Review: Microsoft Surface with Windows RT

The Microsoft Surface is a product that Microsoft was able to keep secret right up until they pulled back the curtains on the tablet and when it was announced, it sent shockwaves through the industry. The tablet represents Microsoft’s first foray into the tablet market not only in software but hardware too.

The Surface also represents a strategic shift for the company as they are now competing with the vendors that made the Windows platform so popular. Seeing as no other company has been able to crack Apple’s dominance in tablet market, will the Surface running Windows RT be able to compete, or will it flounder like the competitors before it?

Hardware:

There is no doubt that the Surface is built to compete with the best of the best. The VaporMg case feels firm, confident, and smooth all the way around. Like all other metallic consumer goods, fingerprints do show up but a quick wipe with a micro-fiber cloth and it’s like they were never even there.

The front glass is smooth and runs right up to the edge to give you a seamless front panel for all of your swiping and typing action.

Around back there is a full-body kickstand that is confident and props the display up on a hard surface at the perfect angle if you are sitting in a chair. One qualm we do have is that the stand is not adjustable, so if you work outside the viewing range of what Microsoft deemed to be sufficient, you are out of luck.

Under the attractive exterior is an Nvidia T30 CPU, 2GB of RAM, two 720P cameras, 64GB of storage, Wifi, MicroSDXC slot, one 2.0 USB port, HD video out, and of course the 10.6in display. There are a few more goodies under the hood which you can read about here if you are interested

The one item that can’t be overlooked is the magnetic dock on the bottom of the device that allows you to easily attach a Touch or Type cover to the tablet. The dock works brilliantly and is easy to use and works the first time, every time. There is little hesitation about correctly attaching the covers and it will be interesting to see if Microsoft expands the port accessories to other peripherals in the future.

The entire package is lovely to hold in your hands from a quality perspective. Everything about the Surface screams premium and it’s clear Microsoft went all out on the materials as well as keeping tolerance levels tight.

We should note that the Surface does not include some features we thought it might have including GPS and 3G options. Neither are deal breakers as both can be augmented with WiFi location and cell-phone tethering but if you need either of these, you may want to wait until the Surface 2 arrives.

Display:

The 16:9 display comes in at 1366x768 and also uses Microsoft’s ClearType technology to make every pixel appear sharp and text pop out of the screen.

For the most part, we had few issues with the display but do lust for a higher resolution screen. Even though resolution isn’t the only metric to measure a display, resolution dictates how much content you can get on the screen. With an app snapped to the side (which we love to do), it feels as if a significant portion of your screen is taken up by the snapped app and leave little room for the primary app.

Outside of the resolution, the display is brilliant. Colors, viewing angle, and glare were all either matching or exceeding the primary competition and will present no issue to any user. In fact, if Microsoft will opt for a higher resolution, it would give any Retina display a run for its money. But, until they do go down that road, they will have to forgo the best in class moniker.

The display from an interactive perspective was accurate and responsive with scrolling and pinching working well.

Battery Life:

The battery life of the Surface exceeded our expectations with us achieving over 8 hours of use with a mix of email, video, web surfing and writing this review. It would be possible to use this device for an entire workday and have a bit of juice for when you get home. Most importantly, when using the Surface, you don’t feel as if you are always looking for your next ability to recharge.  

On the topic of the battery, the connector to charge the Surface is magnetic but it has a very weak magnet attraction and is a bit of a pain to attach. Trying to attach the power cord in the dark is a task that results in a lot of fumbling; we would have preferred that Microsoft made the cord have used stronger magnets to guide the adapter home.

Software:

The Surface, as a piece of hardware, is fantastic, where it falls short, is with the software. Now this is not a blanket statement that means it is a bad experience, far from it, but in a market where there are mature platforms, even the slightest hiccups are flaws to be noticed.

Windows RT is a new platform for Microsoft, so some may give them some slack for turning out the product so quickly, but there is optimization to be had.

Switching apps, scrolling and most other basic functions worked like a hot-knife through butter. Video playback, for the most part, minus some YouTube videos, was smooth and a pleasant experience. Our biggest issue came when launching applications.

Some apps will launch with a fluid motion while others would stutter a bit at times, especially the mail application. We had a few issues of lag when using IE, but they were few and far between.

