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Microsoft Surface RT

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What's hot: Modern and powerful UI with the familliarity of Windows, excellent hardware, brilliant Touch Cover.

What's not: Small app store selection at launch compared to competing platforms, can't run Windows .exe apps.


Reviewed October 31, 2012 by , Editor in Chief (twitter: @lisagade)

Editor's Note: Read our review of Microsoft Surface 2 that replaces this model. Also read our Review of the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 running full Windows 8.1 Pro on an Intel Core i5 CPU.

Microsoft's Surface tablets are one of the most important technology milestones of the year. Yes, the Surface RT is Microsoft's first computing device, but it's also the perfect canvas for Redmond's boldest Windows OS release since Windows 95, if not Windows 1.0. Microsoft is taking a big leap with Windows 8 and its dualistic UI that has both Live Tiles in the Modern UI (formerly called Metro) and the traditional, though updated, Windows 7 standard desktop UI. Modern UI is geared toward touch, because touchscreen tablets are the way of the future, not to mention a wildly profitable platform for Microsoft's competitor, Apple. To showcase the touch experience and bring more attention to that aspect of Windows 8, Microsoft is offering two sexy tablets, the Surface RT we look at in this review, and the Surface Pro that runs on an Intel processor.

Microsoft Surface RT tablet

The 1.5 pound Surface RT runs on an NVidia Tegra 3 T30 CPU clocked at 1.3GHz when running multiple cores and 1.4GHz when running on one core. It has 2 gigs of RAM and is available with either 32 or 64 gigs of storage (Windows and built-in apps use approximately 12 gigs of that storage). It has WiFi, Bluetooth, two cameras, a USB port, HDMI and a microSD card slot. The tablet has a 10.6", 1366 x 768 IPS display and a metal casing. The 32 gig costs $499 and the 64 gig is $599. If you bundled the black touch cover it adds $100 to the price (the Touch Cover is $119 if purchased separately).

For those who want more power with Intel inside, Microsoft offers the $899 to $999 MS Surface Pro. This 10.6", 2 pound Windows 8 Pro tablet runs on an Intel Core i5 ULV CPU with Intel HD 4000 graphics and 4 gigs of DDR3 RAM. It offers access to the full suite of .exe apps that run on Windows 7 PCs. Surface tablets are available only in Microsoft Stores, via and at Best Buy and Staples in the US.

Microsoft Surface RT tablet

Windows 8 RT: What you Need to Know

Windows RT and the Surface RT tablet are direct competitors to the iPad and Android 10" tablets. While the OS looks and feels exactly like Windows 8 on a laptop or desktop, it has one limitation: it only runs apps from the new Windows Store (3,600 apps were available at launch on October 26, but the number is growing quickly and there are already more than a thousand games listed). Why? Like mobile OS tablets, RT runs on ARM family CPUs like the Nvidia Tegra 3 found in the Surface RT. Your Windows apps that come on CDs like Adobe Creative Suite and Autocad are compiled for Intel compatible CPUs (Intel and AMD traditional processors), so you can't install them and run them on the Surface RT as you can with Surface Pro.

Microsoft Surface RT tablet

That doesn't mean this is a useless tablet. Clearly Android and iOS tablets aren't useless just because you can't run Photoshop CS 6 or anything that ends in an .exe. The Surface RT is both a lovely palette for content consumption and better than average for creation (getting work done). MS Office 2013 RT Home & Student Edition is included, and it's real MS Office with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. This isn't the de-featured version of Office you've seen on Windows phones over the years. The one thing missing is MS Outlook, instead you'll rely on the built-in email client that's capable but not chock full of business features like Outlook. There's also no Active Directory support in RT (IT folks know what this means, normal folks might not). MS Office 2013 RT has all the major features of Office for Windows 8 Pro minus the ability to handle macros and VBA.

Also, keep in mind that many mobile apps are simply doorways to websites and their services. Netflix, Hulu, Pandora and IMDB are examples of this (though Netflix and Hulu Plus are already available as apps in the Windows Store). Since this tablet runs real Internet Explorer 10 with Adobe Flash, you can simply go to to watch videos in the browser, just as you would with a laptop.

