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A quick look back at the launch of the first Microsoft Surface RT 11 years ago this month

microsoft surface rt

A few days ago, Qualcomm officially announced its next Arm-based PC CPU, the Snapdragon X Elite. The company's latest effort to take some CPU market share away from Intel and AMD in the Windows PC market seems to have the backing of most of the major Windows PC OEMs as well. That includes Microsoft, which will use the new Qualcomm chip in at least one of its upcoming Surface PC products.

Ironically, this news came just a few days after the 11th anniversary of the launch of Microsoft's first Surface PC product, the Surface RT. That 10.6 tablet came with Microsoft's Windows RT OS that was made to be used with Arm CPUs. In this case, however, the Surface RT had a chip made by NVIDIA, the Nvidia Tegra 3. In yet another bit of irony, unconfirmed rumors hit the interwebs this week that NVIDIA, along with AMD, are making new Arm-based CPUs for launch sometime in 2025.

The Surface RT was first announced back in June 2012 by Microsoft during a press event in Los Angeles. The reveal was kept top secret by the company. Rumors about the company launching a tablet device only began hitting the internet a few days before the official reveal.

surface rt ads

In the months between the June press event and the actual launch of the Surface RT in October, Microsoft slowly built up what turned out to be a huge marketing campaign for the tablet. In late August, street painters in New York City started painting ads for the Surface on buildings. They also revealed the marketing tag line "Click in". It was a reference to clicking in the tablet's optional Touch Cover. Other similar street ads began showing up in other cities like Los Angeles and Chicago.

The aspect of the Surface RT connecting with its Touch and Type Cover was a major aspect of the first TV commercial for the product. It is perhaps one of the most memorable TV ads ever for a Microsoft product, with an incredibly well-done choreographed clip of dancers clicking and unclicking on the covers for the Surface RT. That TV spot, by the way, was Jon M. Chu, who went on to direct films like Crazy Rich Asians, In The Heights, and the upcoming film adaptation of the musical Wicked.

Even with all that marketing and promotion, the initial critical reactions to the first Surface RT were mixed. Our own review of the Surface RT, from former writer Brad Sams, praised the hardware of the tablet, but the Windows RT OS is "where it falls short".

Despite initial units of the Surface RT selling out soon after preorders began on October 16, 2012, the device was ultimately a sales failure. In July 2013, Microsoft took a one-time $900 million charge in its financial numbers due to "Surface RT inventory adjustments." It also heavily cut the price of the tablet which did result in a brief burst of increased sales for the product.

Even with the poor sales of the Surface RT, Microsoft went ahead and launched its direct successor, the Surface 2, in the fall of 2013 with an NVIDIA Tegra 4 chip and Windows 8.1 RT. It was also not a sales success. The company had originally planned to announce another Windows RT device, the Surface Mini, in May 2014 that ran on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chip. However, that tablet was canceled just days before its official reveal.

It would be several years before Microsoft used an Arm-based processor inside a Surface Windows PC product. That happened in 2019 with the launch of the Surface Pro X. Since then, Microsoft has dipped its toes in making Arm-based Surface PCs, but has mostly stuck with Intel CPUs. This week's reveal of the Snapdragon X Elite CPU could be a turning point, however, and we could see more Surface products with Arm processors in the future.

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