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REVIEW: Microsoft Surface RT a great yin to iPad’s yang

Windows RT (slimmer Windows 8) lets you “pin” apps side other apps. You can watch sad movie while tweeting about

Windows RT (a slimmer Windows 8) lets you “pin” apps to the side of other apps. You can watch a sad movie while tweeting about how sad this movie is making you.

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Updated: October 28, 2012 11:41AM

A review of Microsoft Surface With Windows RT (“Surface RT” hereafter) is also a review of the fundamental concept of Windows 8, by definition. It represents whole point of what Microsoft is undertaking, isn’t it? Instead of creating a separate OS specifically tuned for the needs of consumer-oriented tablets with mobile processors, they created a separate user interface and experience. One that works on smaller screens and limited CPU power and which also crosses over nicely to the desktop.

If they were wrong about all of this, they’d wind up with a shotgun marriage that fails as both kinds of computers. Surface would be a device that’s too bulky and complicated to deliver the charm and simplicity of a tablet, and too limited in features and physical conveniences to serve as a notebook. There was every chance that Surface RT would be the “toaster refrigerator” that Apple’s CEO described when he was asked for an opinion about this strategy.

Well, now. I’ve been using Surface RT for a full workday and this is no toaster refrigerator.

I won’t even bother to think of an appropriate kitchen appliance to compare it to because it makes a clear impression and an easy distinction between itself and the iPad. The iPad’s soul is in mobile computing. This means that it’s occasionally clumsy when you try to use it as a keyboarded PC. Surface RT’s soul is in desktop computing. This means that it’s occasionally clumsy as a multitouch tablet. No matter how you use an iPad or a Surface RT, they’re never anything less than Good, however. And when you use them the way their maker intended (respectively: as a lifestyle device with notebook-like aspirations, and as a notebook with much of the handiness of a lifestyle tablet) each one shines.

A full review of Surface RT (which starts at $499, with 32 gigs of internal storage) will come on Monday, after I’ve had a lot more time to rock-and-roll with it. I have a lot to say about Surface at the end of Day One, though.

My first observation: Surface is large, thick, and heavy by tablet standards.

That was obvious. And, whoops, it also wasn’t true. Surface RT is .37-inch thick . . . same as an iPad. The iPad is marginally lighter, but if you round the decimal they both weigh 1.5 pounds. Here we see the power and purpose of Apple design. Because of the iPad’s sleek, rounded corners and proportions and the way it feels when I hold it, I would have bet money that it was thinner than Surface RT. Until I actually bothered to look up the specs.

Surface RT has beveled edges that bespeak “solidness.” Or “this is my first day interning in the design studio and they haven’t showed me how to use the curve tool yet.” Whatever, the RT looks fine.

Microsoft’s screen choice speaks to the mandate of the Surface. Microsoft chose a widescreen display, which is a clumsy fit for every kind of media except for movies. When I hold it in portrait orientation . . . it feels like I’m holding it wrong. Plus, in that orientation the Kindle app makes the greatest and most inspiring classics of literature look like a legal contract.

But widescreen works great for apps. Windows RT uses the fine example set by Super Mario Brothers to great effect, laying out content and controls in a sidescrolling interface that creates a solid sense of your presence within an app or a process. Its new-style apps are fullscreen by nature. When you have a conventional content area (like the editing pane of a word processor) there’s still plenty of space for tools and menus.

There’s even space for another app, thanks to one of my favorite new features of Windows. You can “pin” a second app to the left or right of the app that’s receiving most of your attention.

I’m writing this column in Microsoft Word. When I needed to confirm the dimensions of the iPad and the Surface RT, I looked up the data in Explorer and then “pinned” that window to the side of Word, so I could access it while I worked.

At the moment, I’m editing. A Twitter client that normally would take up the entire display has discreetly rearranged itself into a single, effective column that allows me to multitask a bit as I look for typos.

To do the same sort of thing on an iPad requires me to either switch between apps constantly (and take my fingers off the keyboard every time I switch), buy a special app that includes a web browser and a text editor in separate panes on the same screen . . . or, keep my iPhone on a little stand next to the iPad and use Notes Syncing to move data between the two when I need to cut and paste.

