Exploring the Surface – Microsoft Surface RT Review
Microsoft made some waves this last June with the announcement of the Microsoft Surface RT and Pro models shortly after the end of the Electronic Entertainment Expo. Their in-house tablet was representative of Microsoft’s continuing vision for combining productivity and entertainment into a device that will bridge all others, from the Xbox to the PC to the mobile phone platform. However, Microsoft’s previous entries into the hardware business – with the exception of the Xbox – have not exactly been the most successful. With the competition between tablet devices all but turning into a knock-down, all-out brawl between the Android OS and Apple’s flagship iPad, Microsoft just might have an opportunity to sneak its way into the market with a product designed to work in almost every facet of everyday life.
At a glance, you wouldn’t necessarily know that the package containing Microsoft’s Surface RT was actually a Microsoft product. The black and white box features only the word “Surface” on the outside, without the typical drizzle of advertisements for additional products, system specifications, end-user license agreements, logos and supported apps like the Xbox 360 does. Nor does is sport the adhesive circles that require a band saw to cut through, and still manage to tear away half of the package with a single strip. Rather, two adhesive tabs hold the box closed with its contents, requiring only a minimal amount of pull to get to the goodies inside. I mention the packaging because it offers a glimpse into what you’re about to behold when you remove the plastic shield from the Surface for that first time: a device that’s simple, elegantly designed, and sharply contrasts from products that you’re used to seeing Microsoft produce.
The Surface RT’s 10.81″ x 6.77″ x 0.37″ dimensions are longer, narrower, and just a bit thicker than the iPad with Retina display, while weighing just a touch more than its Apple counterpart at 1.5 pounds. The device features a 10.6″ diagonal display at a resolution of 1366×768 pixels and a 16:9 aspect ratio, perfect for viewing movies in a widescreen format with its vivid colors and deep blacks. The Dark Titanium gray of the molded magnesium VaporMG case sports slightly beveled edges that make the device comfortable to hold while making it look sleek and refined over the plastic cases that you see in many of the Android counterparts and even some of the upcoming name brand Windows tablets. On the back, you’ll see only a stylized Windows logo that assures you that this is indeed a device from the Redmond juggernaut. A full-sized USB 2.0 port sits next to a Micro HDMI port beneath the right-side speaker, while only a standard 8mm audio jack sits on the opposite side beneath the left speaker. On the lower half of the right side is the magnetically attached five pin power receptacle. A Micro SD slot is available underneath the built-in kickstand for use as well.
Looking under the hood, the Surface RT looks pretty good. The tablet leverages NVidia’s Tegra 3 technology with 2GB of dedicated memory runs the graphical interface and applications smoothly. The system also sports Wireless B/G/N and supports Bluetooth 4.0 for connecting devices such as BT headsets, mice, or keyboards. An ambient light sensor automatically adjusts the brightness of the screen for the level of light in your surroundings, while accelerometers and gyroscopes determine orientation for not only the screen, but certain applications. Front and rear facing 720p LifeCams allow you to make video calls with Skype, and also take pictures on the fly. And while the picture quality of the cameras are passable, at a 1280×720 resolution I’m more inclined to carry my Canon DSLR with me –unless something monumental happens (like catching a UFO landing on the Gardiner Expressway) and I don’t have anything else with me.
The built-in sound is quite exceptional and well-rounded. The bass is strong and deep, with the mids and highs tuned enough so as to not sound too tinny or muffled. The built-in speakers project sound very well, unlike most tablets which tend to have a weak audio output, especially standing upright. An application to allow adjustment of the audio via a graphic equalizer, or even audio presets would have been a nice inclusion for those who have preferences in regard to how much bass or treble they like to hear when watching movies or listening to music.
One of the biggest selling points of the Surface was the touch cover that can be used as a keyboard/mouse much in the manner of a laptop. The touch cover attaches to the base of the Surface RT magnetically and is self-aligning so you don’t need to fiddle with it to get it to snap into place. With the kickstand extended, the touch cover displays a full keyboard (sans function keys) with a touch pad on the bottom that serves as your mouse with left and right-click buttons included.
Folding the cover behind the Surface disables the keys, allowing you to use the device solely as a tablet without having to worry about accidental key presses. Alternately, folding the cover over the screen will turn off the display. Typing on the touch cover works pretty well, although some muscle memory is required in order to use it efficiently and accurately. A common issue that a number of colleagues and I had were with ‘missing keys’ with our pinky fingers not applying the amount of pressure required for the touch pad to register it correctly. Of course, after about ten hours of usage, I noticed that my typing became a lot more effective on the cover’s keyboard with hardly any errors.
Configuring your Surface RT is simple and straightforward. It took roughly 30 minutes to configure all of my applications (social media, email, etc.) to get the device ready for use. There are some Day One updates that are available, and it’s highly recommended that you pull them down before kicking off your setup. Navigation for the most part is intuitive; however, with such a large change in interface, you’ll either want to take a stroll through the supplied manual or spend quite a bit of time in trial-and-error to familiarize yourself with Windows 8 if you haven’t experienced it before, especially with using swiping motions on the screen to pull up menus and cycle through or close applications.
