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Microsoft Surface with Windows RT

November 13th, 2012
Can the Surface with Windows RT make a mark on the mobile landscape?

The Microsoft Surface with Windows RT arrives a full two years after Apple reinvented the tablet market. Microsoft and its partners had struggled along valiantly with convertible notebooks that could work in a tablet mode, but they were just too heavy and impractical. Within the first several months of the iPad launching, it quickly outsold the sum total of all Windows tablet PCs ever sold, even though they had been on the market for years. So the question is, has Microsoft managed to bring something new to the table?

Build quality and design:

The Surface RT is very well made. It has all the build quality and attention to detail of any device on the market and is precision manufactured using a new magnesium injection molding process that Microsoft calls VaporMg. It imbues the Surface RT with a solidity and the sensation of quality often lacking the world of plastic tech products made by sometimes white goods companies. However, instead of choosing a design with a rounded edge, as others have to keep it feeling more comfortable in the hand when used as a tablet, Microsoft has opted for a squared off edge. Surprisingly though, the Surface RT actually feels quite good to hold regardless. The reason for this is the angle of the beveled edge that provides the inbuilt lean angle for the device when it is placed on a flat surface. This reduces the ‘edginess’ of the back side of the Surface RT when holding it.

The design of the Surface RT, including its angular edges, sets the Surface RT apart from iOS and Android tablets, not only in its appearance, but also its function. It’s obvious that Microsoft’s ‘angle’ with the Surface RT is that it trying to fit the perceived productivity gap of the iPad and Android tablets, particularly with their more lightweight mobile operating systems. People want lightweight devices in the age of mobile computing, but they don’t necessarily want a ‘lightweight’ experience, appears to be Microsoft’s ambition with this device. The iPad is primarily considered an entertainment and content consumption device first and foremost, with Office-style productivity taking a back seat.

So to that extent, the Surface RT has been designed with productivity on the go as a strength of the box, while it can also do entertainment and content similarly well. The beveled edge, combined with the built-in rear kickstand, coupled with either the cool Touch Cover or Type Cover, are designed to make the Surface RT capable of giving PC-like productivity for users who want the mobility of a tablet like the iPad or an Android device, but might feel compelled to take a second device like an Ultrabook or MacBook Air with them as well. From a functional perspective, it can be argued that Microsoft has succeeded in this regard, as Office for Windows RT is a free inclusion with the Surface RT (more on this later).

The Touch Cover:

However, the main sticking point that we have with the Touch Cover-bundled models, is that the Touch Cover is simply not easy to use for extended periods of time. Yet, it is very much an integral part of what makes the Surface RT a distinctive device as a hybrid of a tablet and a notebook. In terms of attachable keyboards for tablet designs, it is easily the best we’ve encountered; it is just a shame that it is not more usable for heavier Office-based productivity, which is a key selling point of the Surface RT in the first place. The Type Cover is a much better proposition in this regard and we will share some thoughts on it when ours arrives. In the meantime though, we disconnected our Bluetooth Apple keyboard from our Mac and paired it with the Surface RT to complete this review. As a piece of hardware, we really wanted to like the Touch Cover, but touch-typing on it, even though it is a more tactile experience than typing on an onscreen keyboard is simply no better – it’s only real advantage over a software keyboard is that it does not impede the view of what you are working on. If it worked using ‘touch inputs’, it might have been alright, but it requires users to apply physical force to the keyboard that quickly becomes fatigue inducing. If you’ve used a touchscreen smartphone for a long period of time and then gone back to a smartphone with a physical keyboard and noticed how much more exertion is required, you will know what we are talking about.

