Surface RT Review

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My Microsoft Surface RT arrived on October 26 as promised. I’ve now set it up and put it through its initial steps. Before I go further – or get diverted by real work – I thought this would be a good stopping point to summarize my initial experience. Indeed, I had planned to post this summary a few days after delivery, but work, and yes, playing with the Surface RT got in the way. Consequently, this post has evolved past brief first impressions to more of a review. Bottom line: the Surface RT has replaced my iPad as my “go to” portable laptop, but has not replaced my iPad. Read on …

Delivery

The RT came on time. But the email shipment notification didn’t. I didn’t receive the email until the midnight before delivery, when the unit already was in the local FedX, via Shanghai > Narita > Anchorage > Memphis. I previously called MS customer support, worried about the lack of email notification. Unfortunately, they were clueless when not contradictory. Fortunately, other tech blogs posted how to use your MS order number to track delivery. So I knew the RT was coming. And come it did. So all’s well that end’s well.

Unboxing

I had a full day of work on delivery day and by evening was very tired. Nevertheless, as a certified (certifiable) geek, I just had to see what I bought. Unboxing was easy. No box cutters needed. Just cut some strong scotch tape and pulled one container out of another. The box included:

  • Surface RT – I bought the 64GB unit. Go big or go home. Also, per Microsoft, the OS (+ perhaps pre-installed apps like Office) take up 16 GB, and I’m not sure you can install or move apps to the microSD card as you can in Android.
  • Touch cover – Bundled with the 64GB unit. You can get any color as long as it’s black.
  • Power adapter – I also bought an extra.
  • User guides – For RT and touch cover. Very short, just a few pictures. Pretty worthless.
  • Warranty and legal stuff – Lots of this, all worthless.

Form Factor

The Surface RT essentially is as thin and light as an iPad. The RT understandably is a bit larger because it has a larger screen (10.6” vs. 9.7”). However, I believe the more important difference is the RT is more elongated than an iPad. In portrait mode, the Surface RT actually is about 1/2 inch less wide than an iPad, but over 1 inch greater in height.

RT iPad
Height (inches) 10.81 9.50
Width (inches) 6.77 7.31
Depth (inches) 0.37 0.37
Weight (pounds) 1.5 1.46

The reason the Surface RT is more elongated than the iPad is that its aspect ratio is 16:9 instead of the iPad’s 4:3. In other words, the RT is more the shape of a laptop, whereas the iPad is more the shape of an e-book reader. More below on the consequences of this difference.

As a result, the RT is less comfortable to hold and read than the iPad while in couch mode. However, because of its laptop form factor, + the touch (or type) cover (discussed soon), the RT has replaced my iPad as my portable laptop, which I take to school and other places for email, light editing, etc. But the RT has not replaced my iPad entirely – see Planned Usage below.

Initial Setup

Painless, easy. I powered the unit, answered a few questions, and after a few minutes, setup was complete. Really not much to say.

Touch Cover vs. Type Cover

During the setup, I inputted information using the touch cover keyboard. Others have reported the sensation of  typing on glass (since the touch cover has no raised keys). I’ve never typed on  glass, so I can’t comment on that comparison.

Typing on the touch cover does take getting used to. Originally I reverted to “hunt and peck” typing. Later I returned to touch typing (makes sense on a touch keyboard). I found my most common mistake was missing the space bar. Bottom line is I’m getting used to it. If not, I can always buy the slightly thicker type cover, which has raised keys.

The touch cover has a physical connection with the device; their respective ports connect. This physical connection also means no need to set up Bluetooth or have a USB cable.

The port connection is augmented by a very powerful magnetic connection that holds the RT firmly in place. With the RT’s integrated kickstand (very neat), you have a laptop!

This laptop configuration takes only seconds to set up. The touch cover, as the word “cover” suggests, also doubles as a cover over the screen when you stuff the RT in your briefcase. To start using the RT, you simply fold out the touch cover from cover to keyboard position, reach behind the RT, and fold out the very solid kickstand. Literally seconds.

The touch keyboard has several useful dedicated  shortcut keys (sound, settings, search, etc.). The RT OS also supports a number of keyboard shortcuts – see Microsoft Surface RT gesture and keyboard shortcut guide.

