Microsoft Surface RT Review

Discussion in 'Windows' started by Manco, Nov 3, 2012.

  1. Manco

    Manco Active Member

    I pre-ordered my Surface RT 64 GB with Touch cover and waited patiently for it to arrive. As expected it arrived on time, just before 11am on October 26th. I have since had a week to live with it and here is my review.

    The first thing I noticed was the package was bigger than I expected. It was quite long and it contained two boxes within and outer sleeve. The packaging was very nice and easy to open without a knife.

    Here is a picture of the unboxed items:


    The keyboard is in a separate frame to protect it, and the surface is in a static free bag. The box lid opens exposing the blue colored inside. The charger you see to the right is larger than expected, but it will fully charge the Surface in two hours which is nice. Also they paid attention to the width of the charger, I can plug it in and still fit power chords to the left and right of it in a power strip. Nothing worse than a brick that takes up 3 power slots on a power strip.

    I was impressed with the feel of the device right off the bat, it is clearly a solid mechanical design and feels sturdy, not like it's going to break. The keyboard is thin and light and makes a really good cover, and a better than expected keyboard given the fact that there is no travel on the keys. It literally is touch, but it knows the difference between touching and hitting the key. Here's a closeup of the keyboard, you will note the keys are slightly raised which is nice and will help know if you are off slightly on your finger positions.


    The thing I was really excited about on the surface hardware wise was that it had expansion ports. There is a full sized USB port which is compatible with most devices that are currently compatible with Windows. I was able to plug my wireless mouse+keyboard dongle and it was immediately available for use. By Comparison on Windows 7 it always seems to take around 5 seconds for the driver to be loaded and ready for use.

    There is also an Micro SDXC port allowing for plugging in expansion drive space. I ordered a Sandisk 64G chip, plugged it in and it just worked. This device came pre-formatted in EXFAT which the newer format than FAT32 allowing for very large files and drives.


    I also pre-ordered a VGA adapter so I could hook my surface up to my external monitor. The Micro HDMI to VGA adapter worked fine. There is support for all the expected external monitor settings such as dual screen, mirror, external only, and different resolutions on external Vs Internal. I hooked mine up to a 21" dell monitor at 1600x1200 resolution and it worked perfectly.

    The power port is quite large, in fact of all the hardware features this is the least impressive. The reason is it's large, and while it is magnetic, it isn't as easy to attach by feel as you might expect on a Macbook power connector. It does have an LED that illuminates when it's plugged in giving a nice positive feedback that it's hooked up correctly.

    The Surface also comes with stereo speakers, stereo microphones and front and rear facing HD cameras. I got a chance to use these with the downloadable Windows 8 Skype application, and it handled video call perfectly, carrying on a flawless hour and half conversation without missing a beat. As you might expect the Skype App makes it easy to switch cameras or turn off the camera and go voice only. This is my best Skype experience yet, it's a killer application on this platform.

    The surface RT also has a dedicated volume rocker on the left side, right next to the audio jack, this was unexpected but welcome given my experience using the Kindle Fire that only has on-screen controls.

    The Kickstand on the Surface RT takes a bit getting used to how to flip it open but they notched the left side so you can easily flip it open with the left hand. The right hand won't work unless you have long fingernails to slip behind it. Behind the keyboard is where they have hidden the Micro SD card which you can see inserted here:


    While the photo looks dirty, I couldn't see that with my naked eye, the Macro feature of my hi-res camera wasn't as forgiving :)

    The weight of the surface feels substantial but not too heavy. The keyboard and stand are very handy, and don't ever get in the way. You can flip them open or closed, flip the keyboard behind the surface and use it like a keyboard free tablet. The keys automatically turn off when you flip it back so you don't have to worry about pressing a key accidentally. This trick is possible due to the accelerometer built into the keyboard that allows it to figure out it it's position relative to the surface screen it's attached to. This most certainly is a patent-able idea in the tablet market.

