Surface RT Review

Go go gadget, product placement!

Probably one of the best boxes Microsoft have ever had made.

Microsoft have pushed hard with Windows 8. It’s a three-pronged attack on the phone, tablet, and desktop market. While the new Metro/Modern/Annoying UI isn’t well liked by desktop users (to the point where there’s an absurd amount of FUD about Win8 that overshadows any improvements) there’s some interest in whether Microsoft can break the stranglehold of the Apple ecosystem, along with some concerns (valid concerns at that). The Surface RT is the device targeted at the iPad/Android sector, being powered by an ARM processor with a nVidia TEGRA GPU.

Let’s stop for a sec because I will not mention anything about x86 apps in this review. I’ve seen a lot of fellow techpriests criticise the RT for not supporting x86 apps. Guys, that’s not the point. Nobody criticises the iPad or any of the Android tabs for not supporting x86 apps. It shouldn’t factor in here. Yes, Microsoft might have gone too far in labeling it Windows 8 (in the hopes of integrating the lot) and probably should have called it Windows Mobile 8 or something. But it doesn’t change the fact that the RT was designed for ARM platforms with long battery life. Although the Surface Pro (due in a few months apparently) will support x86 apps, it’s yet to be seen how well it’ll work. A Core i5 isn’t bad, but I can’t help but imagine that the tablet will either be a bit too unwieldy for a tablet, or will have battery life and performance that renders it pointless. In any case, the Surface RT goes up against iOS and Android, hence any complaints about x86 apps not being supported is entirely missing the point.

Alright, with that out of the way, let’s take a look at the device itself. Grab yourself a drink, settle in, and prepare for a wall of text. Or just skim through to the headings, it’s what I normally do.

I have the 32GB version with the Touch Cover, that is the thin piece of whatever it is that doubles has a keyboard/trackpad and a cover. This retails for about $679AUD direct from Microsoft. You can move up to 64GB or drop the cover for more/less cash as well. The Type Cover, which includes a more traditional keyboard, costs extra. Also your included cover only comes in black – if you want a blue one or something, you’ll need to pony up some more cash.

Hardware

The box itself is… actually why do we do unboxings? Screw it, the box isn’t bad. It’s almost Apple-style but not quite; there’s still an inordinate amount of cardboard involved, but it’s fairly decent packaging. In the box is the Surface RT itself, a Touch Cover (if you ordered it with one), a charging adapter with a head for your country (thanks guys, this is a good move!) and some pamphlets which really don’t tell you much.

Portrait mode seems a bit unfriendly.

The Surface RT (I’ll just call it the RT from now on, okay?) feels about as heavy as my iPad when holding it, but as you can see by the picture, it’s a very different device. The aspect resolution of the 10.6″ screen is 16:9, quite different from the 4:3 of the iPad 3 that you see next to it. It makes it a bit oddly shaped. On the front we have the screen, a webcam, and the Start soft button that can wake the device or act more or less as a Start button that we’re familiar with. Along the left side we have a volume controller, a headphone jack, and a speaker. Along the right – another speaker, a microHDMI port (don’t get suckered into buying Microsoft’s expensive adapter), a USB 2.0 port, and the charging port. The top has a Sleep/Power button. The back has the kickstand and another camera, along with the microSD slot hidden behind the kickstand. The bottom has the propriety dock connector for the keyboard.

Holding the device feels really nice, I can’t think of any complaints here. It feels quite a bit different from an iPad though – it seems like Microsoft intend it to be used in landscape mode, while I’m used to portrait mode for reading. The tablet does rotate its display but some apps won’t support it. It feels a little weird in portrait mode – like a really tall book. It’s not necessarily bad but it feels a bit strange after being used to the iPad’s aspect ratio for so long. I use my iPad as an ebook reader quite a bit, so this is something with sort of concerns me a bit. The kickstand works as advertised, but it only has one position. Although it’s definitely functional and something more tablets should come with (Apple’s smart covers are a joke) it feels like it should lean back further.

