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Microsoft Surface RT

A few months ago when Microsoft announced that they would begin developing their own range of PCs many were surprised, not least those companies already building Windows 8 PCs such as HP, Lenovo, Acer, etc. But while some of those companies publicly criticised Microsoft’s new strategy, others simply dismissed Microsoft as lacking the skills and experience to build a great PC, were they right?

I’ve split this review into two areas – hardware, and software. At the end of the review I’ll cover how the two work together, and whether Surface RT as a product is work your hard-earned money.

Hardware

On first impressions, Surface is a beautifully designed product. It’s clear that a huge amount of emphasis has been put on style; Surface looks like a designer product and feels expensive. Due to the popularity of iPad it’s difficult to write about tablet hardware anymore without drawing comparisons, and as an iPad-owner myself (3rd gen) it was impossible to resist putting the two side-by-side. Surprisingly, although Surface looks a little bulkier than iPad, it’s actually a fraction of a millimetre thinner.

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Surface’s design makes it appear bulky, though it’s actually thinner than iPad

Surface has a 10.6” widescreen (16:9) display. The display quality looks great, though not as sharp as the Retina display on iPad (Surface is 1366×768 pixels vs iPad’s 2048×1536), however resolution isn’t everything and Surface beats iPad hands-down for both contrast and colour vibrancy. Movies look great on Surface.

So onto the internals: An nVidia Tegra 3 Quad-core 1.3GHz CPU powers Surface, along with 2GB RAM, and either 32GB or 64GB of flash storage. Storage on Surface is expandable in a number of ways, there’s a MicroSDXC slot for up to 64GB of extra storage, and USB flash drives or portable hard drives can be connected via Surface’s USB 2.0 port.

While I’m on the subject of USB, you’ll find pretty much all of your USB devices will work with Surface. Everything from keyboards & mice, to printers, digital cameras, card readers, DVD-RW drives, smartphones, and even Xbox 360 controllers will be recognised by Surface and available to use. There are some exceptions; devices that require specific software (such as TV tuners) may not work, unless the software is available to download from the Windows Store.

Above Surface’s USB port is a Micro HDMI connector. Surface supports display mirroring though HDMI, and also extended desktop. I tried both mirroring and extended desktop with my HDTV at 1920×1080, the quality was acceptable, but not flawless, text is a little blurry and colours slightly over-saturated. For videos the HDMI output looked great, but I wouldn’t want to use it for general PC stuff like web browsing or Office – this is a shame, as Surface could make a great portable workstation if only the video output quality was better.

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Side-by-side with iPad. Surface offers a much better movie viewing experience – its 16:9 display means you won’t lose half of your screen to black borders.

 

On the other side of the tablet from the USB and HDMI is a 3.5mm audio out/headphone jack, audio output sounds great, though sadly the internal speakers aren’t anything exceptional. Surface includes two cameras, which (like many tablets) are just about fit for purpose, they’ll be fine for Skype but don’t expect to be taking great photos with them. Microsoft made a clever decision to angle the camera so that they’re ideally positioned when using Surface’s kickstand (more on that in a moment) – perfect for Skype.

In terms of wireless, Surface has WiFi (802.11a/b/g/n), and Bluetooth 4.0. WiFi range is particularly good, Surface picks up more wireless networks than any other WiFi device I have at home. There are no 3G/4G versions of Surface; this will no doubt disappoint those who would like a hassle-free always-on connection. However, since so many smartphones now include an Internet Sharing / Personal Hotspot feature, it may not be such a deal breaker.

Surface has the usual selection of buttons often found on tablets, volume control, power/standby, and a home button (in this case a capacitive windows logo button).

Surface’s hardware has more than a few party tricks that set it apart from other tablets. Firstly, its built in kickstand positions the tablets at a great angle for desk usage, and also for video playback. The touchscreen isn’t always as comfortable to use in this position, but for certain scenarios the kickstand really adds so much to Surface’s usability.

For Surface’s next trick, optional keyboard covers – Touch Cover is an attachable 3mm thin keyboard and trackpad that doubles as a protective cover. Touch Cover’s keys are pressure sensitive, so touch-typists can rest their hands in position on the keyboard without triggering key presses, applying the usual amount of pressure you’d expect on a traditional keyboard will trigger a key press. Prior to using Touch Cover I was expecting something which would be a slight improvement over using an on-screen keyboard – I was wrong, it’s a huge improvement, I can type on Touch Cover almost as fast as on a traditional keyboard, and it’s unbelievably comfortable. For what it’s worth, this entire review was written on Surface with a Touch Cover.

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As a tablet for productivity, the combination of Microsoft Office and keyboard covers put Surface in a league of it’s own.

As well as Touch Cover, there is also Type Cover, a 6mm thin keyboard with physical keys. I haven’t had a chance to use Type Cover so I can’t comment on its practicality, but I guess there will be people who for whatever reason do want physical keys, and it’s nice to have both options available for keyboard covers.

In terms of weight, Surface is on the heavier end of the scale. It’s not uncomfortably heavy, but it is slightly heavier than my 3rd gen iPad – a tablet that I consider to be overly heavy anyway (iPad 2 was about the perfect weight, in my opinion). A Surface with Touch Cover attached is noticeably heavier than iPad with a Smart Cover attached – though obviously Surface’s Touch Cover offers much more in terms of functionality (and also protection, it’s much tougher than iPad’s Smart Cover).