With the two integrated typing-enabled covers on offer, the Surface RT tablet in productivity mode is actually much more like using the next generation of PC-based netbooks. If you think that netbooks are dead, the Surface RT is in many ways their spiritual successor, albeit in a more highly evolved and functional form. The Touch Cover and Type Cover are critical elements to this equation and are quite significant in setting the Surface RT apart from the more consumer focused tablets on the market. While it can be argued that there are numerous keyboard solutions for the iPad, none of them are as integrated into the design of the device as the Touch Cover and Type Cover are for the Surface RT. The magnetic snap and connection is reassuring and is a much more elegant solution than the way Asus marries its tablets with a keyboards. It also functions very well as a cover, automatically putting the device to sleep in when flipped over in cover mode. It also makes the Surface RT feel very nice in the to carry around when being carried around the office between meetings.

Display, sound and cameras:

When we read that Microsoft was reserving the higher-resolution 1080p display for the Surface with Windows 8 Pro, we were somewhat disappointed. Instead the Surface RT picks up a larger than average 10.6-inch display with a resolution of 1366x768 pixels for a density of ‘only’ 148 pixels per inch. The iPad mini, which has been criticized for its relatively low pixel resolution compared to the Retina iPad actually has a slightly higher pixel density than the Surface RT at 163 pixels per inch. Microsoft uses its ClearType technology to help smooth out the fonts in text making for a surprisingly decent reading experience when viewing webpages. The Retina iPad is significantly sharper, but overall, the Surface display is quite satisfying to look at. The contrast and brightness is good, while the color gamut and saturation is generally more pleasing than on the iPad mini we recently reviewed. Pixel density clearly, is not everything when it comes to the relative quality of a display panel.

Viewing movies on the Surface is pleasure thanks to its to its 16:9 aspect ratio. Where the iPad uses a 4:3 aspect ratio, which is better for displaying webpages. Watching movies on the iPad can produce two relatively large black bars above the image, which is minimal on the Surface RT. Windows RT also takes advantage of the widescreen display with its ‘Snap’ feature that allows you to utilize the width of the display to show multiple windows simultaneously. An additional benefit of using the 16:9 aspect ratio on the 10.6-inch tablet is that the software keyboard is well spaced out and makes for a very good on screen touch-typing experience.

From a hardware standpoint, the biggest disappointments with the Surface are its built-in speakers and its front and rear cameras. The sound produced by the Surface RT’s speakers is very weak. The stereo ports are tiny and produce sound that is much too soft. A pair of headphones cures the problem, but the only place you will be able to find the sound from the speakers serviceable is in a quiet and small room. The cameras on the Surface RT are also very weak and barely usable for taking photos. For some reason, Microsoft has opted to include 1-megapixel cameras on the rear as well as the front. While most people don’t use their tablets for serious photos, even being able to take a decent casual photo can come in handy and the Surface RT will on suffice in the most limited way here.

Photos taken with Surface RT rear camera

Performance and gaming:

We approached the Surface RT with some trepidation from a performance perspective. It is powered by a 1.3GHz version of NVIDIA’s ARM Cortex-A9 quad-core Tegra 3 processor. As there are no real benchmarking tools for us to run on the Surface RT as they haven’t been added to Windows Store yet. We’ve compared the Surface RT to the third-generation iPad for its Javascript performance, and it manages to outpace the dual-core Cortex-A9 A5X processor in the iPad in most of the tests with Windows RT. Interestingly, the same Tegra 3 processor running on Chrome in Android puts its performance behind the iPad 3. While we don’t have a fourth-generation iPad on hand at this time, early benchmarks show that its custom A6X should comfortably outrun the Tegra 3 running Windows RT for overall system performance and graphics performance, based on next-generation CPU and GPU technology as they are.

iPad 3 results in the second column, Surface in the third

During our review, we kept an eye on the performance of the Tegra 3 running Windows RT using the Windows Task Manager in the desktop mode. Multitasking is one of the real highlights of Windows RT over iOS and Android (more on this later), however, it really pushes the Tegra 3 to the to the edge and beyond of its performance limits. For the most part, the interface works with an iOS-like slickness, but the Tegra 3 can get bogged down when loaded. While it has 2GB of RAM, it is really not enough to handle Windows RT comfortably, at it is a much more complex OS than either iOS or Android. Microsoft may be able to further optimize Windows RT on the Surface before the end of its product cycle, but the Tegra 3, in our view remains a fundamental limitation on this device that Microsoft may not be able to completely overcome.