*Click!*

The entire package feels absolutely solid in the hand and not like a cheap piece of plastic. Can’t say the same for some of the Android phones out there. Yes, plastic is lightweight and strong, but it often feels cheap. Call me superficial but that’s just how I feel. One thing which should be noted about the device though is the resolution – at 1366×768 it’s a far cry from the iPad 3’s 2048×1536. Microsoft uses some trickery, like ClearType (which isn’t new), to hide this from you. Can I tell the difference? Honestly, yes. It’s not a massive difference but I can tell that text is a bit fuzzy, particularly on web pages when zoomed out.

Windows 8 RT

Now we come to the next point… what’s Windows 8 like on a touch screen? After all, this Metro/Modern whatever UI is absolutely useless if it’s not even good on a touch screen. Even having used Windows 8 for a while, it took me a bit to figure out some of the gestures. Getting the Charms in from the right side was obvious – just swipe from the right side onto the screen. Easy. Getting that stupid bar up from the bottom was easy too – just swipe from the bottom. What wasn’t so easy was the task manager bar thing on the left side. Swiping in from the left pulls across the most recently used app. You can drag it onto the screen proper to open it up, or you can drag it onto the sides to run two at once. To get that multitasking bar up, you’ll need to slide out, then slide back in. You’ll find this out by accident, and might wonder if there’s another gesture you can use instead. Nope. That’s it. At least as far as I know (unless you use the keyboard – more on that later). Closing an application isn’t obvious either – you need to have it open, then drag from the top of the screen down to the bottom of the screen. Once you learn the gestures it all becomes very fluid, and of course you can just mash the Start button to swap between the Start screen and your most recent app. It’ll take me a while to get used to it, but it doesn’t really seem bad (just not overly obvious).

Hey, remember this screen? Well, here it is again!

So what apps do you get with Win8 RT? I’ve more or less gone over the basics that you get in my Windows 8 articles, so I won’t go into an absurd amount of detail, but I will mention them briefly because while they don’t work so well on a desktop, they’re supposed to work well on a tablet. You get your Mail, “People”, and Calendar apps for your general PIM stuff, and they work pretty well. The Mail app is generally better than the iOS Mail app, and plays nice with GMail (including calendars). The People app handles all of your general phone contacts, your Live Messenger contacts, Google contacts, Facebook, Twitter… a bunch of stuff. What’s good is that all of this is done out of the box. What’s bad is that it’s still a bit messy. On a touch screen the bulky interface becomes a suitably sized one, and it works a lot better than it does on the desktop. Most of these apps become a lot more useful on a tablet, while I wouldn’t touch them on a desktop. Anyway, you’ve also got the Messaging, Weather, Music, Video, Reader, blah blah blah apps which you’ve probably seen already. Functionally they’re the same but the larger interfaces make a lot more sense on a touch screen. The apps become fairly competent, particularly as an out of the box solution, and puts some of Apple’s stuff to shame.

Desktop Mode

Remember how I said that going on about x86 apps is pointless with the Surface RT? Well, with that in mind, I do have one major query – the Desktop mode. Yes, the Classic Desktop appears in WinRT. You can’t do much with it, despite it looking exactly like your x86 desktop. You can launch IE10 (the desktop version), Windows Explorer, or any of the beta Office 2013 apps that are included (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, and OneNote which is my favourite). The system tray is still there, along with the Action Centre! Christ even the Control Panel is still here. Here’s a laugh – load up the System app check out the stats – TEGRA 3 Quad core CPU @ 1.3ghz, 2GB RAM, 32bit OS… what a laugh. It’s all very odd and reminds you that this is some kind of Frankensystem. There’s also a bunch of random stuff like Windows Defender, PowerShell(?), and MS Paint. Paint, of all things. In the slightly more useful category is Notepad, the Command Prompt and the Remote Desktop Connection app (for connecting to other Windows PCs, it doesn’t act as a server).

