Can Microsoft make great Windows hardware? Can Microsoft make great Windows software?
I have posed myself these two questions for this review because the Surface RT running Windows RT forces you to ask about both the hardware and the software. Can Microsoft be great in either of these two realms? No review of the Surface RT can be complete without talking about Windows RT and Windows 8. The world according to Microsoft has changed radically and they are redefining their core product with one massive leap. In the past, Microsoft have always needed at least two if not three iterations of a software product to make it great. But what about hardware?
The device is my own, I bought it directly from Microsoft and as such is a standard retail product.
The first sign that something has changed in Redmond is the box that the Surface RT comes in. It is quite simply a beautiful retail box. This may seem unimportant, but first impressions count and this time, Microsoft are making a great first impression with its simple and very minimalistic branding. Opening the box was a lovely experience. The touch cover that my Surface RT came with is the first thing I opened. You sort of snap the cover out of a tray and immediately it feels very odd to have a thin and light cover with a keyboard on it. The box contains a charger and some minor paperwork which is well hidden and the focus is now all on the Surface itself.
- Windows RT; Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 RT
- 274.6 x 172 x 9.4 mm (10.81 x 6.77 x 0.37 in)
- 680.4 grams
- 32Gb or 64Gb storage with Micro-SD expansion
- 10.6" ClearType HD Display, 1366x768 pixels, 5-point multi-touch
- Quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 3
- 2GB RAM
- Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n)
- Bluetooth 4.0 technology
- Standard battery, Li-Ion (31.5 Wh)
- Front and rear 1.2MP cameras with 720p HD recording
- Two microphones
- Stereo speakers
- Full-size USB 2.0
- microSDXC card slot
- Headset jack
- HD video out port
- Cover port
- Ambient light sensor
I can answer my first question straight away. Yes, Microsoft can make great hardware. It is difficult to overstate how cool this tablet looks and how lovely the magnesium case feels. It is a fairly hefty device to hold in one hand but is great with two hands and the magnesium case feels lovely and cool to the touch with even a tiny bit of gripiness that aids holding it. This is a very solid piece of kit which doesn't creak or flex in any way.
The front of the device is obviously dominated by the 10.6" screen which is surrounded by nicely sized bezels. You can see the front facing camera and light sensor in the middle, above the screen and the Windows logo beneath the screen which is a capacitive touch button.
The back is fairly simple with a black plastic strip at the top containing the rear facing camera and I assume, the WiFi antennas. There is a large Windows logo on the back as well which after just 2 days started to actually chip away a little. This seems to be a common problem and the only problem with quality I have found so far. The back also houses the kickstand - more on which is to come later. The microSD slot is housed under that kickstand and is easy to miss if you didn't know it was there.
The left side has, from top to bottom, a small speaker, a standard 3.5mm headphone jack and the volume controls. I am not sure if it is just me, but I find the volume control is exactly where I want to put my left hand when switching the device on using the power button, it can be a bit annoying especially as the button is extremely responsive - a mixed blessing it seems.
On the right of the device there is, from top to bottom, the other speaker, a micro HDMI slot, a full sized USB port and the charging plug. This is magnetized, but only slightly. Many people have complained that it is easy to knock the charger out but I have had no issues with it so far.
The top of the device just houses the very responsive power button whilst the bottom of the device simply contains the dock connector for the touch and type covers.
Microsoft made a big deal about how well designed the kickstand is, comparing it to a luxury car door in feel and sound. My take on the kickstand is that it is an extremely solid and beautiful piece of engineering but does not match the ludicrous comparisons Microsoft chose to make. It does feel designed to last and I have used it a fair bit. Each time I open or close it, there is a satisfying amount of feedback, a gentle click noise and no doubt in my mind that the kickstand will last longer than the rest of the device. It holds the device at 22 degrees when in portrait mode and can hold the device in landscape but I wouldn't recommend it!
Reviewing the Surface could be done in two ways. With and without one of the innovative and amazing covers. The short summary of a review without a cover is simply, buy a cover! The Surface without the cover is just a tablet. The Surface with the cover is something entirely different.
I bought my Surface with the touch cover which is a 3mm thick pressure sensitive keyboard with a sort of fake felt feeling outer side. In many ways, the touch cover is the same as a smart cover available for the iPad, but in one really important way it is completely different. It is also a keyboard. It is a simply amazing piece of ergonomic design to be able to fold the cover behind the Surface when not in use - at which time an accelerometer stops the keyboard from working - and then bring it back into typing position at which time it instantly starts working again and you can type a long missive easily.
