The Microsoft Surface with Windows RT is Microsoft's first entry into the wild world of tablets. Priced to compete with the Apple iPad, the Surface tablet starts at £399 for the base 32GB model without the Touch Cover, and it’s £479 with the cover. Microsoft sent us the top-end Surface RT for our review, which is priced at £559 with 64GB of storage and a Touch Cover.
The device has a 10.6in, five-point multi-touch screen, and it's aimed at users who want to do more than simply consuming media and websites, with its innovative keyboard covers that make some of the more expensive Windows 8 tablets' docking solutions look absolutely clunky by comparison.
Plus, it has an ace in the hole that makes it feel like a "real computer": The Surface comes with a full copy of Microsoft Office 2013 (Home and Student Edition). The Surface has the same user interface as upcoming Windows 8 laptops and tablets, thanks to Microsoft's Windows RT operating system. However, since the tablet uses Windows RT and a more economical ARM processor, the Surface isn't compatible with the majority of existing software made for Windows 7 and XP. This is the conundrum we find ourselves in while we look at Microsoft's first true computing device.
The Surface certainly looks like the prototypical "Post-PC" device: Its tapered and squared off sides make it look more like a prop from the Avengers than one of the rounded tablets on the market right now. The Surface measures roughly 280 x 9 x 180mm (WxDxH), making it smaller than the Apple MacBook Air 11in, but a smidge longer than the current Apple iPad.
The Surface’s Touch Cover resembles an Apple iPad Smart Cover, in that it protects the screen, and also puts it to sleep and wakes the device up by closing and opening the cover. It's made of a synthetic material that protects the screen from fingerprints and even small amounts of liquid. The big difference lies in the pressure-sensitive film keyboard on the inside of the Touch Cover. It will make you forget that clunky keyboard on the Atari 400 ever happened. The Touch Cover keyboard is one of the most responsive ones we've ever used and when installed, turns the Surface into a quasi-laptop. (The Type Cover is a little thicker, but uses real keyboard keys for a more tactile feel when you type).
The Touch Cover and Type Cover both attach to the bottom of the Surface with a proprietary magnetic latching mechanism. The latch is both simpler and more intuitive than the latches we've seen on other convertible tablets, such as the one on the HP ElitePad 900 and Asus Transformer Pad Infinity TF700. If you hold the bottom of the Surface about a half-inch from the magnetic latch on either cover, the built-in magnets complete the job automatically with a satisfying click.
As seen in Microsoft's videos, you can hold the Surface by the cover while letting the tablet portion swing in mid-air, and the latch won't come free. Though the magnetic latch is strong, it takes virtually no effort to remove the cover with a free hand. There's just enough force resisting the act of detaching the cover to make sure that it only comes away when you really want to detach the cover, and not when you're just tugging on it. This means you can pull the Surface across a table by its cover and still not have it detach, but then pick the combo up and remove the cover quickly with a quicker tug.
The cover is supplemented by a metal kickstand that spans the back of the Surface. It folds out easel-style, and props the Surface up at a comfortable angle. You can also use the kickstand when you don't have the cover installed, as with the £399 Surface base model. Unfortunately, the kickstand's angle is not adjustable. The Surface leans back at about 22 degrees from vertical, which is fine for use while you're seated.
The kickstand swings out easily, but Microsoft moulded a finger catch only into the left-hand side of the Surface to help pull out the kickstand. If you try to open the kickstand with your right hand, it will be more difficult as the kickstand rests flush on the back of the tablet. Under the kickstand is a microSDXC card reader, capable of doubling the internal 64GB of storage. The base and mid-priced Surface tablets come with 32GB of storage, so you'll have to use the microSD card slot sooner or later on those models.
The 720p HD front-facing camera is angled straight out, but the back panel camera (also 720p) is angled up 22 degrees to offset the angling caused by the kickstand. That way, you can capture whatever is behind the Surface when it is propped on a table or other horizontal surface. The angled camera lens also means that you'll have to tilt the tablet a bit if you want to take a handheld picture with the Surface.
The Surface improves on the iPad (and most Android tablets) by having more I/O ports. A full-sized laptop will of course have more ports still, but the Surface comes with a full-size USB 2.0 port, a headphone jack, and a micro HDMI port. Microsoft calls it a "Micro HD" port and sells a Surface HD Digital AV Adapter (£34.99 list), as well as a Micro HD-to-VGA adapter (£34.99 list). Those are somewhat eye-watering prices, however, the good news is that when we hooked up an off the shelf micro-HDMI-to-HDMI cable to the Surface, we were able to connect and use an HDMI monitor without any issues.