    Here is a photo of the surface with the keyboard flipped behind and the kickstand out:

    When I'm kicked back in my recliner this is the position I generally use it in, the keyboard acts as a nice stable platform for the kickstand to rest on and distributes the weight nicely. Some reports I had read complained that the kickstand wasn't that great on your lap, and while I would agree it does work, and using the keyboard as a stand eliminates that objection completely. Also if you wish, you don't need to use the kickstand and then you are no worse off than you are with most other tablets. So by all means the kickstand and keyboard shouldn't ever be considered a negative, it's only additive to the total experience.

    By the way as you can see with the DRC image on the screen, there is no chrome around the page, and this is one of my favorite features of the new browser. The address bar can easily be exposed by swiping your thumb from the bottom in an upward motion.

    Here's another photo with the keyboard attached and the address bar visible:

    Well I think that covers the overall hardware review, next I will cover the overall user experience.
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2012
  2. HecticArt

    HecticArt Administrator

    Well done! Thanks for the first review. Looking forward to the next installment.
  3. Manco

    Manco Active Member

    User Experience
    You won't read a bunch of comparisons with iPad or Android tablets, as I have limited experience with those platforms. I have used them before, but don't own any other tablet but a Kindle Fire.

    I have not been that attracted to tablets up until the Surface simply because I wanted a device with a physical keyboard. I had no idea Microsoft was going to create the Surface, but when I saw it introduced, I knew I had to give it a try. Not only could I now use it like any other tablet, I could actually use it more like a ultra-book. So the surface at least in features was made for me. What I was't sure about is how good of a tablet it would be.

    So I have spent a week playing around with it, and every day things get better as I discover new applications or new features. When the surface starts up it of course shows the Windows 8 start screen with live tiles. I have a windows phone so live tiles are not foreign to me and add a bit of "fun" as well as function to the display.

    Swiping right to left will scroll through the tiles in fact many applications also support this. The tiles can be moved around, so the start screen can be completely tuned to your use. Moving the tiles around is simple as press on the tile to select, then drag it where you want. The gesture requires dragging slightly up first to select which took me some time to figure that part out. But now that I know it it's quite natural.

    The user interface was well thought out for touch. As you grip it with both hands, a flip of your right thumb from the edge inward reveals the "charms" menu. This is an always available menu that provides search, share, start, devices and settings. The search will search the current application by default. The start option performs the same function as if you pressed on the start key or start icon just below the screen on the front. Pressing it acts as a toggle between start screen and the last application. Settings will reveal common system settings and application contextual settings menu.

    Flicking your left thumb from the edge inward will reveal switcher, where you can select any currently open and running applications. If you simply flick, it switches round robin for each flick to a different application. Pretty cool feature and it is very responsive.

    The top and bottom edges also have application context menus. Swiping up from the bottom will reveal the "App Bar" and swiping from the Top will reveal the "Navigation Bar". So from that standpoint, there isn't really too much to learn to navigate the new Windows Store Apps (Formerly known as Metro apps). All of the applications are full screen however Windows 8 provides a docking feature that let's you dock one app on the left or right to take up 30% of the screen while another application takes up 70% of the screen. Both of these apps are active, so you could be internet browsing while skyping if you like.

    Windows Desktop
    Windows RT also includes the traditional Windows Desktop. From here you can manage files from your USB or Micro SD, or any files that are stored locally. After all this is a windows machine, so it will be very familiar to Windows users. The Desktop also has a task bar but is noticably missing the "Start" button on the lower left. It's there, it's just hidden. This took some getting used to, but once you realize it's there it's no big deal. It actually saves some task bar space. On the task bar you will find the office applications pinned there ready to go. Noticeably absent is Outlook. But the big 3, Word, Excel and Powerpoint are there, as well as one of my favorites, One Note. You will also find the full internet explorer browser if the new full screen browser isn't cutting it for you.

    Keyboard Shortcuts
    While you don't need keyboard shortcuts to navigate, it doesn't hurt to learn a few. For example, WinKey+d will take you to the old Desktop. Winkey will take you back to the start menu, or act as a toggle between start and the last application. In this context, the old Windows Desktop is an application and in fact has a live tile you can click on to quickly take you there. Pretty much all your standard windows keyboard shortcuts will work regardless of where you are. For example Winkey+e will bring up the file explorer even if you are in another application. This is handy when you plug in a USB stick with some files, you can quickly bring up file explorer. Winkey+x will bring up a menu that has common windows management functions such as task manager, disk managment, control panel etc.

