- Features No comments
- Display There is simply no getting around the fact that 1366 x 768 is too low for tablet with a screen of this size.
- Battery life No comments
- Ease of use No comments
- Storage capacity I have the 64GB model, which is plenty for me.
- Design and form factor The quality of the hardware is excellent, but I find the 16:9 aspect ratio of the screen makes for a less than ideal experience in portrait mode.
- Portability (size / weight) No comments
- Durability I somehow managed to crack the corner of the screen, despite never having dropped it.
It's that aspiration to greatness that makes the shortcomings of the Surface RT all the more painful. Microsoft does get a lot right, and despite everything, I sort of like the Surface RT. But after using it regularly, I've come to the conclusion that the biggest problem with it is that it's ultimately not a great substitute for either a tablet or a laptop.
Now, I'll be the first to admit that the line between these two categories is becoming increasingly blurry, but even on these terms, if you're interested in a tablet that can double as a laptop, you're probably better off with the Transformer Prime or an iPad with a keyboard case, and if you're interested in a laptop that can double as a tablet, my sense is that the forthcoming Surface Pro will do a better job of that than the Surface RT. (In fact, I'd say in some ways the Surface Pro is a bigger competitor for the Surface RT than the iPad.)
Because of this, it's been tough to write about the Surface without grappling with this central, almost existential conflict within the device. It feels like Microsoft’s decision to come to market with a more limited version of Windows 8 for ARM-based devices, rather than to scale up the Windows Phone OS so it would work on tablets, was based more on internal politics and a desire to protect its desktop OS franchise than technical considerations. The result is a product that, while promising in many respects, doesn't quite seem to have a natural home for itself in the market.
So what do I mean when I say that despite all this, I like the Surface? I suppose what I mean is that there are aspects to it that I appreciate. Chief among them being what I mentioned before, which is that Microsoft wants to build great hardware. And while not everything they've done with the interface-formerly-known-as-Metro quite succeeds, you can't dispute that they've put a good deal of effort into rethinking what a touch-centric experience should be and taken some risks that the Microsoft of just a few years ago most definitely would not have taken.
It did take me a little while to get the hang of all the gestures, but while it wasn't an especially difficult process, it does seem that to get the most out of this new Windows 8 experience you have to invest some time upfront. Will that be a hurdle for users coming from iOS or even Android? Maybe, but the payoff is that there are lots of little details -- like being able to swipe from the right to bring up settings without exiting (or even really interrupting) the app you're in -- that definitely improve the user experience on a day-to-day basis. One frustration I've had is that the OS powering this nice UI can often be sluggish and unresponsive, and I suspect the Surface RT is just a bit underpowered. Lag isn't persistent, but I do encounter it regularly and sometimes -- especially in third-party apps -- touch inputs just don't register properly. I don't want to overstate the problem, but for example sometimes Internet Explorer runs fantastically and other times it seems to get overloaded and pages bog down.
I know there has been much written about Windows RT's app catalog, and I will say that the selection is going to have to improve dramatically if the Surface (or any other Windows RT device) is going to be successful. Microsoft is not going to be successful in its goal of luring people away from the iPad if they can't get the apps they want, and the fact that the Surface RT can't run full-blown Windows apps is only going to compound the average consumer's potential frustration.
There are some bright spots when it comes to apps -- the UI on the Windows RT Netflix app is excellent (even if I've had the app crash on me a couple of times), and I was surprised to find a good Google Reader app. I know Microsoft is doing what it can to attract developers, but it's just going to take time, and I would not blame anyone for wanting to wait for more apps to materialize before buying a Surface RT (or any Windows RT device).
Microsoft has made great strides in building out its own content and services ecosystem, but if you're not tied into it, using the Surface RT can be a less-than-optimal experience. As someone who relies heavily on Gmail, Google Calendar, and other Google services for work, I've found it difficult to be properly productive on the Surface. This is obviously an issue of what I choose to use, and not a failing on Microsoft's part, so I'm not offering this up as a criticism. However, even though I use an Android phone as my primary mobile device, there are enough great Google apps for iOS that I'm able to easily stay on top of my email, appointments, calendar, etc when I'm using an iPad.
