Yes, this review of the Microsoft Surface is a bit late. You’ve most likely read several of the high-profile reviews already. You’ve possibly read many more. In this review, I will focus only on the things I personally like and do not like. This will not be a be-all-end-all review. Please take what you can from it, and hopefully, if you’re on the fence about getting a Surface RT, this will cement your decision one way or the other.
Let’s get the hardware specifications out of the way. The Surface RT is a 1.5 pound, 10.6 inch tablet. The screen resolution is 1366×768. The processor is an Nvidia Tegra 3, which is a quad-core ARM-based processor, reportedly clocking in at 1.3 ghz per core. It comes with 2 GB of RAM, and a choice of either 32GB or 64GB of memory. In regards to ports, the Surface has a full-sized USB 2.0 port, a microSDXC port hidden behind the kickstand, a 3.5mm audio jack, and an HD video port.
Let’s get my bias out of the way. I have never been a fan of the iPad. I never cared for iOS, and I always thought it was a glorified static icon app-launcher. Using iTunes was always an abysmal experience on Windows. As a power user, I just couldn’t consider an iPad as a tablet option. So, when I saw the announcement of the Surface, and realized the potential it held, I was intrigued. I love being an early adopter, so I had to have this on day 1. Amidst the horror stories, my Surface was actually delivered by 11 am on October 26th.
The Surface I am reviewing is the 32GB version with black Touch Cover. I added a 64gb microSDXC card immediately, and that is where I store all my media.
After unboxing and entering my Live ID, I quickly set the device up how I wanted it. I had no issues with the lower screen resolution, nor with the performance of the device. Minus being able to install any x86 apps, (only apps from the Windows Store are installable) I found Windows RT to be identical to Windows 8. Some reviews said that the Surface size was too big for a consumption device, but I don’t agree. Yes, using the tablet in portrait mode is a little weird, but since I consider this a mini-laptop with the touch cover always connected, I always knew it would primarily be used in landscape mode. For the most part, apps open quickly, and multi-tasking is simple and intuitive. Understanding gestures and finger-swiping was quick and immediately useful. The design language that we cannot call “Metro” is utilized throughout nearly all of the apps on the Windows Store, and they are beautiful and useful.
* The hardware quality is unmatched. The VaporMG case is solid, and the device just screams quality. I dropped the tablet onto a tile floor the first day I had it. It took a hard, 3+ foot drop and I was scared to death before picking it up, as it laid face down. The Surface struck the tile on the top edge, and there were only two small scuffs to show for it. Although I don’t plan on testing this ever again, I’m glad the Surface can seemingly handle a drop test with flying colors.
* The screen is beautiful. No, it’s not a retina display. I haven’t had any issues with clarity of text, and the Cleartype HD screen performs well.
* The Windows 8 Start Menu interface, utilizing Live Tiles, is truly unique and useful. While Windows Phone 7 introduced the Live Tiles first, Windows 8/RT really brings it home. The larger, landscape screen as compared to a Windows Phone allows for many more tiles on the screen at one time, and much more information can be displayed per tile.
* Edge swiping is very innovative, useful, and simple. In a move that many feel will confuse Windows 7 users, Microsoft has added “hot corners.” On a non-touch enabled Windows 8 PC, it isn’t terribly natural to use hot corners with the mouse. On the Surface, however, finger swiping brings those hot corners to life much more easily and accurately. Right side sweeping brings the Charms Bar into view. More on that next. Left side sweeping rotates through your open apps, or can open the app-list by swiping right, then left. Swiping the bottom brings some app options, and a swipe from the top of the screen to the bottom will completely close the current app. Last, the capacitive Start button on the bottom-center of the Surface eliminates the need to find the hidden one on the bottom-right corner of the screen.
* The Charms Bar has become nearly second nature quite quickly, and it has become very useful. Even though the name is a bit of a head-scratcher, the execution is excellent. Starting from the top, the Charms Bar has a Search button. This Search charm is very powerful, as it defaults to search within the app you are currently in, but gives you the option to search any other app, the web, SkyDrive, and through all your local files. The Share charm allows you to share many things to your friends as well as your other apps. This is however not available while in desktop mode. Next, there is an additional Start button. Below that is the Devices charm, where you can send items to your printer or other connected device. Last, there is a Settings charm. This is quite powerful. While in an app, this charm is where you will access settings for that app. It will also allow you to access all of your Surface settings as well. This is also where you would go to shut down or restart the Surface.
* The desktop mode is a positive for power users. Sure, some may be confused because it is quite limited in usefulness. I find it very useful. I love using the desktop version of Internet Explorer. I also find having the full-blown File Explorer to be like a warm blanket. I love having full control of my files, and Windows RT allows for this in spades. The desktop mode is also where you will use your Office apps – Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote – for now at least. It is definitely possible that Microsoft intends to phase the desktop mode out for Windows RT.
