This column may be more a review of strategy than product. With Microsoft’s recent 30 percent price cut on its Surface RT tablet, the company is trying to better position its device in the tablet marketplace. I selected the Surface for this review before the price drop because I thought it was a worthy contender. Only time will tell if Microsoft’s strategy sparks more interest in the Surface line or if it merely helps the company to sell off inventory of an unwanted product.
UNDER THE SURFACE
Before gazing into the techno crystal ball to predict Surface’s success or demise, let’s look at the device as it stands today. The Surface RT was released in late 2012, and the newer Surface Pro was released in early 2013. The RT, as indicated by its name, runs Windows RT operating system on an ARM processor, typical of mobile devices. The Pro runs Windows 8 on an Intel processor, which makes it more comparable to a laptop than most tablets. The Pro supports traditional x86 applications while the RT depends on apps purchased through the Windows Store. Currently, many of today’s popular apps are not available for the RT model. However, the RT comes loaded with Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. With the release of the Windows 8.1 RT upgrade, Outlook 2013 is added to the suite. This can be seen as an advantage over the Pro model because it is sold with only a one-month trial subscription to Office 365.
The Surface RT, which I tested for this column, is offered in 32GB and 64GB models. Out of the box, the two models offer 15GB and 45GB, respectively, of space for user content. Storage can be expanded using the built-in microSD card slot. The RT was designed to work with SkyDrive, Microsoft’s cloud-based file management offering. SkyDrive comes preinstalled on the device, and the service is fully integrated with the Office suite programs. Users who create a Windows account are provided with 7GB of free storage. An additional 50GB can be purchased for an annual fee of $25, making SkyDrive a competitively priced alternative to Google Drive and Dropbox. Besides its SkyDrive integration, the Surface RT affords users the ability to manage files via a built-in, full-size USB 2.0 drive.
Aesthetically, the Surface gives its main competitor, the iPad, a run for its money. The device’s dark titanium-colored VaporMg casing looks sleek and feels solid. The Surface RT is the same thickness as the iPad but is slightly narrower and longer, and it is a bit heavier at 1.5 pounds versus the iPad’s 1.33 pounds. As with the iPad, the Surface RT’s glass front extends to the edge of the device. The built-in kickstand appears to be part of the casing when closed and provides steady support for the unit when extended. The slightly slanted sides of the Surface sport a power button, volume control, headphone jack, HD video out port, two microphones, stereo speakers and the cover port. Using the magnetized cover port, users can attach the Touch or Type covers. The Touch cover features a smooth, pressure-sensitive keyboard, and the Type cover has a traditional mechanical keyboard. I selected the Type cover for my review and found it comfortable to use and very responsive. Both lightweight covers feature a trackpad, a row of function keys, media controls and Windows shortcut keys. With the Type cover attached and the kickstand extended, the Surface provides a true laptop-type experience. Unlike keyboards I’ve used with my iPad, I rarely had to remove my hands from the keyboard to make an on-screen gesture. The only drawback I found with the Type cover is that it is easy to inadvertently press keys when the cover is folded around behind the screen.
From a performance standpoint, I found the Surface RT to be adequately powered and very responsive to touch-screen and keyboard commands. The unit’s 1366-by-768-pixel screen delivers crisp, clean images with brilliant colors. When attached to my HD television, the device performed reasonably well while playing a movie streamed from Netflix. The onboard speakers are respectable but seemed light on rich tones. For listening in large rooms and presentations, I recommend using a Bluetooth-enabled external speaker. I found it very easy to pair my Bose SoundLink.
Since the launch of Windows 8, I’ve heard colleagues in the IT world predict it will be the next Vista. In other words, short-lived. Perhaps this view has dampened interest in the Surface. Questions surrounding Microsoft’s commitment to the RT operating system may also be a factor in weak initial sales. The risk of betting on RT’s longevity was lessened by the Surface RT’s new price points—$349 for the 32GB model and $449 for the 64GB unit. I didn’t fully appreciate the Windows 8’s modern interface until I test-drove the Surface RT. It was obvious that Microsoft designed the operating system with a touch screen in mind.
As you likely have seen in Microsoft’s advertising, the Surface’s operating system supports a level of multitasking to be envied by iPad users. Using simple on-screen gestures, users can “snap” an open app to the left or right, allowing the simultaneous use of a second app. For example, I worked on a spreadsheet while monitoring my email inbox. With the Type cover, I used the Alt+Tab keys to scroll through numerous open apps, just as I do on my desktop. Printing from the Surface also surpasses the capabilities of its competitors. I connected to my wireless-enabled HP printer in a matter of seconds. One print feature I was excited to see was the Send to OneNote 2013 driver. For years I’ve wanted the ability to use OneNote on a tablet and have the changes synced with my desktop. Lacking a solid app for iPad, I had to transition to Evernote. With OneNote 2013 on a Surface RT, the recently upgraded OneNote app on my iPhone, OneNote 2010 on my desktop and my SkyDrive account, I could have a robust note taking experience—taking full advantage of OneNote’s broad integrations.
Change comes extremely fast in the tech world, and sometimes it’s hard to see what’s around the corner. From a sales standpoint, Microsoft’s Surface tablet got off on a bad foot. Many industry watchers are already predicting the device’s demise, painting the recent price cut as a sign of surrender. It’s difficult to know what Microsoft has in store for future releases of the device or its RT operating system. But after experiencing the Surface RT’s tight integration with the apps that I use on a daily basis, I’d be willing take a risk on the device—especially at the new price point. My prediction for the device’s future? Sales increase, app developers get on board and grow the Windows Store, and the person next to you at a future meeting will be bragging about his or her Surface tablet.