Microsoft Surface RT review
In many ways, Microsoft is typical of a massive company. It's visibly slow to react to things, and it takes a very long time for the firm to manoeuvre. But 2012 is looking like the year it finally gets its ducks in a row. Windows 8, Windows Phone 8 and a solid amount of unification across computers, phones and the Xbox 360, have meant that the company is currently looking like it knows where it's going for the first time in a good few years.
Microsoft Surface RT is a good example of this. It uses Windows 8 - albeit in a different form from the regular operating system - and brings in some unique features along with the things that we already enjoy about tablets. But Android and iOS tablets have really got the market sewn up, so does the RT do enough to woo people over, or is this another one of Microsoft's ambitious, but ultimately doomed, hardware projects?
Despite being the company behind the world's most popular operating system, Microsoft has not previously attempted a PC. It makes mice, keyboards, webcams and games consoles, but until now, it's never bothered to make a computer. Which seems odd, because Apple makes a good chunk of cash from computers, far more so, in fact, than it does from OS X.
But the time has come, and we're happy to say that Microsoft hasn't let itself down. The surface is one of the most solid-feeling tablets we've used. But, of course, that solidness comes at a price, and that price is the hefty weight. The RT isn't the sort of tablet that's comfortable to wield with one hand. But we get the impression MS doesn't really think you should use it like that.
And the reason we think holding it is discouraged is that built-in kickstand. It flips out with a solid clunk, and supports the Surface at an angle that's designed to be ideal for watching video, typing - via a keyboard - or making Skype calls. The firm is pleased about the Skype thing, because the front camera points at you, while the rear-mounted one should give a good view of what's happening in front of the tablet. We aren't sure this is a massive selling point, but the stand is good, although the angle isn't perfect for typing.
Most impressive perhaps are the magnetic keyboards which are available as an optional extra for around £100. These automatically attach the keyboard to the tablet with startling accuracy. From our tests it seems impossible to get it to connect incorrectly, and when coming at it from a weird angle, the magnets seem able to align everything well. It's really very cool.
The front of the tablet has no branding, save the new Windows logo below the screen. This isn't just a logo either, it's a capacitive home button. We don't want to go overboard here, but this is a great idea, and something we can't help but think that Apple should have done on the iDevices - although they use hardware buttons, not capacitive ones.
Dead centre front and back, there are webcams that we'll talk about in more detail later. On the left of the tablet, there is a volume rocker and headphone jack. The Surface has stereo speakers, and these are located at the top of the device, on the left and right edges.
Over on the right-hand side, there is a video output, USB socket and the charging connector. As with Apple's laptops, the Surface charger locates magnetically and detaches reasonably easily, before the device can get pulled to the floor. We noticed that when you're using the Surface with a keyboard, the power cable points upwards, with the cable coming out of the top. This is illogical, and we honestly didn't care for it.
At the back is that famous kickstand. There are two indentations on the device that allow you to pop the stand out easily, and the whole thing feels solid. Underneath, you'll find the Windows RT logo, the capacity of your tablet and, over on the left, the microSD card slot, which allows you to boost capacity by up to 64GB.
Finally, at the bottom of the tablet is a connector for a dock, or the keyboard, as well as an indentation that keeps everything tightly together. It's a beautifully designed piece of hardware.
If there's one area where we are unsure, it's about the naming of the Surface. Firstly, this is not the first product to carry this name. That honour goes to Microsoft's table, which offered interactivity and a new way to, erm, well it did something.
But the confusion doesn't end there, because this is the Surface RT, which is an ARM-based system, powered by the Nvidia Tegra 3 chipset. Early next year the Surface Pro will appear and it is a more traditional Windows PC, running on an Intel chip, and side-stepping the compatibility issues with Windows RT.
READ: Windows 8 review
We're not sure most people will understand that Windows RT won't run Windows standard apps, but only those from the Windows Marketplace. Especially when the Pro arrives, which looks very similar, but does everything your home computer can do. We can't help feeling it will generate a lot of product returns.
In a world of ridiculously high-resolution screens, there was a collective groan of disappointment when Microsoft announced the screen resolution for the Surface RT as 1366 x 768 (148ppi). Honestly though, there's no cause for concern here at all. The screen on the surface is fantastic to look at. There has not been one point where we've wished for higher resolution, it seems to do justice to web browsing, video and games in equal measure. Plus, there are advantages to having less screen real-estate. There's not as much processing needed, less power consumed and it helps keep the costs down.
