Microsoft Surface RT review
At 680g (without a keyboard) it’s only a shade heavier than the third-generation iPad, and even with a keyboard case attached, it’s much lighter than most ultraportable laptops. At no point does the Surface ever get uncomfortably warm, either.
Connectivity and ports
Connectivity and expandability are other strong suits for the Surface. On the right-hand side of the tablet you’ll find a micro-HDMI port, for which Microsoft has created a pair of optional adapters for running external displays via HDMI or VGA. Unlike iPads or Android tablets, Windows RT allows you to extend your desktop on to a secondary display rather than merely mirroring the tablet screen, which is a huge bonus when it comes to getting down to work.
Beneath the micro-HDMI there’s a USB 2 port, which can be used to plug in all manner of peripherals, including external hard disks, mice, digital cameras and even printers – a full list of compatible devices can be found here. We plugged in all manner of devices, new and old, and the only one we struggled to make work was an ageing Fujitsu scanner, and that has driver issues with Windows 7 too.
If you don’t want to waste a USB port on an external mouse or keyboard, the Bluetooth 4 support allows you to use a wireless keyboard and mouse at your desktop. Elsewhere on the wireless front, there’s dual-band 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi, but no 3G option.
Secreted beneath that flip-out stand is also a microSDXC slot, capable of adding another 64GB of removable storage to the Surface. That might well be a necessity if you opt for the 32GB version: it has only 16GB of free space, with almost half the stated storage consumed by Windows, the Office apps and the recovery partition. The 64GB version has 46GB free.
Working with Windows RT
So, there’s little to complain about on the hardware side: what about the software? Surface is running Windows RT, the ARM-optimised version of Windows 8, and that necessarily involves a few awkward compromises.
The most obvious of these is that almost all desktop software is prohibited. Even though the traditional Windows desktop remains very much a part of the build – available through a Start menu tile just like it is in the x86 versions of Windows 8 – the only software that’s permitted to run here is the preinstalled Office suite and Internet Explorer. Even if traditional x86 software vendors were prepared to recompile their software for ARM, it would make no difference; Microsoft has pulled up the drawbridge.
While Internet Explorer is perfectly happy to let you download installers for desktop applications such as Google Chrome, attempts to click on the EXE file are met with a warning that “this app can’t run on your PC” and an invitation to visit the Windows Store.
The very presence of the desktop in Windows RT almost feels like you’re being taunted with what you’re missing out on. Why Microsoft didn’t remove the desktop altogether, and simply allow users to run full-screen instances of the Office apps from the Start screen, is bewildering. It has all the hallmarks of a bodge: a compromise reached to solve the conflicting priorities of the Windows and Office teams.
It’s also worth noting that the version of Office bundled with Windows RT is Home and Student – which means it isn’t licensed for business use, and that there’s no Outlook included in the deal. Try and share a document from Word via email and you’re presented with a stark warning message telling you there’s no email program installed, despite the presence of the Mail app in Windows 8. The Share charm provides no relief either: nothing can be shared from the desktop.
That said, the presence of almost fully featured Office apps is a considerable bonus: no other tablet has a complement of office apps that can compete with Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote, let alone bundled free with the operating system. We say almost fully featured, however, because a few notable features such as macros and, bizarrely, full SkyDrive integration are absent.
And when you try to push Office hard – fiddling with complex spreadsheets or adding high-resolution photos to heavily formatted Word documents – performance plummets, sometimes causing Office to dither like a contestant answering the final question on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?.
This brings us to the overall performance of the Surface RT. On paper, the figures are mightily impressive: the 1,042ms recorded in the SunSpider browser benchmark is faster than any tablet that’s ever darkened our Labs door. Unfortunately, our Real World Benchmarks won’t run on Windows RT.
However, other performance indicators suggest the Tegra 3 processor inside the Surface doesn’t cope as well with Windows as even previous-generation Intel processors. Our Samsung 700T tablet, equipped with a Sandy Bridge 1.6GHz Core i5-2467M and 4GB of RAM, rebooted and returned to the password screen in 31 seconds; the Surface’s 1.3GHz quad-core Tegra 3 with 2GB of RAM took 47 seconds.