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Hands-on with Microsoft Surface RT: 10 things we've learnt

It's the poster child product of the Windows 8 launch... is Surface RT any good?

Some subjective thoughts from spending hands-on time playing with the Microsoft Surface RT.

Earlier on today I got to spend some hands-on time with Microsoft's Surface RT. This tablet, together with its combination cover and keyboard, is the poster child for Windows 8. A premium-quality Windows tablet running on an Arm chip, it promises to be both desirable and functional. An iPad with Office, if you like.

In our full Surface RT review we've benchmarked the Surface RT, and provide a definitive, expert verdict and a four-star rating. But here are my subjective (amateur) thoughts from spending some time playing with the Surface.

1. Surface RT: It's made from premium materials...

The first thing that strikes you about the Surface is that it is premium. It is a quality, desirable product - as well it might be, with a price to match. Microsoft has made some play about the fact that the Surface is constructed from something called 'VaporMg'.

Well, I don't know about VaporMg, but I do know a material that is smooth and silky to the touch, and inflexible when placed under pressure. To hold the Surface is to want one, and that is in no small part due to the quality parts from which it is constructed.

Microsoft Surface tablet

2. Surface RT: ...and the design is great

It might seem facile, but these things really matter - especially when you are shelling out at least £400 for a gadget. Not only is the Surface RT nicely finished, but it is stunningly and cunningly designed. The way the dock pairs Surface and keyboard Cover is a joy, and the integral kickstand is a thing of simple beauty.

But Microsoft has also paid close attention to the basics. The rear facing camera is tilted to match the incline of the Surface when the kickstand is deployed, the ports are sited in sensible places, the speakers too. These are little things, but they add up to a feeling of well-thought-out quality that is a long way from some of the Windows tablets we've seen in the past.

Microsoft Surface tablet

3. Surface RT: Magnets are cool

I promise I'll stop talking about build and design soon, but here's a small thing that makes a big difference. When you pair up the Surface with either the Type- or the Touch Cover keyboard, you need only wave it close to the correct alignment, and powerful magnets do the rest. It's very simple, and you can do it in the dark. And it's cool. The power supply works in the same way. I didn't get to test the latter, but magnets are cool, right?

4. Surface RT: Take the hit and go for the Type Cover

I did get to play with both the Type- and the Touch Covers. To recap, the Surface can be paired with one of two keyboard covers - the Touch Cover, and the Type Cover. Many Surface models come bundled with a Cover, but the basic 32GB Surface RT model comes with neither.

Here's the thing: if you buy a Surface, you should buy one of the covers. Adding a hardware qwerty keyboard to the devices cover is a stroke of genius. With one product you can protect the screen and you have a proper keyboard. (The Covers also double as bases if you want to raise the Surface off a desk to watch a movie.)

But the Covers are different. The £10 cheaper Touch Cover is thinner, at a tiny 3mm thick. This makes it perfect as a cover, but less so as a keyboard. Although we found typing perfectly feasible, if I was using only the Surface RT on a business trip, I'd want to bring along a more comfortable keyboard.

The Type Cover may well be that keyboard. You have to compromise on the thinness of your device: the Type Cover is all of 6mm thick. But it is a beautifully designed accessory, offering in essence a laptop keyboard in return for a marginally thicker cover.

If I get a Surface - and I might - I'll be getting the Type Cover.

Surface Type Cover

5. Surface RT: You'll want to be connected

The Surface RT is very responsive in use, and has many useful and fun features. But it feeds off the cloud. So much of what makes the Surface desirable is dependent on at least semi-regular connectivity.

Using Office 2013 apps you save by default to the cloud so you can access it from any other device. Purchase or stream a tune from Xbox music and you can play it via your Xbox. watch a movie on your Surface on your way home and pick it up on your TV when you get there. All great features, but all reliant on regular connectivity.

Virtually all of us dip in and out of Wi-Fi hotspots all day long, but bear in mind that the Surface RT offers no cellular connectivity. So if you are often a long time away from Wi-Fi, you may be slightly hobbled.

6. Surface RT: Your IT guy won't mind you bringing it to work...

Of course the IT support professional at your office would rather you used only official company tech, but the Surface RT is at least Windows - something he will understand. More importantly, it's a productivity device, so you will be able to use it for work, and you can't install dodgy apps from the open internet.

And although one of the benefits of Windows 8 is that you can sync user accounts accross multiple connected Windows devices, you can also easily maintain separate profiles. The Surface RT might just be the perfect (or the least imperfect) BYOD gadget.

7. Surface RT: ...but you'll want it at home

It is also, however, an ideal device for couch surfing. That lovely bright 16:9 screen for watching movies or surfing the web while you watch the TV is combined with Dolby Digital Plus and pretty decent speakers (for a portable device, at least).

And the various Xbox apps offer access to millions of music tracks and movies for download and streaming. Like a personal computer should, the Surface RT caters well for work and play.

Surface RT

8. Surface RT: The way you interact depends on the task at hand

You could say this for Windows 8 on any device - it's an important and strong point: the best thing about the Windows 8 interface is that it is neither touchscreen UI nor mouse and keyboard. Windows 8 is easy to work with using either of those options, or all points inbetween. Surface epitomises this trait.

When I was trying out the Surface RT, I found myself interacting with the media apps via touch, and the Office apps using the keyboard. It's possible I have a weird brain [more than possible - ed.], but the point is that Surface offers touchpad and touchscreen input, as well as hardware- and onscreen keyboards. And you can pick your means of interfacing to suit the task at hand.

9. Surface RT: It *is* the iPad with Office - but it's not all of Office

The build quality, the great screen, the responsiveness: this device feels like a premium quality tablet. And to date, that means it feels like an iPad. But this is an iPad with a hardware qwerty keyboard, and office. Sort of.

When I was typing in Word I was automatically bumped over to Windows RT's Desktop - on this device a barren, cold place. Because you can't install any legacy Windows programs, Surface RT's productivity story begins and ends with Office, plus the scant selection of low-ambition-level productivity apps available in the Windows Store. So you are stuck with Office 2013 - apps that are to an extent reliant on web connectivity, and are cut-down versions of the big boys.

All of which means that the Surface RT is the most utilitarian post-iPad, Arm-based tablet ever. But you shouldn't expect it to replace your workstation if you are reliant on complex spreadsheets.

10. Surface RT: It might just be the one device you carry

In business-travel situations where we need only to write memos, briefs and articles, amend Office documents and respond to email, the Surface RT and the Type Cover could easily replace the laptop and tablet you carry now. If you don't require cellular calls, you could even ditch the smartphone and call home via Skype. The multimedia options will keep you entertained in the evening, the connectivity will keep you informed, and the Office apps will let you work. Meanwhile your shoulder bag just got a lot lighter.

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