Windows RT and Surface review

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Office-Watch.com has a hands-on look at Microsoft Surface

We’ve been using the Microsoft Surface since its release a few weeks ago and while our focus on Office RT will come later, here’s a quick look at the new Microsoft device.


The device

Microsoft Surface is a tablet with optional keyboard that runs a special version of Windows 8.

The hardware differs from the standard tablets from Apple or running Android by having more connection options that are standard not proprietary.

Surface has a USB socket for memory sticks and other peripherals, a MicroSDXC socket to supplement the supplied disk space and a microHDMI socket to connect to an external monitor.

There’s also the usual ‘extras’ like a camera, microphone, speaker and touch screen. On the back there is a nice flip-out panel that acts as a stand in landscape mode.

Only Wifi is supported on Surface. Crucially, there’s no 3G/4G mobile broadband support on Surface and that’s a critical lapse given some limited features in Windows RT.

The touch-screen is 1366 x 768 pixels 10.6 inches which makes it (in landscape) wider and shorter than an iPad. This is good for playing movies but somehow seems too tall for reading. The portrait oriented ‘height’ makes it harder to hold single handed for reading. For most people Surface is the first chance to try Windows 8 with touch and gestures rather than a keyboard and mouse.

Surface runs Windows 8 RT, which is not the Windows we’re all used to.


A different Windows

It’s special because it has Windows 8 RT which runs on an ARM low power CPU instead of the Intel chips (or clones) that have worked with Windows for years.

In 2013, there will be Intel based tablets called Surface Pro that have full compatibility with existing Windows applications but are a lot more expensive (over $1,000) and probably less battery life.

The ARM chips let the Surface tablet run using less power and more battery life than any Intel based device can. The price customers pay is with a lack of compatibility.


Compatibility

None of your current Windows programs will work on Windows RT devices. That’s absolutely none.

The only programs that should work are the Windows 8 Apps bought via the Windows Store.

Even though the Surface might look a bit like a standard laptop, it’s quite different inside. Standard Windows applications are no more able to run on Windows RT than they can on Windows Phone.

Not even Microsoft Office can run on Windows RT devices, that’s why Microsoft Surface comes with Office RT which is a partial remake of Office 2013 to work on Windows RT and ARM chips.

This will probably be a source of confusion since a lot of programs are promoted as being for ‘Windows’ which has been OK until now. Only programs that are specifically marked as ‘Windows RT’ compatible will work on the Surface or other RT devices. There are few, if any, such programs at the moment.


Disk Space shortage

Microsoft Surface comes in two sizes promoted as 32GB and 64GB but that’s a significant lie – sorry ‘misunderstanding’.

Windows RT, Office RT and sundries take up a whopping 16GB of the disk space you buy. So the ’32GB device’ should be called 16GB and the ’64GB model’ is really a 46GB device.

It’s a far larger installed ‘footprint’ than you get on Apple or Android devices. Anyone thinking they are buying ’32GB’ of space would not reasonably expect that half of the advertised space is used up before they even open the box.

On the upside, the Surface has a microSD slot so you can add more semi-permanent disk space for a modest outlay. There’s also a USB socket for a memory stick though that’s less easy to carry around.

Microsoft promotes the fact that you can use the cloud to store data instead. That’s true but no substitute for local storage. Talk of cloud storage assumes you have consistent and speedy Internet access which isn’t always the case and less likely with a Surface device which lacks mobile broadband hardware.


Skydrive

Microsoft pushes the integration of Skydrive with Windows RT devices but that’s more marketing hype than practical reality.

Sure, Windows RT has the Skydrive software, but it’s only the Windows 8 app. That app is a lame, almost featureless effort that merely lets you upload and download individual files.

The same goes for Office RT. You can select Skydrive files to work on or save to Skydrive when you’re online. The offline support is pitifully poor for a supposedly portable device.

What’s missing is proper Skydrive support for synchronization which is available in the standard Windows Skydrive program. With synchronization you can work on files offline when you wish knowing that they’ll be copied to and from your device when an Internet connection becomes available. You don’t have to choose or open specific documents before going offline.

Skydrive sync just not possible with Windows RT devices at present and that’s a major failing.


Keyboard

Microsoft offers two keyboards that double as fold up covers. They connect to the device with a clever magnetic clip that’s easy to attach/detach but otherwise holds on firmly during normal use. You can use either of these keyboards, or the on-screen keyboard or even any standard USB keyboard via the USB socket.

The standard Touch cover has a flat panel with the keyboard layout on it. It’s works OK for small amounts of typing but isn’t accurate or comfortable enough for longer use.

The Type cover option has a physical keyboard with touchpad and mouse buttons that’s more comfortable and accurate for more extended work. Personally we didn’t find the Type cover ideal but it’s better than any other tablet keyboard we’ve used.

Most people use tablets as ‘consumption’ devices for reading, viewing or listening with less use for writing/typing aside from short emails or edits to documents. If you’re in that category, the touch cover would be enough. The more expensive Type cover might suit those of us who use the keyboard a lot more. Keyboards are a personal thing and ideally you should try out a Type cover keyboard before dropping $130 on it.


Price

Microsoft loves to shout out the ‘low’ price of US$499 for Surface. Anyone who has watched Microsoft for years might expect there to be a catch and sure enough there is.

The $499 will buy you a ’32GB’ Surface (really 16GB) but the keyboard cover will cost you more. The ’64GB’ model (aka 46GB) is US$699 plus cover.

The Touch cover costs another $119 while the Type cover adds $129.99 to your bill. You can save a few dollars buying the device and Touch cover in one package.

Add to that US taxes where applicable. Buying from the Microsoft Store doesn’t avoid your state taxes.

So the real ‘low’ price of a basic Surface device is over $600 with a touch cover.

 

Overall, the Surface isn’t a bad device but it’s hard to love. The hardware is good and well designed, aside from the lack of mobile broadband. But Windows RT and Skydrive needs a lot of work since it’s a typical Microsoft v1.0 effort that has too many missing essentials and rough edges for the price.

The price is too high for anyone but those of us who like trying the newest gadget.

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