After this Friday, Microsoft as we know it will be an entirely different company. A company that makes its own tablet hardware, and actually competes with its own partners. With just hours left before the Surface RT goes on sale, critics released their first reviews late last night.
Clearly there's a lot of scrutiny upon the first Surface tablet to be released with Windows RT, since it represents the company's first foray into consumer hardware since the Xbox 360. It is also among the first tablets to ship with Windows RT, which remains a wildcard when it comes to performance and reliability.
All of those topics and more have appeared in critics' reviews, and we're here to make sense of it all — this is our Review Roundup of the Surface RT.
Let's start things off with the hardware. Microsoft threw around a lot of buzzwords when talking about the construction of the Surface. One of those bullet points was the VaporMg construction, which the company claimed was an extremely durable material that was also light and soft to the touch. There's also the included kickstand, made of the same material but measures just 1 mm thick. So does the build quality live up to Microsoft's boasts? Engadget's Tim Stevens likes to think so, praising the combination of materials and intricacy of design found in the tablet:
The exterior of the slate is a cool, matte surface that looks dark and feels quite strong and durable. It's constructed using Microsoft's Vapor Mg process, which relies on vapor deposition to create this distinctive tactility, which we found ourselves quite drawn to. The material feels amazing in the hand and here it's used to create a structure that is quite complex, flat on the front and back of course but with the sides angling outward, connecting a facade slightly wider than the rear.
This inclination makes for a very reassuring feel when walking around carrying this tablet under one arm, and also gives room for a display that is slightly larger than your average 9.7- or 10.1-inch slates.
A big piece of the Surface puzzle are the Touch Cover and Type Cover accessories, which not only protect your new tablet but turn it into a productivity powerhouse with a slick-and-slim keyboard just a few millimeters above the material. There are some differences of opinion about which typing accessory is superior, but the consensus is that both covers do an admirable job of rethinking the portable keyboard. The Verge's Joshua Topolsky found a lot to like in the two flavors, but preferred the Type Cover for its tactile response:
On a desk or other flat surface, the Touch Cover works reasonably well. It doesn't come close to replicating a physical, tactile keyboard, but it does do a good job of reminding you where your fingers need to be. I was surprised that it often took a little more pressure on the keys to get input to register, but once I figured out the appropriate heaviness, it wasn't too much of an issue. [...]
The Touch Cover feels excellent on the device from a screen protection standpoint, and it feels good when you wrap it over the back of the device (as you'd fold back a magazine or book). The Surface has a way of sensing what position the cover is in using its accelerometer, though I did experience a few glitches where the cover was on the back of the Surface, but still sending chaotic key presses to the device. Luckily this issue was few and far between.
The Type Cover is another story altogether — it's one of the best portable keyboards I've ever used. Like the Touch Cover, it functions as a screen protector, but unlike the Touch Cover, it has a full complement of great-feeling, tactile keys. Typing on it was akin to working on my MacBook Air, and I rarely made mistakes because of the size of the keyboard or the positioning of the keys. It really was a joy to use. [Score: 7.0 out of 10]
One of the last main concerns is actually not specific to the Surface, but rather Windows RT. Can ARM processors like the NVIDIA Tegra 3 really handle the tried-and-true Windows kernel? While the OS avoids legacy apps due to incompatibilities, there is still a lingering concern about Windows RT's performance compared to Windows 8 coupled with a powerful multicore CPU. Laptop Mag's Avram Piltch though the Surface could handle most tasks, but did find a few issues to worry about:
With its 1.3-GHz, quad-core Tegra 3 processor and 2GB of RAM, the Surface with RT had enough power to take on all the tasks we threw at it, from viewing HD videos and using Microsoft Offfice to video chatting and playing demanding games like "Dredd vs Zombies."
However, the system's performance was far from perfect. We often ran into small delays while apps launched. On several occasions, the touch screen was less than responsive when we were trying to swipe to change apps or tap on charms; rebooting usually fixed these problems. [Score: 3.5 stars out of 5]
After all of the tests and debate, what's the verdict on the Surface RT? Most seem to agree that Microsoft is on the right track, and feel confident including it in the discussion alongside Apple's iPad. However, it seems there is more concern with Windows RT at this point, in particular with its limited app selection from the Windows Store. BGR's Zach Epstein might have said it best at the end of his review:
While Windows 8 is the version of Microsoft’s new OS that has split personality disorder, the Windows RT-powered Surface truly is a tale of two tablets. On one hand, it is an engineering feat with a design that is novel and functional. It really is the perfect combination of a tablet and a notebook thanks to the Touch Cover and the Type Cover, and I felt right at home with the Surface the moment I turned it on. On the other hand, the software experience does not feel like home. It’s new, and for many it will be scary.
But we are not Luddites. We can handle this.
The move to separate Windows 8 and Windows RT this way was a necessary one in the context of Microsoft’s interface unification strategy. And in order to build a lighter-weight OS that could power less expensive devices and compete with the likes of Apple’s iPad, Microsoft needed a “Windows Lite” solution. Some concessions could certainly have been made in order to better distinguish Windows RT and Windows 8, but this is the path Microsoft chose.
Windows RT has a lot of growing to do. The faster Microsoft can get developers on board, the better — and the early days will be slow-going in some respects as a result of this lack of apps. But even as it stands today, the Surface provides a terrific experience right out of the box and it will only get better over time.
As of this writing, gdgt is reporting a Critic Reviews score of 7.3 out of 10, which is the average of 10 reviews recorded so far. It's almost a guarantee that number will fluctuate as more critics come out with opinions on the tablet, but we wouldn't expect a drastic change.
So there you have it — that's what the critics think about the Surface RT. Knowing all of these impressions now, are you ready to plunk down some cash for a Surface this Friday? If you have pre-ordered, how do you feel now about your early purchase — any regrets? Sound off in the comments below.
Source: Engadget, The Verge, Laptop Mag, BGR