The general feeling is that Microsoft core applications run quite well, it’s when you step outside this box that you begin to notice the hesitation of the platform. When compared to the iPad, it may come up a bit short but the Surface easily bests all available Android tablets in terms of functionality and potential.

We do question Microsoft’s choice to include a desktop icon as it offers up the traditional looking Windows interface but the problem is that it can only run a limited set of programs that includes Office, IE and a few other core Windows applications. You can’t download application from the web like you can on your current desktop and that may cause confusion among consumers.

Windows RT includes several stock applications like Bing News, Weather, Xbox Live, Microsoft Store among other but most notably, it comes with Office installed. Office coming on all Windows RT devices is a critical selling point for Microsoft as it is a significant value proposition when compared to other tablet devices.

The good news here is that the OS can be optimized and it’s not a major problem, we can’t stress this enough, but it is noticeable and it’s something Microsoft can fix with a software update.

Cameras:

The two cameras on the Surface are easy to use with the included camera application. The rear camera was mediocre, at best, with images being washed out consistently or color reproduction being far from natural. But, no one is buying a tablet as his or her primary point and shoot device.

The above image was taken with the Surface's rear camera and as you can see from the image quality, it is quite low. With poor color reproduction, the Surface's rear camera is a novelty, at best. 

The front camera works wonderfully well with the stand extended; Microsoft got the angle for the front positioning perfect and it makes using Skype for video calls a breeze.

Touch and Type Covers:

One of the best features about the Surface is the Touch and Type covers. These two accessories take the tablet from touch to tactical with a quick click. The Touch cover utilizes a membrane type material to act as a keyboard and the Type cover is closer to a traditional keyboard.

The Touch cover takes some time to get used to but is certainly useable and keeps the profile of the surface to a minimal. Think of the Touch cover as cover that conveniently works as a keyboard when needed but not as a primarily source of input. The Type cover is much easier to use for those who need to type significantly longer documents but does add a bit of bulk to the Surface's profile.

If you plan to use the Surface to crank out essays, the Type cover is for you, for those who only need to enter a web address or pen an email on occasion, stick with the Touch cover.

We had no issues using either cover but for us, the Type cover is a better choice as we used it to type this review. The best part is that you have a choice and depending on your typing needs, Microsoft has you covered.

One item to be aware of is that the back of the black Type and Touch covers is much softer than the colored Touch covers. The black covers feel like a cloth material where the colored covers are much firmer and feel like felt over stiff cardboard.

Using the device:

One thing Microsoft has done with the Surface is made it usable in many different situations. It’s a grab and go device but can also be a workhorse when needed.

The limitations of Windows RT do not burden the experience and it’s actually quite useful as long as your productivity is limited to Office and Windows Store applications.

Using the Surface on your lap can be done but it is not as comfortable as using a laptop. The kickstand on your legs keeps you feeling a bit nervous at times as if the device will tumble over at any given moment.

But the best part about the Surface, is that you can quickly remove the keyboard and go touch only, and from that perspective, using the tablet on your lap, plane, train or automobile, is an easy affair. Then, when you get to your destination, attach the keyboard, and you are good to go.

Using the tablet in portrait mode is an awkward as the weight distribution becomes uneven as your hands rest in the middle which makes them a pivot point like a teeter-toter. We rarely envision a situation where you would want to use the Surface in portrait mode as it uncomfortable to use. Additionally, when in portrait mode, your thumb lands directly on the Windows key which leads to many accidental clicks. 

We would question if the Surface is a true laptop replacement as it fills out the tablet category nicely but to ditch your laptop for this device is not a choice we would recommend. Is the Surface good? Certainly, but it is not an end-all solution to your computing needs.

Conclusion:

The Microsoft Surface is a story of stunning hardware and mediocre software. The good news here is that the software issues can be fixed with updates but this may not put early adopters at ease.

The Surface hardware is top notch as the VaporMG case is fantastic and the build quality is on par with the best in the industry. The software is where the Surface comes up short but Microsoft knows this and fortunately, Microsoft is an expert at optimization and pushing out software updates. We fully expect Microsoft to mend any performance issues in the near future and when they do, we highly recommend the Surface to anyone, without hesitation.



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