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Microsoft Surface RT Review: In Depth

The Good

  • Attractive app design

The Bad

  • Poor stills camera

The Microsoft Surface RT, is it a tablet? Is it a PC replacement? Is it a netbook for the modern day tech head? One thing we can tell you from the offset, this tablet – and more broadly Windows RT – is confusing. On the surface you’ve got this quad-core tablet, he 1136×768 display delivers HD resolution and the kickstand built into the body makes it a standalone wonder wherever it may lay. Thanks to the optional keyboard dock, the Surface RT also purports to being a laptop replacement and with a full office suite, we can see why. So why is it so confusing? Because it can’t run standard Windows applications.

Microsoft Surface RT front and back

Microsoft Surface RT: Design

Kicking things off with the easy, uncontroversial part and we’re going to talk you through the Surface RT’s design. Solid, portable, elegant, Microsoft has gotten this part very very right.

Face down and it’s like one rectangular bevel. The back panel consists of a 1-megapixel camera and a kickstand. Flip out the kickstand and you’ll be treated to a microSD card slot underneath. The kickstand mechanism is a thing of beauty. It’s a moving part but it’s solid. The metal construct ensures that it’s cold to the touch and indeed as in the Surface RT adverts, opening and closing the kickstand does indeed result in a satisfying click.

Windows RT kick stand

Ports include a 3.5mm headphone jack to the left along with a volume rocker. On the right is a microHDMI port, a USB slot and a proprietary power port while up top is the power button.

The proprietary charger is magnetic and we had no issues connecting and disconnecting it. We did find it charges the Surface quickly, though we’re hardly surprised given the surface area it takes up.

On the fascia is a 1-megapixel front facing camera, a capacitive Start button and naturally the 10.1-inch screen. With the Type Cover keyboard dock attached, we were concerned about the screen getting scratched over time and rightly so. Our review unit had plenty of small scuffs across its entire fascia.

Speaking of the type cover and now its time to come onto the question on everyone’s lips: is the Microsoft Surface RT a laptop replacement in terms of hardware? The simple answer is no. The mere fact it doesn’t sit atop our lap, type cover or none answers this question. Don’t get us wrong, the type cover isn’t bad – it offers decent click feedback and key depth considering it’s a waif. In the same breath, it isn’t a patch on a laptop keyboard.

The touch cover performs considerably less impressively and we’d just give this a miss altogether unless you’re prepared to invest thousands of failed keystrokes getting adept at typing on it.

Still, when it comes to the tab itself, type cover in tow, thumbs up..

Microsoft Surface RT Review: Screen

The screen’s 1366×768 resolution delivers a 720p HD panel. While HD content is well suited to it therefore, with a PPI of 148, you’re looking at less than half of that found on the likes of the Google Nexus 10.

Windows RT screen

You’ll only really notice this when reading fine text though, and even with text, things look better than 10.1-inch Android tablets like the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1. This in part comes down to the fact that Microsoft employs a softening technology it has been using on its desktop OS for years, ClearType.

Viewing angles are very good indeed. What’s great about the Surface RT is that thanks to the kickstand, you can have it standing on a counter for example and be able to see the content even if you aren’t in reaching distance, with strong overall brightness levels helping and resulting in good outdoor viewing.

Microsoft Surface RT Review: User Interface

This is the part of the review we were putting off writing and with good reason. It’s always difficult to write about something you love and hate in the same breath – but that’s how we feel about Windows 8 RT.

What we like? The Windows RT tiled UI looks great. The consistent horizontal scrolling and type face is instantly familiar to anyone who has come from an Windows Phone, even if it is alien to a Windows 7 user. The main start menu is comprised of tiles you can resize. These are shortcuts to applications and as with Windows Phone, display live updates relating to their corresponding application.

Microsoft Surface RT start screen to use

The Windows RT experience is also heavily gesture reliant. A swipe in from the left side of the screen and you’ll pull up a range of settings and the option to share from whatever application you’re viewing. A swipe from the top and you can access your in app options and a swipe from the right will pull in your last opened window.

These work well once you get the hang of them but there is no comprehensive guide to speak of when starting up the Surface RT that shows you how all these features work – a major shortcoming given they’re not intuitive gestures at all.

As we said though, these work well and within a week our swipe based workflow was well under way, benefiting from Windows RT and indeed Windows 8’s new gesture system.

Microsoft has also pre-installed a whole bunch of software formatted to the tiled UI giving you a huge, huge amount of value out of the box. These include a travel guide, news reader and detailed weather app to name a few. They look fantastic, certainly richer than anything on Android or iOS. The entertainment applications are also something we’ll come onto – Xbox music, Video and the smartglass integration is fantastic.

What really lets down Windows RT though is the restrictive functionality surrounding these apps, the lack of software support and the confusing, finger unfriendly desktop mode.

Restrictive functionality? Yes, very. Here’s an example. You’re viewing a photo, you want to find out the size of the image in the stock photo viewer. You can’t. What? Yes, you heard right, there’s no – right click, then properties. No Android ‘details’ button. In order to learn a little bit more about your picture, you have to go into your desktop mode, find the image in file explorer, long press it (acts as a right click), then click properties – just to find the size of an image. Think that’s long winded? Just try and email it from desktop mode – you can’t because there’s no desktop mail client and the two interfaces don’t talk to one another.

