Jack of all trades or master of trade-offs?
The Surface RT redefines what a tablet is capable of. It’s a productivity workhorse with a sparkly new OS. But it might not be the tablet you’ve been waiting for.
In fact, it’s barely a tablet in the first place: Microsoft went to great lengths to ensure Surface RT is a perfect hybrid – part PC, part tablet; all form and function. When it works, it’s awesome. When it doesn’t, it’s absolutely confounding.
I’ve already written about my horrific first day with the device – a day mired in confusing menu options and inconsistent restrictions. As it turned out, the options I was looking for were there; but they’re hidden in menus that could only be accessed with unintuitive gestures or through other impenetrable menus. If you want access to serious settings, like control pane, you have to access settings from a specific place on your device (the little-used Desktop). Why? Who knows.
Desktop mode has its own problems. Pressing a home-page tile transports you back to Windows’ familiar desktop interface. The recycling bin, task bar, and even a little IE icon are all there. But Windows RT was built for touch input, and unless you’re using a mouse you’ll have more than a little trouble navigating with those tiny icons on the Touch Cover’s tiny touchpad.
It’s important to know Surface RT can’t run x86 apps, which means only apps downloaded from the Windows Marketplace are compatible. In other words, your desktop will be pretty bare. Does a tablet with touch-optimized apps still need a desktop for file hierarchies? If you ask us, Surface RT could entirely do without it.
Now, if you want a file hierarchy Surface is definitely the tablet for you. iOS forces you to store files on iCloud (or use iTunes) and Android’s system is even less user-friendly than RT’s. And as Surface lets you plug an external hard drive to transfer files, you might find yourself thankful for a traditional desktop interface.
This is where Surface RT truly shines: even though it doesn’t run the full version of Windows 8, it can do a lot that other tablets can’t. I had a hard time finding a device that wouldn’t interface with its USB port – whether it was a keyboard, mouse, or external hard drive. Throw in the Touch Cover (which you want – trust me) and at times it just feels like a PC.
The Touch Cover is a stroke of genius. It’s incredibly light and thin, snaps to the Surface with strong magnets, and has a trackpad with buttons and a full-size keyboard. Typing on the flat keys is difficult initially, but quickly becomes second nature – I could type faster on the Touch Cover than any virtual keyboard in no time.
The Surface’s excellent kickstand, made of the same high-quality VaporMG as the Surface Casing, comes in especially handy when you’re typing. The only problem with the Touch Cover is that it’s not included with the device and it costs a whopping $120.
Price is a tough pill to swallow all around: for $499 you can buy a 32GB model, half of that is occupied by the OS, so it’s more like 16GB. That’s about as expensive as an iPad. You’ll want to bundle a Touch Cover though, so make that $599 (it’s only $100 for a bundled black version). It could be worse, but Surface RT isn’t really the budget tablet many were hoping for.
The Surface’s app store is essentially a ghost town.
The Surface’s app store is essentially a ghost town. Many games for Windows Phone 8 aren’t in the Surface marketplace. At least for now, iOS and Android tablets have a more established ecosystem, and are better for gaming. You could buy a 16GB iPad with a better display and LTE for just $30 bucks more than the Surface, or a 32GB WiFi-only Nexus 10 for $100 less. All Surface RT models are WiFi-only, which was a big complaint I had with the Nexus 7 – though even that recently received cellular service.
Despite its impressive specs (Nvidia T30, 2GB of RAM) frame rates on our Surface RT consistently dropped even playing lightweight games like Jetpack Joyride or Pinball FX. The slowdown always occurred when touch input was being used and made me hesitant to download more games.
That could be a deal breaker for some, but the Surface RT is really more for productivity than gaming, and the included Office Home suite proves it. Microsoft Office and the USB port make this is the only tablet I could recommend as a laptop replacement.
The only tablet I could recommend as a laptop replacement.
Using Surface RT as a media device – many tablet’s main function – is a mixed bag. Its 10.6-inch 16:9 display packs a 1366 x 768 resolution. That’s not mindblowing by any means, but Microsoft made a display sacrifice to give the device impressive battery life. And Microsoft has worked hard to prevent glare, add higher contrast and utilizing ClearType technology to make the display higher quality. The display consistently impressed with videos and games – not so much with words or internet browsing.
That elongated size also allows for multiple windows – rare among tablets – and it’s a killer feature. Simply dragging a window to the side of the screen locks it to about a third of the display. Many apps support this shrunken mode, so for instance you can change songs from Xbox Music while surfing the web.
Some tablet functions made us wish it wasn’t so big though. Holding it for long periods made it seem heavy, and it feels ridiculous when oriented vertically. That means it’s not a great reading device. But then it’s a computer-tablet hybrid, so it’s not meant to be held for long periods anyway.
Surface RT is both an exhilarating new take on tablets, but in many ways it’s a let-down. It’s a functional laptop-replacement, but if you’re looking for a media device it’s arguably the worst option. More than once, I just wished it was the upcoming full-PC version, Surface Pro.
Wait for the inevitable Surface RT 2.0 or Pro.
By Nic Vargus