Microsoft Surface with Windows RT review

There was a buzz in the air earlier this summer at Microsoft's Surface tablet announcement.  Anticipation built, and the excitement carried over to last week's launch with consumers hoping for an impressive device.

And that is just what Microsoft delivered.

After using the Surface for the past few days, our impressions of the tablet are good. The Surface is a well designed, comfortable to use, speedy little tablet. There is a slight learning curve but that was to be expected with a new operating system. While there is a learning curve, it's not too steep and shouldn't be too discouraging. If you are fortunate enough to have a Microsoft Store in your area, it takes the sales consultants just a few minutes to get you familiar enough with the system to get you started.

The Surface and Windows RT compliment each other rather well and the device itself is a nice supplement to your Windows Phone and Windows based computer.  If you've been waiting for an affordable, feature rich Microsoft tablet the wait is over with the Surface. 

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Where do you start?  Quality construction, nice battery life, vibrant screen and a feature rich operating system.  The Surface also has that "wow" or coolness factor that keeps its use from growing stale.The TouchCover keyboard's keys could be a little more distinguishable, the camera could have a higher resolution, and some may find the price a little on the steep side. 
If it was Microsoft's intention to build a solid, feature rich, multi-functional tablet with a sense of style, they nailed it with the Surface.  While there is room for improvements, you can say that about any new device hitting the market.  With the Surface, Microsoft got more things right than wrong and for that we think it's a fantastic product.  The Surface is just as much an entertainment device as it is a work tool.  It combines the best of both worlds to compliment both your Windows Phone and Windows based computer.
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Design:With the VaporMag casing and Gorilla Glass 2.0, the Surface's design has a ruggedness about it without the bulk.  Physical controls are laid out nicely and the magnetic charger and keyboard are convienent to put in place/remove.Feel:The Surface has a bit of heft to it but well balanced when using it as a tablet.
Performance:The Surface moved along rather nicely running Windows 8 RT. Battery life gets you through the day and connecting to external devices is a breeze with the number of device drivers at the Surface's disposal.Quality:The Surface is Microsoft's first tablet and they've done an exceptional job of it. From design to screen to operating system, the Surface is a quality tablet that should appeal to everyone from the casual user to the student to the gamer to the business person. 


Microsoft Surface

The appeal of the Surface is a combination of a well thought out design and a feature rich operating system. On paper, the Surface RT measures 10.81 x 6.77 x .37 inches and weighs in at 1.5 pounds. In the hand, the Surface feels extremely sturdy and balanced. As mentioned above, there is a little heft to the device but the design spreads the weight out evenly giving the Surface a light feel.

Microsoft Surface Left Side

Working around the device you'll find the power button up top with the USB, HDMI port and charging connector resting on the right side. To the left you will find the volume rocker and 3.5mm headphone jack with the Start button resting on the bottom of the Surface's face. The charging connector is a series of pins that magnetically holds the charging cable in place.

Microsoft Surface Right Side

A flip out stand takes up the bottom portion of the Surface's back camera sits at the top of the Surface's back. Flip out the stand and you'll reveal a micro-SD card slot.

Microsoft Surface micro-SD expansion slot

Just a quick note about the cameras... once things settle down a bit we'll get a follow up post up with more detail on the Surface's camera.  But for now, these are basically web cams that you would find on the typical laptop. Image and video quality are decent but nothing to jump for joy over. I can see these cameras used for video in well lit rooms, video conferencing and such. Not sure I'd depend on the Surface's cameras for any high quality photos.  

The 10.6" screen is protected by Gorilla Glass 2 and the casing is made of Vapormag that reminds me of the polycarbonate body of the Lumia 900 Windows Phone but with more of a metallic feel.  The downside to the casing and Gorilla Glass is that both are a fingerprint magnet.  It doesn't effect the screen's clarity but when turned off, the screen can look rather smudgy.

As far as a power source goes, the Surface RT has a 31.5Wh battery that is rated at up to 8 hours mixed activity and 7-15 hours idle time. In practical terms, using the Surface on and off throughout the day, my battery didn't need re-charging for close to two days.  With more heavy use, it made it through the day with just a little juice to spare.

The Surface has over two hundred custom components to make things fit rather nicely into a comfortable, user friendly package. As far as design and construction is concerned, the Surface is an impressive piece of equipment. 

Keyboard Choices

Surface and TouchCover

The Surface is offered in three keyboard configurations; the on-screen keyboard, the Touch Cover keyboard and the Type Cover keyboard.

The on-screen keyboard is nicely spread out and functions just as nice, if not slightly better, than any other on screen keyboard. The Touch Cover is only 3mm thick and is laid out very similar to your traditional, laptop keyboard. Keys are slightly raised and very responsive. My only nit with the Touch Cover is that it takes a little time to get used to finding your home keys for typing (the F and J keys). These keys have a slight raised portion but I think these markers need to be a little more pronounced.

The Type Cover is 6mm thick and has physical keys as opposed to the keys built into the surface of the cover the Touch Cover has. We'll get more on the Type Cover up shortly but all three keyboards work well with the Surface.

The Screen

Microsoft Surface

The Surface is fitted with a 10.6" Cleartype HD display. It has a 1366x768 resolution and aspect ration of 16:9. The screen is protected by Gorilla Glass 2 which gives the Surface a decent amount of durability and almost eliminates the need for a screen protector.

The touch responsiveness of the screen is on par with what you would see on a Windows Phone. Swipes, taps, and touches registered without difficulty. Again, the screen can be a bit of a fingerprint magnet but not to the degree it effect the display quality.

