My Review of the Microsoft Surface for Windows RT

Ever since Windows 8 has been announced to the world back in September 2011, I have been very excited and interested in the direction that Microsoft is taking, in order to virtually regain a foothold in the mobile industry – a market that has been taken over by competitors such as Apple and Google for so long.

And ever since Microsoft announced the line of Surface Tablet computing devices back in June, I have been doubly excited and knew I would be one of the first to purchase one when available.

I’ve been using Windows 8 virtually from day one, on a Samsung Tablet – the one that has been given to every //build/ attendee, back in September 2011 – using each and every publicly available iteration of the system – from the Developer Preview, the Consumer Preview, the Release Preview, the RTM version and finally the Generally Available version that everybody can use now, with a vastly optimized system, slightly updated or enhanced built-in Apps and a substantially larger number of Windows Store Apps to choose from.

Most of you know that, by now, Windows 8 has launched and is available for purchase. What’s more interesting however, is the availability of new hardware accompanying the operating system, most noticeably new tablets of which Microsoft Surface for Windows RT is but the first available.

In the recent weeks leading up to the launch of Surface, I have seen mostly mixed and even negative reviews. But I always had a feeling the authors of these reviews either did not fully grasp what Windows RT is about or, most probably, did not have the chance to use and touch the tablet for real before writing their review.

Since I have been using Windows RT for a little less than a week, now is therefore a good time for a fair an honest review.

Here goes.

Evaluating the Hardware

Surface for Windows RT Packaging

Out of the box, the Surface for Windows RT feels heavy, in a sturdy and solid sort of way. Its boasts this distinctive industrial design that is the hallmark of any great product. Looking at the specs, it’s actually just a teeny bit 28-grams heavier than the current-generation iPad, so that’s more of an impression.

One of the distinguishing features of the Surface is its kickstand. Why didn’t anybody ever think of this before? Its primary use, together with the included keyboard cover, is to make the tablet look like a laptop. But you can use it to show off pictures and slideshows during family events.

The Touch Cover is brilliant. Its serves as a protecting cover with a rough scratch-resilient and spill-resistant finish. It “clicks-in” automagically to its intended position and doubles as a multi-touch keyboard. The keyboard has a decent size and each key is where it should be – with the odd omission of the Fn-keys usually found on the upper row of any standard keyboard. It sure beats using the on-screen keyboard for more than casual editing and you can rest your fingers on the keyboard without fear of inadvertent typing.

However, typing on the Touch Cover is not an entirely satisfying experience because there is no feedback and one needs to constantly check for any typo. You also need to dose the applied pressure for typing and that certainly takes a certain amount of getting used to. My guess is that this situation will improve a bit over time – as will the speed of typing – as the habit sinks in.

In terms of connectivity, the tablet boasts a full-size USB connector that allows you to plug a wide range of peripherals. I’ve been able to insert thumb drives and a couple of wireless mouse dongles that have been instantly recognized. Key scenarios for using the USB port is to allow file transfer, accessing pictures from a digital camera and, of course, making the device a laptop-like productivity tablet with a mouse and Microsoft Office.

The Surface also has a micro-SD slot located just beneath the kickstand which is a welcome addition and gives us yet more options for expansion.

The micro-HDMI connector allows for full-HD video output on a secondary monitor, which makes the prospect of using the including Microsoft Office Suite much more appealing. But why on earth does Microsoft think you need a set or proprietary adapters – whose retail price starts at 40€ in the Microsoft Store – is beyond me.

On a final note, I was slightly disappointed to observe that the stylus that comes with the //build/ tablet does not work on the Surface RT screen. I’m told that any capacitive stylus should work just fine, but I find this confusing at this stage.

Likewise, the lack of GPS and NFC chipsets in the Surface RT disappoints the geek in me. But, to be honest, I had them on my //build/ tablet and actually never used them – perhaps due to a lack of software. Without capabilities to access 3G/4G mobile broadband networks, the Surface RT is primarily positioned for home use so that’s a point worth bearing in mind when evaluating which tablet to purchase.

One of the most touted feature found on competitor’s tablets is their obscenely high™ resolution display. Well, clearly, at only 1366×768, the Surface for Windows RT is way behind in terms of raw spec. However, watching movies and working on Word documents this week has been entirely satisfying so that’s not something that will have a noticeable impact in everyday use. Sure, it would have been nice for a 2012-ish tablet to match the current state of the competition, though.

Evaluating the Software

As its name suggest, Surface for Windows RT runs a special-purpose, modified version of Windows 8 primarily dedicated to running on low power devices equipped with an ARM processor. It is important to stress that Windows RT is different enough from Windows 8 in that it does not run Win32 applications but only Apps available from the Windows Store. This limitation is to make sure the system stays responsive and the performances do not degrade over time.