Tegra 3 CPU performance

The Tegra 3 processor is over 12 months old and some significant strides have been made in the mobile processor space since that time. Microsoft may have arrived late to the tablet segment, but it has brought the processing equivalent of a knife to a gunfight. The Tegra 3 processor in the Surface finds itself up against the custom designed Apple A6X processor in the fourth-generation iPad, which is the mobile performance king, even outrunning the new Exynos 5 processors made by Samsung using the new ARM Cortex-A15 architecture that features in the new Chromebook and the Nexus 10 tablet. The Apple A6X also uses a quad-core PowerVR GPU SGX 554MP4 that blows the NVIDIA Tegra 3 out of the water for graphics performance. The other performance yardstick for mobile processors right now is the Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 Pro processor, which like Apple’s A6X, uses a custom ARM architecture also comfortably outperforms the Tegra 3 in benchmarks. That said, NVIDIA is said to be working with gaming developers to add a Tegra Zone to the Microsoft Store for Tegra 3 optimized games for Windows RT, as it has done with Android. It will be interesting to see if gaming frame rates and overall performance improve when these games go live on the Windows Store.

For the most part, though, the use of the aging Tegra 3 processor with the Windows RT OS produces a decent end-user experience. However, it is more than a little ironic that Apple not only outmuscles Microsoft for the number of tablet apps that are made for its iPad, it also steamrolls it in the specifications department. Microsoft, like Intel, were both caught off-guard by sudden rise of the mobile device revolution and instead have been determined to maintain the Wintel status-quo while they scrambled in the back office trying to come up with a response. However, with Intel’s ‘Clovertrail’ platform not ready in time for the Surface, Microsoft has also adapted its Windows platform so that it can run on ARM-architecture. ‘Clovertrail’ will, however, help to deliver ARM-like power-efficiency and performance, but for the full Windows 8 Pro experience in similar form factor to current ARM-based designs like the Tegra 3-powered Surface RT. If, however, mobile gaming really matters, Apple’s iOS is the far better choice.

Windows RT, gestures and Office:

Windows RT is a much more complex operating system than the typical mobile operating system seen on current ARM-based devices. It looks exactly like Windows 8 and it functions just like Windows 8 in just about about every way, except that it does not support legacy applications for Windows x86 devices. You can choose to look at RT as being a hobbled version of Windows 8, or a really powerful mobile operating system. The similarities between the two operating systems were no doubt designed to highlight to customers just how much more like a full PC experience the Windows RT OS is versus the unashamedly mobile-only approach adopted by Apple and Google with iOS and Android. However, it is inevitable that the decision to make RT and Windows 8 look identical will inevitably cause confusion at retail and could spark a fairly high rate of returns when users who don’t know what they have bought find that they can’t run legacy, or even new, Windows apps designed to run on Windows 8 or previous desktop operating systems.

However, it is only when you start to use the Surface RT and living with it, do you start to get a sense of what Microsoft is trying to achieve here. The Surface RT is part tablet, part notebook by design, sort of like an iPad and a MacBook Air rolled into one. The iPad and Android tablets can mimic this to some extent with accessories, but they do not offer dual-UIs based on how you choose to use those devices at any given time. If you want to use the Surface RT for productivity, flip over the cover and switch to the desktop mode and start running the Office applications. If you want to use it as a tablet, flip the cover back, pick it up and head for the Start Screen with its Modern, ‘live’ tile UI. Suddenly, what seemed so hard to fathom from a distance starts to make a whole lot more sense. While the only desktop apps that you will be able to run will come from Microsoft, the traditional Windows desktop UI serves one other really useful function missing on the iPad -- the ability to uses Windows Explorer and have access to the file system of the device and any microSD cards or USB dongles plugged into to it.

