Compatibility, consistency and familiarity win Chris Drage over to the Surface RT and Windows 8

Surface RTSurface RT: lots of options for users to configureSo what is the Surface RT? And what is the Surface RT Pro? And how do they relate to Windows 8? We had hoped to bring you a review of both Microsoft’s new tablets: the Surface Pro and the Surface RT.  But the demand for review models at BETT 2013 meant that only the Surface RT has been available. 

There has been considerable misunderstanding about the precise nature of these hardware offerings and Windows 8 generally. Hopefully we can begin to clarify the situation.

The Surface RT is a 10.6-inch 'ClearType' tablet measuring 275 x 172 x 9.5mm and weighing in at 686g, designed to be used predominantly in landscape mode. The Surface RT uses 1366x768 screen pixels and supports up to 5-point multi-touch. On board it has the popular ARM NVidia Tegra 3 quad-core processor with 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage (64Gb is also available). The Surface RT is equipped with 720p front and rear cameras. The rear camera is angled such that it's level when the tablet is on its kick stand which could be quite useful when videoconferencing – a nice touch.

The chassis supports a full-size USB 2 port, Bluetooth, headphone jack, micro SDXC card slot and a 2x2 multiple input multiple output (MIMO) antennae for reliable Wi-Fi. It also has a micro-HDMI port which requires an optional adapter cable (available from Amazon for under £10) in order to output to another display or projector. In my tests the Surface RT’s battery provides roughly 6-7 hours of life.

Think of Surface RT as consumer device like iPad or Android tablets

Starting at £399, the Surface RT is clearly a consumer device akin to the iPad and Android tablets. It is powered by Windows RT, the tablet-centric version of Microsoft's new Windows 8 operating system. That means you're greeted by the colourful ‘live’ tiles of the Windows 8 Metro interface, with the more classic desktop lurking underneath (you can link directly via a tile). Unlike the full-fat version of Windows 8 though, you aren't able to install regular Windows desktop software on it. Instead, you make use of apps you download from the Microsoft’s ‘store’. It might be helpful to think of the standard Surface RT as being to a regular PC what the iPad is to a Mac computer. They have a similar look and feel but are not fully compatible.

There's some good news if you're hoping to get pupils busy from the get-go with some creative work: the Surface RT comes preloaded with the latest version of Microsoft Office Home and Student which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, all of which are optimised for touch. And these are free to students and teachers. Office Home and Student does not offer the ability to use macros or run Visual Basic scripts – only Office Pro running on a Surface Pro or Windows 8 tablet will do that.

To some this may seem a severe limitation on the usefulness of the tablet version of Microsoft Office, but in reality most students and teachers will only ever need to use the features offered by the Home and Student suite. However, I did find myself immediately missing Outlook.  

'In use the Surface RT is an unexpectedly pleasurable experience'

In use the Surface RT is an unexpectedly pleasurable experience. The screen has been made with several layers of special, optical glass bonded together which helps cut down reflections. In comparison with a competitor’s tablet in my possession at the time, the difference in ambient reflections was quite noticeable. Being able to add a physical keypad is also beneficial at those times (like writing this review) when it is required.

Surface RTA range of keyboards available for Surface RTThe Surface RT has two keypads available, each of which is held in place by strong magnets which ‘clunk’ together reassuringly and hold quite positively. Each keyboard will fold backwards or completely forward in which position the tablet enters sleep mode. When folded to the back the keys on the keypad do not work anymore and the tablet can be used with finger gestures.

The keypads work extremely well once you get used to a different style of typing. One small criticism is a lack of feedback via LEDs to give an indication of whether caps lock is on or not. With the exception of the password entry window, the only indication available with the Surface RT is the fact that your letters are now capitalised. I would have preferred an additional visual indicator.

That aside, the fact that the on-screen keyboard matches the physical one is also a bonus. The Touch Cover (£80 and 3mm thick) is basically flat and is more akin to typing on a touchscreen than a physical keyboard, but the recessed dividers between the keys goes some way to improving the experience. It comes in a variety of colours. At £109 and 5mm thick, the Type Cover is a definite step up, possessing real, responsive keys. The experience is very similar to using a standard laptop keyboard and makes long periods of typing much more comfortable when using Office apps.

Both keyboards also feature small trackpads. The trackpad on the Type Cover is ‘clickable’ which helps navigate the cursor to the places your finger just can't reach. If you can afford the extra cost, either keyboard makes the Surface RT much easier to use as a work machine. My only gripe with them is that they are configured for American use and not European.

Arguably, the major difference between the Apple iPad and Windows 8 tablets is one of choice. With the iPad there’s only one device in two sizes, but Windows 8 offers a multitude of devices, all offering much the same user experience to both students and teachers. Although you might worry that the ARM-based Surface RT would struggle when working with multiple apps, in reality it doesn't. When a new app is open, a previously opened one will go into sleep mode. When returned to, the ‘sleeping’ app quickly reloads. The Surface RT is also able to display two apps simultaneously on the screen, each in its own scalable window.

'A Microsoft product you should not prejudge, or evaluate with any preconceptions'

The response from users of the Microsoft Surface RT has been extremely positive. Without a doubt this is one Microsoft product you should not prejudge, or evaluate with any preconceptions. Whatever you thought of Microsoft in the past, the introduction of true tablet technology and Windows 8 is almost a complete turnaround in that it almost begs you to make choices and to select the right combination of tablet and operating system which is right for you.