That said, Windows RT includes nonetheless a desktop version of Microsoft Office that has been ported to the ARM architecture. Currently, Microsoft Office is the only piece of desktop software running on Windows RT and it is not possible for anyone outside Microsoft to write desktop applications for Windows RT.

Just after joining a WiFi network and setting up a user account, one of the first things to do is performing a system update and downloading latest versions of the built in Apps. This left me a capacity of around 45 Gb for a maximum of 54 Gb – which is the capacity seen by Windows for the advertised 64 Gb storage. This is quite a substantial loss for the remaining capacity. That probably explains why the Surface RT is not available with 16 Gb of storage capacity.

However, the micro-SD slot offers cheap storage expansion and, while it’s not possible to make use of this extra space for installing applications, it’s certainly possible to use it for storing extra documents and media. Although it’s not supported to bring this added space in your Windows Libraries – because it comes from removable storage – there are ways to circumvent this by making directory junctions, using the mklink.exe command-line utility which is present on the tablet. So you can definitely take advantage of this extra space and make it appear to be part of your Documents, Pictures, Music and Videos folders.

The ability to setup multiple user accounts makes sharing the tablet with other members of the family straightforward and secure, with the built in parental control. This, to me, is one of the killer features of Windows, not seen as far as I know on any other competitor’s device.

On the subject of security, the tablet comes with an enhanced version of its antivirus and malware prevention software called Windows Defender – formerly called Microsoft Security Essentials. The software is setup to be updated automatically and protects the tablet in real-time. No regular security scans are planned though, since this would consume power and mostly make sense after having installed third-party software, which is not possible here. But you can still perform security scans, either scheduled or on-demand if you receive suspicious attachments or transfer files from unknown or unreliable sources.

On the Modern UI side – the new Start Screen – everything is exactly the same as in Windows 8. It provides a host for all Windows Store immersive Apps, pinned sites and live tiles as well as shortcuts to favorite desktop apps – most notably Microsoft Office applications. This is where you’ll spend most of your time using the tablet, consuming contents and enjoying a “fast and fluid” experience. There are currently thousands of Apps in the Store and – if sources are to be trusted – many more are coming in the next few months.

Most applications launch in a few seconds but need to perform network synchronization in the background upon start, so it can take up a tiny bit of extra time before being fully usable. After that, you can switch between all open applications very quickly. Mind you, the tablet being a mobile device, you’re not supposed to “close” an application and it is best to let Windows manage the lifetime of each application. It will take care of killing least used applications when memory is at a premium and will ensure the system always stays responsive over time.

The Modern UI Start Screen is very pleasant to use, with is vibrant colors and live tiles. But the desktop is still there, should you need it for advanced tweaking or productivity work.

Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 Preview is there and, what to say? This in itself is probably the number one argument in favor of purchasing a Windows RT powered tablet. At this stage, I haven’t had the time to use it extensively but the experience appears to be identical to that of using Office on Windows 8 – apart from the obvious differences between editions and the expected omission of macros and support for ActiveX components. There seems to be confusion, though, over whether this edition of Office can be used in a business or commercial way. But my understanding is that your company must have a valid license of Microsoft Office already for this to permitted. In my view, that does not constitute a realistic problem since virtually every company I’ve ever worked with or for does indeed have a valid license of Microsoft Office.

Let’s not forget that this tablet targets home users and students. Therefore, Outlook is missing. But that can easily be replaced with the browser-based Outlook Web App or the built in, albeit simpler, Mail App.

There was a slight but noticeable latency when typing in Microsoft Word, until I realized that I was still using the preview version that was installed in the factory. Oddly enough, the final version of Office did not update automatically when I first set the device up because it was not considered an “important” update. After downloading and installing the required update, I found Word performing quickly and efficiently as it always should have. So, if you purchase the Surface, make doubly sure that Office is up to date before using it.

Another major application on the desktop is Internet Explorer 10. By and large, IE 10 is designed around a plugin-free browsing experience in favour of a more modern hardware-accelerated HTML5 and JavaScript powered web sites.

With the notable exception of Adobe Flash, which works in most – as in, “approved by Microsoft” – websites, including YouTube.

It’s interesting to note that, on full Windows 8, « Desktop IE » is the elder brother to the Modern UI App on the Start Screen and is there mostly to play legacy websites. Those requiring ActiveX and Silverlight plugins obviously, but also all those Adobe Flash powered websites not on the whitelist. This means that “Desktop IE” on Windows 8 displays more of the web than its Modern UI brethren.