Like Windows 8 Pro machines, the tablet has both the Modern UI with Live Tiles and the Windows desktop view (very similar to Windows 7, minus the Aero Glass visual effects). Thus you can use Windows Explorer to manage files, use the same control panel you're accustomed to on PCs and use IE 10 in desktop mode (windowed rather than full screen). The standard USB 2.0 port has Windows drivers for keyboards, mice, hard drives, flash drives, optical drives and game controllers like Microsoft's own wired XBOX controller for Windows. It also has printer drivers for popular printers but no drivers for USB 3G/4G dongles. Since it's Windows, support for NTFS drives is included, along with FAT32 and ExFAT.

Windows 8 Live Tile apps mostly adhere to the fairly logically and visually rich Microsoft standard. They are extremely visually appealing and are easy to navigate with sideways swipes. In general, high quality images abound as do rich typographic elements that set Windows 8 and Surface apart from the hit or miss presentation of Android and iOS tablets (and I love my Android tablets and greatly respect iPad apps for their quality). All Modern UI apps run full screen, and there's a side-by-side 2/3 - 1/3 split view option. In desktop mode, windows behave just as they do in Windows 7 and there's a 50-50 snap view.


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ClearType Display, Clearly Lovely

The Surface RT has a 10.6", 1366 x 768 Gorilla Glass 2 display with ClearType HD technology and fused glass so there's no air gap. It's a lovely display with 178 degree viewing angles and five points of multi-touch. The 400 nit brightness display is more than bright enough for indoor use, but not as bright as the 600 nit Asus Vivo RT for those of you who need to use the tablet in direct sunlight outdoors. You can use a capacitive stylus with it but there's no active digitizer with digital pen like the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 or older Windows Tablet PCs like the still excellent Samsung Series 7 Slate and Lenovo ThinkPad X230t. Sadly, the digital pen is MIA in many of the first crop of Windows 8 tablets, likely to bring the cost down since dual digitizers cost more money. Also pen-enabled Windows Tablet PCs of old didn't sell like hotcakes to those outside of verticals and the arts, so manufacturers may be leery of producing them.

Movies have pleasing color saturation and excellent black levels and photos look very sharp. Thanks to Microsoft's attention to typography, ClearType fonts are crisp and easy on the eyes, though not quite as surreally perfect as on the Retina iPad. We had no trouble using the tablet for a hour at a time when reading webpages and eBooks in Kindle and the Freda ePUB eBook Reader (Nook is coming soon).

Touch and gestures are immediate and lively: it's simply a futuristic pleasure to navigate Windows 8 and apps using the fairly standardized navigation gestures. Now, those gestures aren't self-obvious, and we'd appreciate tool tips or glowing hotspots to get manual-adverse users started. To bring up the Charms menu, you swipe in from the right side. This brings up settings, search and sharing features. To switch to the previously used app, swipe from the left. To bring up a graphical list of all running apps, swipe in from the left then swipe back. To close an app swipe down from the top. To access app settings and additional features, swipe up from the bottom edge of the display.

Design: Ultramodern and Plenty of Metal

The tablet is 0.37" thin and it weighs 1.5 pounds, similar to the New iPad and Android 10" tablets. The design is gorgeous: modern, elegant and understated. Fit and finish are superb on this $499 tablet. It looks and feels like an expensive piece of hardware, right down to the sound the kickstand makes when you open and close it. The tablet has a USB 2.0 port, an SDXC microSD card slot hidden under the kickstand, dual band WiFi 802.11b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0 and front and rear 720p cameras that are good for Skype video chat but not much else. Quality is very good for Skype video, but the low resolution cameras don't take inspiring photos or video.

The Vapor magnesium casing feels very solid with no flex or creaks. Though the tablet looks svelte rather than rugged, it still imparts a sense of durability and ruggedness. There are videos on the web of this tablet being dropped from significant heights with no damage, which is impressive. The Gorilla Glass 2 display should likewise afford protection from scratches and easy cracking, though we tend to be careful with any tablet or smartphone because glass is still glass, even when hardened.

