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Dublin: 21.11.2014 04.19PM
The Surface Windows RT is Microsoft’s first foray into actually making a personal computer. John Kennedy puts the device through its paces and discovers the software giant kind of has its future sorted.
I didn’t intend to like the Surface RT. I really didn’t. I simply thought it would be Microsoft’s take on Apple’s iPad. The Metro interface with a few apps bolted on. Nope, I was holding out for the Surface Pro because that spoke to me of the promise of true tablet-based computing – the ability to be entertained, informed and be fully productive at the same time.
I was actually surprised how not only likable the Surface RT is as a device, but the fact that it fulfils many of the things I had expected from its more powerful Pro sibling astonished me.
The Surface RT went on sale in Ireland last Thursday. It went on sale in the US in October, so we’re still awaiting the launch of the Surface Pro.
To understand the differences between the RT and its Pro sibling you need to realise the key difference is in the processors. The RT is powered by an ARM-based NVIDIA quad core Tegra 3 CPU and has 2GB of RAM while the forthcoming Pro is powered by a 3rd Gen Intel Core i5 Processor with 4GB of RAM.
My first impression of the RT with its ARM processor was its speed. You can cycle through the home screen with blisteringly fast speed.
Physically, the earliest impression you get is how long it actually is. It comes with a 10.6-inch display (remember the iPad’s display is 9.7 inches) and is cased in a dark titanium VaporMg casing that feels like velvet but looks like gun metal. At the back of the tablet an elegant kick stand can be brought out to keep the device horizontal for typing.
The device I reviewed came with a black Touch Cover that connects with the device magnetically with a satisfying click. The Touch Cover is flat but is quite accurate in terms of typing although it takes a little getting used to the flat surface. Users who want a more physical feel with plunging keys can opt for a Type Cover.
In terms of appearance, the luxurious VaporMg casing and the felt-backed Touch Cover give the device a pretty slick look.
The 10.6-inch display is capable of projecting 16:9 widescreen displays at 1,366 x 7,768 pixels and when used in conjunction with apps like Netflix make it a pretty effective and enjoyable form factor for viewing movies.
First impressions of the device are that it imbues quality and feels pretty solid and sturdy at the same time, managing to look elegant and trim. It was also my first real opportunity to experience Windows 8 properly on my own terms.
To most of us who have been writing about Microsoft or dealing with it over the years, the company has changed to be almost unrecognisable in many respects. A lot of this has to do with the changing culture at Microsoft and a lot of this changing culture has to do with Windows 8.
You’ve got to think back to where Microsoft was in late 2009. They were the masters of the universe in technology terms. Windows 8 was a roaring success and one of the most successful products the company had ever produced. In addition, to most people at that stage personal computing was either a desktop or laptop affair. And when you bought software, you bought it by the disc load.
And then Apple came along in early 2010 with the iPad and threw the whole market asunder as people realised there was a better way. An easier way.
The problem had been that while most people who bought PCs recognised they needed them, many really scratched the surface of what most computers were capable of doing. They probably used less than 10pc of the computer’s capability.
Most people aren’t technologists but they’re happy to be informed and entertained and like to stay in touch. All the other stuff under the bonnet meant nothing to them. Just like most car drivers don’t know how their engines work, the same was true for PCs.
But that was the tyranny in the tech industry that Steve Jobs wanted to address and the iPad met most people’s needs for consuming information in a lightweight, easy-to-use kind of way.
In a strange way, Apple did Microsoft and the rest of the computer industry a massive favour. It was a reminder that people like attractive products. Computing didn’t have to be beige and complicated. What people now warm to is portability and good design – and apps, lots of apps. So in a way it also forced OEMs who had gotten lazy to rethink how they design and package computers.
That being Microsoft’s raison d’etre from day one meant that if Microsoft wanted to survive it would need to rise to the challenge. And if I wasn’t convinced when Windows 8 arrived, I am now.
You see, in kicking OEM butt I reckon Microsoft needed to actually remind the hardware makers what good computing is actually about. Being almost religiously opposite to Apple, which likes to keep a tight loop on the hardware and software, Microsoft had to take the soup, so to speak, and make its own hardware in order to push manufacturers in the right direction.
The result is Surface Windows RT and Windows Surface Pro.
It must be maddening to think that Microsoft invented the tablet computing genre in 2002 before anybody else. Unfortunately the earliest tablet machines were clunky and expensive, which missed the entire point.
