Surface with Windows RT: The prettiest thing you’ll never want to touch again

January 11, 2013

Go Bag LogoMicrosoft’s Surface with Windows RT is a gorgeous device that under different circumstances might have been a gloriously unexpected mutation in the evolution of hardware. But beauty can’t conceal the blemishes beneath. The promise of the Surface, and hybrids in general, is that they can credibly replace both a laptop and a tablet. Surface disappoints as either.

Much of what isn’t right is due to the operating system on the device. This version of Windows 8 dramatically changes the user experience by co-mingling a traditional Windows desktop with a separate universe dominated by “live” tiles that allow access to information and apps.  The interface doesn’t impress, complicating appreciation for the hardware itself. For whatever reason, the OS seems slow and unresponsive. And the “full” desktop is crippled: It’s not possible, for example, to install desktop software — like a different browser or software you might need for a 4G dongle — even in the “desktop” mode. It feels like a device that was dreamed up to have one revolutionary new interface instead left the factory with two broken ones.

Surface RT with the "type" keyboard

Surface RT with the “type” keyboard

Further, in the one place where the design is spot on, Microsoft’s marketing and sales pitch is out of sync: Surface’s keyboard-as-cover is truly innovative, which makes the significant extra cost for this “option” a bit insulting. As questionable as Surface is, it is outright incomprehensible without it. I tried both the “touch” — which doesn’t have raised keys — and the “type” version which can be used to touch type. Only the “type” makes any sense, and Microsoft seems to be driving us to this patently superior model by charging only $10 more for it than the touch model (MSRP $120 vs $130). I didn’t use my touch keyboard enough for it to come apart at the seams, but there were early reports that it does.

But the keyboard did not always work as expected. On softish surfaces it missed keystrokes. It was positively unusable when typing in a Google Document. Latency and hiccups under those conditions is always an issue, but I’ve had better luck with after-market bluetooth keyboards whose idiosyncrasies were consistent enough for me to adapt to quickly. This felt like a software, not mechanical failure.

The kickstand, a sleek and cleverly unobtrusive part of the rear panel, is an absolute must for a machine with laptop aspirations. But it only tilts the screen at a single angle. Unlike a laptop, the orientation can’t be optimized to suit your ad hoc needs. For about $20 you can pick up an infinitely-adjustable tablet stand; it’s hard to understand why, on a device whose skin was so carefully designed, Microsoft didn’t allow for a range of lockable movement.

I did appreciate the ability to use the keyboard lying flat with the screen — remarkably comfortable sitting up in bed. Surface fit perfectly on my lap in the center seat on a commuter train, allowing me to type without tucking in my elbows too much, so it would work in any situation when your lap is your desk. And, fortunately, the keyboard is disabled when it is folded completely back, so you aren’t ghost typing with your hidden hand when using it as a tablet.

But why you’d want to use it as a tablet at all is the question. Surface RT is heavy and thicker than traditional 10″ tablets just as the lighter, smaller 7″ models are getting popular. It feels like something from that first generation of doomed iPad competitors, particularly the Motorola Xoom.

Sometimes the smallest annoyances are the most frustrating. Take the Windows key: On the Surface RT it instantaneously transports you to the tile home menu but it is situated right in the middle of the shift/alt/ctrl keys which are frequently used for navigating and editing documents. The Windows key and its location is a core part of the Windows branding set, but the potential for mis-fire is so great on Surface that it should really be in a less accident-prone location. (I went on many detours while trying to edit text.) Or, perhaps its function should require a combination keystroke. Or, maybe it shouldn’t be there at all, since its less evil twin is on the bottom bezel of the touch screen, doing the same thing well out of harm’s way.

In the few weeks I used the Surface RT I found myself constantly putting it aside — to write this review, check mail, web browse — in lieu of Apple ultralights, Android tablets, my smartphone and even other Windows machines. As a productivity device it has little to offer apart from compactness. (On that score it is hard to beat; I carried it along with a MacBook Air, a tablet and the rest of my Go Bag essentials and never noticed the extra lug.)