* One of the largest selling points of the Surface RT was that it would come with Office 2013 for “free” out of the box. Although only the Preview version was installed, the full version was immediately available on launch day through Windows Update and installed flawlessly. This entire review is being typed on the Surface, along with the Touch Cover. Contrary to reports, Office 2013 runs quickly without issue on the Surface. I am not experiencing any typing delays, and I type quite fast. The full version enabled touch-optimization by default, and even though Office is clearly designed for a mouse-keyboard combination first, I had few issues getting what I needed accomplished through touch.
* Internet Explorer 10 is quite powerful and fast. Along with this, Flash is now enabled on most major sites. I have found IE10 to be a joy to use on both the desktop and on the “Metro” version as well. Yes, Flash works in both versions.
* The ability of Windows 8/RT to “snap” apps to the screen is very useful. The #1 example of this is having my Twitter feed snapped to the side while getting work done, web-browsing, or watching a video. This is all extremely easy with finger gestures.
* The Touch Cover is quite an amazing feat. Although you aren’t required to buy it, it’s quite a no-brainer. No, I can’t type as fast and as accurately as I can on a full-sized chiclet keyboard, but it’s not far off. The only complaint I would have while typing this review would be that the keyboard is a bit cramped to be used for an extended amount of time. I cannot comment on the Type Cover, but most reviewers seem to prefer the Touch Cover.
* The full-sized USB 2.0 port is really useful. From memory sticks, mice, keyboards, printers and even an Xbox 360 controller, the uses are nearly limitless. The only current drawback is a lack of support for USB 3G/4G dongles. For more on this, click here.
* The battery life on the Surface RT is everything you would hope it to be. You’ll easily get 8-10 hours of heavy use from it, and you shouldn’t need to worry about finding an A/C plug while traveling.
* Windows Phone 8 communication through the Surface is very nice through the Windows Phone app. Syncing is easy and painless. You can see how this works in the video review. Windows Phone 7 devices don’t fare so well yet, as you will see below in my “Negative Observations” section.
* I have one small complaint about the hardware. I have found the speakers to be on the soft side. They aren’t terrible, but they really should have a higher max volume. Not a deal breaker, by any means. One tip was to go into the speaker settings on the control panel, and enable “Loudness Equalization” under the Enhancements tab. It made no difference for me, but you can certainly give it a try.
* Some of the default Microsoft-included apps are half-baked. Most notably, the Mail app is truly lacking. It’s slow to load, and doesn’t give access to many of my useful Gmail options. The inclusion of Outlook would have made many very happy, but it isn’t available. The Pictures app includes almost no editing features, and is nearly useless. Luckily, Windows Photo Viewer is still available on the Desktop, and I’ve already defaulted my pictures to open into the Photo Viewer, which has support for pinch-to-zoom. The (Xbox) Music app is also quite lacking. I had to “hack” the Music app into seeing the music on my SD card. This is not acceptable, as the majority of users would never figure this out. Fortunately, Microsoft is “all-in” with Windows 8/RT, and they have already released updates for several of their bundled apps. Hopefully they are working hard on improving the Mail app. If not, we can only hope Google sees the opportunity Windows RT can be, and releases official Gmail and YouTube apps onto the Windows Store.
* The Windows Store is in its infancy. The introduction of a new app marketplace as the only place the Surface can get its apps can be frustrating. Most glaringly, Facebook has no app available. This means that there is no ability to share a picture to Facebook through the Charms bar. Many more highly desirable apps are also missing, like Dropbox. There are promising signs that this will change quickly, however. When Angry Birds Star Wars was released on November 8th, it was simultaneously released on iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and Windows 8/RT. That is a very promising sign.
* App prices are the same, whether you buy it for your full-blown Windows 8 PC or your Windows RT tablet. And the prices? They are high. Several of the premiere games available for launch are $9.99. Both Angry Birds Space and Angry Birds Star Wars are $4.99. These same apps for iOS and Android and considerably cheaper. Even though it can be argued that the Surface RT wasn’t designed to be an iPad killer, if Microsoft wants to steal sales from Apple, it needs to have competitive app prices on their store, at least on the RT side. I’m not sure that these are separable, and that is problematic.
* The Surface RT has a decent amount of video codec support out of the box, but it’s not complete. Most notably, the Surface cannot play MKV files. There are already apps in the Windows Store that play MKV files, but they are not yet available for ARM devices like the Surface. I’m out of luck until someone like VLC releases an ARM-compatible video player app.
* Unfortunately, Windows Phone 7 users are currently in the dark on a Surface. They can’t install the Zune Marketplace app, and the Windows Phone app currently only recognizes WP8 phones. This may change with the WP 7.8 release, but as of this writing, nothing has been announced for WP 7.8 other than the start screen changes.
* The quality of the two cameras is atrocious. But, if you bought any tablet as your primary picture-taking device, we need to talk. The front facing camera should be just fine for video-conferencing and Skype, however. That’s probably all you would use it for, anyways. The angled back camera could also be useful in a business meeting format.
Wrap-Up and Final Observations