I think it’s fair to say that the RT actually embraces the entire point by making computing light, affordable and accessible.
I thought that the metro interface worked beautifully on the tablet’s screen. But what impressed me most of all was how on the tablet device you could then go to the Windows 8 desktop and compute and work like you’d probably worked for the last 15 years. The RT comes with specially optimised versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel and OneNote pre-installed.
By clicking the Windows symbol on the bottom of the screen or on the keyboard, you are back to the Metro screen.
I think the essence of what Microsoft tried to do here is quite impressive. The metro screen with its tiles and apps is actually called the Start screen and the way to think of it is a large version of the traditional ‘Start’ button that used to pop up on the left-hand side of the screen.
I also think what Microsoft has accomplished with Windows 8 on the RT and Pro devices is a signpost to the future of personal computing in that it has stolen a march on Apple and Google.
You see, people will want tablet computing experiences but the option of being able to launch a full desktop to do specific tasks, manage data and more, is going to be very important.
Don’t be too surprised to see future versions of Google Android devices or Apple’s iPad sport the ability to launch tablet-optimised versions of Chrome OS or OS X or whatever it will be known as then. Isn’t this exactly the merging of tablet and desktop computing that Apple CEO Tim Cook has been speaking of?
And so I think in this respect Microsoft has humbugged Google and Apple in a clever way.
Microsoft makes good use of the long screen to provide structure for the various apps that are available via the Windows Store. Apps like Netflix, The Irish Times, Skype and CNET come across as simple, tailored and elegant.
However, unfortunately, apps is the department where I believe Windows 8 falls down. While Microsoft has done a good job in building up its Windows Store to some 70,000 apps, it still has a long way to go to catch up on Apple’s App Store, with in excess of 300,000 apps.
Windows 8 does a great job of providing the kind of uncluttered computing experience consumers desire but it also limits their choices when it comes to downloading popular apps. For example, most of the big-name apps are there, like Skype, Netflix and Evernote, but it feels strange with no direct apps from Twitter or Facebook or Spotify. That said, the People section does a great job of pulling all your friends’ social notifications together.
However, unless it’s already baked into the system or you can download it via the Windows Store, users are limited in the apps they can deploy.
Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote give you a good insight into the new generation of Office apps and they work wonderfully on the Surface RT.
But the challenge for the software industry – particularly the guys who make video games – will be finding a way of packaging top games for users of Surface RT. In other words, get busy and build some apps.
But even so, it also comes with a strong range of apps like SkyDrive, Explorer 10, Xbox Music, Video and Games to keep you busy.
The battery life on the Surface RT is pretty good – I’d get about two days on a standard charge. The device is powered by a 31.5 W-h battery. The Surface RT comes with a magnetic power cable that clicks neatly into the side. The only criticisms I have really centre on the actual power plug, which is much larger than those that ship with rival Android or iPad devices.
One of the things that Microsoft has gotten right in particular is the various connection points, including the full size USB 2.0 port and the micro SDXC card slot.
In terms of storage, the Surface RT comes in 32GB and 64GB configurations and these can be expanded by up to 64GB via the microSD card slot.
For shooting video, taking photos and doing video conferences, the Surface RT comes with two 720p HD LifeCams front and back and it also comes with two microphones and stereo speakers.
The Surface RT it comes with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technology and all the usual accelerometers, light sensors, gyroscopes and compass that you’d expect to find on tablet computers.
One of the tricky things about the Type cover is just how compressed it is in terms of space. This is not a machine for men with fat fingers.
That said, when you try working on it you get used to it pretty quickly and when you stop thinking about where your fingers are and just focus on the screen it all comes together quite nicely.
I think Microsoft has really achieved something good with the Surface RT. I hadn’t been expecting to like it as much as I have.
It is like Microsoft adopted the lessons of the past three years and instead of just matching requirements it exceeded them.
Instead of a device that is a watered-down version of Windows 8, Microsoft has actually been quite generous to the end user. It has managed to stay loyal to its original vision of unleashing a complete Windows experience, only without the excess baggage.
The Surface RT is sleek, elegant and rugged and provides users with the best of both worlds: personal computing as they had known it and tablet computing as they desire it right now.
It is the perfect device for work and play.
The only thing it needs to get right? Hurry up with the apps folks.
Note: Prices for the Surface RT start at €479 for a stand-alone device or €579 with a Touch Cover included.