After singing all these praises of the touch cover, I ended up buying a type cover. Maybe it’s just me and my fat, clumsy fingers, but I find typing on a keyboard with real (as opposed to capacitive) keys much easier. On the touch cover, just too many typos (like missing the space bar) that I don’t make on the touch cover. Of course, your mileage may vary.

The type cover is a bit thicker and heavier than the touch cover, but not much. With the type cover, the RT is still very portable in its closed position.

Mouse

The promise of the iPad and RT is to replace the traditional mouse (and keyboard) with touch. With the iPad, I’ve never needed to use a mouse. Not so with the RT. When editing text, I need to move the cursor, and doing this with my finger doesn’t work very well.

Both the touch cover and the type cover have a trackpad. I find the trackpad on the type cover more accurate. Each has, below the trackpad, an area which you can press to simulate a left or right click. Again, I find that area easier to use on the type cover.

User Interface and touch

I saw the Metro (or whatever it’s now called) UI. I already was used to the tiles from a Windows Phone (HTC Trophy) I had for a while. There is a learning curve, especially since there’s no longer a start button. But the learning curve is brief and not steep. In the Metro interface, you use swipe gestures:

  • Swipe up from bottom to log in or wake up
  • Swipe from right to access main settings (start, search, settings)
  • Swipe from left to display the last opened app
  • Swipe from left, then back, to show all open apps (think ALT + TAB)
  • Swipe down to close the current app

Microsoft Surface RT gesture and keyboard shortcut guide has a more comprehensive list of gestures.

You can go into Desktop mode, which is the familiar, though not as touch friendly, Windows desktop. However, I’m preferring Metro as it is very touch friendly. I only go to desktop when I may need to for advanced settings not handled in the Metro interface.

The bottom line is the touch is very responsive and fluid.

Speed and Stability

My perception is that applications sometimes can be a bit slow (a relative term) to load. Of course, slow is a relative term.

Applications load reasonably quickly, perhaps not as quickly as an iPad, but close enough. I purchased Angry Birds Space for both platforms; purely for testing purposes you understand Winking smile  The difference in load time was negligible.

Applications are fluid once launched; no hiccups. My Angry Birds Space experience was comparable on both the RT and the iPad.

Boot, Resume and Battery life

A cold boot is not especially fast. But neither is it in the iPad. Fast enough.

Resume from sleep is pretty much instantaneous — like an iPad.

Battery life is excellent – comparable to an iPad. Since resume from sleep is so fast, I can let the RT go to sleep fairly quickly. As a result, I have not come close to needing to charge the RT during the day. I charge the RT at night before I go to sleep (from which I don’t resume as quickly as the RT, but this review isn’t about me).

You charge the battery with a connector similar to Apple’s MagSafe. However, in an unfortunate departure from an otherwise stellar job of hardware, the connector is difficult to attach and easily comes loose. I’ve thought I was charging the RT overnight only to find I wasn’t. Not a show stopper – you just have to be careful – but a bit of a PITA.

The battery charges quickly. There is an icon which, by comparing fill vs. transparent, you can approximate the percentage charged. However, unless I’m missing something, you can’t see the actual percentage charged in Metro view; only in Desktop view. Nor can I find a battery meter widget or app in the store.

Display

The RT does not have a retina display. Compared to the iPad, yes, some games and videos don’t show as vividly. But it is good enough.

Also, I am using the RT more as a workhorse than a gaming/entertainment device. For email and web browsing, quite good, perhaps due to Microsoft’s ClearType.

Connectivity

Connectivity is WiFi – no 3G or 4G option at this time (or maybe ever). WiFi is a bit flakey. The connection sometimes shows “limited” for a time, or I simply lose and have to re-establish the connection. Partly this may be to the RT going to sleep often for power management purposes. These WiFi issues are more annoyances than show stoppers. Perhaps they will be fixed in an upcoming OS update – the RT OS still is very new.

Inking

The RT does not have an active digitizer; you’ll have to wait for the Surface Pro. Inking is akin to an iPad.

