Microsoft Surface RT Review
Author: Craig Jones
The Surface is Microsoft’s first venture into consumer electronics since the release of the XBOX 360. Given their 7 year hiatus they have had plenty of devices they could draw inspiration from that have made their way onto the market. Have Microsoft bitten off more than they can chew this time?
It boasts a distinctive design, helped by those unmistakable keyboard covers, enjoys a 10.6-inch widescreen display, and runs Windows 8, the most popular operating system on the planet. But there’s a crippling caveat which might be its undoing. Windows RT won’t run old PC programs, so any trip to the internet to download legacy programs such as VLC Player, or even big-name offerings like Photoshop Elements, just won’t work.
Aesthetically the Surface does a good job, however it isn’t exactly mind blowing. It’s slab like appearance may fool you into thinking that it is a lot bulkier than that of its rivals, but it is in fact the same 9.4mm thickness you will see in the iPad 4, just without the slimming tapered edges.
Offering a standard 720p display, front and rear facing cameras, minimal connectivity supported by a single USB 2.0, micro HDMI out and an microSDXC card expansion slot, which it definitely needs considering the 32gb model has its capacity slashed in half by the presence of the OS and the native applications.
Size and Screen
The Surface RT is equipped with a 10.6 inch capacitive touch screen, giving you a 720p 16:9 aspect ratio, and has a pixel resolution of 1366×768 for a pixel density of 148ppi. It’s not going to win any awards and is certainly no challenge to an Apple Retina display, but it gets the job done, Viewing angles are excellent, perhaps a little too good for nosy neighbours in an adjacent train seat. Toting a maximum screen brightness of 400cd/m2, which is comparable to that of the iPad 4. While the Surface has an impressive measured contrast ratio of 3,333:1, it’s all down to the presence of dynamic contrast.
Flick between dark and bright pages, and it’s possible to detect the back-light raising and lowering brightness in an obvious effort to compensate. That being said the IPS panel guarantees that the multitude of bright colours that make up the Windows 8 Start screen leap off the display, and photos and video deliver rich levels of saturation without compromising on quality.
The Surface RT has a dual boot configuration, running Modern UI (previously known as Metro) as well as the more familiar desktop interface of Windows RT. When used as a tablet, the Modern UI is fantastic, with the friendly Live Tile feel of Windows Phone 8, the Surface RT comes into its own. You can drop back to the traditional desktop, but without the Start button, you’ll find it extremely limited.
The Start-Screen menu holds a big learning curve, even for the more seasoned Windows user, but it doesn’t take long to show its worth. It’s clear after a few hours of use that it’s intuitive, beautifully designed and solidly built. The large, inviting tiles, which constantly push information such as new emails and news headlines, are super touch-friendly, which is perfect for tablets such as the Surface, and can be moved around to create an eclectic mix not only of apps, but also pin contacts, books, movies and more, giving the Surface another edge of dense customisation not found on other devices.
Of course, there are already hacks and workarounds to restore Windows 8 to its normal state, but for touch screen devices like Surface, this would be a disaster. A common misconception is that the traditional desktop isn’t available in Windows RT, but that’s not true; it’s accessed via the desktop tile on the Start screen, but its relevance is severely diminished, as Windows Explorer can’t be operated the same way without traditional programs, but it’s still on hand for browsing file systems, USB sticks, organising folders and more.
A swiping gesture from the right edge reveals the ‘charm’ bar which also includes search and share buttons and these are threaded through every part of the OS, from files to settings, to the information held within apps.The large on-screen keyboard, is sensitive and easy to use. It’s not as smart as some third-party keyboards found on the Android market, but typing with two has is fast and accurate, and the extra inch of screen real estate allows for a much easier experience than that found on its iOS counterpart. At times, however, the keyboard panel can block information that is needed, but the icon to show or hide the keyboard is always on hand in the bottom-right corner of the desktop.
Its limiting feature, sadly, is the lack of applications in the Windows Store. It draws a stark comparison to the likes of iTunes and the android market. This may leave a sour taste in your mouth, and although Microsoft are playing catch up in this area they are certainly making up some ground.
Performance is a slightly mixed bag. The system is always responsive, with silky smooth transitions and snappy navigation. However, some apps can be painfully slow to load, with lingering splash screens. What’s more, 1080p playback was a few frames per second short of perfect, and it is glaringly obvious when zooming in and out that there are dropped frames all over the place.
The Tegra 3 chip doesn’t exactly perform appallingly, but there’s certainly no headroom, and it seems to be let down by the graphics core leaving it to struggle on like attempting to sprint through molasses.
Multitasking apps never missed a beat, but it loading graphically-intensive apps and movies tend to put a lot of strain on the processor. Even some basic games can run at a noticeably low frame rate, so it seems that Windows RT might need some optimisation.
The Surface is equipped with a 5MP rear facing camera and a VGA front-facing lens. Both of which can capture 800p video in 16:10 and 720p in 16:9 aspect ratio. You would expect to see a better quality camera on the front, given that it is more suited to video conference calling in the likes of Skype, never the less the front facing VGA still performs adequately.
5MP is considerably low spec for a modern day tablet, and the result is slightly grainy images that aren’t suited to proper photography. Low light conditions only help to highlight this fact, amplifying the noise in the images. However if you find yourself in a well lit area you should be able to take a half decent shot.
Video is marginally better and maintains a decent frame rate at 800p, but the bulk of the tablet, the grainy quality and the effort of firing up the app from the Start-screen tile, before switching into video mode makes for an unwieldy and sluggish experience.
Microsoft developed Windows 8 specifically for its ARM processors, which may be confusing considering the Surface runs Windows RT, right? Well the reason behind the confusion is battery life. And the Surface doesn’t disappoint. From a single charge it can go for 3 days of everyday use. If you were so inclined you could loop a 1080p WMV video, and squeeze out an impressive 7 hours of continuous playback. This may be down to the low res screen, but less time charging, is more time using.
Who is it for?
Definitely not its target market. It tries so hard to pit itself against the giants, but comes up short, way short. The Surface RT is more suited to someone that wants the functionality of a laptop but the portability of a tablet. The Surface is an excellent Office productivity tool (at least the best in tablet form) and if your entertainment needs don’t go far beyond movies, TV shows, music, and the occasional simple game, you’re covered. And if you like to multitask; the split-screen feature can be incredibly useful.
Value for money?
Should you buy the Surface RT? Short answer, No. At an already steep £429, adding an extra £80-£100 for the obligatory Touch Cover puts the Surface Rt well out of its ideal price point. For the same money, you could grab yourself an Apple iPad 4 or a Google Nexus 10, or even a Google Chromebook if you prefer a more ‘laptop-esque’ form factor.
Surface makes you want to pick it up and play, pleases you with the delivery of Windows RT and the live tiles make it feel personal and alive. But it will soon dawn on you that performance is a real issue, but since Tegra is at the heart of most high performing tablets, there is still hope that the creases can be ironed out in future updates.
Microsoft’s hardware designers should be applauded for delivering a solid, good looking tablet which delivers a great experience, but Microsoft certainly can’t afford to rest on their laurels as the Windows Store is to be the deciding factor as to whether the Microsoft Surface can remain a contender in this market.