Microsoft Surface with Windows RT – Initial Impressions

A lot has been said about Windows 8 recently. A lot of it has been negative and mainly about the metro new tiled interface. I didn’t buy into any of the negativity and when the Surface with RT tablets came up for pre-order I went ahead and ordered one.

Call me crazy or short sighted but I wanted something different from my next tablet. I have used several different Android tablets and most recently an iPad and none of them have hugely captured what I wanted in a tablet. The closest I’ve got to my ideal was my Asus Transformer Prime, which was recently updated to Jelly Bean. But the dire situation with tablet optimised apps made me sad. Using an iPad and seeing all of the glorious tablet optimised apps made me realise quite how bad the Android situation is.


So as I mentioned I pre-ordered a Surface and eventually it arrived. As there is a lot of interest around it I thought I’d do an initial impressions rather than just charge in and write a quick review.

As usual I’ll start with good and bad points

Good Points

  • It’s drastically different to 99% of other tablets on the market
  • The build quality is amazing
  • Touch cover keyboard is a useful addition
  • The fact it runs trimmed down Windows rather than souped up Windows Phone
  • Full size usb slot
  • MicroSD XC slot

Bad Points

  • It’s expensive for what is basically an experiment by Microsoft
  • Accessories are expensive
  • App Store is a bit of a grey area

Design

The Surface is a really nice looking piece of kit. Especially when you take a step back and realise that it’s just basically an angular slab of metal with a screen slapped on.

It has a reassuring weight to it. I like lightweight stuff but sometimes you pick something up and it feels solid. Like the iPad or my Transformer Prime. The Surface feels very solid, you could almost imagine dropping it from a height or making a skateboard out of it, oh Microsoft already did that.

Mine came with the black touch cover which in itself is a thing of beauty. With a sort of felt like finish on the back the cover feels nice when your carrying it around. When in use it’s a little odd at first but you soon get used to it.

Here are some shots of the Surface:

Hardware

The hardware in the Surface is pretty powerful, it rivals most other high end tablets on the market. That is apart from when you compare the screens, the resolution of 1300*768 to some will seem low, but Microsoft has done some wizardry on it and classed it as a “Cleartype HD” screen.

The screen is nice and bright and very clear. It might have just been the simple interface that was fooling me but web pages, maps and pictures all looked good.

Microsoft have added some smart touches to the screen and the cover. When you open the cover the screen comes on if it hasn’t gone into locked mode. Tapping the Windows button also wakes it up in a similar manner. If the screen has recently turned off just tapping the screen also wakes it up. All this sounds good, but I couldn’t replicate each situation, it’s a bit hit and miss whether it works or not.

The Surface has a selection of speakers and ports dotted around the frame, you get stereo speakers for media and two little speakers which I presume are for keyboard noise. The power and volume buttons are nice and easy to press although they are a long way apart, meaning I kept having to look to see where the button I wanted was. There is a small MicroSD XC slot hidden behind the kickstand allowing you to easily add storage to the Surface.

Speaking of the Kickstand, it doesn’t click like in the adverts when you open it, it makes a sort of click when you close it. The kickstand and the keyboard are undoubtedly the Surfaces most obvious features. Yes they are both damn useful but they also make using the Surface with both a little difficult. If you use the Surface on a solid surface then it works perfectly. Try sitting on the sofa and using it or sitting in bed. Yes it works but you’ll soon be removing the keyboard and using it like a normal tablet.

Software

Windows RT is a bit of a gamble, when I heard about it I assumed it would be Windows Phone 8 with support for much bigger screens. So it would function like iOS on the iPad or Android on a tablet. When I discovered Window s RT was a trimmed down version of the desktop OS I was excited and concerned. I was excited as no doubt many developers would want to add programs to a new version of the desktop OS rather than another version of Windows Phone. I was concerned as I would no doubt be paying for apps and games twice, once for Windows Phone and once for Windows RT.

Windows RT works like a dream, once I had set up a variety of accounts and flicked my way through the App Store and the available games I was pleased. Lots of games and apps that I had seen before existed for Windows RT already. Things like Rowi or MetroTwit were welcome additions. Games seemed a little lacking and searching for apps seemed a little clunky.

Talking of clunky, my first few hours with Windows RT have definitely felt that way. Things like “Where is my apps list?” “How do I close apps?” “How do uninstall apps?” “How do I do anything apart from aimlessly swiping from side to side through my tiles?” are all questions racing through my head. After a while I realised if I swiped in from the right I got the charms bar which holds various settings and within apps those settings are contextual. I discovered that a swipe from the left brought up previous apps. A swipe from the bottom within an app quite often replicated a right click. A swipe from the top grabbed an app to move it about. Then there was the keyboard shortcuts, the are dozens of keyboard shortcuts to bypass menus and the like. I haven’t even started to get to grips with those.