But it does have a point, though arguably not a particularly good one. There are two reasons – Office, and Windows Explorer. Unlike the iPad (but like the Android tabs) WinRT offers full support for FAT32/exFAT/NTFS formatted volumes, including USB thumbdrives and HDDs. I tested it with a Seagate FreeDrive USB 3.0 HDD and a USB 2.0 thumbdrive. The HDD was detected but wouldn’t display any volumes, I’m guessing because there wasn’t enough power to successfully spin the HDD. The thumb drive worked perfectly  as one would expect. You can copy files to and from the volume and do whatever else you like with it. Having the Classic Desktop with a proper version of Windows Explorer helps, but it still feels a bit unnecessary. A ModernUI file browser would probably work just as well. Using the desktop generally requires the use of the Touch Cover’s trackpad – it’s a bit too small to effectively operate with fingers. For the record I don’t have fat fingers and I found it a bit troublesome (though you can do it).

This also shows up a fatal flaw in the Surface RT – of the 32GB of storage, only 24.9 of it can be used by Windows. Of that 24.9GB, only 16.4GB is free out of the box – the rest is taken up by the OS. Wow. That’s atrocious. Granted, without a touch cover it’s competitively priced with a 16GB iPad, but with a 16GB iPad you still get close to 16GB of storage. On this? Not a chance. Of course unlike the iPad you have the luxury of a USB port and a microSD slot (hidden behind the kickstand), so you can increase your storage to at least 64GB via the microSD slot. It’s pretty damn disappointing though and quite a bit misleading. Although I didn’t expect to get the full 32GB as usable storage, I at least expected something better than half the advertised storage!

Office 2013

Feel free to learn something.

Anyway, onto the subject of Office. This is the drawcard for the Surface RT – a proper version of Microsoft Office which doesn’t break formatting. As much as people might harp on about OpenOffice or Pages or whatnot, most of the world still runs on Office and is likely to stay that way for quite a while. So far none of the iOS Office apps seem to be able to cope with anything but the most basic of formatting, and none of them have a decent OneNote app. The beta version of Office 2013 (installed free, with a free upgrade to the final version when it’s released) includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. Apart from a few things (like macros or scripting or addins) they’re full-featured ports of the desktop apps. The biggest one for me is OneNote, which I use extensively for organising all my clinical guidelines and study notes. Having a proper version of OneNote is very useful. But there’s also a (free) OneNote Mx app which is OneNote running under WinRT. Not quite as full featured, but miles ahead of anything under iOS.

I checked out Word, Excel, and PowerPoint as well. They’re pretty much the same as the desktop versions (with the aforementioned limitations). I found them to be fairly snappy for the most part – they loaded quickly and performance when using them was great. No complaints here, unlike some of the other reviews which labeled them as sluggish. Office 2013 is deeply integrated with SkyDrive, Microsoft’s cloud storage solution, which isn’t a bad idea when you’ve got such little storage space (plus it’s 7GB for free with reasonable rates). Oddly, SkyDrive was a bit slow. Office 2013 includes a new Touch Mode that makes UI elements bigger, and hypothetically easier to touch, but I found it a bit too clumsy to use. Yes, you can do it, but a mouse is much better. I’d say that you could theoretically get some work done on the Surface RT. The Office suite is highly competent, probably the best mobile version of Office outside of the x86 version, and the proper file management from the classic desktop certainly helps with juggling files. But with that said, I can’t help but think that they could have achieved the same thing in an RT app instead, saving us the trouble from using the classic desktop which isn’t well designed for fingers. OneNote has a great WinRT app, I hope they extend that to the others.

As a bit of an aside, printing seems a bit out of place in some ways. I have a HP LaserJet Professional P1102w, which supports Apple’s bullshit AirPrint implementation so I can print from my iPad. Under Windows 8 RT it’ll find the printer but it won’t work with it – there are no drivers that it can install, so no printing for me. That’s pretty disappointing, especially when it works with a friggin’ iPad of all things. I hope driver support is forthcoming, but somehow I doubt it.

Media

XBox Music. It’s bullshit.

I don’t watch a lot of movies on my iPad, so media support isn’t a super massive issue for me, but it’s worth checking out anyway. For music I tried out MP3 and FLAC support. For videos, I grabbed an MP4, a MOV, a WMV, and a 720p MKV. I don’t have any 1080p videos on hand, so apologies in advance for not testing that out. I tested them from a USB 2.0 drive… and incidentally began to appreciate the classic desktop mode slightly more, and remind myself how much of a pain in the arse it is to use the iPad.