There is no getting around the fact that the tablet UI, while usable for desktop users with armed with only a mouse, is much better served to touchscreen gestures and inputs. If you’ve used a BlackBerry PlayBook, some of the gestures implemented in Windows RT will be very familiar. To navigate your way around the Windows RT, you need to swipe in from the all of the sides, which depending on what is on screen at the time, can affect the functionality you get. Swipe in from the right, and you will launch the ‘Charms’ bar, which gives you shortcut access to settings, sharing, desktop search and connected devices. Swiping in from the bottom can reveal context-specific functions, while swiping in from the top right to the bottom of the display can be used to swipe an app shut; a half swipe from the top can reveal things like tabs in the Modern UI version of Internet Explorer. Swiping in from the left will reveal the last used app. Swipe one app to the right and you can access the awesome ‘Snap’ function, that lets you display more than one window at a time by swiping in a second open app from the left. Overall, the gestures work well, but the inclination to use them will only become natural after using Windows RT on a tablet for a period of time.

However, for all of these benefits, annonying and frustrating oddities manifest themselves here and there. Three, of these in particular are worth highlighting and may temper your desire to purchase the product. Although you can add movies to a microUSB and watch them on the Surface RT, the Modern UI video app will not recognize files on the external storage module. Instead, they must either be dragged onto the internal storage, or launched from the desktop mode by navigating to the file on the microSD card. It’s not an insurmountable problem, but Android devices can manage this trick. Additionally, when using the Surface RT in productivity mode, it is impossible to share anything directly from the desktop as there is no mail app installed in this interface. Even though Word, PowerPoint, OneNote and Excel are included for free, Outlook or even Outlook Express is missing with no plans to port it across to ARM-based devices. Sharing documents and files can be accomplished through Skydrive or via a USB drive, but the omission of an e-mail client by default is reminiscent of RIM’s abject failure with the launch of the PlayBook (it only received the capability 12 months after it went on sale). Despite the glaring omission of Outlook, the included Office apps may still be sufficient to sway users to the Surface RT over an iPad, especially given the way the design of the device is designed to function in productivity mode.

Wi-Fi, connectivity and battery life:

The Surface RT uses a new MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) Wi-Fi connection, meaning that it can connect over both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequencies. Although it is not stated whether it is capable of channel bonding, most users will have no complaints about the speeds that they achieve around the house or at Wi-Fi hotspots. Using Activity Monitor, we were able to see peak download speeds of 580Kbps during general browsing as sites loaded, which helped to ensure that pages loaded promptly. We have a Netgear N600 simultaneous dual band router that supports the MIMO capabilty of the Surface RT allowing for channel bonding, which doubles the bandwidth. With both devices sending and receiving data over two antennas in each device, you will achieve very solid Wi-Fi performance.

In addition to Wi-Fi, Microsoft has integrated Bluetooth 4.0 capability helping users to get maximum battery life out of their Surface RT, and any paired Bluetooth 4.0 capable peripheral. While we had no problem connecting our Surface RT to our iPhone 5 over Wi-Fi, the two devices didn’t, however, want to play nicely over Bluetooth 4.0 for data sharing purposes. However, we don’t anticipate the Surface RT having any issues connecting over Bluetooth for data sharing with Windows Phone 8 devices. Also including is a microSD slot with support for cards up to 64GB as well as a single USB 2.0 port. Although Microsoft only added one port, it is one more port than the iPad, which comes in handy for quick file swapping while it can also be used for connecting to a 3G or 4G modem as well as the usual array of USB peripherals including external hard drives.

The Surface RT includes a built-in 31.5 Wh battery that is charged using (yet another) proprietary five-pin magnetic connector – no charging over micro-USB here. It is suprisingly fiddly to connect the charger properly, while it also includes a single white LED whose sole function is to let you know that you have connected it properly. To see whether the device is charging, you need to check your Surface RT notification splash page. A full charge can take up to three hours, which is not too bad considering the battery will give you around 9 hours of use when surfing the web. Video playback with Wi-Fi off will deliver around 10 hours of use depending on screen brightness settings. Overall though, the Surface RT is definitely competitive with the iPad and other similar ARM-based devices. Given the sophistication of the OS, that is a pretty impressive performance when one might have expected it to fall short.