(Yes, this is something that I really do.)

The quality of the Surface RT’s screen isn’t excelptional, but it’s perfectly adequate. As an iPad 3 user, it’s impossible not to wish for magazine-quality text, and a color gamut that would trick a bee into pollinating your lockscreen.

You probably don’t spend a lot of time listening to music through your tablet’s speakers. That’s a good thing if you own Surface RT . . . the speakers stink. Music through headphones or an external speaker (wired or Bluetooth) sounded fine.

Surface is a tablet that’s happy to sit on a lap but which is designed to sit on a desk, or table (whether that table be “kitchen,” “coffeeshop,” or “airline tray”). Well, duh: it has a kickstand that was clearly designed as in integral part of the device instead of as an afterthought.

It’s part of Surface RT’s whole “tablet with the soul of a desktop” thing I mentioned earlier. Microsoft didn’t screw this up. Surface RT is a terrific consumer tablet. But when you click it into a keyboard cover (or attach the third-party keyboard of your choice), it becomes a super-portable, super-long-battery-life notebook with very few compromises.

Surface almost never forces you to take your hands off the keyboard. Keyboard shortcuts are wired throughout (including the Windows and Alt keys for app switching), and the keyboard cover includes a multitouch two-button trackpad for mousing.

The “Touch” cover (available in a range of colors for $119) has rubberized keys. It’s thin and is designed for light use. The “Type” cover ($129, black) is built with mechanical keyswitches. The keys aren’t as deep as what you’d get on a conventional notebook, but it’s practically a full-sized keyboard (chalk this up as another advantage of the widescreen display). I’ve been writing on it for hours now at something close to the speed and comfort I’m accustomed to. My fingers aren’t complaining.

Surface RT supports external mouses, trackpads, and keyboards, too. Connect via Bluetooth and you can replicate the full experience of a conventional notebook.

How determined is Microsoft to build a consumer tablet without limitations?

Surface RT has a USB port.

Not “micro USB.” A full-sized one.

And not “a USB port which allows Surface RT to function with the limited range of devices for which device drivers are included,” either. If it works with your desktop PC, it’ll probably work with Surface RT.

A mouse, a keyboard? Sure.

A USB data stick? An SD card adapter? Yup. You don’t need to buy a special kind of adapter or connection kit to move photos or videos into Surface RT.

How about a portable hard drive? Even a portable hard drive. Surface will power it and everything. And by now you suspect that you can print to a USB printer directly from the device. Yes, printers, too.

There’s also a Micro SDXC card slot. Surface RT is available with either 32 or 64 gigabytes of storage and the card slot allows you to add as much as 64 gigs, at will. The extra storage simply appears as an attached drive.

I haven’t spoken much about Surface RT’s software and the user interface. “Windows RT” is almost synonymous with “Windows 8,” which I’ll be reviewing in full shortly. It’s a beautiful user interface that eliminates clutter and underscores clarity and simplicity, while sacrificing very little by way of power or features. My first impression several months ago was that Windows 8 is the first big leap in desktop OS interface since the ’80s. I’ve been using it all summer and I still believe it.

Microsoft has done a poor job of explaining the difference between Windows 8 and Windows RT, however. Furthermore, I think Apple’s successful strategy of “a mobile OS and a desktop OS, separate but united” has led people to assume that RT was something totally different from, and incompatible with, Windows 8.

In truth, Surface is “Windows 8, minus anything that might cause problems for a consumer tablet that uses a mobile processor.” Windows 8 runs all existing Windows 7-compatible apps, plus “Windows Store” (formerly “Metro-style”) apps. Them’s the apps that fill the whole screen and are chockablock with the aforementioned clarity and style and simplicity.

Surface RT only runs the Windows Store-style apps. You can only get software for it through the new Windows Store. If you need Windows 7-style apps, you shouldn’t buy Surface RT. You should wait for the Surface Pro (due in the next few months) or any of the 2012 class of Windows 8 convertible notebooks, which will run everything.

