I’ve had a month to play with the Microsoft Surface with Windows RT tablet. Microsoft faces a serious challenge to compete against devices like the Apple iPad, Google Nexus 10, Kindle Fire HD 8.9, and other full-size tablets. But, Microsoft deserves some kudos for engineering a very solid, capable device to show off the Windows RT platform.
When I box the Surface RT tablet up and send it back to Microsoft, I’ll just go back to using my trusty iPad. But, there are a number of features of the Surface RT that I will miss.
Microsoft has made a big (huge) deal out of the kickstand on the Surface tablet since its original unveiling earlier this year—and for good reason. Microsoft’s purpose in spotlighting the feature was primarily to point out the attention to detail invested in engineering the device, and the quality of construction of the Surface RT, but it is more than that.
The kickstand allows you to prop the Surface RT up in either portrait or landscape mode. In landscape mode, the kickstand puts the Surface RT at an ideal angle for use as an ultrabook replacement (when used with a physical keyboard—see point #2), or for viewing streaming content like Netflix or TEDTalks.
Personally, I think the angle of the Surface with the kickstand in place is ideal, but one issue some people might have with the Surface RT kickstand is that it only has two positions—open or closed. If the angle doesn’t work for you, you’re sort of out of luck.
2. Touch Cover
The Touch Cover for the Surface RT is possibly one of the most innovative and useful gadgets of 2012. Sure, my iPad has a thin Smart Cover that “magically” attached via magnets, and automatically brings the tablet to life when I open it, but Microsoft has taken the concept to another level.
In a cover that isn’t much thicker than Apple’s Smart Cover, Microsoft has packed a touch-sensitive physical keyboard, complete with a trackpad, and special buttons for quick access to Windows RT features like the Share, Search, Devices, and Settings Charms.
Another advantage for the Surface RT Touch Cover is that the magnetic bond seems stronger. Holding an iPad by its Smart Cover is likely to result in the iPad detaching and crashing to its potential demise. It takes much more force to detach the Touch Cover from a Surface RT.
It’s not all sunshine and roses, though. Some users complain that the Touch Cover requires a hard surface under it—that it’s too flimsy to use while sitting on your lap—and there some reports of the edges of the cover splitting or fraying. I didn’t have any issues or problems with the Touch Cover, but the Type Cover does offer a firmer typing surface, and actual keys for those who prefer a more traditional typing experience.
Of course, there are other cover options for the iPad as well—like the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover. For the same $100 as the Surface RT Touch Cover ($120 if you purchase it separate from the Surface RT itself), the Logitech keyboard cover also provides a physical, tactile keyboard, and better stand for propping the iPad up than the Apple Smart Cover.
3. Office RT Apps
From a business perspective, the inclusion of the core Microsoft Office tools is a huge plus for the Surface RT. There are plenty of productivity apps available for the iPad, and most of them offer at least some compatibility with the Microsoft Office file formats. But, only Microsoft Office is Microsoft Office.
The Office RT apps that come with the Surface RT are very close in both form and function to their desktop equivalents. The features and conventions used are more or less the same, and you don’t have to deal with the formatting and fidelity issues that seem to plague third-party productivity software that claims to be “compatible” with Microsoft Office.
If the rumors pan out and Microsoft offers Microsoft Office apps for iOS, it will level the playing field some, but for now the Office RT apps alone might be enough for some businesses to choose the Surface RT over the iPad.
4. USB Port
The Surface RT has a USB port, and the iPad does not. The USB port opens up a whole world of possibilities for the Surface RT that are not available for an iPad. Aside from being able to plug in an external USB hard drive or USB thumb drive to transfer files or add storage capacity, the USB port could also be used to add a keyboard, mouse, printer, webcam, or just about any other device known to man.
One minor complaint about the USB port is its placement. When using the Surface RT in landscape mode with the kickstand open, the USB port is on the upper right. It works fine for USB thumb drives, or webcams that you might want to place on top of the Surface, but it’s awkward for a keyboard, mouse, or printer, and could pose a problem for USB devices with short cables.
5. MicroSDXC Card Slot
The USB port can be used to expand storage capacity, but the Surface RT also provides a more preferable means of accomplishing the same goal. The MicroSDXC card slot is hidden inconspicuously on the back of the Surface RT behind the kickstand plate. You can add up to 64GB of additional storage by slipping a MicroSD card the size of a fingernail into the tablet.
Apple’s iPad does not have any slots or ports to allow for additional storage capacity, but many Android tablet options do. Most of the Android tablet options, however, use the older MicroSD technology, which maxes out at 32GB. The MicroSDXC supports capacities of up to 2TB, and the slot is backwards compatible with older MicroSD and MicroSDHC cards.
The MicroSD card can be left in place to permanently expand the capacity of the tablet, or it can be swapped out as needed—for example to change out music or movie libraries, or to switch data for a project.
For the same $500 base price, the Surface RT provides twice the storage capacity as the base iPad—but Microsoft has also taken some heat over how much of that storage is used up before you even boot the device for the first time. It won’t knock the iPad off its pedestal any time soon, but depending on what you want a tablet to do, the Surface RT has some features and benefits that make it unique.
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Tony is principal analyst with the Bradley Strategy Group, providing analysis and insight on tech trends. He is a prolific writer on a range of technology topics, has authored a number of books, and is a frequent speaker at industry events.