updated 07:21 am EST, Fri November 9, 2012
How is Microsoft's first tablet PC shaping up?
Much has been written about Microsoft's entry into the PC hardware space, competing for the first time directly with its Windows hardware partners. For whatever reason, Microsoft decided that it needed to 'make a splash' with its own hardware announcing the Surface tablets running Windows 8 or RT in June, ahead of their late October launch. Electronista is currently playing with a Surface RT tablet with 32GB of storage paired with the interesting and clever Touch Cover. So how is it stacking up so far, a few hours out of the box?
It's hard to know where to start with the Surface RT tablet. Comparing it to the current tablets might seem natural in that the iPad remains the market leader in the compact tablet space. However, that might not be the best device to compare it to, nor even an Android tablet. In many ways it really is quite a different animal. As relatively complex as the Android UI is against the supreme simplicity of the iPad, neither compare to just how complex the Windows RT OS is to use and navigate. However, from a purely techno-geek perspective, it has so far proved to be both a fun and frustrating experience - at least early on.
Like the iPad and current Android tablets, an ARM-based processor powers it. It is also a similar weight to the original iPad and the 10.6-inch Android tablets using alloy materials at 1.5 pounds. Our first impression is that as high quality as the materials and the fit and finish of the Surface RT, users who complain that the iPad is too heavy to hold one-handed will have same complaint about the Surface. In some ways, this is further exacerbated by the 16:9 aspect ratio of the Surface RT, which does not distribute its weight as well as the iPad with its 4:3 aspect ratio.
When you take the general similarities between the hardware and the ARM-based architecture out of the equation and start to focus on the design and the operating system, the similarities become much less apparent, for better or for worse. We were always somewhat perplexed by Microsoft's decision to leave its ARM-based Windows Phone 7 OS to mobile phones instead of also developing a tablet specific version to tackle the iPad as Google did with Android 3.0 'Honeycomb.' After using Windows RT we are still left wondering. Windows Phone 7, and now Windows Phone 8, could still have tremendous potential as a tablet OS.
This becomes most apparent when you discover that your 32GB Surface RT tablet only has around 17GB of available space out of the box for installing your own apps. As the Windows Store does not have even a tenth of the apps available for either iOS or Android, that is not so much of a problem at this time. While there are a number of pre-installed apps, including Office for RT, that really comes as a surprise given that Windows RT is a cut down version of Windows 8 - no wonder you can't buy a 16GB version of Surface RT! However, the Surface RT includes one USB 2.0 port and a sneaky little microSD card slot hidden under the rear stand flap.
Great, you might be thinking - at least I can expand my storage with my microSD card. Yes, you can. However, at this time, for whatever reason, these can't be played from the Start screen apps - they must be stored on the local drive. Even Android could do this before Google and other OEMs started to think along Apple's lines and drop the microSD expansion option to help keep file management simple. In order to play files from your microSD card you actually need to go the legacy desktop mode and double-click on files in Windows Explorer and hope that the file type is supported on the built-in players.
As for the Touch Cover, we wrote this article on it and quite frankly, we hated it. Touch-typing on the iPad onscreen keyboard is significantly easier, as cool as it is -- the Type Cover would seem to be a better bet, in spite of the weight penalty. Overall, though there is still much to like about the Surface RT tablet. The display is great and beats out the display in the iPad mini for color gamut and contrast, but not the display on the iPad with Retina display for sharpness. We will be back in a few days with our full and in depth review of the intriguing Microsoft Surface with Windows RT.
By Sanjiv Sathiah