The Touch Cover ($99 additional when bundled with the tablet and $119 if purchased separately) is simply brilliant. I expected to hate it since it offers nearly no tactile feedback save for the sensation of molded key ridges, but it's really easy to use. Windows 8's auditory feedback really helps with the typing experience and I found I was typing well in just 5 minutes using the same pressure I would with an Ultrabook keyboard. In fact, the large on-screen keyboard is also surprisingly good and I was able to touch-type rather than two-finger peck. The 3mm thick keyboard also acts as a smart cover, much like Apple's iPad cover. For those who want a more tactile and traditional experience, there's the Type Cover that has actual keys that move.

Really, the Surface design is brilliant: it's eminently portable just like the new iPad and the Touch Cover doesn't double the weight and bulk as with the Asus Vivo RT and Samsung ATIV. In fact, you want the keyboard because it's a thin and light screen cover that has little effect on portability and weight. The design is lust-inducing for those who are fond of their tech toys and the tablet has a USB 2.0 port and a micro HDMI port so again there's no need for adapters or docks. At 10.6" and 1.5 pounds it's easy to carry and hold, and you'd be surprised at how going up just an inch to 11.6" (the common minimum size for Windows 8 Pro tablets) and 1.7 to 2.1 pounds makes a tablet unwieldy and uncomfortable to hold and use in the hand for extended periods of time. Price, portability and ergonomics are strong selling points for MS Surface RT vs. Windows 8 Pro tablets.


The Surface RT, like all Windows 8 machines, comes with Live Tile full screen apps for music and video playback. These are tied to the XBOX Live music and video services (and former Zune services), so your Zune and XBOX accounts along with content are there. Yes, they can also handle playback of locally stored MP3 and MPEG4-based video content (MPEG4, AVI). The music and video apps pull in your XBOX content and files stored on the internal flash drive but not files stored on a microSD card or external drives connected by USB (how inconvenient). But you can play files on SD cards and USB storage by double-tapping them in Windows Explorer, as long as they're in a supported format. We can't wait for ARM versions of VLC and similar multimedia apps to hit the Microsoft app store to extend file format support.

Windows RT lacks Windows Media Player, though it does have other standard Windows programs like Calculator and Notepad. That means you won't be able to download codec packs to extend file format support as you would for Windows Media Player. Likewise, there's no Windows Live suite for apps like Windows Live Movie Maker (ARM processors aren't capable enough to handle serious HD video editing).

The tablet's stereo speakers have pleasing and full audio with noticeably strong separation. Audio is never harsh or shrill. That said, volume isn't terribly loud so if you're using the Surface RT in anything other than a quiet environment you'll want to put the 3.5mm audio jack and external speakers or headphones to use. Audio quality through headphones is excellent. And there's Bluetooth audio support as well.

What's Missing?

As mentioned, the USB driver library isn't as extensive as Windows 7's or Windows 8 Pro's, and there are no drivers for USB wireless modems (Microsoft hasn't mentioned whether these will be forthcoming).

There's no built-in 3G/4G option, but you can use your smartphone's mobile hotspot connection or a dedicated mobile hotspot with the tablet.

There's no GPS, and the tablet relies on WiFi for location services, which are fairly accurate in urban and suburban locations but not useful in rural areas. Since the Tegra 3 chipset usually includes GPS, we're not sure if the hardware feature is really not there or if Microsoft is hiding it.

There's no NFC, which isn't a heartbreaker now since there's little in the way of useful NFC services, but a year or two from now, it might be a sore point. The Asus Vivo RT tablet does have NFC, so Microsoft isn't cornering the market on Windows RT hardware features.

Windows Media Player is absent, though you do get music and video players in Live Tile format.

The tablet offers access to your XBOX account and it can play games from the Microsoft app store, but it can't natively play XBOX games. You can download the XBOX SmartGlass app and use the tablet as an XBOX controller of sorts.


Since this isn't an x86-based computer, standard Windows benchmarks won't run. The tablet scored 922 on the Sunspider JavaScript benchmark (an excellent score) and it feels quite responsive overall. It's not as fast as our Samsung Series 7 Slate with a Core i5 CPU and 4 gigs of RAM upgraded to Windows 8, but that computer like the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 with a Core i5, is absurdly fast-- faster than you or me in terms of UI responsiveness. Many of the built-in apps like News, Weather and Sports rely on Internet connections, so a part of their apparent speed depends on your connection more than the capabilities of the tablet. That said, these apps all render incredibly rich magazine style pages with dense typography and high quality images quickly (watch our video review to see them in action).