Some of the shortcomings of the Surface will be addressed in the upcoming Surface Pro, including the ability to install software as you would on any other Windows machine. In previews timed to this week’s Consumer Electronics Show, the considerably more expensive Surface Pro is being called a “game changer” by the New York Times’ David Pogue, and Tom Warren of The Verge describes it as a “super tablet.”

I hope so. Surface Pro dispenses with the tablet pretense may be a better entrant in the road warrior’s hunt for the perfect hybrid: one thing which does the work of both a tablet and a PC with no compromise to either. But it needs to be judged by different criteria since it will cost almost twice the RT — up to $1,130 for 128GB of storage with the touch keyboard you can’t do without. We’ll check on the Pro when we get our own test unit.

But back to the RT: at $630 the RT + touch keyboard combination is a very tough sell. You can get two much better tablets for that money, or a credible netbook.

What you can’t get — still — is something that does the work of both.

Surface RT is an interesting foray into hybrid computing, but it seems like little more than a proof of concept for better implementations of an idea which is only beginning to mature. This iteration wouldn’t make it into my go bag. But as for future variations on this theme? I am all eyes and ears — and fingertips.

7 comments

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Wow, a job like this is my dream, write reviews based in outdated info by others and get paid. Hey reuters, I can do the same by half the money.

Now getting serious.

Actually Surface is a tablet, it has the benefit to have a cover that doubles as a keyboard, son can be used in a “laptop” mode, I probably use as a tablet mode 80% of the time, and in “laptop” mode 20% mostly to write and work on exel. So I actually have replaced my 4 pound laptop with Surface when I go outside my studio.

When I need computing power I rely in my XPS 16 with i7, but then I do my work in my desk, Surface is not intended to replace the traditional PC but serve as a mobile companion.

With good battery life, office, light weight and touch cover, is the perfect device.

Most of your complaints seems almost 2 months old, I’m writing this in a type cover and NO lag, also the graphics are swift (not match the ipad4) and the responsiveness almost instantly.

The OS (windows RT) is good, the F.K.A metro interface beautiful, all you comments about crippled, and unresponsiveness are dated.

I’m amazed that a tech review doesn’t understand the difference between RT and Win8, may be from a mom and pop user that know nothing about kernels and how to set up a remote desktop. FYI RT is based on ARM not x86, is a low powered OS that cannot run legacy programs, is oriented to light users that appreciate long battery life, low weight, fast startup and on the go productivity. If you need badly a legacy app when you visit your grandma, then bring with you your laptop.

In short, Surface RT is a great device for the power user that need a tablet as a companion device for the regular uses of a tablet i.e. web surfing, play, watch movies, but also do some productivity on the fly.

Posted by teral | Report as abusive

I got the surface for Christmas, and I was thinking great something else to take back. I could use it for 15 days and if I did not like it I could get my money back. So I have tried it and liked it. I have used ipad and tablets of all kinds and I have never liked anything that I have tried. I really can’t stand the ipad it does have a lot of apps. As for work it’s useless for getting work done. I started to play with the surface and tried it for work, and with skydrive and office I have found it to be great. If you look at the surface for what it is it’s not bad, and for the speed issue any device like this gets slow. I also really like the two views of windows8 interface and the old desktop style. To me it’s the best of both worlds. I really feel that the Surface is not for every one, but for me and I feel many others it works great. I have found it much better and faster and allows more access to docs to use in meetings than anything else.

Posted by skihood | Report as abusive

I have a Surface RT and the more I use it the more I love it. It has the one APP that I have wanted for years that no other tablet on the market has – MS Office. I did not have to purchase MS Office, it came free with Surface RT. I saved hundreds of dollars right there. Surface RT also comes with a full-featured web browser that obviates the need for a whole host of other apps that other tablets must use in order to access the features of many of popular websites.

SkyDrive makes it easy for me to view and edit documents I am working on at work to be accessed out of the office or while I am at home.

There are so many things Surface RT does that other tablets cannot do, it just makes other tablets pale in comparison.

