We continue our Surface RT review with a look at how Microsoft's latest Windows device shapes up as both a tablet, a laptop and overall.
Microsoft Surface RT as a tablet
With the Surface's full-size USB port, you can side-load movies and music directly into the Windows RT desktop.
Playing with Surface RT for a week is like eating Spanish tapas for the first time after a lifetime consuming only good old British food (iOS gear) or Italian (Android gear). Surface RT - and the Windows RT system it taps into - is zesty, zippy, playful, and different. But it also takes some getting used to, especially if you're not adventuresome.
The system is rife with powerful touch gestures, but none of them are immediately obvious if you pick up the tablet without any training. To evoke the Charms bar (a centralised control panel that taps into search, sharing, and settings functions, among others), you swipe inward from the right bezel. That gesture is easy enough, especially because it's explained when you first start up the device.
But what about the gesture that brings up the snap screen for side-by-side multitasking? Or the gesture that lets you cycle through open apps with a finger swipe? Or the gesture that produces all your Favorites in Internet Explorer?
These and other touch controls aren't self-evident. They're a blast to use once you know the full repertoire, and within a few hours of activating Surface, I found myself way more engaged with Windows RT than I've ever been with iOS or Android. Still, Microsoft doesn't include a freshman-orientation packet in the hardware box, and I suspect that many newbies will never take the time to do their homework. These are the people who will slander Surface RT as a confusing mess.
In addition to all the new touch controls, I appreciated Surface RT's ability to side-load media content through the preinstalled SkyDrive app and full-size USB 2.0 port. This arrangement is vastly more user-friendly than going through the kludge of iTunes just to get music or video onto one's tablet. Indeed, moving files in and out of Surface RT is a breeze because the tablet still employs a full Windows file system, complete with folder hierarchies on its desktop side. And it's nice to see something happening on the Windows RT desktop, which is otherwise a ghost town in terms of the software it runs.
Microsoft Surface RT as a workstation
Between the kickstand, the keyboard covers, and the inclusion of a light version of Microsoft Office, Surface RT really does transform into a serviceable desktop PC.
A dearth of apps limits its full potential, but the workstation design—the size of the screen, the width of the key layout—isn't that compromised relative to, say, what you'll find in a small Ultrabook. Other tablets offer optional keyboard accessories to fulfill that elusive productivity promise, but they're nowhere near as elegant or lightweight, or so well integrated with the greater tablet package.
The Touch Cover is so thin, it feels like the sturdy cardstock cover of a high-end paper notebook. Sadly, though, it's the less rewarding of the two keyboard options. Lacking physical keys, this quasi-keyboard doesn't offer any tactile feedback, and throughout my testing I struggled to type with the right amount of finger pressure.
Now, granted, we're not touch typists. But every time we used the Touch Cover, we struggled to recalibrate our finger pressure to the sensitivity of its sensors. The end result was a lot of words with missing characters. To wit: On the Touch Cover, testing over a seven-day period proved that we could achieve an average typing speed of 30 words per minute, which is considerably slower than our admittedly gimpy average.
The Touch Cover is insanely light. It's spill-proof. It's also the cheaper of the two cover options at £99, and typing on it is faster and more natural than on any on-screen virtual keyboard I've ever used. But the Touch Cover is nowhere near as competent as the Type Cover, which is the better value for only £10 more.
The Type Cover's key action is lighter and shallower than what I look for in a full-size keyboard, and its thicker profile doesn't match the cool factor of the Touch Cover. But, you know what? The Type Cover is a keyboard. It's a real keyboard with real, moving parts. And it yielded considerably faster typing speeds, helping me achieve an average of 39 words per minute across a week's worth of typing tests. I also found the touchpad on the Type Cover to be vastly more accurate and manageable than the one on the Touch Cover, which oftentimes was frustrating to the point of uselessness.
And I'm not the only one who performed dramatically better on the Type Cover. For first-hand reports from real touch typists, check out our full test results here.
When you're typing in Word, or using any of the other Office apps, you're exiled to Windows RT's spooky, barren version of the traditional Windows desktop. Nothing is happening here. You can use the desktop to shuttle files hither and yon, and it's also the locus of various system settings and tools. But because you can't install (let alone use) any legacy Windows programs, you're constantly reminded that 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.