I have no qualms with Surface RT's performance and responsiveness from standard Windows operations to running apps. It's fluid and fast. I'd peg it somewhere between the new iPad and Android tablets, leaning closer to the iPad. Not all Surface RT tablets are created alike: I've noticed occasional lags and a rare crash on the Asus Vivo RT tablet. Microsoft clearly polished their tablet well, and they do have something of an advantage being both the hardware and software manufacturer (though the hardware group claims they didn't receive an ideal amount of special treatment).

I do strongly recommend the 64 gig model if you're the type of person that likes to install lots of apps. The 32 gig model has only about 16 to 18 gigs free, and though Modern UI apps are much smaller than standard Windows apps, I'm sure visually rich games will start getting larger quickly. You can store music and videos on a microSD card or flash drive, but then you'll have to manually navigate to that content using Windows Explorer since the music and video players don't show content on removable storage.

The library of 3D games is small at launch, though growing quickly. Games like Reckless Racing Ultimate ($9.99), Guns 4 Hire (free) and Hyro Thunder Hurricane ($9.99) all play well.

Want to Share a Surface? No Problem

Since this is Windows, you've got user accounts, and that makes sharing the tablet much easier. Each member of your family can have their own settings, bookmarks and acesss to particular apps.

Battery Life

The Surface RT has a 31.5 Whr battery that’s sealed inside. It comes with a compact wall wart charger rather than a notebook style charger. The charger connects to a magnetic port on the tablet, similar to Apple’s MagSafe connector, but the magnet isn’t as strong and it doesn’t grab and lock into position as seamlessly as Apple’s (you actually have to put a little effort into aligning the connector).

The tablet has solid battery life in our tests. It averaged 9.3 hours of mixed use, which is very competitive with mobile OS tablets. That’s actual usage time, mind you, and for us it translated into 1.5 days of moderate use or 3 days of light to moderate use.


Microsoft's Surface RT tablet isn't just an attention-getting beast because it's the company's first computing product. It's a rich and immersive tablet thanks to attractive video and music players, excellent news, weather, stocks and sports apps and it offers some of the strengths of a full Windows machine. And that's the plus as well as the caveat: you get the same UI, Windows desktop and largely the same MS Office suite as you do on Windows 8 Pro machines, but you can't run .exe applications meant for Windows 7 computers. Is that a deal breaker? At launch it might be for some shoppers who are understandably captivated by the several hundred thousands of apps available for iOS and Android. But don't fool yourself: This is Microsoft and Windows. The apps will very likely come in large numbers. If you're willing to wait, the Microsoft Surface RT is an excellent tablet for productivity-oriented users and those who crave Adobe Flash Player support.

Price: Starting at $499 for 32 gig model


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Microsoft Surface RT tablet

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Display: 10.6", 1366 x 768 IPS ClearType HD display, 400 nits brightness, 5 points multi-touch. NVidia GeForce multi-core graphics (part of the Tegra 3 package). Micro HDMI port. Has an ambient light sensor, gyro, compass and accelerometer.

Battery: 31.5 Whr Lithium Ion rechargeable, sealed inside. Compact wall wart charger included with magnetic connector.

Performance: NVidia Tegra 3 quad core ARM family CPU clocked at 1.4GHz single core and 1.3GHz multi-core. 2 gigs RAM, 32 or 64 gigs internal flash storage.

Size: 10.81 x 6.77 x .37 inches. Weight: 1.5 pounds.

Camera: Front and rear 720p cameras intended mainly for video chat with apps like Skype.

Audio: Built in stereo speakers, dual mics and 3.5mm standard stereo combo headphone jack.

Networking: Dual band WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0.

Software: Windows 8 RT OS with MS Office 2013 RT Home & Student Edition (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote). Windows Mail and Messaging; SkyDrive; Internet Explorer 10; Bing; Xbox Music, Video, and Games.

Expansion and Ports: 1 micro SDXC card slot, 1 full size USB 2.0 port, 1 micro HDMI port, 3.5mm combo audio jack (stereo out and mic in).



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