However, sources at Microsoft confirm that, on Windows RT, both “Desktop IE” and the Modern UI IE are subject to the whitelist of approved web sites for which Adobe Flash content will be played. That’s a point worth mentioning for people trying to list differences between (the shared portions of) Windows RT and Windows 8.

To be honest, the web is already moving on from Flash – in no small part, thanks to the stance taken by Apple against this technology. But pragmatism at Microsoft makes it so that YouTube works so, what’s there to complain about?

On the desktop, the list of other software is meagre, but that is to be expected on a tablet not able to run (any arbitrary) Win32 applications. I would have welcomed little tools, though, such as the Journal application, Sticky Notes, and several others usually found on touched-enabled versions of Windows and which would have made sense on this tablet. Conversely, there’s an XPS viewer which, at first glance, seems redundant with the Modern UI Reader App.

To be complete, Windows Media Player is not there but would have been of no use in my opinion, since it almost always requires additional codecs to fully play popular videos. I think the built in Video App is better suited for this task on a mobile device anyway.

Please note, however, that the following software is present:

  • Voice Recognition – I don’t know what this is worth but it might be interesting to find out what is the quality and usefulness of this application on the Surface RT.
  • Windows Powershell – for the geeks? If it is included, there might be interesting things to do. Again, might be interesting to find out exactly.

In closing, I would like to address a few points worth considering, to make it clear where Windows RT sits exactly in the Windows universe.

Where does the Surface for Windows RT sit in the Windows 8 ecosystem?

In terms of capabilities, the Microsoft Surface for Windows RT tablet is a direct competitor to the Apple iPad. And one that, objectively, has the potential to be more capable than the iPad.

Given the recent growth to the number of available apps in the Windows Store – which went from about 5000 to more than 9000 apps in a matter of three to four days – it is safe to say that, given the right set of Apps, the iPad does virtually nothing that the Surface for Windows RT can’t do.

Conversely, there are a lot of things that the Surface does out of the box, that aren’t readily possible on the iPad.

What about gaming and entertainment? Just plug an XBox-compatible game controller and you have access to hardware-accelerated current generation games. You can even connect the tablet to an external monitor or TV and there you go! You have what essentially amounts to a game console.

Someone said : “if Angry Birds does not run on your system, you don’t have a platform”. Well Angry Birds is there…

The truth is, a fairly large selection of games are available since launch, and more are coming along the way.

Mapping a network folder is also a good scenario, whereby a user will be able to quickly access his or her content, stored on another home computer or network drive.

Even though the “Surface RT” is intended to be used by casual users and students, in this day and age of “BYOD” – Bring your own device – a lot of people would want to make use of their tablet for business purposes while on the go.

What, for instance, if you receive a ZIP file, containing slides for a business presentation that you need to make last-minute adjustments to? Just save the ZIP attachment somewhere on the file system, drop to the Desktop and fire up PowerPoint. You can make edits and modifications using the integrated Touch Cover all you want, no problem there… How about trying that on an iPad?

For more advanced usage, you can use any of the included remote desktop clients – on the Desktop or as a Modern UI App – and have access to virtually all corporate workstations and servers.

Out of the box.

So, who is Windows RT for?

So is it for everybody? Let’s put it this way : is a single product for everybody? It never is, that’s a fact of life. In that same way, Windows RT is probably not for everybody.

But, my view is that all the different versions of “Windows 8” and all the different hardware combinations it runs on have a vastly greater intended audience than any of their competitors.

Is the iPad for everyone? Its price alone makes it a premium product, which, by definition, is not for everyone. Some want more expansion ports or connectivity options. Some want more compatibility with standards or existing hardware products – Lightning Connector, anyone?

Again, is an Android tablet for everyone? Perhaps not. Some want a more streamlined and homogeneous user interface. Some do not tolerate even a slight lag when swiping user interface elements.

The truth is, Windows 8 is not a single product. It’s actually many different products, all sharing the same central, touch-based, Windows Store-distributed, Modern UI “fast and fluid” immersive Apps. And each one of these different products is targeting a different segment of the market.

With Windows 8 and Windows RT, chances are you’ll find one combination that’s right for you.

So, there you have it. A quick review of the last few days using the Surface for Windows RT. I have strived to give you a fair and balanced point of view. Please, leave comments, suggestions for improvements or requests for thing I may have missed. But please, keep the comments polite and civilized.

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2 Responses to My Review of the Microsoft Surface for Windows RT

  1. Pingback: Friday Five–November 9, 2012 - The Microsoft MVP Award Program Blog - Site Home - MSDN Blogs

  2. Pingback: Windows 8 - An MVP Roundup - The Microsoft MVP Award Program Blog - Site Home - MSDN Blogs

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