Review: Surface RT, Microsoft's bid for a 'thing' of its own
At a Glance
No news is good news when it comes to any discussion of mobile device performance. In other words, a tablet or smartphone should just work, delivering a user experience that never, ever reminds you a processor is locked inside, chewing up its gears to keep pace with what's happening on screen.
The Surface RT's 1.4GHz quad-core Tegra 3 processor and 2GB of system memory handle their workloads without drama. Gesturing through the OS itself is fast and fluid. Ditto browsing in Internet Explorer. Websites load extremely quickly, and when you scroll rapidly down pages, screen redraws have no trouble keeping up.
During benchmarking, Surface RT more than held its own against other tablets in the 10-inch hardware class. With a frame rate of 6.9 frames per second, it took first place in our run of the WebVizBench HTML5 benchmark, besting the Asus VivoTab RT (another Windows RT tablet), which achieved a rate of 4.8 fps. And in posting a time of 10.4 seconds in PCWorld's own punishing webpage loading test, Microsoft's tablet trounced the VivoTab RT (which required 23.3 seconds to load the same page) and even squeaked past the iPad (which clocked in at 10.8 seconds).
Surface RT meets the demands of modern Web browsing, but what about performance in more hard-core applications? It's almost impossible to tell, because the Tegra 3 is an ARM processor, and our full PC benchmarking suite runs only on x86-based silicon. When working in the preinstalled Office apps, I never encountered any bad hiccups or undue lag, but these programs have already been tuned—or perhaps the more accurate word would be detuned—to work within the limitations of ARM processors.
Regardless, performance in hard-core applications probably won't even matter, because the Windows RT desktop is locked down: You will never be able to install Photoshop, traditional PC games, or any other code we typically define as "PC software."
As for the new Windows 8 apps you purchase in Microsoft's Windows Store, they'll be vetted and qualified to run on Windows RT and ARM (last week, Gizmodo reported that 6 percent of all apps in the greater Windows Store inventory lack Windows RT certification). Will the more processor-intensive apps perform without fits and starts on Surface RT, or will they make you wish your first Windows tablet was running Clover Trail or a Core-class CPU? That's the big question, and it should have a direct bearing on what type of Windows device you buy.
But I'll end the performance report on a happy note: In probably our most important tablet benchmark, PCWorld's custom-designed battery-life test, Surface RT came in second to the iPad, playing a looping HD video for more than 9 hours before pooping out entirely. If nothing else, Nvidia's processor is kind to battery life.
Surface RT as a tablet
Playing with Surface RT for a week is like eating Spanish tapas for the first time after a lifetime consuming only American food (iOS gear) or east-Asian fare (Android gear). Surface RT—and the Windows RT system it taps into—is zesty, zippy, playful, and different. But it also takes some getting used to, especially if you're not adventuresome.
The system is rife with powerful touch gestures, but none of them are immediately obvious if you pick up the tablet without any training. To evoke the Charms bar (a centralized control panel that taps into search, sharing, and settings functions, among others), you swipe inward from the right bezel. That gesture is easy enough, especially because it's explained when you first start up the device.
But what about the gesture that brings up the snap screen for side-by-side multitasking? Or the gesture that lets you cycle through open apps with a finger swipe? Or the gesture that produces all your Favorites in Internet Explorer?
These and other touch controls aren't self-evident. They're a blast to use once you know the full repertoire, and within a few hours of activating Surface, I found myself way more engaged with Windows RT than I've ever been with iOS or Android. Still, Microsoft doesn't include a freshman-orientation packet in the hardware box, and I suspect that many newbies will never take the time to do their homework. These are the people who will slander Surface RT as a confusing mess.
In addition to all the new touch controls, I appreciated Surface RT's ability to side-load media content through the preinstalled SkyDrive app and full-size USB 2.0 port. This arrangement is vastly more user-friendly than going through the kludge of iTunes just to get music or video onto one's tablet. Indeed, moving files in and out of Surface RT is a breeze because the tablet still employs a full Windows file system, complete with folder hierarchies on its desktop side. And it's nice to see something happening on the Windows RT desktop, which is otherwise a ghost town in terms of the software it runs.
Surface RT as a workstation
Between the kickstand, the keyboard covers, and the inclusion of a light version of Microsoft Office, Surface RT really does transform into a serviceable desktop PC.
A dearth of apps limits its full potential, but the workstation design—the size of the screen, the width of the key layout—isn't that compromised relative to, say, what you'll find in a small Ultrabook. Other tablets offer optional keyboard accessories to fulfill that elusive productivity promise, but they’re nowhere near as elegant or lightweight, or so well integrated with the greater tablet package.
The Touch Cover is so thin, it feels like the sturdy cardstock cover of a high-end paper notebook. Sadly, though, it’s the less rewarding of the two keyboard options. Lacking physical keys, this quasi-keyboard doesn't offer any tactile feedback, and throughout my testing I struggled to type with the right amount of finger pressure.
Now, granted, I'm not a touch typist. I'm an inveterate hunt-and-pecker who can type 52 words per minute on a full-size desktop keyboard. But every time I used the Touch Cover, I struggled to recalibrate my finger pressure to the sensitivity of its sensors. The end result was a lot of words with missing characters. To wit: On the Touch Cover, testing over a seven-day period proved that I could achieve an average typing speed of 30 words per minute, which is considerably slower than my admittedly gimpy average.
The Touch Cover is insanely light. It's spill-proof. It's also the cheaper of the two cover options at $120, and typing on it is faster and more natural than on any on-screen virtual keyboard I've ever used. But the Touch Cover is nowhere near as competent as the Type Cover, which is the better value for only $10 more.
The Type Cover's key action is lighter and shallower than what I look for in a full-size keyboard, and its thicker profile doesn't match the cool factor of the Touch Cover. But, you know what? The Type Cover is a keyboard. It's a real keyboard with real, moving parts. And it yielded considerably faster typing speeds, helping me achieve an average of 39 words per minute across a week's worth of typing tests. I also found the touchpad on the Type Cover to be vastly more accurate and manageable than the one on the Touch Cover, which oftentimes was frustrating to the point of uselessness.
And I'm not the only one who performed dramatically better on the Type Cover. For first-hand reports from real touch typists, check out our full test results here.
When you're typing in Word, or using any of the other Office apps, you're exiled to Windows RT's spooky, barren version of the traditional Windows desktop. Nothing is happening here. You can use the desktop to shuttle files hither and yon, and it's also the locus of various system settings and tools. But because you can't install (let alone use) any legacy Windows programs, you're constantly reminded that Surface RT's productivity story begins and ends with Office, plus the scant selection of low-ambition-level productivity apps available in the Windows Store.