Software (Windows RT and bundled apps)

Up until this point in my review it’s been possible to compare Surface with other tablets. But here’s where that changes, because in terms of software Surface isn’t comparable to any existing iOS or Android devices. Surface’s operating system is Windows RT, a version of Windows 8 optimised for ARM-powered devices. In terms of software capability Surface has more in common with laptops and Ultrabooks than iPad or Android tablets.

I won’t go into too much detail about Windows RT, as that’d turn this review into an epic read. But the short version is that Windows RT (like Windows 8) takes the familiar Windows desktop experience that we’re all used to and adds to it a new ‘Metro’ user interface which puts an emphasis on full screen apps designed with touch-input in mind. The important thing here is that you’re getting a full PC-class operating system in a tablet form factor. A tablet running Windows RT is a world apart from any iOS or Android tablet you may have used in the past. Many of the bundled Windows software you’re familiar with – From Internet Explorer, to Windows Explorer, from Notepad to Paint, from Remote Desktop to Control Panel, …it’s all here. For power-users, you’ll have access to Command Prompt, Registry Editor, Disk Management, and Windows PowerShell. Narrator and Magnifier are also included, along with all the accessibility features you’d expect to find on any Windows PC.

New software/apps on Windows RT can be found on the Windows Store. Unlike Windows 8, Windows RT isn’t compatible with older Windows 7 apps written for Intel or AMD chips so if there’s pro software you rely on such as Photoshop or Dreamweaver which isn’t yet available on the Windows Store then you’re out of luck, there’s no way that Surface will run your existing copies of those apps. On the plus side, apps on the Windows Store were built with tablets in mind, and will offer great battery life, and touch-optimised interfaces. Another bonus is than Windows RT is incompatible with the hundreds of thousands of Windows virus’s and malware. A final bonus that sweetens the deal for Windows RT over Windows 8 is that Microsoft Office is included as standard – full versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote.

Microsoft Office may not be the most exciting feature you’d desire from a tablet, but it is undeniably useful. If you need a tablet for work that you can be productive on, then Surface is unrivalled.

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Snap two apps side-by-side for hassle-free multitasking. Another win for productivity on Surface.

 

Moving on from the desktop apps, Windows RT comes bundled with some great apps from Microsoft. There’s Bing apps for News, Weather, Finances – beautifully designed apps, each with Live Tiles that post up to the minute info on your Start Screen. What I love about Windows RT (and Windows 8 for that matter) is that apps can be useful even when you’re not using them thanks to Live Tiles.

Another feature I love is the ability to ‘snap’ two apps side-by-side. This means you can for example keep an eye on your Twitter feed while browsing the web, or typing up notes in OneNote while watching a video or Skyping.

Windows RT includes a Games hub that has a similar look to the Xbox dashboard, where you can browse for Xbox Live enabled games both for Windows and Xbox. The Xbox Video app lets you rent or buy movies to download or stream to your Surface or Xbox 360, and you can also playback videos stored locally even if they weren’t purchased through Xbox Video. Xbox Music organises your music collection and allows you to play music stored locally, it also gives you access to the Xbox Music Catalogue, where you can stream complete albums from a selection of 30 million tracks for free (with the occasional advert), or with an Xbox Music Pass (£9/month) stream or download those same tracks without the adverts.

 

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The inclusion of Xbox Live, plus compatibility with Xbox 360 controllers could make Surface the ultimate gamers tablet.

Xbox Music actually surprised me with its awesomeness. There are tonnes of albums available, and the adverts are extremely rare – usually short 5-10 second audio clips advertising other songs, which occur once every 10-15 tracks. Personally, I think I’ll be buying a lot less from iTunes in the future, and I’m even tempted to upgrade to Xbox Music Pass so that I can enjoy the same experience on my Windows Phone and Xbox 360 without the ads.

As well as the Bing branded informative apps, and Xbox branded entertainment apps; there are apps for Email, Calendar, and People, plus a ‘Metro’ version of Internet Explorer. The People app deserves particular attention, it’s not just an app for displaying your contacts, it links with social feeds from Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Skype. The People app in many ways makes the idea of individual apps for each social network obsolete, I mean why check up on all your social feeds separately in official apps when you can do it all in one place? There’s also the option to pin individual contacts to your Start Screen – this means you’ll get their most recent photos and status updates/tweets on Live Tiles.

There is more to a great tablet than well-designed hardware and powerful bundled software. Third-party apps are really important in personalising a tablet and getting it to do what you want it to. We each have different ideas of what we want from a tablet, and that’s where a great app store is important. Unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, the Windows Store has far fewer apps available than the iOS App Store or Google Play. Developer support for Windows has always been great, so it’s only a matter of time before the Windows Store catches up. But right here in this moment of time that I’m writing this review there are only around 5,000 apps available – a somewhat low number compared to the 225,000 apps available for iPad.

Conclusion

Everyone has unique needs and wants from a tablet, that’s why there are already such a wide variety of devices available. Surface without doubt fill a gap in the market, Surface feels like it fits somewhere between iPads and Ultrabooks. While its lack of software won’t give it quite the flexibility of an Ultrabook, Surface does offer a PC-like experience in a tablet form-factor. It’s fast, comes with great software for both work and play, it’s compatible with most existing PC accessories, battery life is exceptional, and the product as a whole is solid, well built, and beautifully designed.

Surface takes on the task of balancing entertainment with productivity, and it achieves that task so brilliantly and so naturally that it almost seems like madness that anyone would choose to buy anything else – but, as I said, everyone has their own idea of what their ideal tablet is – to me, Surface is as close to ideal as any tablet has ever come. 

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