Microsoft Surface RT Review: “I’m Not Giving Up My iPad”

Video: Watch Sarah Mock demonstate the features of the Microsoft Surface RT.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on The Goods February 11, 2013.

Viewpoints bought a Microsoft Surface RT tablet for a member of our female blogger reviews panel, The Viewpoints, to test. Sarah Mock, who shares her money-saving tips at How I Pinch A Penny, was prepared to be ‘wowed’ by this Windows product, but says the Surface “tries too hard to be different.” Here is her Microsoft Surface RT review.

When Viewpoints gave me the opportunity to test out the new Microsoft Surface RT, I couldn’t wait to get it and see what the buzz was about! The commercials for the Surface were exciting and vibrant. I was looking forward to seeing what Microsoft came up with. As a long time user of the Apple iPhone and iPad, I wanted to see new innovative ways to interface with a tablet.

Microsoft hardware?

Microsoft isn’t often thought of as a hardware maker. Typically when someone mentions Microsoft you think of Windows or Office, but Microsoft has a history of successes when they have built their own hardware. The Xbox 360 and the Kinect have been very well received and that hardware features slick designs and attention to detail. The Surface RT is no different.

Video: Your impression of a product begins before you even turn it on. Sarah Mock discovers what’s inside the Microsoft Surface RT box.

Opening the box, you’re greeted by well-designed packaging and the tablet itself. Its “Dark Titanium” color shell with slightly chiseled lines makes this a nice looking tablet. The Surface RT is only available in 1 color although the cover can be purchased in multiple bright colors.

With front and rear cameras, microphone, headphone jack, speakers, light sensor and gyroscope, the Surface has many of the same features as the iPad and Android tablets. Features that set the Surface apart is the addition of a USB port, to be used for attaching USB accessories, and the special cover port, which allows the keyboard cover to make direct connection to the tablet.

The power of magnetism

The Surface comes with a power-charging adapter that uses a special magnetic connector to attach to the tablet. The magnet latches onto the tablet and releases easily without having to insert the charging cable into a port.

The tablet does not come with a USB connecting cable for syncing or charging. That’s kind of a troublesome point. With our iPad and iPhone we can use the same cable for charging each device. We have several cables scattered around the house, at the office, in the car…Everywhere! With the Surface you must use its proprietary power adapter, which at $40 a piece would get costly to have several in different locations. They also do not have a mobile charger available that can be plugged into the power socket in your car for charging on the go.

The keyboard cover also uses magnets to attach to the Surface. The cover is SUPER thin and the technology to make a useable keyboard out of something this thin is impressive. If you’re used to touch-typing on a keyboard this will be a little difficult to get use to, but it is WAY better than typing on an on-screen keyboard (which the Surface has also). The keyboard includes a trackpad and some additional buttons that are useful on the Windows desktop side of the operating system.

Life and death of a tablet battery

“Mom, the Surface just died….” A common refrain from my daughter as she was playing on the Surface or watching a video. The Surface battery lasts for 6-7hrs depending on what you’re using it for. It’s in the similar neighborhood as that of the iPad but not significant enough to be a clear benefit.

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The biggest issue I had was that the battery meter isn’t visible except on a few screens. It’s not shown across a top or bottom bar at all times as it is in iOS or Android. As you’re using the Surface or watching a video, you have no idea that you’re about to run out of battery. When my young son is watching PBSkids videos on the iPad he’ll come running to get me when he sees the battery gauge turn red. “Mommy, Pad battery is red! It’s not white! Need to charge it,” he excitedly says. On the Surface, you get no such easy warning and boom, the battery dies.

With the included power-charging adapter, the Surface charges the battery quickly. As is the case with many currently available tablets, the battery is not removable so when it dies, it’s done, until you charge it again.

(Storage) Size DOES matter

If you’re like me, you like to install lots of apps & games and store lots of files, photos and video on your mobile device. My kids love to store their artwork that they create on the tablet. The Surface RT comes with either 32GB or 64GB of storage space. That’s a little misleading though, because the operating system and installed applications take up a significant amount of storage memory! On a 32GB Surface, Microsoft says there is only about 16GB of useable space (45GB on the larger model) for applications and documents. That’s right, HALF of the memory is taken up before you even take it out of the box.

