Surface RT vs. Windows 8 Pro Slate vs. iPad 3 on Vacation

My wife and I took a brief vacation to Las Vegas to celebrate (belatedly) her birthday. I took with me (in addition to my wife) 3 computers:

  1. Samsung Series 7 Slate, a Windows 8 Pro slate with a 11.x" screen.
  2. Surface RT.
  3. iPad 3.

Why 3 devices on vacation? Surely just cruising the Internet and checking email requires only 1 device. Probably my iPad, as it is the most comfortable device to use while lounging around (which after all is supposed to be what you do on vacation).

The reason for taking a device in addition to the iPad is I still have to do some work on vacation. My work includes accessing content management system (CMS) websites to answer discussion posts from my online students. Safari on the iPad does not play well with the CMS website I need to access. By contrast, Internet Explorer on the Surface RT, and IE and Firefox on the Windows 8 Pro device, both work fine.

My work also includes MS Word with Track Changes. iOS does not have "real" MS Office, and my experience with the alternatives is they lose something in the conversion. By contrast, the 2 Windows devices each have "real" MS Office.

I really did not need to take 2 Windows devices. The Samsung Series 7 Slate can do everything the Surface RT can do, and more, given the differences between Windows 8 and Windows RT. But I wanted to try out the Surface RT, and it didn’t add much weight or bulk to my gadget bag.

My usage of the 3 devices made me realize which devices I really "needed" and which I didn’t for this road trip. It also made me think more about some other devices I may purchase soon.

Couch Mode vs. Work Mode

My mention of working on vacation is not (just) to gain your sympathy. When working, I usually use my devices like a laptop. The device is on a desk, in landscape mode, at a slight angle, with a keyboard (Bluetooth or attached in the case of the Surface RT) in front of it, and plugged into a power source. By contrast, when not working, I am reclining on a couch or in bed (I’ll take the 5th on stall surfing), using my device as a slate.

Not surprisingly, the iPad is the device of choice when in couch mode. The iPad simply is more holdable than the other devices, perhaps because its aspect ratio is an e-book 4:3 rather than a laptop 16:9. And the iPad has great battery life, so I don’t need to be tethered to a plug.

By contrast, the Samsung slate is just a bit too heavy (and thick) to hold comfortably in couch mode.

The one surprise (to me) is that the Surface RT also worked decently in couch mode. While on vacation, my wife went to the hair salon. Me and my Surface RT were relegated to the couch in the reception area. Reclining on the couch did not seem a socially acceptable option. So I first put the Surface RT on the coffee table in front of me. But a couch and a coffee table do not make a good desk for work. So I ended up using the Surface RT as a slate, holding it as I would an iPad, albeit in landscape mode. I did not remove the keyboard cover. Instead, I folded the keyboard cover in back of the slate. This enabled me to hold both the slate and the keyboard cover, which was a more relaxing grip than just holding the slate. The magnet securing the connection between the slate and the keyboard cover is very strong, allowing this usage.

Turning to work mode, the Samsung slate (with its small dock) and the Surface RT (with its attached keyboard/cover) worked best in work mode, again because of their laptop aspect ratio. That said, the iPad 3, with a stand and a Bluetooth keyboard, has a decent laptop form factor in landscape mode.

Reading EMail

All 3 devices do a good job of viewing email. As you might guess, I used the iPad when in couch mode. When in work mode, I used the Samsung slate.  I could also have used the Surface RT in work mode but the Samsung slate’s screen is larger by about 1".

So far as expected. But I did learn something in choosing between Outlook and the Mail app on Windows 8 Pro. (Windows RT has only the Mail app). I ended up using the Mail app instead of Outlook when reading email on my Samsung slate. The Mail is a metro app, while Outlook is a desktop app. Consequently, the Mail app is less cluttered for a small screen, and more touch friendly for that reason and also by its Metro app design. Outlook has extra features, but I didn’t need them for reading email.

Responding to EMail

I need a hardware keyboard to respond to a number of emails; an onscreen keyboard doesn’t work well for me with long replies.

All 3 devices work well for responding to emails, including the iPad 3, in landscape mode, with a stand and a Bluetooth keyboard.

So far as expected. But I did learn something in performing edits on my email. Placing the  cursor to the location of the edit was easier with my finger on the iPad than with either my finger or trackpad on the two Windows devices. Similarly easier on the iPad was using my finger a mis-typed word, to obtain the pop-up of suggested spellings.

Then I realized the reason on-screen editing with my finger was easier on the iPad was the font on the iPad was larger (duh). So I thought I would change the font setting for the Mail app. However, I saw no way to do so globally. I consulted my good (and perhaps only) friend, Mr. Google. I saw I was in good company in posing this question. I also saw a reply by a Microsoft employee that there was no way to change globally the font setting for the Mail app. He said this was "by design", which I’ve learned is code for "it’s not a bug, it’s a feature!" Instead, for each new message, you have to change the font. Fail. Hopefully this will be fixed in a future update.

Viewing Websites (Fun)

If in couch mode, my preference is the iPad as long as the website doesn’t use Flash. In work mode, whatever device I happen to be using — no real preference, again assuming Flash is not involved. If Flash is involved, then I prefer Windows 8 Pro because Window RT does not support all Flash.