Another disappointment for me has been the Surface RT's display. While the display technology is pretty good -- viewing angles and colors are great -- despite Microsoft's posturings, the comparatively low resolution is noticeable when looking at text (this is an issue for me with the iPad mini, too). And since that's a big part of what I do on a tablet, it's hard not to prefer reading on the iPad, which renders text more sharply on its Retina display. I've done the side-by-side comparisons, and there is just no contest.
I was pleasantly surprised by the Touch Cover, which is much better than I'd expected, and while it's not as a good as a real keyboard, I have found it to be very easy to type on. Considering how little it adds in terms of weight and heft, I think it's an absolutely mandatory purchase if you want to get the most out your Surface. In fact, it's hard to imagine owning the Surface and not ponying up for the Touch Cover -- it really does add a lot of value.
And yet the Touch Cover, and the fact that the only way to really get the most out of the Surface RT is with a keyboard attached to it, is emblematic of how this product is so awkwardly positioned between tablets and laptops. Think about how the iPad features a scaled-up mobile OS, while the Surface RT features a scaled-down desktop OS. The result, not surprisingly, is that Microsoft's device clings to its PC roots in ways that hold it back from being truly amazing. At the end of the day, it probably doesn't make sense for Windows RT (and by extension, the Surface RT) to have all these PC-like details (like a desktop mode, for starters) if the device isn't going to offer all the benefits of a full desktop OS. Better to cull all those things and focus on a leaner, more focused mobile experience, rather than try and split the difference in a way that is only going to lead to user frustration and confusion. It strikes me as odd that Microsoft was fine with introducing a version of Windows that couldn't run regular Windows apps, but didn't feel comfortable enough to ditch the desktop mode or the mouse pointer.
You can see this equivocation reflected in the design of the Surface RT's hardware itself, which feels more like a PC than it should if it wants to compete as a tablet. Its slightly larger size, combined with the 16:9 aspect ratio of the screen (which makes it awkward to use in portrait mode) and the orientation of the kickstand (for starters), all but steers you towards using it in a more PC-like landscape mode (especially if you own one of the keyboard attachments). I don't know about you, but I probably use my iPad in portrait mode about 80-90% of the time, so it's a definite minus for me that the Surface's design discourages it from being used in that orientation. Because of all that I kept feeling like Microsoft wanted me to think of the Surface RT as more of a laptop than a tablet.
That in and of itself wouldn't be such a bad thing, but as I mentioned above, if you're interested in a PC that can pull double-duty as a tablet, as a consumer you'd probably be better off waiting (and paying extra) for the Surface Pro, which at least runs full-blown Windows 8 and has a higher resolution screen (which I think Microsoft underestimated the value of when they put a lower res screen in the Surface RT). Yes, it weighs more and is thicker, but there will clearly be fewer compromises in terms of functionality and whatever productivity advantages there are with the Surface RT will only be magnified in the Pro. (If you're mainly interested in the Surface for productivity and less concerned about weight/price, you may also want to take a look at the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga and Dell XPS 12, both of which have touchscreens and run full Windows 8). It's so odd to evaluate something like the Surface RT knowing that a less hamstrung version of the device will be out in just a couple of months. To put it another way, I think the Surface Pro will be better at what the Surface is supposed to be than the Surface RT, and that's a device that combines the power of a laptop while getting much (though clearly not all) of what's great about tablets.
So yes, even though I like the Surface RT, it's too PC-like to be a great tablet, and by running Windows RT is too limited to replace a PC. I'd love to see a Surface that's designed for use in portrait mode and running an OS based on Windows Phone. I don't have any doubt that Microsoft could have done it, and I'm sure they must have considered it as an option. Why they didn't chose that path, I don't know, but I suspect it has to do with the same fear of letting go of the PC that holds the Surface RT back from being a truly great device.
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