Unlike the iPad, this device focuses firmly on connectivity, compatibility and integration of whatever resources and services a school has already invested in. Users are discovering quite quickly that everything they need to do, they can do very successfully on a Microsoft Surface RT tablet. Sometimes you’ll need to use it in the tablet form, sometimes requiring a keyboard when significant data entry is required.

The biggest down side to all this is a relatively high price when you add in the cost of a keyboard. The Surface RT is out-priced and out-apped by comparative Android tablets. Not by the iPad though. The iPad is about simplicity; something your grandmother can use to send an email. The Surface RT is clearly about productivity, and presumably is being aimed squarely at the more ICT-literate. Despite its high starting price, the Microsoft Surface RT gets a thumbs-up from me!

Windows 8 opens up the options for its users

One thing immediately obvious with the Windows 8 operating system is that you’ve got a number of options available. You can configure your WIndows to behave any way you want on whichever device you have it installed. The fact that Windows 8 offers a standard desktop and a touch interface is a huge bonus and provides versatility in use rather than a cause for confusion.

Before you even start, the Lock Screen can bring important information to your attention. A swipe-up gesture unlocks the Surface. If a password has been applied, then quite uniquely an image plus three associated gestures is all that is needed to unlock the Surface RT. Using a picture password is far more memorable than all those random characters that we’re told we should use.

Microsoft Surface RTSurface RT home screen: live tiles are flexible and dynamicThe start screen presents you with groups of tiles depending on which apps you are using. These automatically display information on the tiles and update it. You don’t have to launch lots of apps to discover what’s happening in your world! Apps can decide whether they put notifications on the Lock Screen or not.  Almost certainly in the future, app developers will ensure their apps update with information and news automatically on the desktop. Most of the familiar tablet gestures are available via the very fluid screen and blocks of apps can be grouped, named and new blocks of tiles created very easily.

All customised settings and effects are protected by the password-protected login so each user has his or her own account settings and sets of tiles. Indeed Microsoft allows you to configure the screen in any way you wish with small or large sized tiles and will keep track of them if you are logged in with a Microsoft account. The charms (elements which appear with a swipe from the right hand side) are contextual as well: when on the desktop the charms relate to desktop management, while when using Internet Explorer the charms change to relate to the settings for that program.

Windows 8 RT has a mail app tile to enable you to access your emails and synchronise with existing webmail clients like Gmail and Hotmail, calendar and so on. But it’s no substitute for anyone who’s used to using Outlook with all its features and flexibility. Outlook is only available on the Windows 8 Pro version on the Surface Pro. Interestingly, there are two versions of Internet Explorer: the RT version is geared up very much for just being gesture driven, while the full Windows 8 version has the traditional functionality.

'I like the way the Windows 8 RT screen can be split'

In use I like the way the Windows 8 RT screen can be split to enable you to work with two apps at the same time. Thus you can be gathering information on one side while creating content on the other. I also think that the inclusion of the traditional Microsoft desktop is important to help users who are so familiar with this way of working to make the transition to the more fluid gesture-driven modus operandi. It also suits me when I am using applications which require a keyboard – or am I showing my age? 

More important, under the full Windows 8 operating system, applications and programs that run on Windows 7 laptops and desktops can also be installed to run in exactly the same way on the new Surface Pro tablets, providing familiarity, consistency and compatibility. Indeed the Windows 8 desktop does everything Windows 7 does only better. Again, there is a choice: when used as a tablet the gesture-driven, tile-based interface is used, but when connecting the keyboard most users may wish to use the standard Windows desktop.

Parents in particular, will be pleased to learn that when you set a new user in Windows 8 you can define whether the user is a child or not and, if they are, the “Family Safety” is turned on for you and options appear to allow you to choose to block applications they can run, track what they do on the web and block specific websites.

There has been a definite sea change in Microsoft’s attitude over the past ten years to one which is far more inclusive, giving people what they really want – not what Microsoft expects them to use. After a week of working with the Surface RT and with Windows 8 in particular, I was won round from the sceptical viewpoint which I had at first, to one of enthusiasm for the consistency, compatibility and familiarity that Windows 8 gives Windows users no matter which device they may be using. Consistency in the features that Windows 8 offers across all devices, compatibility in terms of software, filing and interfaces and a familiarity with software which conveys confidence.

The true power of Windows 8 was demonstrated all too clearly and dramatically at Bett 2013 on the Promethean stand where the company was running a most complex, high-level and exciting simulation (Cool Street) using an ActivBoard, ActivTable, and a number of ActivTablets completely harmoniously and collaboratively under Windows 8. But that’s another story!


Ratings (out of 5)
Fitness for purpose    5
Ease of use                4
Features                     4
Quality                        5
Value for money         4

Microsoft's Surface RT
Microsoft's entry-level digital tablet. Designed for mobile use with apps from the Windows Store, it is to the PC what the iPad is to Apple Macs – a lightweight digital tablet without the full functionality of Windows 8 (that runs with the Surface RT Pro and full-function Windows 8 tablets).  Prices ex-VAT: Surface RT (32GB), £332.50; Surface RT with black Touch Cover (32GB), £399.17; Surface RT (64GB), £399.17; Surface RT with black Touch Cover (64GB), £465.83; 24W power supply, £29.16; VGA adapter, £29.16; HD Digital AV adapter, £29.16
www.microsoft.com/surface/en-GB

Chris DrageChris Drage, a former teacher, is a consultant and journalist covering learning with ICT. You can contact him by email - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.