Microsoft Surface RT

If you're an early adopter willing to forget everything you know about navigating a computer, the Surface tablet could replace your laptop. Everyone else: wait for more apps.

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Microsoft Surface is the best productivity tablet yet, and it had better be. As the only Microsoft-branded Windows RT hardware to launch with the new operating system, the tablet serves as ambassador and flagship for the touch-focused, wildly-risky Windows grand experiment. The Surface excels, thanks to its thoughtful design, sensible implementation of its keyboard accessory and the innovations brought about by the interface formerly known as "Metro" — chief among them: the gesture-driven menu system, powerful search tool and the incredibly cool and versatile split-screen feature.

Unfortunately, there's a price to pay for doing things differently. I've spent a week with this soldier for the Windows cause, and I predict that some of you will find Metro's learning curve discouraging. Additionally, apps support is dismal, performance (especially when using IE10) is slow at times, and like the old guy in the club still hanging around after last call, the traditional Windows interface lingers on, feeling embarrassingly out of place.

The Surface isn't for everyone. Those looking for tonnes of apps should look elsewhere; however, it takes a legitimate swing at replacing your computer, and comes closer to hitting the mark than any tablet before it.

On the Surface

So what keeps the Surface from looking like just another generic black tablet? Honestly, not that much, but the features and aesthetic details that do set it apart are significant, if not immediately apparent. For one, the Surface sports a 10.6-inch screen. This larger screen affords it a true 16:9 aspect ratio at a screen resolution of 1366x768 pixels. This aspect ratio matches most movies and TV shows, eliminating the need for black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. While movies shot in Scope (2.35:1) will still display with black bars, they're not nearly as all-encompassing as when watching the same movies on an iPad with its 4:3 aspect ratio.

The Surface's unique 10.6-inch display in full effect.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

Then there's the Surface's bevelled back, which contributes to its sleek, somewhat industrial-looking metallic aesthetic. It looks practical, without being cold, and just feels like a high-quality device that Microsoft cut few corners to make. Speaking of which, the corners are somewhat rounded, but do tend to dig into the palms a bit when you hold the tablet in both hands. The entire chassis is surrounded by a full magnesium (VaporMg, pronounced "Vapor Mag") outer casing that's supposedly both scratch- and wear-resistant; however, scratches are already beginning to appear on my unit.

In the top middle of the front bezel, next to an ambient light sensor, is the front-facing 720p-capable camera. On the bottom of the bezel sits the Windows home touch sensor, which takes you back to the Start screen, or to the last app you had open if you're already at the Start screen.

From left: a speaker grille, a micro-HDMI port and full-sized USB 2.0 port.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

Along the right edge, from the top, is a speaker grille, a micro-HDMI port, a full USB 2.0 port and the power port, which magnetically attaches the power cable. At the far right of the top edge is a lone power/sleep button. The left edge features an additional speaker grille, a headphone jack and a satisfyingly tactile and click-y volume rocker. Seated toward the bottom of the left edge is a groove that allows you to easily pull out the built-in kickstand to prop the tablet up.

The microSD port, located under the kickstand, can be accessed (in a somewhat awkward fashion) once the stand is engaged. On the bottom edge is another array of magnets where the Touch and Type Cover keyboards connect.

The Surface's built-in kickstand tilts it back about 10 degrees.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

The kickstand decisively locks into position when activated, reclining the tablet back about 10 degrees. I'm a huge fan of built-in kickstands on tablets, and this is the best implementation I've seen so far. It's sturdy, easy to work and yes, delivers a satisfying sound and feeling when both engaged and disengaged.

The tablet weighs 676 grams, but doesn't feel noticeably heavier than the iPad, at least not when held in the middle of the tablet. Held lightly on the edge, however, and the Surface's long body begins to work against it, as the unsupported weight dips at the free end. The Surface is a bit bulkier than most premium mainstream 10-inchers, and you can probably blame the kickstand's inclusion for that added girth. Microsoft did its best in balancing the tablet's weight, and while I appreciate its wide screen, it feels a bit too long and awkward when held and works much better with its kickstand engaged.