The MP4 (which is pretty much my daily life) played flawlessly, as did the WMV. I’d expect this because they’re common file types, and MVs are from Microsoft. The MOV also played flawlessly – this one was taken from an iPad. You know what didn’t play at all? The MKV. The included Video app couldn’t open it, and I don’t have anything else to play it. The MP3 file played fine, but again there was nothing to play the FLAC file. Pretty disappointing. There’s no Windows Media Player – you’ll have to use the Video and Music apps which throw up a bunch of Xbox Music/Video bullshit at you. Swipe left and you can use it to browse local files or attached storage (or use Windows Explorer if you’re in a classical mood). It’s still better than Apple’s “Use these few formats or get stuffed” approach, but I’d like to see better support for other formats. Alternatively, a WinRT port of VLC, but I don’t know if that will happen. For the most part though it’s at least competent and a LOT less trouble than anything Apple have come up with.

Touch Cover and Software Keyboard

The keys are every so lightly raised.

The Touch Cover is one of those elements that made people go “Oh wow look at that shit that shit’s awesome.” A keyboard integrated as a cover which isn’t a hunk of plastic seems like a remarkable achievement, but does it actually work? I’m quite picky about my keyboards – I prefer mechanical ones that clack away because I like that tactile feedback. I type pretty damn fast and don’t look at the keys when I’m tapping away – I’m not a two-finger hunt and peck player. That should mean that I’d find the Touch Cover painful to type on.

Well, holy shit, this thing kind of works. The keyboard surface feels like a rough plastic, while the other side feels like fabric. It’s quite stiff and does afford protection. Just like in the advertisements, the keyboard snaps onto the bottom if you so much as wave it near the bottom of the RT, and it grips fairly strongly. It provides a decent amount of protection (though I wouldn’t test it too much). As for typing – it does work, and I’d say it’s superior to software keyboards, but it’s weird. Obviously there is nothing mechanical to press down, you just tap on a hard bit of plastic. There’s no feedback for when a key has been pressed from the keypad thing itself, which is a bit disconcerting. Win8 will play a pop noise when a keystroke is detected, which definitely helps, but without sound it might be hard to pick up when you’ve hit a key. Keys need a fair bit of pressure to activate, but that means you can rest your hands on the keyboard without it triggering any keystrokes. The keys are slightly raised, so you can feel them and could probably touch type. I can touch type to an extent with this keyboard but I’m much slower – I have to make sure I really tap the pad to get the key to trigger. With the audio cue, it’s a lot easier. The little trackpad at the bottom is actually really good. I’ve used a lot of shitty trackpads (Apple, unfortunately, still seem to make the best trackpads) and this one is well above most of them. Overall I’d say the Touch Cover is pretty good. I wouldn’t want to type a novel (or this review) on it, but it’s far superior to a software keyboard.

Speaking of software keyboards, the onscreen keyboard is actually fairly good. It doesn’t look that great but it’s pretty responsive and doesn’t seem as prone to stay keystrokes as the iOS one is. On landscape mode though it takes up a bunch of space. Folding the Touch Cover back (or disconnecting it) will allow the onscreen keyboard to become active, presumably though technomancical manipulation of energy distortion fields (or something). It’s serviceable, but I think all onscreen keyboards are bullshit, so I guess I don’t have much to say about that.

Internet Explorer 10

God we’re at 3253 words so far, are you still with me? Sorry for the length, but if it’s worth writing, it’s worth going in depth. Internet Explorer is currently your only option for web browsing, either the ModernUI version or the desktop port. To be fair, IE10 isn’t anywhere near as bad as the older versions of IE. It’s a fairly fast and competent browser and not quite the security hole that it used to be. IE10 under both the desktop and ModernUI modes is fairly decent, but it also has some performance issues. Youtube in particular can be painful. It loads the desktop site by default, which is sort of okay I guess, but it demonstrates some limitations of the platform.