The typing experience is best described as acceptable. It has taken me about a week to get used to it and now I can type very easily for long periods but only at a limited speed and with limited accuracy. I am typing at least twice as fast on it as I can with the onscreen keyboard, but still slower and less accurately than a proper keyboard. Compared though to a 10" netbook, I find it about the same.
Snapping the touch cover to the Surface is a thing of joy. It may sound silly but it really is satisfying the way that the two pieces click together. They join with a real thunk and the magnetic contact is strong enough that the Surface can be held up by the connected touch cover easily. Disconnecting the two takes a little effort but I find myself doing so often just to reconnect them! The engineering behind this connector is fantastic.
The thing that surprised me most about the touch cover is how good the touchpad is. It is not as good as a normal laptop but it is extremely usable and something that you only use rarely, but it is nice to know how well it works.
Much has been said about the screen. It is not as good as an iPad 3 or iPad 4 screen. However, the 1366x768 unit is still excellent. It is bright with nice colour reproduction and decent viewing angles. I have had no cause for complaint. The full HD screen on the Surface Pro should be excellent. The only downsides are that it is a major fingerprint magnet and is quite reflective especially when viewing at non-optimal angles. The brightness of the screen compensates for both of these issues but they still exist.
Being an early adopter can bring many disappointments and I must be clear on this, Windows RT is not Windows as we know it so be prepared for some disappointments if your expectation is that you get a full desktop experience on the Surface RT. Windows RT is a special version of Windows which runs only on ARM hardware and only runs apps downloaded from the Microsoft Store. I wont give a full review of Windows RT here but will call out some specific points instead.
Windows RT just like Windows 8 is very heavily touch optimised. But all is far from perfect. Why oh why oh why is there still a desktop mode? The answer obviously is Office. Windows RT and the Surface RT comes with a free copy of Office although there is no Outlook. I simply cannot understand why Microsoft has allowed desktop mode to exist in Windows RT and can only assume they ran out of time to make Office touch optimised. Office in Windows RT is pretty similar to any other Office and works fantastically well. I would prefer to use the web versions of Word, Excel etc in a touch environment. They look like Modern UI apps unlike Office in Windows RT and give enough features to be a passable replacement. But then Microsoft wouldn't be able to call Surface RT a productive tablet. Or would it!? There are Office equivalents available on other platforms that work reasonably well for most and the addition of a "proper" keyboard with the touch or type covers would still be a unique selling point. Microsoft have created confusion here.
Microsoft have carried over their UI enhancements from Windows 8 to Windows RT, so you will find the charms bar, no start menu on the desktop and the new app switcher. The difference is that using touch gestures to interact with these new UI elements is both quick and fun. Swipe in from the right to open the charms bar, swipe from the top or bottom to see extra controls for the app you are using and swipe in from the left to bring the last used app back into view. It all works extremely well, is very slick and genuinely a good paradigm.
Snap mode adds to Microsoft's assertion that the Surface RT is the most productive tablet. Snap mode allows you to run any two apps side by side with what appears to be true multitasking. Simple swipe in from left - swipe in and out from the left to see all recent apps in the appswitcher - and drag an app onto the left or right edge and it will snap into position, taking up a third of the screen. Apps have to support this mode specifically, but most I have tried do and it is wonderful to use the web browser on two thirds of the screen and an instant messaging app or a Twitter app snapped to a third of the screen. It is fantastic, works brilliantly and genuinely makes the Surface RT better to use than most other tablets for those times when you are doing two things at once.
Surface RT and Windows RT comes with Internet Explorer 10. It is a fantastic browser which renders pages quickly and accurately. When browsing the web, the address bar gets out of your way and the browser is in full screen mode. Swipe up from the bottom or down from the top to reveal the address bar and all open tabs. It is fast and intuitive and using web apps - GMail for instance - it really feels like a native app. Very impressive stuff. Internet Explorer tabs do not run in the background though.
The real issue with the Surface RT is apps. There simply are not enough of a good enough quality. Those that are well written run fantastically well, look great and are genuinely a pleasure to use. I have found very few that fulfill these criteria and it is a real shame. Even the stock apps are not brilliant. Mail is a very basic and slow mail client, the people app whilst useful is not particularly well designed and the maps app is annoyingly slow although lovely to use. Thankfully the calendar works well, and Office works brilliantly though can be slow to load.
