Skip to main content

Life with the Microsoft Surface RT

For most of the past month, I've been traveling with a Microsoft Surface RT tablet. I’ve found that there’s a lot to like about the device, although there are a number of shortcomings, namely the lack of applications.

While lot of devices running Windows 8 or Windows RT have been called "hybrids," this really applies to the Surface RT. It is as thin and light as an iPad, and the Touch Cover is about the same size as an iPad cover. Thus, you can operate it with your fingers through the new interface, running tablet-style applications. You can also go into a "desktop mode" and start typing on the cover, and have nearly full versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote to hand.

That "split personality" between the new Windows UI and the classic desktop has been quite controversial, and I intend to write more on that subject at a later date, as I expand on my time living with Windows 8. With Windows RT, the desktop is limited to the system utilities and the four Office applications; other classic Windows (x86) applications don't work with RT. That's a challenge in the business market, but I've been waiting to see how it would work for consumers.

So far, the basic concept has been more appealing than I first thought. I like having a thin tablet that's more portable than a laptop. I'm a writer, so having a full version of Word is another big benefit. I have found note-taking and writing on the Surface to be a far better experience than on an iPad or Android tablet.

That's partly because the Touch Cover is convenient to carry (much lighter and thinner than the add-on keyboards I've seen for other tablets), but mostly because Word is far superior to other word processors available on rival tablets. I took a Surface to the Techonomy conference last week and used it to write there, and also to write this article.

Typing on the Touch Cover, which is almost completely flat, does take a little getting used to, but it is much better than using an on-screen keyboard. (The bigger Type Cover, which is underneath the blue Touch Cover in the pic below, would be better to type on, but of course, it is bulkier). I often leave the sound on so I have an audible click when I type, but that isn't strictly necessary.

In general, I found the Surface fine to type on when I could put it down on a flat surface (like a desk or a table), but found that the keyboard and kickstand combination was too awkward to use on my lap (as Joel Santo Domingo stated in his review). Also, I note that after a month of use, the Touch Cover is getting worn out, which makes me wonder about its long-term durability. Still, it is certainly thin and convenient, and generally works quite well, both with Word and with Internet applications.

The other included parts of Office seem fine. OneNote and PowerPoint are both able to open files created using their x86 versions without problems, and Excel seems to work fine on basic spreadsheets, though it doesn't work with macros, and the system (which only has 2GB of DRAM) was very slow on big spreadsheets. One thing I like very much is how you can set up Office 2013 to store your files automatically on SkyDrive and then access them from multiple systems. If you want an enterprise-class version of Office (including Outlook), Windows RT and the Surface RT isn’t the setup for you, but consumers and students should find this good enough.

Application issues

Of course, the real point of using the system, especially in tablet mode, is to run the new Windows applications, and that's where Surface looks like a work in progress. (I have noticed several applications that are available in the new interface on Windows 8 aren't on Windows RT at this point, so the selection is even more limited with RT).

Most of the included applications seem to provide only very basic capabilities. Mail, for instance, works with multiple accounts, but isn't yet at the level of the tools on an iPad or Android tablet. The included Photos application does a good job of opening photos from multiple sites, including SkyDrive, Facebook, and Flickr, but it lacks most editing tools. Traditional desktop Windows applications such as Photoshop and Picasa don't work, and I didn't see any of the well-known photo editing tools in the Windows store. Instead, I've been using Photo Studio free, which is basic and a bit quirky, but does the job surprisingly well.

It's strange to have two browsers – one in the new interface and one in the desktop – but in general, they seem to work fine for me. The new version is a bit more limited but easier to control by touch (and still does about as much as the browsers on competing tablets), while the desktop one is essentially a full browser, but without most of the add-ons available for the full Windows version of IE.

The third-party applications are the biggest concern, however. The new Windows version of The New York Times app is actually quite nice, really taking the Windows design cues – such as the way it scrolls – to heart, though I'd like more indication on when it has finished downloading material. The Wall Street Journal app works fine online, but doesn't seem to download issues for later reading (unlike the iPad version). Most of the magazines I read just aren't available yet. So, as someone who often uses his iPad for reading newspapers and magazines while disconnected, these are major limitations.

The issue isn't just newspapers and magazines, either. In general, you won't find the app selection you'd see on iOS or Android, when it comes to say music or video streaming. While the app selection will doubtless expand, for now, this is a big issue, and again one Joel highlighted in his review.

On an overall level, however, the hardware seems well-built, and both the magnetic charger and the keyboard snap in nicely. One smart difference between the Surface and most other tablets is its expandability and hardware compatibility. The unit I've been using has 64GB of internal flash storage, with about 48GB available for user files, but also has a microSD card slot for adding further storage. In addition, it has a USB port, support for most printers on the market, and works fine with all the standard USB flash drives I've tried. However, because it runs RT and not regular Windows, the encrypted USB drives I tried did not work.

So on the whole, I like the concept of the Surface RT a lot, and find a lot to like about it in general, especially the ability to carry around a tablet-sized device that works with the basic Office applications. Being able to use it as a tablet or as a small laptop is a great feature. I found myself, however, really missing a variety of applications that just aren't available now. So for now, I can only recommend Surface to people who need a more portable version of the Office apps, but are satisfied with the current set of tools.

Michael J. Miller is Chief Information Officer at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Mr. Miller, who was editor-in-chief at PC Magazine from 1991-2005, authors this blog for PC Magazine to share his thoughts on PC-related products. No investment advice is offered in this blog. All duties are disclaimed. Mr. Miller works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this blog, and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.