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First impressions: Microsoft Surface with Windows RT

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












By Electronista Staff
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Comments

  1. Stuke

    Junior Member

    Joined: 02-11-05

    Oh we'll, they gave it the good'ol college try. In the end, typing this comment from my iPad touch screen keyboard in landscape mode was quite enjoyable! And, I enjoyed the discovering that even in mobile mode, brand new OS, it is the same old song and dance for a Windows based device...overhead and baggage in the system, to the tune of (probably) 10-12 GB of the 'consumed' 15 GB. RIP Surface.:

  1. SockRolid

    Forum Regular

    Joined: 01-21-10

    "As for the Touch Cover, we wrote this article on it and quite frankly, we hated it."

    Not a surprise. It's not much bigger than an on-screen keyboard, but it adds weight to the whole contraption. It really looks like the Touch Cover is only there to help up-sell customers to the more expensive Type Cover with physical keys.

  1. cmoney

    Mac Enthusiast

    Joined: 09-19-00

    I actually really liked the Touch Cover! I was touch typing more or less within 5 minutes of using it in store. It makes a huge difference to be able to rest your fingers on the surface of the keyboard. On the iPad on screen keyboard, that's a major source of fatigue for me.

  1. iphonerulez

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: 11-28-08

    With Microsoft's clout, the ZunePad RT should sell in pretty decent numbers. Just Windows fanbois alone will sell a few million of them and I'm sure the corporations are interested in anything that's put out by Microsoft and certified for Windows. I'm just not sure the average consumer will bite when there's already the iPad and the dozens of Android tablets available for less money. Currently the ecosystem for iOS and Android are much larger so I think consumers will go for those two ecosystems.

  1. chas_m

    MacNN Staff

    Joined: 08-04-01

    I enjoyed this overview, it really gives me a good idea of what to look at when evaluating any possible Surface purchase. For example, now I know to go with the more expensive Type cover -- I hear the Touch Cover is "splitting" for a lot of users (already!).

    What I really don't understand about the Surface -- and I'll really have to use one in-store or something to get an answer to this -- is that, if I need a keyboard to really use the thing, doesn't it have the same footprint as a laptop for all practical purposes? If so, why not just get a cheap (and more powerful) laptop/ultrabook/netbook?

    I mean, I can use a keyboard with my iPad as well -- though I usually don't, because it's very touch-oriented. I get the impression from what I've read that the Surface isn't really as touch-oriented and really relies on that keyboard (which is why they include it). Doesn't look like I'd be able to use the Surface very well in, say, a seat in Coach class like I can with the iPad.

    Still, I'm looking forward to trying out the OS on the Surface -- I'm always interested in new OSes, especially when they are genuinely new and not "poor man's iOS" coughANDROIDcough.

  1. Zanziboy

    Forum Regular

    Joined: 08-27-08

    I don't understand why one wouldn't just get a MacBook Air over the Surface.

    The MacBook Air is a powerful Unix laptop with a great display and an easy to use OS. And, it is faster than the Surface, has a great keyboard, supports gestures, and it doesn't require a kickstand. Furthermore, you can use gestures on the MacBook Air without getting your screen all grimy. At the end of the day, the MacBook Air isn't a tablet, but neither is the Surface.

  1. Spheric Harlot

    Clinically Insane

    Joined: 11-07-99

    Microsoft is betting on the idea that combining both makes it both, while many reviews agree with you and Apple that combining both makes it neither, in a bad way.

  1. cmoney

    Mac Enthusiast

    Joined: 09-19-00

    I'd say the Surface is actually a pretty good amalgam of a tablet and a laptop. In tablet mode, it is a pretty decent tablet. Touch use and gestures are every bit as easy to use as on the iPad. In fact it has quite a few new tricks up its sleeve like the split screen multitasking and easier method to switch apps. The charm bar is a great way to standardize commands that are universal to all apps, just like how Macs have a universal menu bar with standard commands. It also doesn't require a keyboard any more than an iPad requires a keyboard; there's nothing you can do with a physical keyboard/trackpad that you can't also do with touch gestures.

    It goes both ways too: in laptop mode, there's nothing you can do with touch that you can't do with a keyboard/trackpad. The problems start to creep in though with laptop mode, and this goes for all of Windows 8, not just the Surface. See, what's obvious and intuitive in touch mode has equivalent keyboard/mouse commands but they're all hidden and need to be memorized. So for example, you might be using Metro IE and accidentally swipe down from the top of the screen, revealing tab menu. This is something that a little exploring and physical manipulation of the device will eventually expose. But to do the same in laptop mode, you either need to memorize the Win-Z combo or two-finger swipe down from the top of the trackpad which also only works with supported trackpads. And I still have yet to learn how to do this with a mouse! But if you treat this as simply learning new behaviors, you'll see it's not much different from having to re-learn things when switching from a PC to a Mac.

    Also, IMHO, the reason Microsoft pushes the keyboard has nothing to do with failings of its touch interface. It all has to do with the inclusion of Office. Office is a key selling point for the Surface and using it without a keyboard is kinda ridiculous. I think Microsoft chose not to make a Metro version to keep the interface consistent with the full Win8 version. But I think they're also under the illusion that Office is still that important!

    Now as for why combine a laptop and tablet? There are tons of apps on my iPad that I would love to be able to use when I'm on my Mac and vice versa. Also I would simply like to have 1 device rather than be forced to use 2. For example, I have a 15" Macbook Pro and an iPad. I rarely bring the MBP traveling unless it's for work and I absolutely need it. And I'm not about to buy a MacBook Air 11" just to bring it around more. But with a Surface (Pro, I don't think the RT is for me) I potentially have a single device that can handle both the iPad/Air use cases.

    I think the Surface has a lot of potential...in the future. It's not there yet, but not because a combined tablet/laptop is an abomination, but because they need to polish what they've created.

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