Initial Conclusion

My initial conclusion is that the Surface RT tablet is like nothing I have ever used before. It isn’t really like using a tablet, it’s sort of like using a trimmed down laptop that the manufacturer has optimised a skin for Windows 8. That skin allows you to do a huge range of stuff with, check the weather or emails etc. I like it a lot, but I am a little concerned about the apps, already I have noticed apps on my Windows 8 netbook that don’t appear for the Surface. Whether this is because the developers didn’t understand about coding for the ARM variant processors or the just didn’t want Windows RT compatibility for their app I don’t know.

Hopefully after the initial buzz has settled down and more manufacturers release Windows RT devices things will improve. At the moment the Windows RT apps are a little odd. Certain things are conspicuous by their absence. Take Facebook and Twitter, there aren’t any apps for either. Yes you can just use the website, but it is never going to be as useful as an app with a live tile.

As this is my initial impressions if you want anything testing or trying out leave a comment below and I will answer your question or test it out in the final review. Just give me a few weeks to properly use it first.

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  • BluePete

    Can you plug in an external display and keyboard (HDMI & USB) to use the RT as a desktop.
    I don’t need loads of power only email, excel and remote desktop access.
    I find the ipad great for browsing and games etc and love the portability but too many times I’ve gone places and wished I’d taken my laptop instead beacuse I can’t do work properly (or you can at a push but it’s hardwork).
    I’m thinking Surface RT and a WIndows 8 phone is my next way to go (I’m still loving my old HTC HD2 running windows 6.5, I’ve tried Android on it but keep retunring to WIndows).

    • Anonymous

      Yes. If you use a Mini-HDMI to HDMI connector ($5 at Fry’s or Monoprice) you can use the Surface as a second display.

    • Anonymous

      There’s a metro RDP app – so that’s a tick.
      The mail client. That’s not so hot (at least not yet) – it works, that’s not at issue, but its a bit feature light – and my expectations of an email app may differ. You have to hope that either they’ll keep working on it or third party apps will appear to fill the void.
      Excel is, so far as I can tell not having played much, excel.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the initial thoughts, I resisted the et until I get to see what the pro has to offer. I’ve been using Win 8 on various devices since the dev preview so I understand the initial adjustments but I’ve found it to be well worth the effort.

    I cant comment on Facebook or Twitter apps since I rarely use either service but I will say that if not for Facebook’s integration with windows phone I doubt I would use it at all and I expect the win8 people tile to work similarly. Personally I feel that Win8 offers many more useful and interesting features.

  • Ronnie Whelan

    What’s the tying experience like?

  • Anonymous

    I think I agree with most of that. Mostly.

    First off its a *staggeringly* lovely piece of hardware – and the screen is excellent. In this context the price – being the same as that for an iPad (whilst including the touch keyboard cover) is only expensive if an iPad is expensive (which can be argued either way).

    In terms of use – I have no idea (-: So far its done more or less everything I want of it and since I’d already been playing with Win8 fairly solidly for a month or so I’m not struggling to do much. One win I hadn’t anticipated is handwriting input – still need to try this in anger, but note taking using a capacitive stylus in portrait with one or other OneNote app looks to be entirely viable (and the desktop OneNote will let you do “ink” stuff).

    The biggest difference between this and an iPad is that its geared to landscape use, the cheap ICS tablet I have works naturally in portrait – the ability to “snap” an app is the winner here but I’m still trying to work out how to make it work well for reading (as in books – technical ones with illustrations that don’t work well on my Kindle).

    So that brings us to apps – and this is the point at which its most evident that one is an early adopter – my opinion is that they’re coming… some good stuff already there including things that I *need* like Lastpass lots more bound to follow (this is an entirely different proposition to WP7 as almost all Win8 boxes will support store apps). And of course IE10 is a HTML5 browser…

    One last thought – more about the Windows infrastructure than just the Surface. Got it on Monday and took it to the pub with the wife to show/play with. Connected to the pub WiFi, went to pictures, picked my desktop (Win7 with SkyDrive installed), picked a folder, was able to browse said pictures – on aforemetioned truly lovely screen. Seamless.

    So in conclusion – the Surface RT is a lovely bit of hardware, the capabilities/possibilities are there (for any RT device, not just this one) so more than anything its a question of whether the store apps will come – which, as they’ve been suggesting at build, is at the moment a huge opportunity for devs…