Surface RT review: The good, the bad and the ugly

The Surface RT tablet comes with Office and has good battery life, but it has some drawbacks, too. This Surface RT review explains the pros and cons.

Microsoft's Surface RT is a Windows tablet that has decent battery life and runs Microsoft Office and Windows Store applications. It could be a consumer-friendly device that IT pros and users alike can embrace.

I have been using the Surface RT as a mobile adjunct to my other PCs (a Windows 8 laptop and an Ultrabook) for more than two months now, and my Surface RT review covers the good, the bad and the ugly of Microsoft Windows RT.

The Good

Battery life. The Surface RT has a respectable 8- 10 hours of battery life.

Microsoft Office. This is real, honest-to-goodness Microsoft Office. Excel spreadsheets and Word documents that get mangled by Google Docs, QuickOffice and iOS and Android mail client file previewers come over with little trouble on the Surface. There are not any core Office applications -- Word, Excel, PowerPoint -- on iOS or Android yet, so the Microsoft Windows RT is only game in town.

Port-able. The RT's Micro-HDMI port is capable of running an external display. A USB 3.0 port and a microSDXC card slot allow for all kinds of possibilities, such as thumb drives and external hard drives. Compared to the closed architecture of iOS in particular, this is a big advantage.

Keyboard and mouse. Anyone who creates content is going to need these. Touch doesn't cut it for editing a long document. The optional Touch Cover is a very thin, light and detachable keyboard and track pad. The experience is not that of a real keyboard, and it's better than using a virtual keyboard. The optional Type Cover is a real keyboard and offers a better typing experience, but detracts some from the overall mobility. If you already have a Bluetooth keyboard and/or mouse you can also use those.

Built-in SkyDrive cloud storage and Windows Live integration. If you use these on regular Windows 7/8 devices, you can have your IE bookmarks and other Windows settings synced up to your Surface tablet as well.

Desktop virtualization. Microsoft Windows RT has a Remote Desktop client that is RemoteFX-capable. Citrix Receiver is also available for Windows RT. Running a remotely hosted Windows desktop on a tablet with a keyboard and mouse offers a more palatable user experience.

Multiple user profiles. The innate feature of having more than one user profile is unique. Apple's iOS and Google's Android platforms simply lack this basic separation. It makes sharing the device with others much more realistic and private. Users have their own profile -- including bookmarks, settings and data -- just like they would on a good old Windows PC.

Security. Nice security perks are built into Microsoft Windows RT, including Windows Defender antivirus and BitLocker drive encryption support.

The Bad

Apps. Microsoft Windows RT can't run x86 Windows apps. Despite obvious user interface similarities between Windows RT and Windows 8, they are not equal in this capability. Windows RT is designed for the ARM CPU and can only run Windows Store applications.

Performance. Performance is noticeably laggy at times. Apps can take 15 to 20 seconds to launch, which is painfully slow compared to other tablets in a mobile worker situation. The lag time is puzzling because the Surface RT has a high-end Tegra 3 quad-core processor and graphics processing unit.

More on Microsoft Windows RT

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Managing Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets

Will a CDL provide the same VDI access as Windows RT devices?

Interfaces. Windows RT features two distinct environments -- the tiled interface formerly known as Metro, plus the more traditional desktop mode -- which does not make for the best experience. Launching an app from the tiled interface is logically separate from launching one from the desktop interface. Some apps, such as Internet Explorer, are available in both environments, which can become confusing and frustrating.

Office. Office comes preloaded on Microsoft Windows RT, but it is not the Professional edition. It's the Home and Student version, which lacks Outlook and is only licensed for non-commercial use. You may need to buy a paper license for another version to legally use Office in a for-profit business.

SkyDrive. SkyDrive storage is not accessible when you're offline.

The Ugly

The Surface RT tablet is clearly a first-generation device that has all the telltale signs of being rushed to market. I had a big issue in the first week of using it: I created a non-admin user on the device that I routinely used. When the device took an update that patched firmware, it was nearly dead on battery and would not stay on for more than a second or so. It would not take a charge either, so I couldn't log into the admin profile. I even bought another charger, thinking that mine was bad. I finally got lucky when the tablet stayed on just long enough for me to login as the admin-level user, which fixed the charging issue.

Additionally, the multi-touch screen misses touches -- not constantly, but enough to be annoying. Some evidence suggests it polls the screen less often for input to save on power consumption. There are also frequent Wi-Fi reliability issues, requiring restarts and/or enabling and disabling Wi-Fi until you get the Surface to reconnect successfully.

Surface RT vs Surface Pro

Microsoft is set to release another tablet in February, the Surface Pro. This will launch with an Intel core i5 CPU and will run Windows 8, not Windows RT.

The upsides of the Surface Pro over the Surface RT include:

  • Ability to run x86 Windows applications;
  • Screen resolution of 1920x1080. The RT is 1366x768.

The downsides from RT include:

  • Heavier by half a pound because it has a larger battery;
  • Decreased battery life. The Surface Pro's battery only lasts five hours.

The Surface RT has gotten better with each firmware update, but still falls way short of being bulletproof. It is a decidedly immature offering when compared with the dominant Apple iPad. Use cases for the Surface RT do exist, however. If you need maximum Office file-compatibility and/or a higher-performing Microsoft Remote Desktop Server session client, the Surface shines. That is, if you can get past its many quirks.

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