A sturdy tablet with a responsive touchscreen and preinstalled edition of Microsoft Office. But what's it like to use?
The Surface is a touchscreen tablet computer made by Microsoft, better known for making software, and is the company's first computer aside from the Xbox 360 games console. Uniquely, all but the cheapest Surface model come with a screen cover that cleverly doubles as a keyboard.
The Surface is made out of a black metal Microsoft calls VaporMG. The boxy appearance is understated but it feels incredibly robust. Unusually for a tablet there's a full-size USB2 port for connecting memory keys and other devices. There's a built-in flip out kickstand, although care should be taken not to trap your fingers. The Surface can be used like a laptop when the keyboard cover is attached to the dedicated magnetic connector and the kickstand is flipped out.
The built-in kick stand is very sturdy, but be careful not to catch your fingers
The included touch cover has flat, touch-sensitive keys with no moving parts. If you're only used to traditional keyboards, then pressing the keys with just the right amount of force without causing too much strain will take a lot of getting used to. Ironically veterans of touchscreen keyboards will find it easier to type quickly on it.
The keyboard covers connect magnetically with a satisfying click
While it's faster and more accurate than a touchscreen keyboard for most, it's still not as fast or as accurate as the type cover. This cover, which costs an extra £110, has actual physical keys like those on a traditional laptop. The large keys don't quite have the same depth of travel as a proper keyboard, but we were able to type on it at close to our usual speed straight away. Both covers also have built-in touchpads. Although small, they're surprisingly responsive and can be used as an alternative to the touchscreen.
The type cover is a surprisingly good keyboard, although the touchpad is very small
The catch is that since the kickstand can only be positioned at one angle, we found it very tricky to find a sitting position where we could clearly see the screen as well as sit and type comfortably. Since both keyboard covers are very thin, they flex a lot when typed upon. This feels unstable which, combined with the restricted kickstand, means the Surface can only be used for typing on table tops and not on your lap.
The Surface is slender, but finding a comfortable position for using it can be tricky
When used as covers both keyboards also leave marks on the screen which looks messy. We were also annoyed to find that the touch sensitive Windows Start button on the bezel is far too easy to press accidentally.
A hefty build
The Surface is noticeably wider and squatter than the iPad since it has a widescreen 11.6in display. The widescreen resolution of 1,366x768 pixels is good for watching widescreen movies, but feels odd when held vertically for reading. The screen has to be this wide to accommodate a screen cover large enough to have a full-size keyboard. The screen is bright and reasonably sharp although text isn't as crisp and images aren't as vibrant as on the iPad's higher resolution screen.
Although the Wifi-only Surface isn't much heavier than the 3G iPad at just under 680g, it feels unevenly weighted - especially when held horizontally. It's therefore not quite as comfortable to hold as Apple's tablet.
Another snag to be aware of is storage space. The Surface actually has less usable storage space than advertised. For example, the 64GB Surface only has 54GB available to the user and 11GB is already consumed by Windows and Office leaving 43GB for your own apps and files. This should be enough for most though and there's a micro SD memory card slot for adding more storage.
Unlike previous Windows tablets, the Surface uses an ARM processor - specifically the quad core Nvidia Tegra 3 which is also used in Android smartphones and tablets. This means that the Surface has to use a special version of Windows 8 called Windows RT. The two are almost identical except Windows RT can't run existing Windows software - you'll have to download new programs from the Windows app store. This excludes drivers for peripherals such as printers and scanners - these are downloaded automatically when connected. Newer peripherals are more likely to be supported - our Brother, Canon and Kodak office printers didn't work with the Surface.
Unlike the standard Windows 8 version of the Microsoft app store which is stocked with both old desktop-style apps and apps that use the new Modern touch-focussed interface, the one for Windows RT is only stocked with the latter. This means the available selection is even sparser, although hopefully this will increase with time. We're not fond of Microsoft's new Start screen and apps that use the new Modern user interface when used with a keyboard and touchpad or mouse, but they feel much smoother and more natural on the Surface's accurate and responsive touchscreen. The various gestures take some getting used to though.
An exception to this Modern-only rule is the included copy of Microsoft Office 2013 (Word, Excel and Powerpoint but not Outlook) which uses an old-style desktop interface. This is a preview version so it's a bit buggy, but it's still surprisingly usable and it fully supports all Office features unlike the unofficial Office-compatible apps available for the iPad and Android. A free upgrade to the finished version will be available when it's released.
The Office 2013 Preview apps have moderately touch-optimised start screens
But the programs themselves still use the older traditional-style interface instead of the newer Modern-style
The battery life lasted just over 12 hours when playing videos. This matches the iPad Mini and the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1, but it can't quite match the 17 hour battery life of the full-size 10in iPad. The battery lasted nearly nine and a half hours in our light usage test which is longer than many ultrabooks and Apple's Macbook Air laptops.
It's worth bearing in mind that Microsoft plans to release the Surface Pro, a version with a traditional Intel processor and the standard version of Windows 8 that can run existing Windows programs, in early 2013. This will be noticeably heavier though at over 900g and battery life is unlikely to be longer than the Surface RT's.
Is it worth buying?
The Surface RT is difficult to judge. Battery life is good and there's no doubting its build quality or the usefulness of its USB port, but its potential as a tablet is limited by the currently limited selection of apps and its oddly weighted design. Meanwhile the ergonomics of its kickstand and keyboard covers means it's best suited for occasional bursts of typing on table tops rather than as a laptop replacement for serious typists.
We like the Surface, but the compromises made as a result of trying to combine a tablet and a laptop into one design means it will really only suit people with very specific needs that are willing to put up with its foibles.
Read more reviews
The Surface RT is built like a tank, but is awkward to use both as a tablet and as a laptop substitute
Sturdy; good battery life; responsive touchscreen; clever keyboard covers; USB port; Microsoft Office pre-installed
Very limited app selection; can be awkward to use
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