The charging cable has a magnetic connector that plugs into the lower right edge. Surface ships with Office Home & Student 2013 RT Preview pre-installed. It's a fully functional version of Office 2013, but it's not the final release version - that will show up in a Windows update sometime in the next few months. Existing Surface users will automatically be updated to the final version. In case you were wondering, the Surface RT tablet is not a low-end device but rather competes directly with the Apple iPad 3, Samsung Galaxy Note 2 10.1, Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1 and all of the standard definition Android tablets. The Surface Windows 8 Pro model competes with the iPad 4, Google Nexus and the rest of the very high resolution Android tablets. Microsoft has announced that the Surface Windows 8 Pro tablet will be available in January 2013 running on an Intel Core i5 processor. The tablet used for this review was the 64GB ARM version running Windows RT.
The Microsoft Surface is packed with useful features, several of which are unique to the Surface because they're not available on competing tablets. As usual with this sort of technology, a full feature list requires several pages so I'm not going to bother listing every single detail. Here are the highlights:
- Built-In Kickstand - I know, it's not a technical thing, but it certainly is a nice bit of industrial design. Basically, the lower half of the back plate snaps out to form a kickstand for the tablet in landscape mode. The touch cover or type cover deploys properly, the setup on a table or desktop takes literally only a second or two, and the rig works perfectly.
- Touch or Type Cover - The touch cover and the type cover both have a magnetic strip along the top which mates to the bottom edge of the Surface. I don't know exactly how the touch cover or type cover communicate with the tablet, but typing response is instantaneous. No lag or delay or spooling of any kind. It takes a bit of time to get used to the touch cover keyboard (the keys don't move), but they're well designed and you'll quickly gain some facility with it as you get used to the thing. The type keyboard (with actual moving keys, good tactile feedback, and an accelerometer for velocity sensing) is the one I prefer. The edge magnet portion that holds either cover in place on the Surface is very strong and won't pull off by accident during normal use. (Apple, are you listening? Stronger magnets in the iPad cover too please.) Fold the touch cover or type cover all the way to the back of the tablet and you get instant use of the onscreen touch keyboard as you need it. It's a clever, useful, slick design.
- It's Got Some Weight, But It's Only 9.3mm Thick - That makes it 0.1mm thinner than the iPad. No real distinction there, other than the fact that the Surface is running in the thin sweepstakes too. Surface with the touch cover weighs 892g (1.9 lb) vs the iPad 4 with its cover at 756g (1.7 lb). The heavier Surface is just as easy to hold in landscape mode mainly because it seems to be a couple of ounces heavier on the lower landscape and lower portrait edges. That moves the center of gravity slightly lower when you're holding it in either orientation. Thoughtful design.
- Unique Screen Keyboard - Whether you regularly use or simply prefer the on-screen keyboard, you'll find that you can rest your fingers on the keyboard area when you momentarily stop typing. I'm not sure about exactly what Microsoft has designed or modified or improved in the digitizer to enable this sort of usage, but it works by dramatically reducing phantom keystrokes.
- Full Size USB Port for Accessories and Storage Expansion - I'm not sure how they squeezed it into a 9.3mm thick tablet with a 10.6" screen, but it's there and it works perfectly. The port can be used for anything you normally use on a Windows computer. We tried a mouse, external drives (SSD pocket drives, USB keys, Iomega StorCenter and Western Digital Passport, optical CD/DVD drives, etc.), just like a real computer. Apple, are you listening? Frankly, Microsoft has executed a beautiful hardware design for the Surface, which includes external ports, while Apple has worked extremely hard to limit the iPad by leaving out every single external port except the headphone jack.
- Optimized for Skype - Microsoft owns Skype now, and the camera facing you is angled downward at 22 degrees, so that when the Surface is on its kickstand the camera is correctly aimed. Skype works perfectly in Windows RT and Windows 8 Pro.
- Speed, Speed, Speed - Pick your poison; a fast ARM CPU (Windows RT Surface) or an Intel Core i5 CPU for the upcoming Windows 8 Pro Surface. Both processors fly fast and I'm delighted with the performance of the RT/ARM processor. Screen response is snappy and natural, app launches are fast (although some of them linger too long on their launch screens).
- Memory Expansion Slot - Open the kickstand to find the little microSDSX expansion slot that will accept a fast card up to 64GB. In desktop view you can use the file system to actually store files, retrieve files, save files of all kinds, and so on. Apple, are you seeing this?