MS Office (work)

I had to review several MS Word documents and comment, using Track Changes. Both Windows 8 RT and Pro have "real" Office on which I can do this. The iPad doesn’t have MS Office, and apps which promise this capability lose something in the conversion. No contest here.

Website CMS (work)

I teach computer science at a community college. Some of my classes are traditional lecture and lab. Others are taught online. I also teach computer programming classes online for a national consortium of  community colleges.

Students post questions 24/7. Particularly on weekends and holidays when they have some free time to devote to their studies. So on vacation, I still answer discussion posts.

Both my college and consortium use content management systems (CMS) for their online websites, which includes a discussion area. Safari on the iPad does not work well with many CMS websites. A big problem is an inability to post discussion responses.

Accordingly, I would use a Windows 8 RT or Pro computer for this work. No preference between them.

Taking Files with You

Yes, I store documents on the cloud. Actually, a lot of clouds: Dropbox, Sharefile, Google Drive, SkyDrive, Box, etc. Still, for work, sometimes it is more convenient to take documents with you, especially if they are very large or already in folder structure. The Samsung Slate and the Windows RT both have a microSD slot. The iPad 3 of course doesn’t.

Google Reader

I use Google Reader for my feeds to try to keep up with the technology world. I find on all 3 devices that Google Reader clients are more friendly to touch and the small screen than the website, though the gap is less on the iPad than on the two Windows devices.

I use Mr. Reader on the iPad and NextGen Reader on the two Windows devices. Both are good. But I often read feeds in couch mode. So I usually use Mr. Reader on the iPad.


I use TeamViewer for remote support. All 3 devices have TeamViewer apps that work well.

Closing Thoughts

Surface RT

I hardly used the Surface RT since I brought the Windows 8 Pro device. The Surface RT’s advantages of portability and longer battery life are meaningless when the devices are stationary in my hotel room and plugged into power.

The Surface RT’s disadvantage arose because some of the work apps I use will run only on an x86 computer; there is no RT version or equivalent.

The Surface RT will have a place in my gadget bag. However, that place is for my daily routine. Then, I’m usually doing relatively simple tasks such as email for which I usually don’t need to have the extra capabilities of the Windows 8 Pro, and portability and battery life are meaningful considerations.

As for my Surface RT’s future, that may depend on the Surface Pro. Will the Surface Pro’s  extra weight and thickness affect its portability? Will the Surface Pro’s likely lesser battery life be meaningful? If the answer to both is no, it seems like the Surface Pro, with its additional capabilities (applications), may replace the Surface RT in my daily gadget bag.

Windows 8 Pro

A 10"or 11" screen doesn’t seem enough to do work. Maybe it’s just my eyesight. But I think the more important reason is that applications in desktop mode (such as Outlook) are not made for smaller screens. Nor does their seemingly cluttered interface  particularly touch friendly on a smaller screen.

I need to use a hardware keyboard for my work. The onscreen keyboard just isn’t sufficient.

Inspired by my wife’s MacBook Air, I’m thinking about an Ultrabook with a 13"+ screen. But with a touchscreen, since touch is a very useful feature for me. Perhaps the rumored for December release Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Touch (14" screen) to use as a slate. I’m partial to Lenovo laptops and desktops generally, so this possibility is intriguing.

Ultrabooks come with keyboards. Some are attached like a regular laptop. Some are detachable. I guess a detachable keyboard is more flexible for usage. But whether the keyboard is detachable or not is not a big issue for me since a 14" or so device would be difficult to use as a slate.

I also need a mouse as well as a keyboard in desktop mode. If the trackpad on the Ultrabook isn’t good enough, I’ll just bring a mouse. No big deal.

If I go the Ultrabook route, would I also get a Surface Pro? I really doubt I would drag a 14" Ultrabook around on day trips. So I may get a Surface Pro only to replace the Surface RT (assuming my concerns above about the Surface Pro’s thickness, weight and battery life are satisfied).


For couch mode, the iPad is the best of the 3 devices. My only thought is whether the iPad Mini form factor would be even better.

My wife and I just happened (?) upon an Apple Store during our vacation. We both got to handle the iPad Mini. The Mini makes the OG iPad seem heavy and thick. And indeed, the Mini is half as light and thin. It’s also smaller. As a result, it could be used one-handed, though perhaps not if you have small hands.

Yes, the Mini’s display is smaller, 7.9" vs. 9.6". But the screen size seems large enough. And yes, the Mini lacks a Retina Display. But the display still is very good. 

Android Tablet

I did not bring my elderly HTC Jetstream on the trip. I have been eyeballing the Nexus 10 and the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1. But I can’t justify purchasing either one (and justification for me is a low bar). I just don’t see what they add to the Windows 8 slate and iPad choices.

4 Responses to “Surface RT vs. Windows 8 Pro Slate vs. iPad 3 on Vacation”

  • Thanks for the great article. I am curious if you did any inking on these devices. I have an HP 2740p and love the wacom digitizer. I am hoping that the Surface Pro has wacom. I assume that inking on the RT is similar to inking on the ipad, a bad experience.

  • My only worry for Surface pro is that Microsoft will opt to exclude the option of a removable battery. other than that, it will be; in my opinion, one of the best computing devices out there.

    • My guess is the Surface Pro won’t have a removable battery to help keep its sleek form factor. Of course I don’t have the excuse of a removable battery to explain my non-sleek form factor 🙂

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