Surface RT: where are the apps?
The Windows Store inventory is alarmingly short of high-profile apps. The Store is still well below the magic 5000-app plateau, and at this point you won't find official apps lots of big-name stalwarts of the mobile world (the PC Advisor app is incoming).
This isn't just a problem because Microsoft needs a busy, buzzing software marketplace if it's to realize its greater goals. It's a problem because the features and operation of so many preinstalled Windows RT apps will make you yearn for third-party alternatives.
The Music app gives you access to a huge catalogue of free, streaming music, and for some people it may eliminate the desire to download Rdio or Spotify (neither of which is available in the Windows Store, by the way). But as a file-management tool for your own music collection, the Music app is light on features and customization options, and inscrutable in how it works. At first glance it looks like a wrapper for Xbox Music, and users might take a while to grasp that it's Surface RT's only built-in music player.
The new Music app provides a killer catalogue of free, streaming music, but as a file-management app for personal music collections, it's a confusing proposition.
And then there's the People app, a central depository for all social media associations. The app invites you to connect to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other buckets of humanity, but once all your social media is thrown together, it's disorienting to see your disparate contacts sharing the same space. Even worse, as a Twitter client, People is precious in design but completely lacking in power - at least as far as we can tell.
Can you tweet an image? Unclear. Can you get a collapsed, more space-efficient view of the tweets of all your follows? Unclear. Do you have a way to remove Facebook updates from your "What's new" stream without hiding Facebook friends in your contacts list? It's impossible to tell.
And that's the problem with many of the preinstalled apps: They seem to lack many standard features, but you're never quite sure if they're actually dumbed-down, or if you just haven't stumbled upon the feature you're looking for.
We synced Calendar with our Google account, but Microsoft's app doesn't show individual calendars that have been shared with us. Can we add those views? If so, the operation isn't immediately obvious. Similarly, the Mail app wouldn't let us add our Gmail account. Is this because my account requires two-factor identification, and Windows RT doesn't recognize that? We don't know. The app simply reports, "That email address or password didn't work."
Surface RT: the verdict
Microsoft desperately needs a hardware phenom to put a physical face on the ethereal trappings of its new Windows software. Hence Surface RT, the first personal computing device the company has ever created in its nearly 40-year history. But you can't simply buy your way into the "thing" club. You need to make a sexy, groundbreaking product that actually works—and then consumers assign it "thing" status through swarm intelligence, via social media and word of mouth.
Surface RT definitely covers the bases on the industrial-design front. When you set up your workstation at the local café—kickstand kicked, Type Cover snapped—your hardware will strike a pose unlike any other in the tablet space. And in many important ways, Surface RT does successfully redefine what a tablet can be. Its touch gestures rock (once you surmount the learning curve), and its built-in productivity features eclipse anything that the iPad or the Android competition offers.
But Surface RT may not be the best new Windows device to purchase in the short term, and Windows RT definitely isn't the version of Windows you want to invest in. I doubt that any other tablet will be able to match the light weight and slim profile of the Surface RT/Touch Cover combo, but many people will be better served by waiting for a tablet that runs the full version of Windows 8 on x86 silicon. Such competing devices won't be quite as portable as Surface RT, and they'll almost always cost more. But they will grant access to the full Windows software experience, and battery life in Clover Trail tablets should even match the longevity of Surface RT.
One exciting option is Surface Pro. It's the big-kid version of Surface RT, and it should go on sale in three months. It will be slightly thicker than Microsoft's RT tablet, and about a half-pound heavier. But it will carry an Intel Core i5 processor, boast a 1920-by-1080-pixel display, and support the full breadth of Windows software, from desktop applications to every new Windows 8 app. All this, plus the Pro version supports the Touch and Type covers, and delivers all the other elements of Microsoft's nifty industrial design.
Is Surface RT a total nonstarter? No, it's definitely packed with utility, and that's why it earns 4 stars. In business-travel situations where we need only to write articles and respond to email, we can see throwing Surface RT and the Type Cover into our backpack, and leaving our Ultrabook (and iPad) at home.