- Speech Recognition That Works - Speech-to-text/voice-to-text works extremely well and it's fully integrated throughout Windows RT and all of its apps, utilities and programs. I tried using everything from a 15 year old Plantronics headset/mic with the two separate headphone and mic mini-plugs, to a really nice Blue Snowball USB mic and some other odds and ends lying around. They all worked fine for the most part, except for some cheap old, $10, computer mics. As usual, the better the mic and the better your enunciation (you don't have to yell and you don't have to speak s-l-o-w-l-y), the better the results. After a surprisingly brief training period (35 minutes) I was using speech commands throughout Windows RT to launch programs and apps, and dictated the rest of this review into Microsoft Word (supplied in the Windows RT version of Office Home and Student 2013 Preview). Accuracy is high, and I can dictate at a normal speaking pace because the ARM processor has the horsepower.
- VaporMg Outer Shell - The outer shell - the edges, back plate and kickstand are made out of magnesium that is finished with some sort of vapor deposition process. The result is a very fine finish that looks very expensive, but is scratch resistant (compared to any tablet made by Apple, Asus or Samsung), and which feels absolutely solid in your hands. The Surface is a great looking device, no doubt about it.
- That Beautiful Screen - It's 10.6" of goodness (slightly larger than both the iPad and the Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1). DisplayMate's comparison testing placed the Surface at the top of the heap for sharpness and clarity in its screen class (1366x768-1280x800). In daily use, the screen is a pleasure to use, photo browsing is terrific, HD movies look excellent, and touch response is superb. Based purely on the technical specs, the Windows 8 Pro version of Surface running on the Intel Core i5 CPU will offer higher screen resolution. Either way, Microsoft's ClearType sub-pixel rendering is excellent. Book reading, web browsing, PDF reading, photo browsing, video watching, email, and doing productive work in Word or Excel is a pleasure and very easy on the eyes.
- Sensors - The tablet contains an integrated ambient lighting sensor to control screen brightness (and you can turn it off), a gyroscope to sense orientation, an accelerometer for touch gesture and typing sensitivity, and the ubiquitous digital compass.
- Apps, Apps, Apps - By this time, there should be more apps actually, but things are coming along. During the course of using Surface on a daily basis during the review period, I took a few minutes to check the Microsoft App Store every day and found a lot of new apps every time I checked. The app selection is expanding at a startling pace.
If the Windows 8 Pro version of Surface is out by the time you read this, there's a decision you should make prior to purchasing a Surface tablet: Windows RT (the native, Windows tablet operating system) or Windows 8 Pro (the full Windows desktop computer experience). The two operating systems differ mainly with respect to what sort of software you can run on the Surface
. Microsoft provides a list of the main differences:
- Operating System - Windows RT is a new version of Microsoft Windows that's built to run on ARM-based tablets and PCs. It works exclusively with apps available in the Windows Store, the specially designed version of Microsoft Office for RT, and other software designed specifically for RT on ARM. By contrast, Windows 8 Pro runs current Windows 7 desktop programs, and can also use the programs and apps available in the Windows Store.
- Productivity - Surface with Windows RT comes installed with Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 RT Preview1 (which is very good). Windows 8 Pro supports the full Office experience so that you can also run Outlook, SharePoint Designer, PowerPoint and so on. Windows 8 Pro can run all of the applications that you've used on previous version of Windows.
- Applications - Windows RT runs Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 RT Preview1, (Word, PowerPoint, Excel, OneNote), Windows Mail and Messaging, SkyDrive; Internet Explorer 10, Bing, Xbox Music, Video, and Games - all pre-installed. It's a very solid application and program package.
- Security - Surface with Windows RT features device encryption and comes with Windows Defender. Windows 8 Pro provides enhanced networking and IT management. Surface with Windows 8 Pro is secured with BitLocker drive encryption, use Remote Desktop, Active Directory, and Client Hyper-V. Compatible with third party applications. Microsoft Security Essentials was also pre-installed on RT, a product that has come from a position somewhere in the lower half of the pack when it launched six years ago to one of the anti-virus/anti-malware leaders today.
- Internal Memory - There will be a 128GB version of the Surface running Windows 8 Pro. The ARM version is offered up to 64GB.
I like the Microsoft Surface tablet. It's responsive, it has a great screen, it's fast, it has expansion ports, plays HD movies full screen (less letterboxing compared to the iPad), and it's supplied with a very good version of Microsoft Office 2013 for Windows RT. Out of the box, I was pleased with the setup because the system was configured quite intelligently. There are basically five things you need to know in order to get rolling really quickly with Windows RT and Windows 8. Read the article in the link - you can thank me later. I'm still dictating this review using voice recognition that is built into Windows 8 and RT; the error rate is very low and the only thing slowing me down at all is the process of reacquainting myself with all the necessary voice commands.
Microsoft's engineers seem to have done a very good job of positioning the internal 2x2 MIMO antennae because WiFi connectivity is excellent in a wide variety of locations and conditions. During the review period I spent as much time holding the Surface as I would any other tablet, but also got a lot of use out of it as a productivity device (which is something I've never been able to say about my iPad 2). The main reasons are the integrated kickstand, the excellent keyboard cover, and the tack sharp screen that is easy on the eyes while providing high clarity and excellent color.
