Microsoft Surface RT – Worth the Wait?

Up until now, there have been two tablets worth considering – the iPad, and whichever of the Android tablets don’t suck, probably the Nexus 7. For the most part, the iPad has held the tablet market because Android tablet support has been pretty piss poor, at least up until Ice Cream Sandwich landed. But the slumbering giant that is Microsoft has awoken, opening up one eager eye to turn its gaze on the tablet market.

Up until the iPad, tablets were… well, shit. They were basically notebooks crammed into the back of screen with low power components, terrible touch screens that relied mostly on a pen, and weren’t very good at anything at all. The iPad changed that, but we lost something in the process – the iPad is very much a content consumption device. By that I mean it’s great for browsing the web, playing games, or reading something, but nobody writes an essay or something on it. It’s just not comfortable. Android tablets are much the same.

The Surface is Microsoft’s attack run at the hardware market, and it turned heads. It’s a sleek-looking tablet with a flip cover that acts as a touch keyboard. Also it has a built-in stand. Why the hell aren’t more people making them part of tablets? Anyway, the Surface comes in two broad versions – the RT, and the Pro.

WinRT and the Surface RT

For the uninitiated, WinRT is effectively that underlying “Metro/Modern” component that Windows 8’s desktop version shares with its mobile versions. WinRT spans across all the platforms and it’s part of Microsoft’s push to unify all the form factors and usher in a new age of… I don’t know, glory I guess. The Surface RT only runs WinRT apps. In other words, there’s no Classic Desktop mode, no x86 app support, and it’s not the full Windows 8 that you’d use on your desktop. It’s closer to iOS than to Win8 in terms of what to expect (though that’s a vast oversimplification). On the one hand, that means it is more limited than Windows 8’s full desktop version. On the other though it’s also cheaper. The Surface RT is on pre-order right now – $679 AUD will get you a 32GB Surface RT with a Touch Keyboard, like you’ve seen advertised. The Surface RT, it’s worth noting, also has a USB port (which accepts USB storage devices and some other peripherals) and a microSD slot (up to 64GB).

The Surface Pro

Just briefly, the Surface Pro (which is not available for preorder yet and will lag behind by about 3 months) is a proper x86-64 ultrabook shoved into a tablet form factor. It offers much more impressive specs and obviously runs x86 apps, since it runs the x86-64 version of Windows 8. It will however attract a much higher price tag (it’ll be priced to compete with other ultrabooks, not tablets like the iPad), and with the better hardware will come bigger battery drains. But I’m not here to really talk about the Surface Pro.

Why RT? Why not Pro?

That’s probably the biggest question, and one that a lot of people are asking. Firstly, it’s important to remember that the Surface Pro is designed to replace a laptop/notebook. Even then, the jury is still out whether or not it’ll actually be any good. Cramming all those specs into a tablet form factor is no easy task, and I’m willing to put money on it being a battery hog. The iPad and Nexus 7 both last for a long time on battery power, which is exactly what we expect out of a tablet.

The loss of x86 apps is a big point, and if you want x86 apps on your tablet then it’s hard not to recommend the Pro, particularly if you’re going to replace your tablet and laptop. But there are plenty of other vendors out there looking to make their own Windows 8 tablets, which might make Microsoft’s efforts pointless in the long run. How useful the RT will be depends mostly on how many apps appear for it, and if Windows Phone’s current offering is any indication, the answer is “not very many.” But things might change (maybe?) with the added interest in Windows 8.

And then there’s Office…

WinRT and the Surface RT has one massive, massive advantage over the iPad and Nexus 7 – it’ll come with a WinRT version of Microsoft Office Student/Home 2013. That’s right, you don’t just get Win8 RT, you get the basics of Office too. If you want Office on your iPad or Nexus, you need to rely on 3rd party apps, none of which do as good a job as Microsoft’s apps. Oh wait, there’s only OneNote for iOS/Android. And it’s a terrible attempt.

Having Office is a major draw card. It should be a goddamn headline feature. Yes, I know, some of you out there are using Pages or OpenOffice or something else… but the vast majority of people are using Office. Businesses use Office. The Office file format is basically expected for most documents these days (or, you know, PDF but that’s a different issue). Try sending your Pages file into a university for marking. They’ll tell you to get that shit out of here. Office is king, whether you like it or not or think it should die, and WinRT having an Office version dramatically increases the Surface RT’s utility and gives it a major edge over the others.

As an example, I use OneNote quite a bit. I use it for all my university notes, for most of my clinical notes, and a whole bunch of other things. Having a version that properly displays OneNote notebooks in their full form is pretty important. There’s no OneNote for Mac. The iOS OneNote is pretty limited, and the Android one isn’t much better. OneNote’s RT version (OneNote MX) is a hundred times better than any of them, and on a tablet form factor it’d be much more useful. Also I’m yet to find an iOS app that properly reproduces by MS Word documents. They all break the formatting in strange ways, rendering them practically useless. Having Office is a major boost to the Surface RT, and might

But will it take off?

That’s the big question. Microsoft have put a lot into Windows 8, banking on it being a success in the mobile and desktop sectors. I’ve already said my piece about Windows 8 (though I’ll have a follow up given that we’re close to release and I’ve been using it for quite a while now), but in short it’s not bad. I don’t like gestures on the desktop, and I’m not 100% convinced of its utility on a touch screen, but it’s not the horrible disaster people are making it out to be.

The Surface RT is being attacked by plenty of techpriests like myself because it’s not the x86 Surface Pro. But to my fellow technomancers, I say that we’re being unfair. The Surface RT isn’t supposed to compete with your laptop – it’s going up against the iPad and the Nexus 7. If anything, Microsoft’s greatest sin is not having an insanely high-res display for its screen size, like the iPad. But Microsoft are bringing Office out to the Surface RT, which makes it a lot more useful than an iPad or Nexus 7 straight out of the box. Also it’s a safe bet that you’re using Windows right now (for the most part), so a Windows tablet will offer the tighter integration that Apple offers with iOS and OSX.

In any event, it’s still too early to call out whether the Surface RT will be a success or not. But Microsoft have at least attempted to beef up their attack on the mobile sector, and if the RT takes off, it can only mean good things for Windows Phone. For those wondering yes, I have pre-ordered a Surface RT, which current estimates suggest will be released on the 9th of November. I ordered the 32GB one with the touch keyboard. Expect a review when I get it. Until then though I’ll struggle along with iOS…

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