MS Office

I dislike the hackneyed the “killer feature.” But the RT’s killer feature is that, unlike the iPad and Android, the RT includes the real Office 2013, which in turn includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. (No Outlook – see next on mail). So Track Changes and all that stuff is native – no conversion issues.

My understanding is that Office 2013 in RT does not include some features in Office 2013 on an x86. For example, the blog businesss intelligist reports that Excel in Office RT lacks add-in support and other business intelligence features of “regular” Excel such as PowerPivot and PowerView. Nevertheless, for my on the road productivity purposes, these limitations have been minor so far.

Setting up Mail

My first task was to set up email. Normally I do this through Outlook. But Office 2013 RT, included with the Surface RT, doesn’t include Outlook. Instead, you use Mail. No matter. Setting up mail was quite easy.

One downside of no Outlook, no way to access my Tasks on my Exchange Server except through the web (Outlook Web Access). My understanding is that Windows RT includes the ability to access tasks, so that functionality could be added in a version upgrade, or by a third party app such as NitroDesk’s TouchDown, which already performs this function for Android.

Apps, where are thou?

Not too many apps currently in the market. This is a problem, perhaps the major one. Hopefully there will be more apps soon. There better be if the RT is to be successful.

In the meantime, for mission critical applications like Facebook Winking smile that lack dedicated RT apps which parallel those available for iOS and Android, I use the web browser (Internet Explorer). that’s been sufficient so far. And IE doesn’t have Safari’s limitations for course management websites that I have to access.

Still, the app situation will need to improve. If the Surface RT has an Achilles’ heel, the lack of apps is it.

Planned Usage

I have a long day, often starting at dawn and ending at 10 pm. (My wife wants to get me a paper route because I’m not doing anything between 1 am and 4 am but that’s another story). I’m often at several different places, two of which are my office downtown and the college where I teach.

Taking the college as an example, I get there a couple of hours before my class starts, both to be available to students and decompress. During that available time, I want to review and respond my email, and access course management sites where I teach online.

My phone is not really adequate for these email and web browser tasks, if for no other reason than the small screen size. So I take a laptop-type device with me.

The premium though is on portability and batter life – I don’t need the firepower of a heavy, battery-sucking laptop for my email and web browsing tasks.  So until recently, I have brought my iPad.

Not anymore.  The RT now is my portable laptop. As discussed above, it has more of a laptop form factor than a laptop. It also has an integrated keyboard, and “real” Office. My iPad stays home.

At home, my iPad still is my device of choice, especially when in couch mode, because its more ebook form factor makes it more holdable than the RT.

The RT is not a laptop substitute. When on business trips – or vacations where it is still necessary to work a bit – I will bring my x86 (or more accurately x64) Samsung Series 7 slate.

Closing Thoughts – Surface Pro

I’m quite happy with my RT purchase. Yet … the Surface Pro is coming out in a few months, with full-blown Windows 8. The Pro will be larger and heavier than the RT, and with less battery life. Still, it may be portable enough to replace the RT in my gadget bag. No way to know until the Surface Pro comes out.

5 Responses to “Surface RT Review”

  1. Draco says:

    I wonder if apple will continue with its minimalistic approach, or if they will release a more decent pad for $2,000 XD

    • I suspect Apple with keep the dichotomy between OS X and iOS, with the premium OS X devices around $2K. iOS, no, won’t sell enough at that price range no matter how good the device is.

      • Draco2032 says:

        That’s what I thought when they released the Mac Air… And what do you know. Those things sell for up to $2,000! They are actually good machines, but you can get a Dell Ultra Book with similar aspects for $900. Hopefully Apple does not commit that sin, hey if they manage to sell those things, good for them, their marketing team deserve a nobel’s. I just feel sorry for the Parents of teenagers XD

  2. Chuong Nguyen says:

    Great review and insights. I am still on the fence about RT’s ecosystem and will likely hold out for the Surface Pro. In the interim, also tempted by the Ativ Smart PC for the more traditional hybrid form factor.

    • Thanks Chuong. There are other RT alternatives. The attractions of the Surface RT are excellent hardware quality + very light and small. Makes my mouth water for the Surface Pro, which will only be a bit heavier and larger, battery life being the question.