The Surface supports extending Windows RT to the external screen, as well as mirroring the tablet's screen on the external display. This means you can use the Surface in a dual-monitor configuration, just like a desktop or laptop. The USB 2.0 port lets you use external peripherals like scanners, printers, keyboards, mice, and external hard drives. Speaking of mice, we were able to pair the Surface to a Microsoft Wedge Touch mouse and use it. The mouse automatically connected itself via Bluetooth after we woke the Surface from a sleep state, or when we turned the mouse itself off and then on again.
Surface for everyday
Typing on the Surface while it sits on your lap is feasible, but only just. The keyboard flap may reach to and over your waistline, which may be awkward. The tablet and cover combo is pretty light, but the fact that the kickstand is effectively supported by the kickstand's two corners means that it digs into the tops of your legs. It's best to use the Surface and its keyboard cover on a flat table or desk.
Both the Type Cover and the Touch Cover are a little smaller than full size: Measure a standard laptop keyboard (like the one on the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon), and it's about 7.5in edge-to-edge from the Q to P keys. On the Surface Touch Cover and Type Cover, it's about 7.25in. You'll get used to the Surface keyboards fairly quickly, but there is a period of adjustment.
The row of function keys on the top of the keyboard are mapped to functions like Volume, Play/Pause, and the Home/Page Up/Page Down/Delete keys. Four function keys bring up the Charms bar, and functions including Search, Settings, and Share. The function keys are clearly marked with icons for each of the actions. The F1-F12 keys show up on the Type Cover, but not on the Touch Cover. For the Touch Cover, you'll need to hold down the Fn key to access the actual F1-F12 functions on some programs.
The included Touch Cover features a film keyboard embedded in a neoprene-like material. Since it is only 3.5mm thick, the keyboard on the Touch Cover doesn't have any tactile feedback. The Touch Cover activates the same audible feedback that you would get from the onscreen virtual keyboard, depending on the sound volume on your Surface (mute the sound, and you won't hear any "clicks.") Both covers feature a trackpad with areas marked off for left and right mouse clicks. Both trackpads are multi-touch and feature gestures like two finger swipes and tap to left click.
The Type Cover has a set of physical keys that have an actual (shallow) travel. The Type Cover's tactile feel is a better bet for those who have tried and can't stand how the virtual keyboard feels on their fingertips when typing on a tablet's screen (such as the iPad).
While the Type Cover has actual tactile feel, the Touch Cover has better responsiveness. At first try, the Type Cover feels just a bit sloppier while typing than the Touch Cover, until you get used to it. Both are better than using the on-screen keyboard, partly because the screen has no "give," but mostly because the on-screen keyboard takes up a lot of space and will obscure on-screen elements like the browser or a Word document. You'll also welcome the fact that the Touch Cover has a softer feel than typing directly on the screen.
Switching keyboards is simple. The magnetic latches guide the cover into place. It takes only a few seconds to change the covers, and they're so light you could take both with you in a commute bag. The Surface slate weighs 670 grams alone, 880 grams with the Touch Cover, 885 grams with the Type Cover, and 1kg with the Touch Cover and AC adapter. Basically, the tablet by itself works best when you're walking around at home; the Touch Cover is comfortable for about half an hour of steady work (or hours of instant messaging and surfing); and the Type Cover (or an external Bluetooth keyboard) is necessary for serious writing (1,000 word plus sessions).
Surface for work
The Surface comes with a full version of Microsoft Office 2013 Preview (Home and Student Edition). This means it comes with Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft PowerPoint, and Microsoft OneNote. Since Outlook isn't included, you'll have to use Windows RT's built-in Mail client (for Microsoft online mail) or Internet Explorer (for everything else). This will only be a problem for enterprise-type businesses, which will have to wait for the Surface Pro, which is reportedly due to ship in January 2013.
We'll have a full review of Office 2013 on ITProPortal once it goes final, but for the time being Office 2013 Preview does just about everything you'd expect the four apps to deliver, from document creation, through spreadsheet number crunching, to presentations and note taking. Word and Excel macros and some higher functions like add-ins are missing from the Office RT version.
Technically, the Home and Student edition is licensed for non-business use, so you'll have to ask your IT guys for a licensed business copy of Office for a work-issued Surface or Surface Pro. The same applies to SMB users: You'll need a full copy of Office on any Surface or Surface Pro that you're writing off as a business expenditure.
That said, I'm sure Microsoft won't mind if you're editing the occasional document from work on your personal Surface. This version of Office is certainly enough for the university-level student to get his or her work done. When Office 2013 is finalised later this year, your copy of Office on the Surface will automatically update to the final version as part of the normal Windows update process.
Microsoft includes SkyDrive cloud-based storage in addition to the on-board 64GB of storage. SkyDrive lets you store up to 100GB online (7GB free), so it can be reached from any online device like a PC, Mac, smartphone, or tablet. That way you can save your documents to SkyDrive and then bring them up on your workplace PC. SkyDrive's speed depends on your network connection, so working from home may be faster than in your workplace, and both will certainly be faster than using a public hotspot. The Surface is "always connected," as long as it is connected to Wi-Fi, so SkyDrive directories and emails update in the background even while the tablet is asleep.
