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Surface RT, Microsoft's bid for a 'thing' of its own

Jon Phillips | Oct. 25, 2012
Microsoft desperately needs a "thing"—a big thing that transcends the nerdy world of consumer electronics and achieves hero status among mobile-hardware wonks and civilians alike. The iPad is a thing. The Kindle Fire is a thing. Each tablet is a shared cultural experience that's practically effervescent in mainstream consumer appeal.

Regardless, performance in hard-core applications probably won't even matter, because the Windows RT desktop is locked down: You will never be able to install Photoshop, traditional PC games, or any other code we typically define as "PC software."

As for the new Windows 8 apps you purchase in Microsoft's Windows Store, they'll be vetted and qualified to run on Windows RT and ARM (last week, Gizmodo reported that 6 percent of all apps in the greater Windows Store inventory lack Windows RT certification). Will the more processor-intensive apps perform without fits and starts on Surface RT, or will they make you wish your first Windows tablet was running Clover Trail or a Core-class CPU? That's the big question, and it should have a direct bearing on what type of Windows device you buy.

But I'll end the performance report on a happy note: In probably our most important tablet benchmark, PCWorld's custom-designed battery-life test, Surface RT came in second to the iPad, playing a looping HD video for more than 9 hours before pooping out entirely. If nothing else, Nvidia's processor is kind to battery life.

Surface RT as a tablet

Playing with Surface RT for a week is like eating Spanish tapas for the first time after a lifetime consuming only American food (iOS gear) or east-Asian fare (Android gear). Surface RTand the Windows RT system it taps intois zesty, zippy, playful, and different. But it also takes some getting used to, especially if you're not adventuresome.

The system is rife with powerful touch gestures, but none of them are immediately obvious if you pick up the tablet without any training. To evoke the Charms bar (a centralized control panel that taps into search, sharing, and settings functions, among others), you swipe inward from the right bezel. That gesture is easy enough, especially because it's explained when you first start up the device.

But what about the gesture that brings up the snap screen for side-by-side multitasking? Or the gesture that lets you cycle through open apps with a finger swipe? Or the gesture that produces all your Favorites in Internet Explorer?

These and other touch controls aren't self-evident. They're a blast to use once you know the full repertoire, and within a few hours of activating Surface, I found myself way more engaged with Windows RT than I've ever been with iOS or Android. Still, Microsoft doesn't include a freshman-orientation packet in the hardware box, and I suspect that many newbies will never take the time to do their homework. These are the people who will insist that Surface RT is a confusing mess.

In addition to all the new touch controls, I appreciated Surface RT's ability to side-load media content through the preinstalled SkyDrive app and full-size USB 2.0 port. This arrangement is vastly more user-friendly than going through the kludge of iTunes just to get music or video onto one's tablet. Indeed, moving files in and out of Surface RT is a breeze because the tablet still employs a full Windows file system, complete with folder hierarchies on its desktop side. And it's nice to see something happening on the Windows RT desktop, which is otherwise a ghost town in terms of the software it runs.

 

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