Review of the Surface RT

Jan 17th, 2013

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Review of the Surface RT

I bought the Surface RT back in November as a replacement for the Iconia W500 Tablet I reviewed on this site previously.  Having had it for a few months now – I thought it would be about time for a review.  I’ve read some shocking rubbish about the Surface specifically and Windows 8 in general – so I’d like to put the record straight as probably one of the few people who have been using a Windows 8 tablet since inception (I installed the Consumer Preview the day it came out)

 

Hardware

With a couple of minor niggles, the hardware on this device is first class.  Everything about it screams quality and attention to detail from the casing to the kickstand to the screen itself.  I recently had the opportunity to demonstrate the Surface to a number of people at a conference, and the general consensus  was that the screen was butter smooth and the keyboard pretty good to type with (not as good as a full-on PC keyboard – but excellent for something only a couple of millimetres thick).  With the Iconia I used to have – the screen was sluggish compared to the iPad; with the Surface it is possibly even more responsive.   Also the screen is so bright and vibrant that I can’t really tell that the resolution is lower than the iPad (though perhaps my 46 year old eyes are something to do with that!).  Having the USB port and mini HDMI adaptor is really convenient – I have plugged the Surface into an external monitor and USB hub attaching to external keyboard/mouse, and spent a whole day working on a presentation using PowerPoint and doing internet research using IE10.  After the first half hour I didn’t even notice the fact it was a tablet rather than a PC.

Anyone who tells you the battery life is nine hours either has something wrong with his Surface or is doing something seriously weird with it.  I find that using IE, listening to music, playing games, working in Office, reading books etc, I get about 12 to 13 hours out of it – commensurate with the iPad.   It is also very slightly heavier but also very slightly thinner than the iPad and has a slightly different form profile which to my mind makes it slight worse for reading books and slightly better for watching videos.  This would be entirely a matter of personal preference though.

My niggles are as simple as this.  Firstly – the connector for the power adaptor is not of the best.  It is supposedly magnetic but doesn’t really clip in place very easily particularly in contrast to the keyboard where the magnetic connector is brilliant.  It is also highly proprietal and quite expensive to buy a replacement for.    Secondly – be very careful when buying a case for the Surface or any Windows 8 device.  There are a lot of cases advertised on the internet which simply do not work with Windows 8 because no one at these companies has bothered to look at the way the OS works and therefore don’t realize that you have to swipe over the side of the device to access a lot of its functionality.  So check that the case really is for the Surface and isn’t just a rebadged iPad case.

Rating – 9/10

 

Software

There is a huge amount of misunderstanding about Windows 8 in general and Windows RT in particular out there…..

a)  Windows 8 Pro is not that radically different to Windows 7 if you don’t want it to be.  I personally like the modern interface and use it a lot.  But if you don’t like it – pin the 10 programs you use to your taskbar and use it as Windows 7.  I can honestly say that since the very early beta days I have experienced two BSODs; one was me messing about with an early version of the Windows Phone SDK and the other was a dodgy website with some ancient version of Adobe Reader.  Windows 8 is rock solid, works with every legacy program I have tried and runs desktop programs in exactly the same way as Windows 7 did.  The only difference you will see in desktop mode is the absence of the start button (and if that really, really bothers you – install Start8) and the greatly improved features in Task Manager, File Explorer (it has the ribbon!) etc.  There are other improvements behind the scenes, but you will not notice them when using it.  I suppose the other thing you may just notice is that your machine boots from the BIOS in between 8 and 12 seconds which is a huge improvement from previous versious.  You can turn off the signing requirement in the UEFI BIOS on a Windows 8 device and load any operating system you see fit on it – it is only Windows RT devices which are restricted from doing this to protect end-users from malware.

b)  Windows RT is a bit different.  Basically it is a full version of Windows cross-compiled to the ARM processor with the reasoning behind it being to improve battery life and reduce the risk to end users of compromising their machines.  Out of the box, it only runs apps out of the Windows Store and certain apps (such as Office and most of the Windows utilities) signed by MS.    I presented about this OS on the Surface at Securi-Tay2 recently and my conclusion was that for about 95% of users – it does exactly what they would want.  It runs MUI apps; it runs Office; it runs Windows desktop utilities.  It doesn’t easily let the end user turn off the firewall, the virus checker or the update service.  So for a typical use scenario that is ideal.  Windows RT would not work for me as a heavy professional user of niche software – but then as it is essentially a tablet – I would not expect it to.  But still, the vanilla device can access the filesystem, command prompts (including PowerShell), registry editor, map network drives, participate in homegroups etc which to my mind is the vast majority of what you need except as the type of power user that the tablet is not aimed at anyway.  I must also say that there is a jailbreak exploit available for it which makes it far more useful as a power user’s laptop (it will then run any desktop programs cross-compiled for ARM)  and that to my mind Microsoft should seriously consider allowing this to become an official feature for anyone who has a developer’s license for the Windows Store (with appropriate disclaimers that they are no longer responsible for support of any cracked device).

So aside from that, Windows RT looks beautiful on the Surface – really vibrant and eye-catching.  It runs a good variety of apps – and if you really care about how many there are in the Windows Store compared to iTunes, firstly ask yourself how many fart apps and bad Twitter clients you actually need, and secondly, wait six months because with the install base for Windows being the size it is I can bet you that the store is going to be huge.

Software – OS – 9/10

Software – Apps 7/10 (at the moment – sure it will improve)

So I can thoroughly recommend the Surface.  To my mind it does everything the iPad does and much much more.    Of course it is a matter of opinion but I think the Surface is the best device  ever.

 

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