Microsoft's first tablet is upon us in the form of the Surface RT. Is Microsoft too late to the market or is the Surface good enough to entice iPad and Android users to switch? Find out in our Surface RT review.
Microsoft Surface RT: Design
The design of the Surface RT is somewhat different to other tablets, certainly the iPad and the hordes of Android tablets which are out there.
With a 10.6in screen you get a bit more real estate than tablets like the iPad, Samsung Galaxy Tab and Asus Transformer. However, it's just as portable in our minds. It will easily fit into a bag and is a reasonable weight to carry around – 686g for the tablet only while the keyboard covers add an extra 200g or so. It's deceptively thin at 9.5mm, effectively the same as the third and fourth generation iPad.
This weight becomes a problem though when holding the Surface RT in one hand. Since the tablet is quite long holding it in landscape mode quickly puts a strain on your wrist. Holding it in portrait mode is no problem, but this tablet is design to work in the landscape orientation; it's a tablet you'll want to predominantly use at your desk or on your lap. You can turn it into portrait mode if you wish and while this might be handy for certain tasks, the Windows 8 Start Screen simply looks stupid this way around.
In contrast to the iPad's rounded edges, the Surface RT has a straighter and more angled appearance. It looks much more business-like but manages to remain sleek and stylish it its own way. Visit Microsoft Surface RT vs Apple iPad comparison review.
An important element to the design is the kickstand which is partly why you'll find yourself using the Surface RT on a desk or other flat, er, surface. The kickstand is easily flicked out from the back of the tablet and hides the microSD card slot. It props the Surface RT at 22 degrees and isn't adjustable which can be a pain sometimes, but most tablets don't even have a kickstand.
Using the kickstand means you can easily do things like watch video content or have a video call on Skype without the need for an additional case. Add one of the keyboard covers into play and you have what feels like a pint-sized laptop.
The keyboard covers which we've mentioned already are a genius element to the Surface RT. The Touch Cover is strange to use at first but is something you can get used to after a while. It's just 3mm thick and uses pressure-sensitive touch pads. The Touch Cover is fine for the odd bit of typing but anyone wanting to do any serious work will benefit no end by opting for the Type Cover. It's double the thickness but provides keys that actually move.
Microsoft Surface RT: Build quality
The Surface RT feels every bit a premium product when you take it out of the box. Attention to detail and build quality is reminiscent of Apple's iPad. It would have scored full marks if it were not for a gap in the case on the rear of the tablet though which you can see internal parts.
Proof of this high standard is shown off in the way the keyboard covers lock effortlessly and satisfyingly into place – the TV advert isn't lying. You can even dangle the tablet from either keyboard cover without it falling and smashing on the ground.
The chassis of the Surface RT is made from injection-moulded 'VaporMG' magnesium which makes the device nice a strong and also feels nice to the touch. However, within minutes of using the Surface we'd tainted the nice metal finish with scores of fingerprints.
Microsoft Surface RT: Hardware
Windows RT is design to run on ARM processors and to this end, the Surface RT is powered by an nVidia Tegra 3 1.3GHz quad-core chip which is backed up by 2GB of RAM.
From a user perspective the performance of the Surface RT is extremely slick, like that of Windows Phone 8. Animations are smooth and more demanding tasks like pinch zooming in Internet Explorer and Bing Maps are extremely responsive. Any apps you download from the Windows Store should perform well on the Surface RT, provided they have been developed properly.
The issue we did find with performance was a bit of a wait when opening some apps. On the first load of many apps, we were left looking at the logo for it and the spinning Windows 8 loading dots for a few seconds before the app would fully open. It's a problem we also found with Windows Phone 8.
For the same price as the entry level iPad, £399, the Surface offers twice the amount of built-in storage, 32GB instead of 16GB. There's also a 64GB model available. Furthermore, there is a microSD card slot enabling you to add up to another 64GB of storage.
Microsoft has opted for a screen size larger than most tablets, 10.6in. It uses a resolution of 1366 x 768 which we're more accustomed to seeing on laptops.