We're also impressed by the auto brightness, which seems to get its setting right more than any phone or laptop we've used. Plus, it doesn't constantly adjust either, something we find very wearisome on our Dell XPS 13.
The touch sensitivity is good too. Windows still has areas that really need a mouse, but Microsoft has managed to ensure you don't need to go near these much on RT. The desktop mode has been well thought-out though, with long-presses replacing right clicks and the whole thing is quite workable. That's not to say there aren't times when the interface is too small for touch though, and when you reach these, it can be annoying.
The keyboard conundrum
The Surface doesn't come with a keyboard - although it is possible to buy a bundle with one included - so you need to decide if you think you need this functionality. For us, the surface is all about using a keyboard. It might not be essential, but it makes the Surface into something that can, at a push, replace your laptop.
There is a choice of two keyboard attachments at launch. You can either get the "Touch" or the "Type" keyboard. These are subtly different, but have a very different feel and responsiveness to each other - and indeed to a laptop keyboard.
However, in terms of similarity, they have plenty in common. Both are Qwerty keyboards, that offer a pretty decent-size typing surface. Both have a basic trackpad too, which supports multitouch, but isn't especially large, and therefore requires a certain amount of patience to use.
To look at the Touch, you might think it was similar to the rubber push-button keyboards of the early Sinclair. This couldn't be further from the truth, the keyboard is actually much more clever than that. As the name implies, this keyboard is a touch surface, so there's no actual button pressing at all. All you do is hit the key normally, and look in amazement as letters, and then words, appear.
Microsoft says to allow "five days" to learn how to type well on the Touch. In fact, we found it was almost instant. Aside from the lack of movement, it all feels a lot less weird than you might think. And we'd argue it's more natural than typing on the glass screen of any tablet. To reduce the weirdness, when you type the tablet makes a sound electronically - it doesn't do this with the Type keyboard - which does, surprisingly help reassure you that what you're pressing is actually doing something. We don't think you'll be able to get full speeds on the Touch keyboard, but it's actually more responsive than we expected.
We did, however, notice that there was some lag when we used any app in desktop mode. This includes Word or Internet Explorer. It wasn't consistently bad, but at times it would mean that words we typed would get missed out.
The Type keyboard is different, but not automatically better. At the start, we preferred it to the touch, finding our typing much more natural and keyboard-like. But as time has gone on, we've not felt it adds much to be worth the extra bulk. Make no mistake, it's an amazing tablet keyboard, but it's not as visually or technically impressive as the Touch, and it doesn't do enough to make us want it.
Surface RT felt quick to us. Microsoft has done a good job of making the Windows RT UI feel slick and smooth. There are few slowdowns, although we did have one substantial one, that cleared quickly and on its own.
It's powered by a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor, running at 1.3GHz and has 2GB of memory. It has a GeForce ULP GPU too, and uses the Tegra 3 to bind all these bits together. So, in terms of spec, it's got more in common with a tablet than a laptop. That's interesting, because Microsoft talks about the Surface like a laptop replacement, and in the time we've been using it, we've felt the same, even though it has a lot less power than most laptops.
Video starts quickly, and plays very well once it's going. Netflix HD didn't stutter or have any problems either. Of course, there is limited support for video playback on the device, after all, many codecs and players just aren't available for RT devices, although that will surely come.
There's not much graphically intensive stuff in the store yet either, so it's quite hard to tell if the Surface RT can handle the same sort of intense graphics that the iPad and high-end tablets can. But we suspect it's more than capable. We do sort of hope that Microsoft does something significant in gaming on Windows RT and 8 soon, as it feels like it's going to get left behind if it doesn't.
READ: iPad 4 review
One of the big things for Microsoft was the Wi-Fi aerial, which it claims is better than anything else on the market. We can't say that it is, but we thought it was reasonable. It's MIMO, which should mean you stand a better chance of getting a signal, and that it's faster, but we didn't ever feel like it was out-performing any of our other devices. That said, it tethered to our Android phone, when other devices wouldn't, and we found the speed impressive most of the time.
We don't think tablets should be used for photography. Indeed, we'd happily see any tablet come without a rear-mounted camera, in favour of better battery life or some other boost. Front-facing cameras are handy for video calls though, so are worth having around.
So, to some extent we don't care what the quality is like on the Surface. But it's actually shocking how horrible the images it produces are. Part of the problem is clearly the low-megapixel count on both cameras. They're designed for 720p video, so they're only 1-megapixel resolution, but even so. Wow, just wow.