The performance of Windows RT is broadly comparable to other similar platforms, the Surface RT response well to touch inputs and is really very slick to use. Apps that are well written such as Internet Explorer as well as some in the Microsoft Store are a pleasure as well. But it is fairly obvious that the platform has not been well optimised and the Tegra 3 chipset is a little underpowered. Many apps lag when loading and it can get a bit tiresome. There has been a performance update from Microsoft which really helped, but more needs to be done.
Windows RT is a very promising platform that in time will hopefully become a real pleasure to use all the time. Microsoft have a good track record here recently with Windows 7 being massively more performant than its predecessor and the same is true of Windows Phone 8. Lets hope Windows RT catches up quickly.
Windows RT promises to recognise thousands of USB peripherals. I have tried a number of keyboards, mice and external storage devices which all worked except my Microsoft Arc Touch mouse, weirdly! My Canon printer was not recognised either but many printers are working well according to other early adopters. If Windows RT does not have a driver for your hardware, you are out of luck, but being able to plug many devices in and have them "just work" is wonderful.
You can purchase a cable to connect the Surface RT to an HDMI port. The cable is a microHDMI to HDMI cable and can be bought online for a few pounds. This works very well and Windows RT installed some drivers when I connected to my TV allowing sound to come from the TV too.
I mention the speakers as a specific item just to say that they are really quiet and on a tablet that is annoying. Their quality is fairly average, but even at max volume, films watched through Netflix are really quiet. I do not understand why and have been unable to fix this.
The Surface RT comes with 2 cameras both 1 megapixel and both capable of recording in HD. They are both fairly awful and only suitable for video chat where they work quite well.. The front facing camera is angled so that when the tablet is sitting on its kickstand the camera is at the right angle. Having tried this I can confirm that they got this nearly right. I sit quite high above my desk and the angle is a few degrees short, but it is a pretty decent effort in this area. One final note on the cameras is that the lense on the rear facing camera gets really smudged very easily.
I have used the Surface RT for long continuous periods and for short bursts. It can easily achieve 8-9 hours of continuous usage, but the standby performance is not as good. It is still more than acceptable and I find myself charging the Surface about twice a week even though I use it as my primary device at home now most of the time. I am not concerned about letting apps run in the background which will affect standby performance of the battery and it is a hard thing to comment on anyway, but I think the battery is about as good as Microsoft claim.
The price of the basic 32Gb Surface RT at £399 looks like reasonable value. But when you consider that only around 20Gb of storage is available and many apps and games are fairly large it looks less good although at least it supports micro-sd expansion. The real kicker is that at that price you don't get one of the two fantastic covers included. This is a real shame and I would certainly not advise buying a Surface RT without a cover. This means spending at least £479. At this price it is too expensive and I am sure that Microsoft could have done a better job here. If the basic tablet included the touch cover then it would be a very good value proposition. If you want the type cover, you have to buy the basic tablet and then the £109 cover. This seems far too expensive to me.
I asked if Microsoft can make great hardware. The Surface RT proves they absolutely can. But what about the software? Simply put, it is not great but has loads of potential. If it weren't for the fantastic web browser on the Surface RT I would have returned my unit and waited for version 2 of the software and continued using my Nexus 7 and laptop combination I used before. However, the Surface RT has completely replaced my laptop for all activities other than hacking my Android devices. If Surface RT could run ADB, allowing me to hack at my Android devices fully, then I would not touch my laptop.
What we have here is something that feels years ahead of its time and also far from complete. The performance is just short of where it needs to be, the apps are weak and far from plentiful and yet the hardware is simply awesome, the touch cover outstanding and the web browser beyond reproach.
So, should you buy one? Well, if you want a tablet but need to be more productive using Office with a proper keyboard on a regular basis, there is a good argument to say yes. If you use a tablet as a pure consumption device, then it is much harder to recommend today. I sincerely hope I can change that view point in the coming months. Most people sit somewhere in between those two extremes and your choice here depends on whether you can put up with the shortcomings of Surface RT. I can and it is an extremely enjoyable device to use and own.
But lets not forget about the Surface Pro which will run full Windows 8 including all legacy apps and apps from the Microsoft Store at the cost of about a 50% increase in thickness and weight and most likely less than half battery life for twice the money. If I want to run full Windows 8, I would buy an ultrabook. The form factor of the Surface RT seems to me much better suited to Windows RT and its generally fully immersive touch experience. Windows 8 desktop and especially legacy apps are not at all touch optimised and that will be an issue.
I hope Microsoft are listening and push out rapid fixes for the issues in Windows RT and especially the stock apps. And I hope they are working hard on Surface RT 2 which could be the post-post-PC computing future fully realised.