Entertainment and apps
The Windows Store has far, far fewer apps on it than iTunes or Google Play. In fact, we counted fewer than 3,000 apps on the Windows Store for Windows RT, while the iTunes Store clocks in at a staggering 250,000 apps just for the iPad. The apps that are on both platforms run in a similar fashion: Cut the Rope is Cut the Rope, no matter what you're playing it on. At the time of review, Angry Birds wasn't yet available, but classics like Minesweeper and Solitaire are available on the separate Xbox Games Store.
The Xbox Games tab has a few Windows games on it, but it's mainly a conduit to your Xbox Live account and a store for ordering games for your Xbox 360. We'd love to see some of the classic Xbox games appear on the Surface, such as Forza.
YouTube videos looked fine on the Surface, even 720p HD videos. Some 1080p HD videos did stutter a bit, but that's okay, since they're being downscaled to 720p on the Surface's 1,366 x 768 screen anyway. We were able to watch a movie via the Windows RT/8 optimised Netflix app after downloading it from the Windows Store. We had some trouble reaching Flash-heavy web pages like the video portions of the Disney site, but other sites worked just fine.
Also note that for the time being you're limited to using Internet Explorer 10 as your only browser on the Surface. The Windows 7/8 version of Chrome and Firefox won't run on the ARM-based Surface, and reports state that Microsoft has blocked other browsers from running on the Surface's Desktop mode. There's hope for bookmark sync utilities and maybe even other browsers that run in the Windows UI (formerly known as Metro), but at launch you'll be able to use Internet Explorer 10 (in desktop mode) or Internet Explorer 10 (in the new Windows UI).
Playing music and games won't tax your eardrums too hard. The Surface's speakers play very softly, even at maximum volume. However, when we plugged in a pair of headphones, the Surface was able to drive them at an ear-splitting level. Basically this means that the built-in speakers are adequate for a quiet room; in other instances you'll want to use a pair of headphones to listen to music or watch movies.
The ARM architecture meant that our normal Windows-based benchmark tests like PCMark 7 and 3DMark 11 wouldn't run on the Surface. The Surface's 2GB of system memory, 1.3GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, integrated Tegra 3 graphics, and 64GB SSD are decent components for a tablet. For example, the Nexus 7 uses the Tegra 3 processor to great effect, and so does the Microsoft Surface. On Rightware's Browsermark benchmark test, the Surface performed a bit slower than the new Apple iPad.
More important is the Surface's battery life numbers, which are good. The Surface eked out 7 hours and 45 minutes in our video run-down test. That's not bad compared with ultrabooks like the Asus Zenbook UX31A, which barely managed to top 6 hours on the same test. The iPad's battery run-down result was more impressive at 10 hours and 54 minutes, but the iPad has a higher capacity 42.5 WHr battery (compared with the Surface's 31.5 WHr battery). All in all, the Surface is pretty good in terms of juice, and certainly powerful enough for day-to-day use.
In terms of its hardware and operating system, the Microsoft Surface with Windows RT is a very good product. It's very light, and powerful enough to run a version of Windows, so it's very attractive to Windows early adopters as well as business users who have plans to migrate to Windows 8. It's powerful enough to be a daily carry device for work, always with you on your commute across town or the country.
It shares some programs and its main interface with Windows 8, which is a boon, provided you acclimatise to the new Windows UI (formerly known as Metro). Users who haven't yet tried Windows 8 will have to get used to the new way of doing things, but since Microsoft has mandated that all new PCs come with either Windows 8 or Windows RT, you'll have to start using the new UI on new Windows PCs and tablets eventually.
So should you buy a Microsoft Surface instead of an iPad or Android tablet? If you use Microsoft Office for work or school, then it's a no-brainer: Get a Microsoft Surface (or one of the other upcoming Windows RT tablets). Even though Pages and QuickOffice are pretty good programs, you really can't beat a copy of Office when your work is on the line. If you use Office programs constantly, the Surface is the tablet and laptop replacement your inner road warrior has been searching for.
Discounting Office, the Windows Store's limited app selection holds us back from giving the Surface an unequivocal recommendation, since iTunes and Google Play have a significantly more vast collections of apps. There's no doubt that the most popular apps will be ported over to Windows 8 and Windows RT, but when that will happen is still up in the air. If there's an app you can't possibly live without, then you should check if it's on the Windows Store before plunking down your money for the Surface.
There are other niggles, such as the Surface not being that suitable for perching and typing in your lap. Given the downsides, particularly the limited selection of apps in the Windows Store, we're not about to pin an award on the Surface – but we see the device's potential. If you're a tech pioneer or someone who appreciates well executed design, then you've probably already put the Microsoft Surface on order. In that case, enjoy.