Microsoft however has made it easy to use its SkyDrive service, which gives you 7GB of storage in the cloud for free with the purchase of the Surface RT. That certainly helps but is only useful when you’re connected to the Internet. The Surface also has a slot for a microSDXC memory card. A miniature version of the SD cards most digital cameras use, the microSDXC can store up to another 64GB of data, which greatly expands the storage capacity.

Kickin’ it with a kickstand

One of the features that makes the Surface a little bit more of a laptop hybrid is the integrated kickstand. Along with the available keyboard cover, a quick flip of the metal flap on the back extends out the kickstand and makes a convenient prop to hold the Surface at a useable angle when typing on the keyboard cover. This works great on a table but doesn’t work out trying to use it on your lap, where as a laptop would work just fine. I am a bit wary of using the kickstand on any horizontal surface that may scratch. I didn’t have the kickstand scratch anything, but I am just wary of flipping metal out onto a scratchable surface.

Connecting

Wi-Fi is your connection to the world. The Surface is designed to be independent from a desktop computer. No need to sync or connect to a computer to set up. Just enter your Wi-Fi password and go. That said, if you don’t have Wi-Fi at your home, you’re out of luck. The Surface is not available with a 3G or LTE radio, so you can’t connect to your cellular provider. This may not be a big deal for you, but for mobile professionals this could be a big thing holding them back. You can use the tablet without connecting to the Internet of course, but you can’t retrieve documents or send emails without it. But truthfully how many of us can truly work with out accessing the Internet?

Windows 8 : To touch or not to touch

New on the Surface is Microsoft’s new operating system Windows 8 RT that includes the new Metro interface. This is a distinct way of interfacing with apps compared to Apple and Android. In some ways I think they tried too hard to be different and ended up making things a little confusing. Getting to the main Surface settings involves swiping your finger over from the right side of the screen towards the center to reveal the ‘charms’. Swiping from the other edges all produce a function, like switching between apps or closing an app, but none of it was intuitive. I had to watch the intro how-to video several times to figure out how to accomplish those functions. Not as intuitive as I think Microsoft had intended.

MicrosoftSurfaceVP2And then when you least expect it, you get dropped into the old school Windows desktop and file explorer. I can’t quite figure out why I’d ever got there, but at certain times you end up there whether you intended to or not. It’s touch enabled, but I found it easier to navigate with the trackpad.

One of the biggest drags of Windows 8 is that it’s like all of the other versions of Windows before it. It has updates to the operating system CONSTANTLY. As a matter of fact, when I first opened the box and powered on the tablet, the first thing it wanted to do was install 27 updates which took over ONE AND A HALF HOURS! It took 1.5hrs till I could even use the thing! That’s a real problem for Microsoft. I wanted to open it, turn it on, enjoy learning about my new tablet but ended up having to let it run overnight and try using it the next day. There have been numerous operating system updates since that first night as well.

What the Apps have in store

If you’ve owned a mobile device you know it’s the apps that make or break the device. With quality apps the device can be extremely useful, or fun, or entertaining. The Microsoft store has a decent selection of apps but as is expected with any new platform is not nearly as well rounded as the Apple or Android stores. Many of your favorite apps or social sites have apps in the Microsoft store. There are popular apps like Facebook, Twitter and Netflix as well as some productivity apps. I would expect to see more of your favorite apps being developed for Windows 8 as time goes on. The Surface also comes with a version of Microsoft Office on it (Word, Excel, Powerpoint, OneNote), which is useful if this is going to be your laptop replacement or your mobile business device. (Standard Windows applications cannot be installed on the Surface RT. Only apps developed for the RT platform will work.)

Final thoughts

The Surface, its bright and beautiful screen, the slick keyboard cover and cameras all make this excellent tablet hardware. Windows 8 on the other hand wasn’t as easy to use as I had hoped. I’ll keep using it to see what else I uncover, but I don’t think I’m giving up my iPad for it.

Sarah Mock (3 Posts)

Sarah Mock has been a member of the Viewpoints Blogger Reviews Panel since formed in August, 2012. Her blog, How I Pinch A Penny, is devoted to helping others save money. She regularly shares creative ideas for increasing value and living green from her home in York, Pennsylvania.