It's been a long time since we've seen photos that low quality. In fact, we think there's a chance that this is the worst camera on any device since they started putting cameras in things. Well, perhaps not, but you certainly wouldn't use these for anything of note.
If cameras are, for some reason, crucial to your tablet buying decision, don't get the Surface.
It's here that the Surface finds itself in some trouble. Not because the Windows Apps from its own store are bad - although some are - but because RT is incapable of running apps from the mainstream, desktop version of Windows. Despite Microsoft trying to make it clear that this isn't possible, we just don't see how the message is going to get across.
For one, MS has included the desktop here. That's used mostly for Windows Explorer, Office and Internet Explorer. These are all apps that Windows users are used to. So, when you give a Surface RT to a new user, there are going to be some who assume that it looks like Windows, smells like Windows so must, therefore, be Windows.
While we understand why you can't run Windows apps on ARM hardware, that doesn't mean we're not frustrated by it. Take, for example, Google Chrome. We live in this browser, it holds our bookmarks and tabs across devices and is one of the greatest browsers available. But right now, there's no RT version, and that's frustrating.
Games too, will be a problem. Because, obviously, there will be no triple A titles on the Surface any time soon. Are we underestimating people, and their ability to understand that RT is a different platform to Windows 8? Perhaps, but Microsoft has done such a good job of unifying the two operating systems, at least graphically, that we wouldn't blame anyone who had a mental stumbling block over the difference.
That said, there's plenty here to keep users entertained. The "Modern UI" apps vary quite wildly in quality. Interestingly, it's the pre-installed Microsoft apps we don't like very much.
People, for example, is just weird. It's a list of all your contacts from Messenger/Hotmail, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Gmail - which can include phone numbers - and Skype. If you click on a name, you'll see various bits of information about that person from the networks they use. It's not a bad idea, but who thinks, "I know, I'll just have a quick look at everything I can about my friend John"? You can, of course, look at updates from Facebook and Twitter, as a sort of social aggregator, but we aren't keen on this, it's a poor way to explore those networks, which don't work in the same way as one another.
If you ask us, contacts and people should be different things. There are times when you just want to search for a phone number, or email, and see it, without photos, updates and other nonsense getting in the way.
On the flipside, there are some great apps for RT - and Windows 8 - that offer loads of functionality. Netflix is a favourite, but Wikipedia's app is starting to look very good. Sky News, The Telegraph and Bing News are all looking good, although there's a lot to be said for the way the designers have put these apps together.
One example is the lack of decent Twitter app. MetroTwit is about the best we've found, as it presents your feed in a logical way. Other apps seem to get caught up in making everything look different for the sake of it, and because it's a new-look user interface.
Some of the apps you might install on your Intel or AMD desktop, as you might expect, won't work on RT. One of these is, bizarrely, Shazam but it doesn't show up on our RT machine. It's early on, of course but this is a disappointment even so. And, we can't think of many people who need to tag music on their desktop computer, but there are loads who might want to do so on a tablet.
It's always tough to rate batteries. You should get around 6-8 hours from Surface, depending, of course, what you use it for. We were pleased with how long it lasted, but we also did fairly low-key stuff. Video and games will drain a lot more juice a lot quicker, so if you're doing those activities, prepare for less.
It is less than a tablet would manage, but better than most Ultrabooks. It's not an outstanding result, but neither is it disappointing. It's the sort of thing we can see being improved with the Surface RT 2.
We're sold, honestly, on the Surface RT. It's not cheap, but it's priced aggressively enough that people will give it some thought before they snap up an iPad.
But, Surface isn't really competing with the iPad. It's looking to take the crown from laptops. And in that regard, we think it's doing some impressive work. For example, the battery life is such that it makes taking it on the road much more practical than a massive laptop. It's lighter, and it should last pretty much all working day.
There was nothing about surface that we didn't either love, or think would be improved as the software gets updated. Honestly, Microsoft needs a spanking over some of the pre-installed apps, but this is version 1, things are certain to improve as time goes on, and nothing hampered our productivity either.
The acid test of any gadget, for us, is how sad we are to give it back once we've finished reviewing it. In this case, we're beyond sad, and have moved in to a state of great turmoil that is likely to end up in an expensive online shopping trip. The Surface might not be perfect yet, but we can see a bright future for it.