The screen's appearance is very nice. The HD screen has a bit of pop to it with nice colors and contrast. Outdoor performance is nice with the screen only being tough to see in direct sunlight.

Windows RT

While the Surface is impressive from the design aspect, Windows RT is equally as impressive. You start from the Surface's Start Screen that shares a similar "Modern UI" layout as our Windows Phones or your Xbox gaming console has. There is a collection of Tiles (many being live) that populate and bring the Start Screen to life.

Instead of the three-dot menu we've come to know and love with Windows Phone, you swipe at the right corner to pull out a menu bar fully of charms that include search, share, device listings, settings and return to the Start Screen options.

The Settings Menu is somewhat universal in that depending on which which app or game you are running at the time, the settings menu will pull up any settings for that specific application. You will also see key settings at the bottom of this setting pane for the Surface itself, such as network status, volume, screen settings, notifications options, a power button and keyboard options. A "Change PC Settings" link is at the very bottom which will sent you to a control panel of sorts for the Surface's core settings.

Down below you have another menu bar that is available throughout the system as well. This menu bar will be used to manage live tiles, pictures and other aspects of the Surface.

As far as connectivity is concerned, the Surface RT has hundreds of drivers available for external devices that makes connecting extremely easy. For example, the Surface automatically recognized my wireless printer and I was able to use the device without hassle or manual installation of any third-party software.

Other key features on Windows RT include:

Office 2013: The Surface shipped with the Preview version of Office 2013 but was quickly updated to the full version of the productivity suite. Office 2013 includes Microsoft Word, Excel, Powerpoint and One Note.

Windows Live: Similar to our Windows Phones, the Surface RT has apps for your Windows Live contacts, calendar, email and SkyDrive.

Bing: Asides from the Bing search engine the Surface RT also has Bing News, Sports, Weather and Finance apps that brings you all the news from each perspective area. Each Bing app also has a live tile that keeps you up to date on breaking news. Bing Maps completes the Bing suite of applications on the Surface RT.

Xbox Gaming and Music: The Surface comes with an Xbox gaming and music app/hub. Again, very similar to what we find on our Windows Phones, the Xbox influence lets you tap into various games, music and video titles.

Windows Store: Just like our Windows Phone Store, there's a Windows Store available full of Windows RT apps. While the number of apps and games may be a little thin, it's growing every day much like the Windows Phone counterpart did. In the coming weeks, look for Windows Phone Central Surface app reviews to give you a better feel for things.

Honestly, there is a lot to the Surface tablet that we seem to discover with every use. All of which compliments the experience and adds a slight "wow" factor to things. We've only scratched the surface on Surface's operating system and as we learn more of this new system, we'll post a few tips and tricks to help you use your Surface.

But for now, we'll leave it with Windows RT being an impressive, feature rich system. Along with Windows 8, Microsoft has done a nice job of developing a collection of operating systems that provides a level of consistency between our phones, gaming consoles, and computers. Again, there is a slight learning curve with Windows RT but nothing that can't be tackled through day-to-day use.

Overall Impressions

Microsoft Surface with TouchCover

All in all, the Surface is an nice device that can serve a multitude of purposes. It can easily be an entertainment device for gaming or videos and contains the ability to turn into a work tool with Office 2013. The Surface can be a reference device with Bing and IE as well as a communications device with Skype.

While impressive, there are a few areas where the Surface could see improvements. Why Microsoft didn't use a higher resolution camera with the Surface is a bit of a mystery with all the quality Windows Phone cameras floating around. Then again, you can easily snap a photo with your Windows Phone or DSLR and load it onto the Surface via Skydrive or the USB port.

While I liked the TouchCover, I do wish the keys were raised ever so slightly. In doing so, you would have more defined landmarks and I think typing would be easier. But there are those of you who may feel as though the keyboard layout is adequate.

While many would like to see 3G or similar wireless connectivity, that is suppose to come to the next Surface tablet down the road. For the time being WiFi works well but a tethering option to our Windows Phone should work equally as nice. It's just a shame carriers hinder that option.

The Windows Store also needs to see a little growth but that will come with time. We've already begun to see Windows Phone apps and games migrate to Windows 8 and more titles will be showing up. Personally, I'd like to see a lite version of Photoshop Elements or maybe even Thumba appear in the Windows Store. The Surface would make for a great photo editing tool in the field. Just connect your camera via the USB port and edit away.  

Microsoft Surface

While I don't see the Surface replacing my laptop, it will supplement my laptop and Windows Phone nicely. The Surface is more portable than my laptop and easier to use for those productivity issues (far easier to type on a 10.6" screen) than my Windows Phone. The nice thing about it all is with Skydrive and all the app commonality, what I do on one device can be picked up on another. The uses and potential of the Surface are vast.

The Microsoft Surface is the result of considerable thought and effort on the part of Microsoft to deliver a quality, user friendly device that will not only satisfy your entertainment needs but also allow you to be a little productive while on the go. If you're looking for something a wee bit more portable than a laptop and with a bit more elbow room than your Windows Phone, the Surface will do rather nicely.

Pricing starts at $499 for the 32GB version (without a Touch Cover) and runs upwards to $699 for the 64GB with TouchCover. The Surface is only available through Microsoft and you can find all the purchasing options and details here at the Microsoft Store.

George Ponder

George is the Reviews Editor at Windows Central, concentrating on Windows 10 PC and Mobile apps. He's been a supporter of the platform since the days of Windows CE and uses his current Windows 10 Mobile phone daily to keep up with life and enjoy a game during down time.