While it can't beat the iPad's Retina quality, its 148ppi ClearType HD display looks quite good at a regular viewing distance and matches that of similar sized tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (10.1). Text looks good at full zoom in Internet Explorer but look closer and the fuzzy edges are noticeable.
The widescreen aspect ratio of 16:9 means it's great for browsing the web, viewing multiple apps with the 'snap screen' feature and of course viewing video content. As we said, it's a tablet you will use almost solely in landscape mode.
The Surface RT is plentiful when it comes to connectivity with the usual Wi-Fi and Bluetooth plus a number of handy physical ports. Aside from the microSD card slot, there's headphone jack, micro-HDMI, full-sized USB, keyboard dock and charging port.
The key one being the USB port which means you can plug a range of different devices into the Surface RT including mice, keyboards, cameras and hard drives.
Microsoft provides both front and rear cameras on the Surface RT, both at 720p quality. The rear camera is mounted so that it's level when the tablet is on a flat surface with the kickstand out. We can't really see the point in it but the front facing camera produces a pretty clear image for those video calls.
Microsoft Surface RT: Software
As the name suggests, the Surface RT runs on the tablet specific version of Windows 8 called Windows RT. You'll mostly interact with Windows via the new touch-centric Modern UI with its tiled design – those with an Xbox or Windows Phone 7 device will find this familiar.
Those new to the Modern UI won't find it hard to get accustomed to. Once you learn all the different Windows 8 gestures it's a breeze to navigate around. We particularly like swiping from the left of the screen to open recent apps and the ability to view two at once with 'snap screen'.
A handy feature of Windows RT is the ability to have multiple user accounts, just like you would on a desktop PC.
Like the full desktop version of Windows 8, there is access to the classic desktop and although you can't install regular Windows software on the Surface RT there is are reasons Microsoft has included the desktop mode.
The Surface RT comes pre-loaded with Office 2013 (which until it gets updated is a usable preview) which runs in the desktop view, as does Internet Explorer 10. This makes the Surface RT a great little portable workstation straight out of the box, but only if Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote are enough for you. We also found the desktop view handy for things like the file manager and control panel.
We've been using Windows 8 on our desktop machines at PC Advisor for a while now so it wasn't hard to switch to the Surface RT. We were pleased to find that logging into the Surface RT with our Windows Live account instantly personalised the tablet with content such as contacts, email and calendar. It won't automatically download the apps you use on your Windows 8 desktop but the ones you want to can easily be found in the 'your apps' section of the Store.
So with Office and IE10 pre-installed, getting work done out of the box is no problem. However, Microsoft says the Surface is great for work and play. Since you can't install the programs you use on your Windows desktop you'll be heading to the Store for apps, just like you would on the iPad or an Android tablet.
As it stands, this is the area where the Surface RT falls down. There are a few big name apps like Netflix and Microsoft's own like Skype and Xbox SmartGlass. However, there's a lack of the apps most iPad and Android tablet owners use every day including Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Google Maps, Dropbox, Spotify, BBC iPlayer, IMDb, ESPN Goals and Sky Go. Games not available include Bad Piggies, Words With Friends, World Of Goo and the lists go on.
Most of these services, such as BBC's iPlayer, can be accessed via IE10 but this is only a small consolation. Services like Facebook and Twitter can be accessed by the People Hub but this isn't a suitable replacement for a dedicated app. The idea of a tablet is to have tailored apps, not access services via a web browser like you would on a laptop. Until the situation improves, the lack of app support is a big issue.
Microsoft Surface RT: Battery life
Our experience of the battery life has bemused us somewhat. We started off a day with the Surface RT at 100 percent and only used the tablet intensely for around an hour and a half while shooting our video review. We then used the Surface RT in the evening for around 30 minutes web browsing. The next morning, however, the Surface RT needed the mains charger to switch on so the battery had full depleted overnight. Strange considering Microsoft touts 7-15 days idle life.