Review: Microsoft Surface RT – pretty on the outside, dumb on the inside

Microsoft surprised the world last year when it unveiled the Surface RT, a tablet manufactured by what is traditionally a software company. I was blown away by its beautiful design and dissimilarities to the iPad. In a field of Apple clones, the Surface RT is refreshingly its own device. Microsoft launched the Surface RT in New Zealand earlier this year and for the past few weeks I’ve been giving it a test drive. I’m still impressed by its aesthetic polish and look, but having gotten to know the device better I’m not impressed by what’s on the inside.

At a glance:

Operating System: Windows RT (not quite Windows 8)

Storage: 32 GB or 64 GB (although a solid 17 GB is already taken by pre-installed software , this can be removed)

Display: 10.6-inch 1366 by 768 LCD

Processor: Quadcore NVIDIA Tegra 3, 2 GB RAM

Price: 32 GB – $739 / 64 GB $1029 (lowest cost on Price Me)

The RT is a sexy black dress compared to some of the poncho-esque Android tablets I’ve had the displeasure of using. Where others have embraced gaudy faux metal plastic, the RT brings cold hard steel to the table (a magnesium alloy to be elementarily correct). Holding the 680 gram RT is like holding a gadget that fell out of Blade Runner.

The RT has a 10.6-inch display with a 1366 by 768 resolution. It’s not full HD but the image quality is still fantastic. Like most other tablets I’ve used, the RT doesn’t lend itself to the outside world – or being under bright fluorescent – the glare on the screen can get very distracting.

Microsoft made a big deal of the RT’s kickstand at its launch last year, pointing out how much the experience of opening the metal flap was like opening a high-end car door. I definitely didn’t make that connection when I used the tablet, it was just another flappy bit of metal with a hinge I had to worry about not breaking. The stand keeps the tablet upright when you’re using it in conjunction with a USB keyboard or the iconic keyboard covers. It works great on hard flat surfaces, but is a balancing act when you first put it on your lap.

Utility is one of this tablet’s key strengths. A USB port and built in micro-SD card slot makes it a much more computer-like experience than you’ll have on locked down file systems such as that on the iPad.

There are two types of keyboard covers (which are sold separately) – the $180 Touch Cover, which is a touch keyboard; and the slightly more familiar $200 Type Cover, which has raised keys. I prefer the latter because without the tactile feedback of actual keys I revert back to my five-year-old self and just smoosh at the letters blindly.

The Surface RT is named for the version of Windows running on the device. Windows RT is a low-powered version of Windows 8 (although technically not Windows 8) made specifically for ARM processor devices like the Surface RT. This means not all the software you currently use on Windows is compatible with the Surface RT, only those with ARM versions – heck, Microsoft’s own Outlook doesn’t have an RT app yet.

This was the most frustrating part of using the RT. I just didn’t have many reasons outside of testing it to actually run the machine. I’ve tried my hand at compatible apps from the Windows Store and web apps, but longed to use Photoshop and the like.  It would be unfair to say the Windows Store is small – according to MetroStore Score there are over 67,000 apps in it – just not the ones I need or want.

In return for this major setback you’re given a tablet with a great battery life. A full charge easily got me through a business day (again I was forcing myself to find ways to use the RT, so it wasn’t always on).  Moderate app use, web browsing and a small amount of video would get me more than five hours of play time – similar to what I was getting with the iPad 3.

Verdict: Having used the Surface RT has left me curious about its gruntier brother the Surface Pro – which has much of the aesthetic qualities of the RT but with enough Intel-powered grunt to use my must have apps. But the Surface RT isn’t a device I’ll be recommending to most people any time soon.

This tablet is in an odd position because consumers will no doubt compare it against the iPad, while prosumers will compare it against Ultrabooks. The RT does both sides of the equation reasonably well, but excels in neither.

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