Review: Surface RT, Microsoft's bid for a 'thing' of its own

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A rather un-appy conclusion

The Windows Store inventory is alarmingly short of high-profile apps. The U.S. version of the Store is still well below the magic 5000-app plateau, and at this point you won't find official apps for CNN, Dropbox, Facebook, Hulu, IMDb, Twitter, and YouTube, among numerous other big-name stalwarts of the mobile world.

This isn't just a problem because Microsoft needs a busy, buzzing software marketplace if it's to realize its greater goals. It's a problem because the features and operation of so many preinstalled Windows RT apps will make you yearn for third-party alternatives.

The Music app gives you access to a huge catalog of free, streaming music, and for some people it may eliminate the desire to download Rdio or Spotify (neither of which is available in the Windows Store, by the way). But as a file-management tool for your own music collection, the Music app is light on features and customization options, and inscrutable in how it works. At first glance it looks like a wrapper for Xbox Music, and users might take a while to grasp that it's Surface RT's only built-in music player.

The new Music app provides a killer catalog of free, streaming music, but as a file-management app for personal music collections, it's a confusing proposition.

And then there's the People app, a central depository for all social media associations. The app invites you to connect to Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other buckets of humanity, but once all your social media is thrown together, it's disorienting to see your disparate contacts sharing the same space. Even worse, as a Twitter client, People is precious in design but completely lacking in power—at least as far as I can tell.

Can I tweet an image? Unclear. Can I get a collapsed, more space-efficient view of the tweets of all my follows? Unclear. Do I have a way to remove Facebook updates from my "What's new" stream without hiding Facebook friends in my contacts list? It's impossible to tell.

And that's the problem with many of the preinstalled apps: They seem to lack many standard features, but you're never quite sure if they're actually dumbed-down, or if you just haven't stumbled upon the feature you're looking for.

I synced Calendar with my Google account, but Microsoft's app doesn't show individual calendars that have been shared with me. Can I add those views? If so, the operation isn’t immediately obvious. Similarly, the Mail app wouldn't let me add my Gmail account. Is this because my account requires two-factor identification, and Windows RT doesn't recognize that? I don't know. The app simply reports, "That email address or password didn't work."

Bottom line

Microsoft desperately needs a hardware phenom to put a physical face on the ethereal trappings of its new Windows software. Hence Surface RT, the first personal computing device the company has ever created in its nearly 40-year history. But you can't simply buy your way into the "thing" club. You need to make a sexy, groundbreaking product that actually works—and then consumers assign it "thing" status through swarm intelligence, via social media and word of mouth.

Surface RT definitely covers the bases on the industrial-design front. When you set up your workstation at the local café—kickstand kicked, Type Cover snapped—your hardware will strike a pose unlike any other in the tablet space. And in many important ways, Surface RT does successfully redefine what a tablet can be. Its touch gestures rock (once you surmount the learning curve), and its built-in productivity features eclipse anything that the iPad or the Android competition offers.

Image: Robert Cardin
Simple. Elegant. But also a work in progress.

But Surface RT may not be the best new Windows device to purchase in the short term, and Windows RT definitely isn't the version of Windows you want to invest in. I doubt that any other tablet will be able to match the light weight and slim profile of the Surface RT/Touch Cover combo, but many people will be better served by waiting for a tablet that runs the full version of Windows 8 on x86 silicon. Such competing devices won't be quite as portable as Surface RT, and they'll almost always cost more. But they will grant access to the full Windows software experience, and battery life in Clover Trail tablets should even match the longevity of Surface RT.

One exciting option is Surface Pro. It's the big-kid version of Surface RT, and it should go on sale in three months. It will be slightly thicker than Microsoft's RT tablet, and about a half-pound heavier. But it will carry an Intel Core i5 processor, boast a 1920-by-1080-pixel display, and support the full breadth of Windows software, from desktop applications to every new Windows 8 app. All this, plus the Pro version supports the Touch and Type covers, and delivers all the other elements of Microsoft's nifty industrial design.

Is Surface RT a total nonstarter? No, it's definitely packed with utility, and that's why it earns 3.5 stars. In business-travel situations where I need only to write articles and respond to email, I can see throwing Surface RT and the Type Cover into my backpack, and leaving my Ultrabook (and iPad) at home.

But is this tablet a full-fledged "thing"? No, not yet. It's supposed to answer a host of problems, but instead it poses too many questions of its own.

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At a Glance
  • Surface RT is packed with productivity potential, and finds a certain measure of success in reinventing the tablet form factor. But its hardware isn't perfect, and its Windows RT operating system lacks flexibility and app support.


    • Inspired industrial design; nifty kickstand and keyboard options
    • Fun, fluid, powerful touch gestures
    • Delivers legit Microsoft Office support--on a tablet, no less!


    • Display isn't world-class
    • Windows RT is the hobbled alternative to Windows 8
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