All tablets are overpriced, except the cheap/low-resolution/plastic/dim/slow junk found at the mass discounters running some ancient version of Android. When discussing device pricing, anything over $300 makes me start shaking. $500? $600? $900? Are they kidding? Either you really, really need a tablet computer, or you've got money to burn, or you absolutely need the latest device in order to feel good about your life. Or something. Anyway, tablets - the good ones - are expensive, and the Microsoft Surface is very good indeed. The only letdown is the app situation, but thousands of app developers are churning out a wide range of social, gaming, utility, productivity, multimedia, communication, graphics, video, photo and other apps. If Surface owners take a bit of time to check the Store on a regular basis, they'll get the same pleasant surprise I did. Call this one a fair value that will get better and better as the Microsoft Store swells with apps.
Cons: The magnetic charging cable connector is, I think, designed to emulate the usability and simplicity of the MagSafe charging cable connector originally designed by Apple for its laptops. The Surface connector is longer and a bit fiddly to set in place, so it can end up being magnetically attached but not fully seated in the port which means your tablet won't actually be charging. Always check the end of the connector to see if the little charging LED is lit.
A full size USB port is great, and the Surface USB port works well for the most part. Problem is, although it quickly detected the five different external CD/DVD drives we tried and was also able to see all of the files on all of the different CD and DVD discs we tried, you can't actually play a song from a CD. Seriously. Microsoft went to all the trouble to design and implement a broadly useful input/output port, but the pre-installed Xbox 360 Music player won't play a music CD. I check the Store for a music player app and found the excellent Multimedia 8 app. It was able to wirelessly play music stored on my media server and from anything actually stored in Surface, but it couldn't play music from an external, USB-connected CD/DVD drive either. Microsoft needs to fix this through an update.
Microsoft decided to leave out a GPS chip, a high resolution photography sensor (there are two, 720p Microsoft LifeCams integrated in the top front and top rear for video conferencing, Skype, chat, video recording and so on), and there's no broadband version of Surface for use on 3G/4G/LTE networks. And apps, many more of them, are needed. The serious gamers, casual gamers and even the card players are howling louder than usual for more apps, faster, and in huge volumes. Same thing with the utility users, road warrior travelers, couch potatoes, mothers & daughters, music lovers, video tweakers and photo editors, among others. The apps are rolling in every day and ever week, but the Surface ecosystem is still obviously immature.
Every operating system produced by Microsoft, Apple, Google/Android and the open source Linux gang eventually ends up wasting my time. At one point during testing the Surface tablet refused to accept my log-in password. 'Hmmm, the thing must be confused,' I thought to myself, 'and a reboot often solves a problem'. It was not to be. Microsoft was at that moment trying to push an update to my Surface, and when I tried to restart the thing it just went into an endless "Windows is updating . . ." screen. I eventually powered off the tablet, waited a couple of minutes and then powered it back on, after which the Windows RT update proceeded normally. Listen Microsoft, I'm too old for this kind of time wasting and you're too old not to have gotten this right by now.
Pros: Fast hardware, fast screen, excellent usability all in all. Very clean and sharp text display. As a matter of fact, the DisplayMate comparison testing done early in November 2012 (part of DisplayMate's ongoing tablet screen comparison testing series) concluded that, "The display on the Microsoft Surface RT outperforms all of the standard resolution full size 10 inch Tablets that we have tested in our Display Shoot-Out series. The Lab tests and measurements documented [...] indicate that Microsoft has paid a lot of attention to display performance for the Surface RT. In particular, on-screen text is significantly sharper, it has a better factory display calibration, and also significantly lower screen Reflectance than the iPad 2 and all full size 1280x800 Android Tablets." Microsoft has done something interesting in that it has emphasized productivity as much as content consumption in the design of the Surface tablet. The touch cover and type cover work well, get out of your way when you don't need them. The external connection points as well help make Surface an eminently usable computer. Imagine carrying a Surface with the type cover, plus an external SSD drive, while traveling (vacation, business or whatever). It will beat a laptop because it's more portable at your destinations due to the fact that the keyboard can be detached in a split second which means you can then walk around with Surface just as you can with any other tablet. Or you can leave the keyboard cover attached when you're walking around, because it will still be smaller and lighter than a laptop. In many respects, with the Surface tablet Microsoft has beaten Apple at its own game. It actually makes as much sense to compare the Microsoft Surface to an ultrabook or a MacBook air as it does to compare it to other tablets. The touch cover and type cover keyboards are such simple things really, but their design and implementation help to elevate Surface well above the competition in many ways. Highly recommended.