Final thoughts:

There is no question that the Microsoft Surface RT is a fresh take on the tablet space – there simply no other device that is a hybrid of a tablet and a notebook – it also includes a tablet and notebook user interface specifically designed for each mode. It really can be both things at once, which makes it an intriguing proposition. It will stand as a landmark device for Microsoft as its post-PC reinterpretation of the tablet PC. Yet, in its own way, it has many limitations, some of which are just downright mind boggling. The inability to load media from the microSD card storage using Modern UI apps is gob smacking as is the inability to share documents and files from the desktop mode. This coupled with the unintuitive nature of the Windows RT interface and the fact that you need to effectively read tips and tricks to be able to use it effectively can be a challenge. Taking the time and small effort to learn how to use Windows RT does, however, have plenty of rewards.

Even though the Surface RT is less of a compromise on the traditional tablet and PC paradigm than Apple’s iPad, it has obvious shortcomings and its own compromises. Yet many Apple fans have become accustomed to overlooking the shortcomings in Apple devices over the years when certain functions or capabilities seem to have been inexplicably left out. Feature omissions like Blu-ray in Apple’s professional-level notebooks and desktops, the lack of USB ports on the iPad and a file system, microSD expansion etc have never stopped many a fan boy from extolling their virtues and defending their weaknesses. So if Apple fans can overlook the shortcomings in their products and still find plenty to love, why shouldn’t people who choose other devices be able to do the same? Every product has its trade offs and it is up to the user to judge which trade offs they are prepared to accept.

Admittedly, some of the oversights in the Surface RT tablet are particularly egregious, especially the fact that it is advertised as a 32GB device, when in reality it is only a 17GB device after the OS and preinstalled apps are taken out of the equation. And the Touch Cover is a cruel joke; yes, you can type on the protective cover, but it is not an experience you will want to repeat for any length of time despite its promise. Regardless, the Microsoft Surface RT is a very capable device for productivity on the go. Users who have been longing for business-level productivity from their iPads will have finally found what they are have been missing in the Surface. The inclusion of the Office suite out of the box means that you can enjoy the benefits of a lightweight device that will get you out of trouble when you need to get work done on the fly in a way that is more naturally, and meaningfully, accomplished than on the iPad.

So who is the Surface with Windows RT for? Early adopters, and techno-junkies will already own one, but the average consumer will probably continue to opt for iPads and Android tablets over it for a range of reasons. If you want to play games on the go and enjoy multimedia on the go, right now, the iPad has the most performance as well as the largest selection of tablet-optimized apps by a long way. It can also be used for occasional Office-style productivity, but that is not its strong suit. The Surface RT, on the other hand, does casual gaming and multimedia quite well, but its real strength is as a productivity tool. Its entertainment and app ecosystem will grow in time. The Surface with Windows RT is definitely worth a look for those interested in mobile productivity tool that can also be used for light entertainment, but if you want it all, you will have to wait for the Surface Pro.

The Surface RT is not perfect, but it will get better with software updates and feature enhancements over time. Microsoft deserves kudos for taking an innovative and original approach to mobile computing in the 21st Century; it is a take that is unique and suggests that Microsoft is finally grappling with the new mobile computing landscape, albeit on its own terms. Only time will tell whether consumers ultimately side with Microsoft’s paradigm, positively encapsulated in the Surface with Windows RT.


- Extremely well made and designed
- An innovative take on mobile computing
- Outstanding multitasking capability
- Excellent for mobile productivity
- Office included at no extra cost
- High-quality display

- Weak app selection on launch
- Aspects of the UI are not intuitive
- Tegra 3 processor is at its limit in this application
- Touch Cover is cool, but not particularly functional
- Not as capable as Windows 8