Microsoft announced in 2012 that it was to launch its own family of tablet laptop convertibles in 2011 called the Surface. The line launched and was praised for some of its hardware design but was widely regarded as too expensive and too limited. Sales were poor and Microsoft released new versions in October 2013.
This review will look at the original Surface RT first released in October 2012.
The Surface is a 10 inch tablet with an 16:9 aspect ratio and it is wider and shallower than you expect it to be. Its case is a black metal that resists scratches surprisingly well and it also has a substantial kickstand built in to use the device in landscape mode. The Surface has two optional keyboards which also serve as cases. These keyboards, the Touch cover and Type cover connect to the surface via a magnetic strip and when used with the kickstand make the tablet look like a laptop.
The Surface RT runs Windows RT. It is primarily using the new style ‘Modern’ interface but has access to the desktop for some built in programs and system control. It does not allow you to run normal desktop programs. Windows RT has been less successful than the other tablet optimized OS’s but does now have a good range of apps. Included with the OS is a copy of Microsoft’s Office 365 with Outlook, Word, Excel, Powerpoint and OneNote.
Processor: Nvidia Tegra 3 ARMv7 system on a chip
Operating System: Windows RT 8.1
Network: MIM0 Wi-fi 802.11 a/b/g/n
Memory: 2GB RAM
Display: 10.6 inches, 1366×768 pixels
Camera: Front and rear both 1.2 MP with 720pHD recording
Connectivity: USB 2.0 – 1 full size port
Bluetooth: Bluetooth 4.0
Storage: 32 or 64GB versions, microSDXC card port
Dimensions: 17.2 x 27.5 x 0.94 cm
Power: proprietary magnetic charging cable
Weight: 680g (tablet only)
Features and Accessibility
Visually the Surface is a pleasant surprise. The screen is bright and while not quite of retina standard is clear and a good viewing experience. The RT has a microHDMI out port and can be plugged into an external monitor or TV and then used to mirror the Surface’s screen or use it as an extender screen. The aspect ratio makes it particularly good for watching widescreen content in landscape mode although it feels a little tall and thin in portrait.
The Surface has two built speakers and can therefore play sound in stereo rather than mono. The speakers have a good sound quality but are rather quiet. I prefer headphones rather than the built in speakers. The Surface does have built in bluetooth so will work with most bluetooth speakers and headsets.
One unique feature the Surface has when using the Touch cover is that it plays key press sounds when you impact the keys. This is far more useful than it appears because the Touch cover has no physical feedback when a key is pressed and this allows you to get used to the amount of pressure that is needed to push a key.
Physically the RT is an odd mix of being very accessible and average. As it stands fresh out of the box the tablet is average. It has an average on screen keyboard and the standard Windows set of accessibility tools and not much else. The Surface has bluetooth, microHDMI and a full size USB port so you can use it with almost any peripheral that will work on a full size Windows machine. You can use keyboards, mice, trackballs, joysticks, gaming controllers (including both the Xbox controller and the PS3 controller) and potentially Windows compatible switch systems. If you want a tablet you can use with peripherals this is it.
Easy of Use
Windows RT is based on the Modern Metro tile interface rather than the far more familiar desktop interface and this has the potential to cause confusion for long term Windows users. To make matters even worse there is still a desktop in RT which still contains some of the settings and information for the device. To take as an example checking how much battery power is available requires you to go to the tiled Start screen, select desktop then touch the tiny battery in the bottom right of the screen – hardly intuitive.
With that caveat and if you are willing to accept the Surface RT as a new type of device which requires learning rather than a Windows device that works ‘wrong’ it works surprisingly well. There is a design and set of gesture conventions that seem well followed by most app makers and once understood do have an internal logic.
Price: 32GB for £279.00, 64GB for £299.00
The Surface RT is an odd device that does not quite fall into normal categories. It is not a laptop or (quite) a normal tablet and it does not run normal Windows or an operating system that is fully optimised for touch but it tries to encompass all of these these things. Its hardware and build is remarkably good, and the keyboard is probably the best tablet keyboard that can be bought but it struggled to find its place initially due to price.
In the year and a half since launch it has matured and had large price drops and now is perfect for some markets. If you want a tablet you can use peripherals with, if you need access to Office on the go or are otherwise in the Microsoft ecosystem this is the tablet for you. My own use case is as student using OneNote and Word and it is perfect for this.