The microSD port is hidden quite effectively by the disengaged kickstand. Only when it engages is the memory port revealed.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

Touch Cover

It's a weird decision to not include the Touch Cover with the basic Surface package. To say that the cover has been prominent in Microsoft's Surface marketing campaign is an obvious understatement to anyone who's seen the advertisements. The cover is AU$139.99 if you buy the basic AU$559 Surface, and comes packed in with the AU$679 and AU$789 packages.

After several days of use, it's clear to me that owning the Touch Cover (or Type Cover; see below) is essential to get the complete Surface experience. The Touch Cover acts as both a screen cover and a physical keyboard. It connects magnetically to the bottom of the tablet with a very satisfying (and kind of addictive) "crunch" sound. Microsoft has admittedly spent a lot of time getting this sound right, and thanks to the same parts of our brains that won't let us stop eating those oh-so-crunchy Pringles once we've started, it's been largely successful.

The many colours of the Touch Cover.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

The magnets keep the Surface adhered very firmly to the keyboard, allowing you to hold the connected device by just the keyboard itself, with the tablet dangling underneath. From this position, you can even swing it around a bit (as long as you don't get too crazy) without the parts disconnecting, as they stay more strongly bonded than the iPad and its Smart Cover. Speaking of which, just as the Smart Cover does with the iPad, when the Touch Cover folds over the Surface's screen, it automatically puts the tablet to sleep.

Microsoft claims that it'll take most people four to five days to get used to typing on the Touch Cover. That's a fair estimate. The biggest issue I had was getting accustomed to its nearly flat keys that don't depress when you strike them. After years of typing mostly on depressible keys, I found myself overcompensating here, which resulted in sore fingertips on my part. By the second day, however, the soreness was gone.

The Surface works fairly well on your lap. Just make sure you don't lean over it; that kickstand will disengage in a flash.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

Typing on my lap definitely took some getting used to. The cardboard-like feel of the Touch Cover is awkward at first, and if you're not careful — and not wearing pants — the corners of the kickstand will dig into your thighs. Also, if you tend to hunch over while you work, the tablet can easily tip back, disengaging the kickstand.

The Surface's wide body affords the Touch Cover a more spacious area to type on, which makes a significant difference in hand and wrist comfort. Simply put, your hands get to spread out a bit more compared with other tablet keyboards, like the ones made for Asus' Transformer line and keyboard accessories for the iPad.

Soft and smooth is the bottom of the Touch Cover. Soft, smooth... and soft.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

On most tablets, before even striking my first key, I turn off that annoyingly shrill keyboard typing sound effect. Thankfully, the Surface's typing sound effect is less like glass breaking and more like small, rhythmic bongo drums. Since its keys don't depress, that bongo sound is the only feedback you get and is therefore essential to becoming accustomed to typing on the unique-feeling keyboard. After a few days, though, your skills may grow beyond the need of drum sounds.

The Touch Cover has enough smarts built into it to know when it's been flipped under the tablet and its buttons will cease functioning in order to prevent any unwanted typing. Flip it back to its normal position and it begins functioning again in less than a second, nary missing a beat. The bottom of the default black (it also comes in red, pink, blue and white) Touch Cover is a soft, felt-like material that covers the screen when folded over. As a cover, it doesn't necessarily look appropriate for a high-end, sturdily-built tech device, but definitely feels right when you're carrying it in your hands.

They actually remain attached, despite the power of gravity.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

The Touch Cover is an incredibly useful and capable accessory that feels as essential to the Surface experience as the kickstand, but given the choice, I'd recommend most buyers spring for the AU$149.99 Type Cover keyboard instead. It's all the best things about the Touch Cover, but with very comfortable, wide, depressible keys. It is a bit thicker than the Touch Cover, but not by much. If you're looking to make use of the Surface's capability as a productivity machine, you'll definitely want to spring for one of these cover keyboards.

Hardware features

The Surface houses a 1.3GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 CPU as its brains, and comes in both 32GB and 64GB varieties. Its microSD card slot supports up to 128GB cards, and the tablet includes 2GB of RAM. It has 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi support, Bluetooth 4.0, a gyroscope, an accelerometer and a built-in compass, but no GPS.

The Surface does not house a GPS. So why am I outside using it? And why does it look like Italy?
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

"Metro"... I mean, "Start". Wait, what is this interface called again?