The same Metro-style Windows apps run on Windows 8 and on Windows RT. Surface RT just doesn’t run any classic-style Windows Desktop apps.

Let that sink in.

Enjoy a snack and a beverage.

Come back after a light nap.


OK: what I told you about “no desktop-style apps” is true, but with a few exceptions. Windows RT also has a Desktop mode which presents you with the familiar overlapping-windows interface.

A few of Surface RT’s built-in apps run in this environment: things like the File Explorer and Microsoft Office. You tap the Word 2012 tile from the Start screen and it launches in fullscreen mode (good) but with the conventional desktop UI. That’s bad, because the targets are the same as in the desktop app and they aren’t in any way optimized for multitouch. You can work the menus if you need to, but you’ll want to be using a trackpad or a mouse.

It’s not as though you need to reboot into a second mode to use these few Desktop apps. Still, there’s a slight mental grinding of gears every time you leave the Land Of Tiles And Dreams and pop into Window’s classic “mid-freefall” user interface.

I wish Surface RT shipped with Windows Store-style . . .

(Oh, dear God, that’s a terrible name. I refuse to use it.)

I wish Surface RT shipped with Metro-style Office apps. But maybe (maybe) what Microsoft shipped is better than what I’m wishing for. This is the “real” Microsoft Office. Minus Outlook (grumble, grumble), and minus plugins and scripting (so: apps written to work in Excel are out). Otherwise, though, this is the real thing.

Given that “I need to use the Real Microsoft Word, not just a word processor that reads and writes Word files” is the issue that defines the difference between traveling with just my iPad and needing to take my MacBook across the country . . . I definitely recognize that “Real Office” is a major plus for Surface RT.

The apps work very well. But it’s easy to see why Microsoft didn’t open the doors to all Windows apps. When I’m inserting a new paragraph and Word needs to keep up with my typing and shove 2100 words of text down the screen one line at a time as I type, the app can barely keep up. Even with nothing but an empty window under my cursor, it’s not as fluid as a Metro-based text editor. It’s fine (he writes, with the validity of 2800 words of typing in Word) but . . . yeah.

And Office’s reliance on a mouse or a trackpad is forgivable. I reckon that anybody who’s buying Surface RT mostly for Office will prefer to use it with an external input device anyway. And when you need to make a lot of edits, a hand on a mouse is much, much faster than a fingertip on a screen.

Plus, it’s nice to be using a $499 tablet that lets me keep multiple documents open at once. Just as it’s nice to have the controller for my music player visible while I answer my email. I’m over the moon about the keyboard support. And loading up 30 gigabytes of music and video by attaching a hard drive and just copying the stuff? I feel like I’ve just learned the passphrase to get into the Champagne Room behind my iPad.

Comparing Surface RT to the iPad is inevitable. Also useful. But it’s a terribly unsophisticated way of processing these devices. Don’t think of them in terms of “which one is better?” After just a day with Surface and three years with the iPad, I’m convinced that Surface RT is sort of a yin to iPad’s yang; the dark area that defines the light area, and vice-versa. Forces that contrast each other instead of opposing each other.

The iPad wasn’t Apple’s version of a netbook. Apple looked at the success of cheap, compact Windows notebooks and took away some lessons about what people want from a modern mobile computer, along with some ideas about what they would do differently.

I think Microsoft looked at the iPad and reacted in exactly the same way. They designed a next-generation Windows device and OS, based on what they learned from their observations of the iPad, the apps that run on them, and the people who use them. The iPad and Surface RT are separate answers to the question “What form should a modern computer take?”, filtered through the institutional cultures and corporate strategies of two different companies.

To explain the difference in a single physical observation: Apple decided “If we round the iPad’s edges, it’ll feel super-thin and light in the user’s hands. This is a device that was meant to be held and carried and used; tactile impressions are valuable.” Microsoft decided “If we flatten Surface’s edges, we can put in a standard USB port . . . which will expand the physical capabilities of our tablet immensely.”

Tune in after the weekend for Part 2 of my Surface RT review.

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