The Microsoft Surface is a Windows 8 tablet with integrated stand and keyboard running on both ARM and Intel systems. Our editors tested the £399 inc VAT 32GB Arm version - the Surface RT - over the course of a week. Here's our initial Microsoft Surface RT review. For the full story, see also: Surface RT review.
Surface RT: Specs and performance
Tablets are like referees: you enjoy their performance only when you don't notice it. In other words, a tablet or smartphone should just work, delivering a user experience that never, ever reminds you a processor is locked inside, chewing up its gears to keep pace with what's happening on screen. Older Windows tablets have resembled low-specification laptops, often with performance to match. But the Surface RT is different, sporting as it does an ARM chip. Is this, then, an iPad running Windows 8? (Visit Microsoft Surface RT vs Apple iPad comparison review for more.)
The Surface RT's 1.4GHz quad-core Tegra 3 processor and 2GB of system memory handle their workloads without drama. Gesturing through the OS itself is fast and fluid. Ditto browsing in Internet Explorer. Websites load extremely quickly, and when you scroll rapidly down pages, screen redraws have no trouble keeping up.
During benchmarking, Surface RT more than held its own against other tablets in the 10-inch hardware class. With a frame rate of 6.9 frames per second, it took first place in our run of the WebVizBench HTML5 benchmark, besting the Asus VivoTab RT (another Windows RT tablet), which achieved a rate of 4.8 fps. And in posting a time of 10.4 seconds in our own punishing webpage loading test, Microsoft's tablet trounced the VivoTab RT (which required 23.3 seconds to load the same page) and even squeaked past the third generation iPad (which clocked in at 10.8 seconds).
Surface RT meets the demands of modern web browsing, but what about performance in more hard-core applications? It's almost impossible to tell, because the Tegra 3 is an ARM processor, and our full PC benchmarking suite runs only on x86-based silicon. We'll be performing our Geekbench performance and Egypt HD gaming tests when we have a Surface of our own to have and hold. Watch this space.
When working in the preinstalled Office apps, we never encountered any bad hiccups or undue lag, but these programs have already been tuned—or perhaps the more accurate word would be detuned—to work within the limitations of ARM processors.
Regardless, performance in hard-core applications probably won't even matter, because the Windows RT desktop is locked down: You will never be able to install Photoshop, traditional PC games, or any other code we typically define as "PC software".
As for the new Windows 8 apps you purchase in Microsoft's Windows Store, they'll be vetted and qualified to run on Windows RT and ARM (Gizmodo reported that 6 percent of all apps in the greater Windows Store inventory lack Windows RT certification). Will the more processor-intensive apps perform without fits and starts on Surface RT, or will they make you wish your first Windows tablet was running Clover Trail or a Core-class CPU? That's the big question, and it should have a direct bearing on what type of Windows device you buy.
But we'll end the performance report on a happy note: In probably our most important tablet benchmark, our custom-designed battery-life test, Surface RT came in second to the iPad, playing a looping HD video for more than 9 hours before pooping out entirely. If nothing else, Nvidia's processor is kind to battery life.
Surface RT: Display
Surface RT's 10.6in, 1366-by-768-pixel display doesn't match the clarity and beauty of the iPad's so-called Retina display. Microsoft has provided excruciatingly detailed data that explains why a great tablet display doesn't need a resolution of 2048 by 1536, but eyes don't lie.
Surface RT display vs iPad display
In side-by-side comparisons, the Surface RT suffers from a tangible degree of pixel blur, whereas the iPad makes all content look like a continuous-tone photographic print. The difference in resolution is particularly noticeable in text rendering, despite Microsoft's use of ClearType (a technology that enlists a display's subpixels to smooth out character edges) and optical bonding (a manufacturing process that provides for greater visual clarity and reduces screen reflection).