When you first start up a Youtube video, it lags. This is because Youtube has to toss as much advertising at you as possible, because that’s fun (and brings in money). Those extra elements cause the video to lag quite a bit. Once they’re loaded and everything settles down, it’s generally fine unless you start moving the mouse around. Even 1080p will play fine so long as there’s no movement. But it’s frustrating all the same. Unfortunately the Mobile site just doesn’t work under the WinRT version of IE10, so either you tolerate these issues or you wait for better support. There are Youtube apps in the store, but some people have decided to charge $3.00 for them. Really, $3.00? Something as basic as this shouldn’t have been an issue. Of course it’s still very early days, and once everything is settled it works fine, but I’m still a bit curious as to why it’s such a big issue.

As an aside, Flash is supported, but only on whitelisted sites. If you’re creative, you can actually whitelist sites manually by going to %appdata%\Local\Microsoft\Internet Explorer\IECompatData and editing the file in there to add domains between the tags. You must do this (and clear your browsing history) by adding “maps.google.com” to the whitelist in order for Google Maps to work properly – without it, you get no street view. It seems like an oversight on Microsoft’s part, because “google.com” and its variations are listed as part of the whitelist. Once added, Street View works. It’s a bit laggy, but it does work. Google Maps in general is a bit laggy, but it does work and it’s the full desktop version (except for MapsGL obviously).

App Selection

No discussion of Windows 8 would be complete without discussing the app situation. Windows Phone 7 never gained a significant market share not so much because the OS is bad, but because there were no apps. In a self-defeating cycle, there were no apps because nobody was using it. Microsoft’s attempt to tie Win8 in across all platforms might be seen as a way to encourage app development, and make no mistake – they’re pushing for it. We’re slowly starting to see apps appear for the Windows Store, but we’re a long way from iOS levels. And I don’t mean raw numbers, because 100,000 fart buttons like the Google Play store isn’t worth shit. Rather there are some notable absences from the Windows Store, like anything from Google. Medscape, a popular medical application, also has no Windows app (but it does have iOS and Android apps). There’s no official Dropbox app. There’s no Instagram… which is worth an extra 10 points! There’s no official Facebook or Twitter app (but it is covered by the People app). Really, there’s a lot of things that are missing which I’d consider essential for an OS ecosystem.

But then there are plenty of apps making their way there – eBay has an app, as does Wikipedia, Kindle, and Skype, so it’s not all doom and gloom. I’m not 100% confident in making this statement, but I think that as Windows 8 adoption increases, the app selection will expand. Connecting the mobile market to the desktop will probably help with that quite a bit. But it’s still a gamble – having a proper version of Office and proper NTFS volume support like a full x86 machine is outstanding and makes the device a lot more useful, but there are still some apps missing, and since you rely on the Windows Store for your apps (there’s no other way to install apps, since it’s an ARM platform and not x86).

Overall Impressions

Judging the Surface RT is a challenge. It’s a bit like judging the iPhone back when it first came out. There are issues, there are concerns, and absolutely all of them are justified. But it’s hard to be overly critical because it’s a very new device, on a new OS (or at least the WinRT part is new), with room to grow. But it’s also facing some well established competition – iOS with its incredible app library, and Android with its flexibility.

Hardware wise, the Surface RT is a well made piece of gear. It’s a far cry from the plethora of plasticky Android tablets that feel cheap, while still offering a lot more flexibility than the iPad. The Touch Type cover is quite good in my opinion, though I can understand why some reviewers didn’t take to it. The support for USB drives and a nice microSD slot helps offset the fact that the internal storage is crippled by the install size of Windows RT. The screen, while not “Retina” quality, is still quite good.

Windows RT itself has some teething issues which need to be ironed out – while the basics are in place and work fairly well, some apps still have issues. Having Office is a massive advantage, and for some might be worth the price of admission. Windows Explorer and the classic desktop mode seems absurd, but does have a purpose (though it probably shouldn’t be there). The initial review models seem to have had even more problems than the consumer release versions so whatever you heard initially isn’t quite as dire as what you’ll get in the box. I didn’t have the performance problems that others have had, save for IE10.