    Microsoft Cloud
    In order to take full advantage of the features of the surface, you will need to create a microsoft live account. With this you will get a login ID, 7GB of SkyDrive storage, an email account, and a common login for all of your windows 8 machines. You can still create a local only account, but you won't have access to the App Store or other cloud based features. I already had a live account so I was able to use it without a problem.

    Applications take some getting used to. Noticeably absent is the chrome around applications, as they all appear full screen. You won't find the title bar, the minimize or close icons. This is one of the cool things about the new environment, it allows applications to deliver very easy to use functionality, without all of the clutter of the menus and status bars. Well designed applications are a pleasure to use such as the Travel App or Internet Explorer 10. Of course more complex applications like Photoshop would not be appropriate for this simple environment, but with Windows 8 Pro (Not RT that I'm reviewing) you won't have to make that trade-off. You can always run the old style apps in the old environment without issue.

    Windows 8 doesn't expect you to close your apps even though they provide a way to do so. I find it best to let windows manage the applications and memory, and don't close them. That way they launch faster next time you want access. I haven't noticed the need to close anything except Word/Excel/PowerPoint/Onenote which are the more traditional apps. If you swipe from the left of the screen you can see and select the app you would like to switch too. If for whatever reason you would like to close an app, while it is open, grab it from the top, and drag downward, it will then allow you to dock left/right or drag all the way to the bottom to close. Cool you can do that if you feel you need to.

    Favorite applications
    There are many applications to love, and I'm sure they will only get more and better over time. Mail, Messaging, Skype, Internet Explorer, Slacker Radio, Bing, Maps, Kindle, Wordament, Travel, Photos, Fresh Paint, XBox Smartglass, Kindle. Search also very cool, because you can search by simply start typing while staring at the start screen, or by accessing the search function from the charms menu. Once you have a search term, you can select Store, Bing or any other application to target your search.

    Problems or Shortcomings
    Ok I would be remiss if I didn't cover some of the issues I have with the device. There are only two things that I feel are worth mentioning, the first one is the XBox music application is not fully debugged yet. It will stream music just fine, until it enters standby, and then the music will start and stop, which makes it not usable in this mode. This is a bug I'm sure they will fix, but who knows how long it will take them. The other limit is it lacks Cisco and Juniper VPN applications making my my work network not available. Both of these issues I have logged on their support forum so hopefully they will take notice.

    I find the surface to be as good of a tablet as I would expect. I lets me easily access my kindle library and browse the internet quite nicely and is pretty responsive. The One Note application I use for taking notes in meetings, meaning I don't have to pack around my heavier Macbook Pro. I also liked the fact that I could side load a bunch of my music into the MicroSD card and have it playable in the music application. Adding a full sized external keyboard mouse combination was also a nice thing to be able to do when I'm attached to a full screen monitor.

    Windows 8 is much easier to understand on a tablet, and I think they nailed the user interface from the touch control standpoint. I also like that all those things that are familiar to me are still there under the covers, but easily found with search. The keyboard and ports are nice and something I use, and the built in kickstand is always there when you need it, or tucked away when you don't. The nice thing about this device is it will only get better with age as new applications start popping into the store.
  4. Manco

    Manco Active Member

    Update: The music bug has been fixed with an update to the music application today! Ok, so 1 week plus a few days from reported problem to a fix, not bad! This is one thing I have always liked about Microsoft software, they actively support and update it for years, and generally serious things get fixed reasonably fast.
  5. memebag

    memebag Top Brass, ADVP

    Update: After 9 years, iTunes still sucks.
  6. Jon

    Jon Well-Known Member

    I hope iTunes 11 is a dramatic overhaul.

    Sent from my iPhone 4S using Tapatalk
  7. DAB

    DAB Mod Emeritus

    Manco thanks for the solid review... Good Job! :)

    Are you having any issues with the splitting seams on the smart cover keyboard?
  8. Manco

    Manco Active Member

    Thanks DAB. No I haven't seen that issue, so far so good. I give it a pretty good workout too.

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