When attempting to put my first impressions of the Surface RT into words, I encountered many false starts. Each time, I deleted the opening sentences because they seemed almost too sensational in tone. “Amazing,” “Sexy,” “Premium” and yes, “Magical.” Surely there must be a way to describe this new product without delving into “nerdgasms.” So, I closed Microsoft Word and gave myself a day to get it out of my system.
It has been two days and the feelings of awe are still intact. The Surface RT is simply an outstanding, well designed tablet. When I first slipped the plastic off and held the Surface in my hands, its VaporMg (pronounced Vapor Mag) body sent a cold chill from fingers right through my body. It felt right. It felt reassuring. That’s the kind of feeling one should get after spending over $600 on an unproven gadget.
By “unproven” I refer, of course, to Microsoft’s first grand foray into the mechanics of manufacturing their own computers. Not satisfied with simply shaking things up with the refreshing and revolutionary Windows 8, Microsoft sought to set the standards for what a no-compromise computing solution should be like. Their solution manifests itself in two devices – the Surface RT and Surface Pro.
The Surface RT embodies the aesthetics of clean industrial design. Encased in what Microsoft calls VaporMg – the uni-body construction is cool to the touch with a solid and sophisticated look. The device feels premium because there is no flex at all to its casing. The only cut to its uni-body design is an integrated kickstand which you can flip open using a slight indent on the left side to pop it open. The kickstand allows you to use the Surface at an angle suitable for typing or viewing on a flat surface. Unfortunately it is not adjustable to different angles, which would have proven useful on several occasions. Nonetheless, the inclusion of the kickstand is welcome, especially as I am using it to type out this review along with the Touch Cover.
One of my main concerns about getting a Windows tablet was its weight and battery life. When I first held the Surface I was pleasantly surprised by how light it feels. On paper it weighs about 1.5 pounds but in usage it really doesn’t feel that heavy. The weight is distributed evenly about the device in a way that it feels natural when held at its two corners. The tablet is not light per se, but it’s not heavy either. I suppose a way I can describe it would be that it doesn’t feel hollow. It’s a substantial feeling that’s also light and portable. It’s thin too, with beveled edges that give the Surface clean lines. Under the kickstand are exposed screws that reinforce its industrial roots.
The Surface RT differs from many tablets in a number of important ways. The first is its nonstandard screen size of 10.6 inches with 16:9 aspect ratio. Microsoft, who has a reason for every decision made with regards to the specs and design, chose to custom make their own display panels this size so that multitasking – using apps snapped side by side – would work well enough. The tradeoff of this aspect ratio is that portrait use isn’t optimal. Personally, I prefer to use the tablet in landscape mode most of the time, but users looking to read the web or books might find holding the Surface awkward in portrait. When you turn on the display by pressing the power button on the top, you’re greeted with a screen that is beautiful and sharp. Here I breathed a sigh of relief. The colors pop, and the text is crisp and beautiful. I also tested the display outside in sunlight and found the screen sufficiently visible and bright. I am very pleased with it. On the subject of resolution, I haven’t had the chance yet to compare it with the high res display of other competing tablets. I am however of the opinion that a higher resolution than 1366 x 768 wouldn’t hurt but it is not a deal breaker. HD movies play with great color reproduction and detail. Websites look gorgeous and the screen does my photo album justice.
Windows RT and the promise of Productivity
Windows RT, or as I like to call it Windows 8 for ARM, runs pretty great on the Surface’s quad-core NVidia processor. Swiping through the Start screen, opening apps, and pinching and zooming in Internet Explorer are all pretty smooth and fluid. There are some performance hiccups though. Some apps take a few noticeable seconds longer than others to launch. Perceived lag also becomes apparent when running multiple apps in the background, particularly having the desktop Office and multiple RT apps running causes swiping through open apps using the multitasking gestures to lag a bit. Opening the game “Cut the Rope” at this point could produce some choppy frame rates. I played Jetpack Joyride with ease, though I wish the graphics were sharper. Fruit Ninja also plays well but does get choppy during intense game play. Try closing some background apps and things becomes smooth again.