But there are some pressing issues. Internet Explorer 10 isn’t bad by default, but it’s crippled by its Flash whitelisting which breaks Google Maps (by default) and causes some problems with Youtube. Device support for common things like printers is fairly patchy. Because the app selection is limited you’re relying on a web browser to pick up the slack. So far that isn’t going so well with IE10 issues. I’m pleased that you can manually add entries to the whitelist, but because it’s buried away it’s obvious that Microsoft didn’t intend for you to do this on a regular basis. Of course I needed to do this because otherwise I have no StreetView, and that is a bit of a problem for me. It would have been better to simply not have a whitelist at all. Armed with the knowledge of how to add to the whitelist, IE10 becomes a lot more useful, but it’s still a bit slow. Hopefully that’ll improve with patches.

The most pressing concern though is the lack of apps, and it’s inescapable. Granted, this is a new platform, and the iPhone had bugger all app support in its early days. But that was a long time ago now, and Win8 is going up against established competitors. We’re seeing a fair bit of movement on the Windows Store now, but it still has a long way to go. Whether or not the Surface RT is a success (or RT devices in general) will depend on how well the Windows Store picks up.

With all that in mind, it’s a bit hard to come to a conclusion on the Surface RT. My initial impressions are great – this thing is a fantastic device to pick up and play with. The design is great. Office is fantastic. The storage options are great (except for the internal storage). I can’t comment on battery life yet but it doesn’t take six billion years to charge from 20% unlike the iPad 3. The Touch Cover isn’t a piece of shit. But for all the great points, there are a few cracks beneath the surface. IE10 needs work and the whitelist is a pain. Classic Desktop feels a bit out of place (though after needing to manually edit the whitelist, I’m grateful for it). The app support is still limited (but seems to be improving, slowly), and the success of the device hinges on it. I feel a bit like a beta tester, but I’m sort of excited about where the platform might go at the same time. Of course I’ll only really be able to comment on it properly once I’ve used it for a few days, but so far I like it.

But what of the Surface Pro?

That’s the big question – why get this when you can get the Surface Pro? After all it’ll run x86 apps so who cares if app support is limited? If that’s an issue for you, I’d suggest that you wait. Note that I said wait, and not “wait for the Surface Pro.” The Surface Pro will likely to be priced to compete with ultrabooks, which will mean it’ll cost a lot of money. Meanwhile, outfits like Dell and ASUS will be releasing more competitively priced devices that might give you better performance. That might apply to other RT devices too, but that remains to be seen. Also I think people will be disappointed in the Surface Pro either in terms of performance or battery life – initial reports suggest the Surface RT lasts for about 8 hours on a single charge with average use, trailing just a bit behind the iPad 3’s 10 hours. There’s no way you’ll get that out of a Core i5 x86 system unless performance is crippled. All of you hoping to run Photoshop like you would on your current laptops will probably be disappointed in the Surface Pro.

If you’re looking for a Windows-based device to replace your iPad, then the Surface RT might be worth looking at. It still has a way to go… but it’s still an excellent device, just with teething problems. It’s close enough to Windows that it feels familiar and will integrate well if you use Microsoft’s services (even in part, like using SkyDrive). It’s as flexible as Android when it comes to removable storage, but without the UI issues that plague Android tablets (and the abysmal bloatware). It’s probably the best of the tablets (excluding x86 hybrid setups) that has a decent battery life along with the capability to actually do some work. For a first attempt, Microsoft’s hardware is absolutely top notch, and the software issues can be fixed with updates (which are already starting). As an iPad replacement, apart from the lack of apps, it’s very good.

If you want to replace your laptop and tablet though one of the x86 systems will probably be a better fit, but not necessarily the Surface Pro. Although the RT is a very capable little system which lasts a long time, it isn’t going to be able to beat an x86 device for compatibility and support. But again, what you gain in flexibility you will pay for in either battery life or performance, and a tablet that doesn’t last for at least 6 hours on a single charge probably isn’t worth having – you might as well just have a laptop and gain more performance. Alternatively performance might be sub-par – all we really know right now is that it has a dual core i5 processor and an Intel HD 4000 GPU, but not the clock speed. With that in mind, the competitors may offer a better system, albeit one not quite as neat as the Surface Pro.

For what it’s worth though, the Surface RT at least brings some strong hardware and a decent foundation to the tablet sector. I’d say it’s a threat in that it has a lot of potential… but if that potential never gets used, it may not have been worth the effort.

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