Meet Microsoft’s first venture in making computer hardware: Surface RT. This tablet device comes running Windows RT (a version of Windows 8 for ARM Processors, and thus has compatibility differences) and is pre-loaded with Office 2013 Home & Student. This device represents the hard work of two whole new puzzle pieces to create a homogenous device like Apple has always done. For starters, the hardware had to be made from the ground up since this was unfamiliar territory. Second, Microsoft created a whole new OS with Windows 8 and Windows RT that was centered around a touch interface instead of just the traditional mouse and keyboard.
I wrote about how Windows 8 Pro performed with a traditional desktop, and now I’ve got my hands on one of the first Surface RT tablet. The contents of the box is sparse just as the minimal look of the packaging. Inside is only the tablet, charger and a small manual – how very Apple. The unit itself feels perfect in your hands. Not just great, but honestly perfect. It’s a very solid but gentle feeling piece of machine and hard to describe other than perfect. The kickstand – sexual. It’s really a beautiful feeling and not what I had expected at all, it opens smooth but with force, and the whole time feels completely and utterly solid.
The display is truly as great as they were claiming. It’s not a retina display but it comes pretty darn close. Text and images are very easy to see and doesn’t strain your eyes due to the high contrast Clear-Type screen. All the colors are very rich and vivid making this one of the best screens I’ve ever seen, and certainly the 2nd best screen on a tablet in the market today.
Performance-wise, the Surface RT is very fluid and only starts to sputter when you have 6+ apps open at the same time. Office and most Apps load fairly quickly but not as fast as the Apple iPad 3, but definitely not painful. The Tegra 3 only runs at 1.3ghz and it does definitely get used a lot. I ran several programs at once and ran the processor at ~90-100% for about 30 minutes and the unit itself only got warm, never hot.
Device compatibility seems to be nearly a non-issue with the Surface RT even though it uses a different type of processor called ARM instead of the desktop traditional x86/x64 that the Surface Pro will come with. Upon plugging in my canon camera and canon laser printer, it detected both of them instantly and I was immediately able to browse or import my photos and print them out without a hitch.
There are however a few immediate concerns. The charge port with the proprietary connector sucks. There’s no other way to put it, it’s not good and took me a bit to get it in. Second, the unit itself is large – very large. The width of it is staggering but it’s like that because Windows 8 and Windows RT allows you to run 2 apps on the screen at once and needs the real estate. Due to the width I thought that holding it with one hand would be cumbersome and tiring, but it wasn’t at all. Microsoft stated that with the Surface tablets they worked on the balance of the unit heavily, and it certain feels that way. In my hands it genuinely feels lighter to me than the Apple iPad 3.
Using the Surface RT without the keyboard
I ordered the touch cover in cyan but it didn’t arrive at the same time as my RT Tablet, so I thought this would be a great opportunity to review for those of you who opted against buying either a Touch Cover or Type Cover with your Surface tablet.
There are 3 different on-screen “keyboards” to choose from on Windows RT. The first and default keyboard takes up the whole bottom half of the screen and displays the alphabetical keys first, with a separate button to access the numerical and special keys. The letters themselves are beautifully spaced out due to the width of the surface, and I found myself rarely making typo’s. In portrait mode, this keyboard gets narrower but still maintains a spacious layout. In this keyboard layout though, I thoroughly wished that that sexy beast of a kickstand would be able to support the weight of the Surface RT so I could place it on a desk and type on it laying down (see picture above). It’s because of that, that I don’t see a lot of people using this on-screen keyboard unless it’s resting on your lap.
The next on-screen keyboard for Windows RT is similar to the way that Swift-key for Android is laid out, it’s for holding the Surface RT or Pro with both hands and using your thumbs to type away. It also has a numerical pad in the center in landscape mode which disappears when you switch to portrait. I found this mode to be very comfortable, but there are .5cm gaps from the edge on each side that pushes the keys away from you and some of the outer letters become a stretch. If you have small fingers, this will be a huge issue and basically not usable, and I’m not sure why Microsoft didn’t pay attention to this detail.
The last keyboard option for Microsoft’s Windows RT OS is the writing or signature recognition. Writing in this mode using a finger is not very good since your skin gives way and what you think you’re writing doesn’t look like it at all. Microsoft’s writing recognition is pretty good most of the time but it certainly not perfect but it’s a miracle it understands as well as it does with some of the things I ended up putting on the screen. Editing errors in this mode is a huge pain. Deleting one character takes a significant amount of effort and it will often think I’m trying to put an “l” or “-” instead of deleting that character. I would avoid this mode at all costs unless you have a pen for this.
The Microsoft Surface RT with Windows RT is a great piece of machine with some great software that we’re all going to be familiar with if we aren’t already. Microsoft clearly spent a significant amount of time thinking about all aspects of both the software and the hardware on the Surface RT, but they obviously did it all with the touch cover or type cover in mind. Without the physical keyboards, the device loses its ability to be a creation machine like it yearns to be and is forced to sit back in the consumption world.
So unless you enjoy torturing yourself or not getting the full usefulness out of your devices, I would spring for either the Touch-Cover or Type-Cover for your Surface RT or Surface Pro.
Update: Using any of the keyboards in desktop mode covers up most of the screen and you cannot scroll the desktop around to see, so if the text field is where the on-screen keyboard pops up, you won’t be able to see what you’re typing. Definitely get the touch cover or type cover for your Surface RT or Pro.