As for the Windows RT user experience? It sets the standard for what using a tablet should be like. The new Modern/Metro Start screen with live tiles brings the Surface to life as updates and data are populated through the tiles. The charms menu is a revelation. Swipe from the right to bring up the charms anywhere (except the desktop) and you can search, share content or change settings. Being able to use two apps at the same time by snapping an app to the left or right works like a treat. The UI has a certain thought out sensibility about it that’s reminiscent of way the Windows Phone OS was designed to work. That is, putting users and their content first. I haven’t seen all of Windows Phone 8 yet, but I am super excited about the vision Microsoft has. They are executing this vision in a real and accessible way across their three screens – PCs, Phone and the Xbox 360 console.
When it comes to productivity and getting work done, no other tablet compares. The Surface comes equipped with a USB and micro HDMI port. This allows compatibility with a wide array of peripherals such as keyboards, mice, printers and external monitors. You can easily connect the Surface to a 1080p monitor and extend the screen so that the traditional desktop is on that screen and the “Metro” environment is on the tablet’s screen. Working with Microsoft Office in a windowed environment has major benefits over full screen only mode. I tested this on my desk with ease and a sense of contentment. Plugging in my Logitech mouse required no driver installation or popup dialogs to respond to. A cursor just appeared on screen and I was on my way pointing and clicking.
I saved the best for last. The Touch Cover is magical. Magical in the way expertly engineered things are magical. Much noise was made from Microsoft about the “Click” sound the cover makes when the magnets do its magic and attaches itself to the tablet. The truth is, the click isn’t a mere “click” sound. It is a resounding “CLICK”. A sound that serves to reassure you that it knows it’s good at what it does. There’s nothing like some reaffirmation when you “Click in” the Touch Cover to the base of the Surface. I’ve done my fair share of “Click ins” just to hear the sound. No kidding.
I bought the cyan Touch Cover partly because it matches my cyan Lumia 900 but mostly because I like pretty things that stand out. Out in daylight the cyan cover looks gorgeous. I really wish Microsoft also made a yellow Touch Cover as I plan to upgrade to the yellow Lumia 920.
Typing on the Touch Cover is very surprising. There is no real tactile feedback the way a traditional keyboard operates but it is a step up from typing on a capacitive touch keyboard. The keys are slightly raised on what feels like a felt type material that doesn’t scratch the screen when used as a cover. In about a days use I find myself making less and less errors. I typed this entire review on the Surface using the Touch Cover with no amount of extra hardship. Also the Touch Cover has a small track pad that actually works better than the one on my HP laptop. Two finger scrolling works when scrolling the length of a web page or document as well as swiping sideways across the start screen. You can also right click though that doesn’t feel as natural as a true track pad.
The Touch Cover may not replace a proper keyboard but it works really well in many situations, such as a college student taking notes in a lecture or quickly responding to an email in Starbucks. The Touch Cover also makes for a great cover for the Surface. Microsoft says it takes about 5 days to get really comfortable typing at 60 words per minute, and I see no reason to dispute that claim.
So in the 48 hours I have owned the Surface RT my impressions have been overwhelmingly positive. I didn’t delve much into other positives such as Xbox Music and SmartGlass as I have a full review coming up. I will say though that the built in cloud services all work really well together in a seamless manner. Here are some take away points in my usage so far.
- No caps lock indicator on the Touch Cover is a slight bummer
- Though the Surface does not run x86 apps, I rarely ever use the desktop unless I am using Office and even it isn’t pinned to my Start screen.
- I installed a metro file explorer from the app store
- The kickstand should have been indented on both sides to make it easier to flip open
- The camera quality clearly is not meant for taking photos. Video is great.
- Volume sound is too quiet.
- No physical rotation lock. Software orientation lock was quite hidden in plain sight. I’ll leave that for you to figure out : )
- Battery life is around 9 hours of usage. I actually got a full 24hrs of usage without charging with some light gaming, web browsing and reading books on Kindle.
- Using the Surface on your lap works in limited situations. Your lap must be at least perpendicular to the Surface as gravity will work its magic.
- Flash® doesn’t work on all sites in metro or desktop mode. This is a bummer.
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