First Impression of Microsoft’s Surface RT without Touch Cover

 November 10, 2012
Posted by Rashed Talukder

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.

Microsoft Surface RT backside with kickstand out

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.

Default on-screen keyboard layout on Microsoft Windows Surface RT

Microsoft Surface RT with Kickstand Out and Laying Down

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.

Microsoft Surface RT showing thumb accessible keyboard

Microsoft Surface RT showing thumb accessible on-screen keyboard in portrait mode

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.

Microsoft Surface RT on-screen writing recognition keyboard

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.

Final Thoughts

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.


  1. Kenneth

    Hi, I found your review via the WPCenter forums and was wondering if you can check, if it’s possible change the language (both UI and keyboard) on the Surface RT? I live in a country where the Surface RT isn’t launched right now, but I dying to get my hands on one 🙂

    • |

      Hey there and thanks for coming to my site.

      I just checked and you can’t change all of the language settings. I can change the keyboard to almost anything, but the display is only in US English on my Surface RT. So you can type in a different language but the text that’s going to be on the screen will be English.

      • PPZ

        Hi Rashed, just wanted point this out… you can change the display language in control panel as well as the keyboard. Thanks for your other tips on this device.

  2. Leo

    Hi! Thank you much for great hands-on review!
    I am also considering buy a Surface 🙂
    But for me a point if it is possible to change system language (interface, keyboard). Could you please check if your Surface allows it?
    Thank you!

    • |

      Hey Leo, thanks for visiting my website. Please note my reply to Kenneth. It answers the same question you have.

  3. Andrea


    Could you test if a Usb 3g key is working with your surface?


    • |

      I don’t have a 3G wireless key available. As long as you don’t need to install any driver software, it should work (so just because one might work, another may not). I hope that somewhat helps you Andrea. Thank you for visiting my site and please do share with others if you found this helpful.

    • |

      Leo, please see my reply to Kenneth.

  4. Randy Warner

    The on screen keyboard covering what you’re trying to type in desktop mode is truly a pain in the rear. I plan to add the external keyboard asap but hoping Microsoft can correct this issue as well. It makes the on screen keyboard in desktop mode practically unusable.

  5. bryan

    Dear Rashed,
    Thanks for your awesome sharing !
    I would like to ask if someone didn’t buy the microsoft surface cover keyboard, can I insert a usb external keyboard to ensure me to utilize the whole screen as well? =)

    • |

      Hi Bryan,

      You can use a USB or Bluetooth keyboard with the Surface RT but there is an issue with 8.1 where if you touch a text field, the on-screen keyboard will pop-up. It disappears the second you start typing your first letter though. I hope Microsoft will address this problem and issue a fix.

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