The Surface runs on Windows RT. The Surface Pro is coming early next year and will run on a full version of Windows 8. Windows RT is split between two different interfaces: a tile-based interface (formerly known as "Metro") that includes the Start screen and a somewhat traditional Windows interface called Desktop. Desktop includes most control panels and settings that one would expect on a Windows operating system, in addition to a skinned version of Internet Explorer 10, made to look like IE9, and a free copy of Office 2013 Preview. No additional apps can be added to the Desktop interface, however.

Though Microsoft no longer calls its new interface Metro (and has not given it a new name), for the sake of clarity, I'm going to continue calling it Metro here. If you own an Xbox 360, you'll already be very familiar with Metro's look. Each app is represented by a tile, and each can be arranged into different groups. Groups can further be zoomed out and named as you see fit. Tiles can also be made smaller or larger.

The Charms bar delivers context info and options for the app that you have open at the time.
(Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET)

Swiping inward from the right bezel brings up the Charms menu, which consists of Search, Share, Start, Devices and Settings. This menu is context-sensitive, so depending on which app you have open, selecting Settings, for example, will deliver you the settings for that particular app.

Swiping from the left bezel into the screen launches the most recent app, and if you swipe right, then left, you'll get a list of recent apps. Swiping from the top or bottom bezel reveals additional app options at the bottom of the screen and, finally, swiping from the top bezel to the bottom closes an app.

The split-screen features lead to true productivity.
(Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET)

This is obviously different from other tablet interfaces, and it's a lot of new stuff to learn. Some users will be discouraged by the unfamiliarity of things (I know I was), but those who stick with it will discover that's it's actually an elegant tablet interface.

Selecting Search from the Charms menu allows you to search within the current primary app. Share allows you to quickly email information from the current app or share it via social networks using the People social app, which integrates Twitter and Facebook. Start toggles between home and the last app that was opened. Devices is a list of hardware that you currently have networked with the tablet and can interact with the current app, including microSD cards and printers.

Your Metro global settings is called PC settings. More options here and fewer in Desktop would be nice.
(Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET)

And finally, Settings accesses the basic wireless, volume and screen brightness, as well the settings for the currently opened app. Also available from this menu is PC settings. While most of the options here are self-explanatory, some are just poorly organised. For example, the General list feels too cluttered, and most of what's found there would feel much more appropriate in a separate "Keyboard" or "Typing" settings list.


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"Excellent little device!!"

lolos97 posted a review   

The Good:Everything, besides app store

The Bad:limited apps

Bought this about 2 days ago from the price cut generously done by Microsoft, this tablet is great!! As a student, i needed something that i could afford, have Microsoft office, be lightweight and also have a few fun things aswell. This tablet exceeded my expectation, the mic is excellent for skyping with friends aswell as the inbuilt camera. If i need to do some work on a project at my friends place or at the library, the surface is portable and also light weight also adding the extra benefit of having a keyboard with a mouse tracker aswell(compared to the iPad)


Portentous posted a comment   

Been using one for the last few weeks. Apart from the lack of apps (Still waiting for Zinio and Dropbox), I have no reason to touch my iPad again (have passed that on to my children).
The Office suite is definitely the killer app here.
The desktop works almost like a normal Windows, with the ability to "Map Network Drive" just like the normal Windows OS (Dropbox becomes a less an issue, then again, one can always use the microSD).
Get Type cover if you are a touch-typist.


PetterM posted a comment   
United States

The best tablet has hit the stores. Can't wait to get one.


Restricted_access posted a reply   

From what little is known about sales figures, it seems that you will have no trouble at all being able to find one.

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User Reviews / Comments  Microsoft Surface RT

  • lolos97



    "Bought this about 2 days ago from the price cut generously done by Microsoft, this tablet is great!! As a student, i needed something that i could afford, have Microsoft office, be lightweight and ..."

  • Portentous


    "Been using one for the last few weeks. Apart from the lack of apps (Still waiting for Zinio and Dropbox), I have no reason to touch my iPad again (have passed that on to my children).
    The Off..."

  • PetterM


    "The best tablet has hit the stores. Can't wait to get one."

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