The application suite for Surface RT is designed with a balance between productivity and entertainment in mind. A Home and Student version of Office 2013 is included that contains the four core applications: Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote. While Office RT does carry most of the features that the full box version carries, it is worthy to note that Excel RT does not support macros. Aside from that omission, the Office RT suite pretty closely resembles the full package product. The included mail client allows you to use popular online email products such as Outlook (Hotmail), Google Mail, and Yahoo. It can also be configured to use POP or IMAP protocols for other online mail systems; however, the previously mentioned brands can be used with minimal hassle, only requiring a username and password. A Windows Live ID is required in order to initially set up the software, but that’s easy enough to create regardless of what email domain you’re using, and the software will walk you through if necessary.
Like the Windows Phone 7 and 8 lines, Windows RT can connect your Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter feeds through the People application. While there are a good number of RSS readers available to download from the Store, there doesn’t appear to be a baked-in app to gather up your news from your favorite gaming sites and deposit them in a single location. A messaging app allows you to connect to your Facebook and Windows Live messaging accounts to keep up with your friends and colleagues.
One of the best features with the touch controls is the ability to drag a full-screen app to the side, allowing you to essentially split your screen to have multiple applications displayed. For instance, say you want to review a Word document with a colleague; you could open the Messaging application and swipe it to the side, and then pull up your Word document, so you can chat with your co-worker while working on the document in question without having to flip back and forth between applications. The same can be done with just about any application.
From a games and entertainment perspective, the Surface builds on some of the technologies that originated from the Windows Phone 7 platform, providing a robust and extended experience. The games library on the tablet’s store boasts over 800 games including the popular Angry Birds Space, Jetpack Joyride, and Cut the Rope. Third party publishers are already starting to line in their games in the marketplace, including Disney, who just released an all new adventure starring our favorite platypus, Agent P from Phineas and Ferb.
The Xbox Music and Video are featured prominently on the Start screen, with the Xbox Music service allowing Xbox Live Gold members access to music from all of their favorite artists for no additional cost, while the video service allows you to rent or purchase movies and television shows for a price (in actual dollars, not Microsoft Points). Popular apps such as Netflix and Hulu Plus are also available, as well as a bunch of free streaming music services, shopping applications, e-readers, and more.
A feature that was recently launched across many devices including the iPhone and Android OS is Microsoft’s Smart Glass. Smart Glass allows you to connect your tablet and use it to enhance your Xbox experience. The app is included natively on Surface RT and allows you to perform all kinds of functions with your Xbox including slinging Movies and Music from your tablet with just the press of an icon. For example, say you decide to bring your Surface into the bathroom to stream some music from the Xbox Music service while you shower. After you’re done, you can direct your Xbox to continue playing through your playlist by pressing the Play On Xbox 360 button. Your tablet will connect to your Xbox 360 utilizing the Smart Glass function, allowing you to browse through the artists’ bios on your tablet or continue surfing the internet.
Smart Glass is also used to extend the gaming experience from the Xbox 360 to the tablet. While playing Forza Horizon, I was able to use the tablet as my vehicle’s GPS unit, plotting trails, and selecting events to head to. Once an event was selected, the directions promptly popped up in-game and away I went. While it may be a simple example of the potentials of this feature, it is most certainly a promising one. This is a feature that was prominently shown off at E3 this last June with Halo 4, and something we’ll most certainly be exploring more in-depth when that game launches this next week.
Battery life on the Surface is quite remarkable as well. I was able to run the device continuously for about 12 hours performing tasks such as checking email, writing this article, listening to music, and watching a few episodes of Doctor Who. Graphically intensive applications such as Netflix or Video Games will run the battery down quicker. With Xbox Music running all day, utilizing a pair of Bluetooth headphones and Wi-Fi, and the display set to never turn off with full brightness on, we were able to get the battery to run down in about seven and a half hours; still long enough for a cross country flight. Recharging through the supplied power adapter takes approximately an hour and a half to get a full charge.
Other than the lack of a graphical equalizer or audio preset selections, one gripe that I do have about the Surface RT is with the Micro SD card storage. Since it’s recognized as an external device, you can’t configure the Music and Video folders to utilize this additional storage as a managed directory. While I can understand why you wouldn’t want to direct your profile directories there (i.e. the Music and Videos directories), you should be able to configure the Music and Video management apps to at least look at external storage in the management options. Finding your music and movies on the MicroSD card is easy enough using the Xbox Music and Video software, but unless you copy it to the internal drive, don’t expect to be able to add it to any playlists.
Overall, Microsoft’s entry into the tablet market is a powerful device that combines the Xbox Entertainment experience with their productivity apps to bring a balance between work, life, and play to users on the go. Hardcore gamers might be more interested in the Surface Pro, which will feature the ability to install Win7 native apps and support a 1080p resolution; however, for someone with a need to always stay connected and has access to Office applications to review documents on the go, this is most certainly the device to pick up.
Microsoft’s Surface RT receives a 4.5/5.
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