Surface RT –

- Allows two applications to be viewed on the same screen at the same time
- Supports multiple monitors so that I can work on a large screen with one application while I have another open on the main Surface screen
- Supports multiple accounts so my family can use the Surface without messing with one another’s settings.
- Makes it easy to print to nearby printers
- Has a USB port for attaching a printer locally
- Uses simple hand gestures for almost all UI actions, but also has a full set of keyboard shortcuts to accomplish the same actions.
- Is a light tablet (no heavier than an iPad)
- Is a sturdy tablet (does not feel cheap)
- Works just fine on my lap when typing
- Has a growing store of usefull apps (over 25,000)

The list goes on. I think most who do not favor the Surface, do not realize all the benefits that the Surface brings to tablet and laptop usage. I am relatively certain that the direction that Microsoft has taken with the Surface tablets is the one that is going to catch on worldwide and become the dominant form-factor for the bridging of the tablet and laptop platforms.

One Surface will allow people to replace two devices, and perhaps even a third. With the Surface I do not need to carry a loptop AND a tablet. And with it’s many ports, I can even replace my desktop (with the addition of an external monitor and perhaps a larger keyboard and mouse).

Posted by CurtisQuick | Report as abusive

ZunePad! Hardly any consumers are buying this product. It’s being said that only about one million of these devices have been sold, so far. It’s time for Microsoft to introduce the ZunePad 2 and slash prices of this model by $150. Then sales might pick up. The diehard Windows fanbois have already purchased as many as possible to be sold. A lower price will entice average consumers to try it out. Microsoft is going to need a lot of luck to move this product because there’s too much tablet competition from Android vendors and Apple.

Posted by iphonerulez | Report as abusive

Windows 8 touch interface is innovative on many fronts. It’s hard to compare a complex OS in just several paragraphs.
I don’t see a problem with WIndows keys. Many in our organization have it.

You could make same case for dozens of keyboard arrangements, placing keys in the oddest location (e.g,. Lenovo putting FN key in lower left – where Control is used about 10+ times more often).

Overall a shallow review. Something John (author) did on a Sunday afternoon.

iPad interface is clearly old, and quickly getting archaic. Android looks like a grade-schooler thought it out. All the graphics look childish.

I’d go further about how Microsoft has put more into the Windows OS technically, and for the long term, but I suspect it would go over the author’s head.

Surface RT and Pro are necessary to set a bar for Windows 8 hardware. Google is doing same thing.

Windows 8 has been updated many times since 10/26/12. Has the author bothered to look again?
He’s obliged to post an update because it’s a much larger OS than Android or iOS (Apple).

Again shallow review. I had more respect for Reuter’s but it’s not a technology site, more financial and news.

Posted by noozhour | Report as abusive

I agree that this review is completely out of date. For example, the problem typing on soft surfaces (a pillow for example) has been corrected with the last firmware update.

Here is my 2 cents:

I think the Surface RT is great. I used a lot of tablets before I decided on this one and I feel it is the most versatile and functional. All the android tablets and ipads are basically big cell phones, this is an actual tablet. And just to be clear, it is a tablet with a keyboard not a little portable laptop.

I do a lot of work from home and on the road. This “tablet” is perfect for that. I use MS Office and skydrive constantly. The display looks great, the user interface is smooth. It is a bit of a pain that you can’t load 3rd party apps, but you can’t do that on the ipad either. The only reason the no one complained you can’t use 3rd party apps on the ipad is because they have a veritable plethora of ios apps. The Windows App Store is still young, there will be more apps to come, just be patient. The only other problem I have with the Surface is the charger. It is incredibly stupid and awkward, I do like the little led it has on it so you know it’s charging though.

All in all, if you want a big cell phone looking Tablet that’s basically a toy, get an Ipad or Android. I have a cell phone already and I wanted something functional so I got the Surface Rt. I would give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Posted by Jakers1983 | Report as abusive

I disagree with the article. I own a surface rt 32gb (most basic model) with type cover and as some comments have already stated it is very useful as an addition to your laptop. Sometimes I’ll be driving and a client calls and needs an update on an estimate, i’ve literally pulled the over the car, opened the surface with the keyboard on my lap and the Tablet resting on the steering wheel and replied to the customers demand. The laptop would have taken too long to boot and the ipad would’ve been too uncomfortable. I’m typing on it right now.

Posted by manrar | Report as abusive