This incredible oversight on Microsoft’s part in terms of user experience is inexcusable, with pictures not being the only instance of having to flit between these wholly contrasting views and rules.

What makes it even worse is that the desktop view is slow and clunky in isolation. Open up an Office application and start editing documents – you’d better be ok with waiting. Scrolling dawdles, typing lags and finger control is just plain clumsy. It reminded us of using Windows Mobile after trying out iOS. Why didn’t Microsoft just make an office suite for its tiled interface?

This is why Windows RT and the Surface RT is such a headache. It’s like the most dysfunctional marriage of two totally opposed interfaces there ever was. The clean, dumbed down metro style tiled UI, and the idiosyncratic, fake desktop, good for a shoddy office experience and frustrating finger input.

Microsoft Surface RT Review: Camera and multimedia

Given the fact that the cameras on the Surface RT – one on the front and one on the back are both 1-megapixel modules, there’s very little to pick apart. Results don’t look great, there’s no autofocus and they aren’t usable for anything beyond webcam Skyping. For that though, they’re perfectly sufficient and broadcast in 720p.

What’s really a pleasure to use on the Surface RT is the multimedia functionality. Starting with Xbox music, this is a subscription based service that will set you back £8.99 per month. That might seem like a lot, but it makes up for the lack of Spotify in the Windows 8 store and looks fantastic in the process.

Xbox music on Surface RT

The tiled UI works to great effect, the music choice is vast and there is an undeniable charm to having the beautifully designed tablet propped up against its kickstand, playing sweet tunes, like a futuristic melodic ornament.

Movies fare similarly well thanks to the on board movies app. Rivalling the likes of the Google Play Movies store and iTunes, Microsoft manage to deliver a top notch user interface and a decent selection of content, ranging from TV shows through to Movies. A series costs around £10 to £20 and an episode around £1.89 while a movie costs around £3.49 to rent and £11.99 to buy. Content isn’t as on point as music but is still respectable.

xbox video on surface rt

What makes this all come together even better is the microHDMI port, outputting HD content seamlessly to an HD TV. This even extends to the likes of HD iPlayer, something laptops occasionally struggle with so if enjoying music and movies is your primary reason for getting a Surface RT, things are looking up.

Games however let the side down in a big way unfortunately. The selection just isn’t available to compete with Android or iOS, let alone fully fledged Windows machines. There are a couple that show promise such as Hydro Thunder and Spectral Souls, the prior displaying some great 3D graphics, so perhaps it’s a waiting game on this front.

App Store on surface RT

Microsoft Surface RT Review: Connections and storage

There’s no 3G Surface available, so Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are the extent of what you can wirelessly expect. As far as tablets go though, that’s pretty much all you’d need as standard.

Internet Explorer 10 is the browser of choice on the Surface RT and performs very well, ish. It’s the first, yes – the first tablet browser we’ve reviewed that totally replicates full desktop browsing, flash, HTML 5 and the rest. Accessing everything with touch input is made easier thanks to great pinch to zoom support so where’s the catch? There are two. The first is each UI has its own browser. This isn’t so much of an issue when using each in isolation, but open tabs aren’t shared across views making the experience across UIs even less seamless – as if that was even possible. The second is the lack of third party browsers such as Chrome, though hopefully that will change soon.

Available in both a 32 GBand 64GB variants, the Microsoft Surface RT also has a microSD card slot on the rear, resulting in expandability of up to an additional 64GB. With the USB port on the right hand side enabling you to plug in an external hard drive, storage options are ample.

Microsoft Surface RT Review: Performance and battery

The Microsoft Surface RT is powered along by a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor coupled with 2GB RAM. Performance, much like most things Surface RT related is once again hit and miss. The hit comes in the form of games, the one or two 3D games we found in the store look great. Also, there isn’t any over heating to speak of and most tasks are smooth enough.

The misses come in the form of basic scrolling occasionally being stuttery, and a lacklustre office experience. Apps also take a long time to open as with Windows Phone, constantly trying to connect to the net before loading cached content, with waiting in general being something that was far too commonplace when using the Surface RT.

Thankfully, we’re ending on a high though as we talk about the battery life. It will easily get you through a full day or two of continuous use with plenty of battery left over.

Microsoft Surface RT Review: Conclusion

There you have it, the Microsoft Surface RT. Not the review we’d hoped to write when we first got wind of it. Sadly, the reality is that the tablet isn’t a fully functioning productivity tool it purports to being. The form prevents it from sitting on the lap, so it can’t replace a laptop. The UIs are at odds with one another and the app support isn’t where it needs to be.

In its defence, it’s a stonking multimedia tool and casual web browser. Microsoft’s applications are slick out of the box and there are enough of them to keep you entertained. The micro HDMI port means that you can send stuff to a big screen with ease and output looks great – perfect for streaming video and the like.

We’d almost recommend forgetting about the desktop UI unless you really need to work with Office docs, and even then, Google Drive works well in the IE10. Keep expectations superficial and you won’t be disappointed, after all, there’s plenty of reason to get a device mainly for entertainment.

If you like the idea of the Surface as a means of getting work done though, hold off for the Surface Pro which will be released in 2013. If you need a tablet now, the Asus Transformer range provide keyboard prowess plus Android and the Google Nexus 10 is a great sans-keyboard alternative. For the richest app support out there, check out the iPad 4th generation.