That said, within the context of the greater tablet market, the Surface RT's display is actually quite nice. With a 16:9 aspect ratio, the 10.6-inch screen provides an HD video window that's 42 percent larger than what you'll see on the iPad's 4:3, 9.7-inch display. The Surface's widescreen proportions also accommodate Windows' new "snap screen" multitasking feature, which lets you run two apps side by side.
Surface RT display: colour reproduction
As for colour reproduction, the Surface RT screen doesn't quite have the richness and accuracy of the iPad, but this drawback is noticeable only during A/B comparisons, and I don't think it's a big problem for Microsoft. The company is positioning Surface RT as a consumer-grade tablet that's great for the more pedestrian aspects of productivity: writing long email messages, setting up monthly calendars, creating documents in Word and Excel, that sort of thing. I would never use Surface RT for serious image editing, and that's just fine since the tablet currently doesn't support any apps for serious image editing (though that's a problem in and of itself).
Surface RT: design and build
When we first got our hands on the Surface RT back in June, our reviewer described the integrated kick stand as 'sheer brilliance'. It's an impression that holds up with longer use.
The Surface RT feels sturdily designed when lifted up and well-balanced when held in one hand or both. The kickstand feels as stable as bedrock. The Surface RT's case feels silky and exceptionally solid, the exterior magnesium alloy surface is smooth to the touch, and finely finished. The angled edges make it comfortable to hold.
Surface RT: kickstand, Touch Cover and Type Cover
Let's take a closer look at the Surface RT's integral kickstand.
Most tablets are simple slabs of glass and aluminum devoid of moving parts. But not Surface RT, which dares to explore its own physicality in a very showy, public way. The integrated rear kickstand props up the tablet at 22 degrees. That's just the right angle for some viewing positions, but the kickstand is not adjustable, and we often found ourselves drifting out of the angle's sweet spot depending on our table height.
Made of the same injection-molded magnesium that's employed throughout the Surface chassis, the kickstand opens with a faint metallic ting and closes with a confident click. Both audio cues are satisfying - and they better be, considering that Microsoft specifically engineered the kickstand to not just work but also sound good.
The point of the kickstand, of course, is to turn Surface RT into an effective productivity machine, and to varying degrees that promise is fulfilled via the system's Touch Cover and Type Cover keyboard accessories. Regrettably, neither cover is included in the tablet's entry-level package, but all Surface RT versions are preloaded with a soph-frosh version of Microsoft Office that includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, helping users realize the tablet's productivity promise. (Power users may not appreciate the lack of macros in the Windows RT version of Office, but for most users this fulfils the dream of having Office on a 'proper' tablet.)
At 3mm thick, the Touch Cover lacks physical keys, and instead uses pressure-sensitive touch pads to record keystrokes. The Type Cover features real keys with actual key travel, but extends the thickness to 5.5mm. The keyboard docking system is as sweet as Microsoft wants everyone to believe.
You never need to worry about aligning finicky connection points. In fact, you don't even need to look at the tablet and keyboard when snapping them together. Just move them toward each other, and magnetic attraction will attach the two sides—perfectly, every time. The connection interface also provides the data link between tablet and keyboard, and just like the kickstand, it comes with its own mechanical soundtrack that Microsoft expressly designed to push emotional buttons.
Surface RT: build quality
The build quality throughout Surface RT is sturdy and confident, and exudes the same kind of austere precision we find in German performance cars. The VaporMg material is silky to the touch, yet inflexible when torqued. And Surface RT is virtually identical to the iPad in thickness and weight - this despite the fact that it supports a slightly larger, 10.6-inch, widescreen display.
Quibbles? We worried that the kickstand would scratch wooden tables, and we found the proprietary power connector difficult to insert. But overall we became a quick fan of Microsoft's take on industrial design. The magnesium chassis really does feel like something special, and it's a welcome change from the standard combinations of aluminum and plastic we see throughout the tablet competition. Surface RT is a manifestly tactile device, from its generous (if initially confusing) catalogue of touch gestures to its actual moving parts.