The Surface RT runs on an ARM-based Nvidia Tegra 3 processor clocked at 1.3 GHz, designed specifically for use in mobile devices. This CPU has already been seen in plenty of recent Android tablets, including the Google Nexus 7, the Toshiba AT300 and the Asus Transformer Pad TF700. Note too that the RT tablet isn't compatible with any previous Microsoft software releases or Windows 7 software—you can only load it with apps or programs available via Microsoft's Store. The upcoming Surface Pro, however, runs on an Intel processor and boasts a full Windows desktop and software back-compatibility.
In the Surface RT, Nvidia's Tegra 3 chip is accompanied with 2 GB of RAM—that's twice as much as usual. The Surface RT is available with 32 or 64 GB of internal memory (we tested the 64 GB model) and there are four connection ports: one USB 2.0 port, a micro-HDMI out, a microSD/SDHC card slot for upping the storage capacity and a 3.5 mm headphones jack. On top of that, there's a 2-Megapixel rear-facing photo and video camera and a 1.3-Megapixel front-facing webcam. The Surface RT is a 10.6" tablet with a 1366 x 768-pixel IPS screen.
The Microsoft Surface RT starts at £399 for the 32 GB model alone or £479 for the 32 GB tablet plus the Touch Cover with built-in keyboard (see above). The 64 GB version with Touch Cover sells for £559.
DESIGN & HANDLING
If there's one thing that everyone seems to agree on, it's the quality of the Surface's finish. Everything about this product screams high-end. It's made from top-quality materials and has a subtle, understated design that highlights the serious image Microsoft has sought to give this product. Even the little flip-out stand on the back of the tablet feels robust and well-made. Here, the Surface is on par with the likes of the iPad and the Transformer Pad Infinity TF700. In fact, it even outdoes them on certain features.
The USB 2.0 and micro-HDMI ports have no covers, but they're both perfectly integrated into the tablet's casing, as is the microSD/SDHC slot nestled just under the stand.
The black bezel around the screen isn't too thick. Nor is tablet itself, with the same skinny 9.4 mm build as an iPad.
Sound is delivered by two little speakers positioned at the top of the left and right edges of the tablet.
In terms of controls, there's an ON/OFF button, volume controls and a touchscreen button in the form of a Windows 8 logo that takes you back to the start screen.
Unfortunately, the tablet can only be charged via the mains adapter that connects to the specific charging port with a magnetic attachment to hold the cable in place.
The Microsoft Surface RT tablet has a 10.1" IPS display with an HD resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels, promising decent minimum levels of contrast and colour fidelity.
In practice, contrast is fantastic in the Surface RT. We measured an average contrast ratio of 1380:1, which places it among the top three tablets on the market right now. This high contrast is backed up by backlighting that can pump out a maximum brightness of 380 cd/m2. So while the screen is very glossy, which can make it difficult to read properly in bright sunlight due to reflections and glare, it's still relatively easy to see what's going on onscreen outdoors in most weather conditions.
In terms of colour reproduction, Microsoft has been pretty smart in using a rather pale colour palette in the Surface RT. Seeing as the Modern UI has a homescreen comprised of different brightly coloured tiles, it would have been rather unpleasant to see them all displayed in near-fluorescent hues, as is the case with some Windows Phone mobiles.
And our test equipment confirmed as much, measuring an average Delta E of 6.9. That's almost three times higher than the Delta E in the iPad 3. Delta E measures the difference between perfect colours and those displayed onscreen. The closer it is to zero, the more accurately onscreen colours will be displayed.
As a result, the Surface RT is no match for the iPad 3 in terms of pure colour fidelity. It therefore may not be suitable for photographers looking for a tablet on which to view back shots with very accurate results. However, for other types of use, Microsoft's tablet screen will be fine, with no significant red or blue overtone to note, in spite of the fact that the 5682 Kelvin colour temperature isn't always constant.
Unfortunately, we measured a ghosting time of 28 ms in the Microsoft Surface RT, which is one of the worst results we've seen from an IPS tablet screen. Plus, while the Toshiba AT300 tries to make up for its 28 ms ghosting time with the Resolution+ motion compensation system, there's no sign of anything like that in the Microsoft tablet. This sluggish response time is most noticeable in the Windows 8 RT OS, with ghost images that can be seen trailing here and there when you swipe the screen.
Seeing as this is an IPS display, viewing angles are pretty wide. That said, we did notice a slight drop in contrast when viewing our test tablet from the left.
INTERFACE & NAVIGATION
Essentially designed as a flagship for Microsoft's Modern UI interface, the Surface and its Windows RT operating system let you completely bypass the classic Windows desktop ... well, almost (more on that later).
Modern UI, formerly known as Metro, is the well-known face of this all-new version of Windows. The homescreen is made up of a potentially infinite number of Tiles (like in Windows Phone 7/8) that represent the various programs and apps installed. The size and location of each Tile can be changed by the user. Anyone who's used Windows Phone—particularly Windows Phone 8—will be on familiar ground here. Other users, however, will have to get used to Microsoft's Live Tiles and their real-time content constantly updating on your homescreen. In fact, the dynamically updating Live Tiles for things like e-mail apps, instant messaging apps, and news services like Bing Sport and Bing News make for a lively, fun-feeling interface that's also easy on the eyes.
Some of the control gestures aren't always that intuitive in this tablet, like swiping left from the bezel to the right of the screen then quickly back again to bring up the multitasking bar. We often ended up displaying several apps at once (each taking one to two thirds of the screen and resizing to display accordingly) instead of bringing up the multitasking bar.
But Windows 8 RT is also a very new interface that hasn't yet had time to mature, and this is sometimes only too visible. While some people using Windows 8 on a non-touchscreen computer have been complaining about the Modern UI interface—which is pretty much essential for navigating through the system—conversely, when using Windows 8 on a tablet, why on earth does the OS have to switch to the classic Windows layout in order to display Office? Talk about confusion—both for users and within the OS itself. And this seems all the more illogical since users of the Surface RT can't install any Windows programs other than those bought via the Windows Store. Maybe restricting it to Modern UI only would have made things simpler and more logical.
This feeling of straddling two different Windows worlds is felt elsewhere too, like in the old-school PC-style directory used to organise multimedia content (with folders and sub-folders in a tree structure rather than displaying the content directly). Note too that the Windows Store still feels quite empty. Windows RT is still very new and is no doubt still finding its feet a little. We can only hope that a few of the system's transgressions will be corrected soon, otherwise it's hard to rate the chances of RT products against full-blown Windows 8 devices, with which a whole load of software is already compatible.
In terms of responsiveness, the Surface RT gives highly satisfactory performances. We just noticed a few slight slow-downs in some apps, which are probably awaiting updates to optimise performance. However, the pre-loaded Windows RT content is fast and responsive to all user commands. Again, this OS needs a few more months of life before it can even think about edging towards perfection, but the potential is clearly there.
Note that while Windows 8 RT sets itself up as a smooth, light, breezy OS, it's actually something of a heavyweight. In fact, the whole system takes up something near 13 GB. So with the 32 GB tablet (29 available GB), you only get 16 GB of storage space left over for your files. With a 64 GB model, like the one we tested, there's only around 46 GB of free memory left. Thankfully, you can always add a microSD card to boost capacity at relatively little cost.
Web browsing is fast and benefits from all Microsoft's improvements to Internet Explorer 10. The tab system is intuitive, and pages load up at speeds that are on average for the best tablets on the market. Zooming is smooth and accurate with no real hangs or glitches.
For screen sharpness, the Surface sets out at a disadvantage with a lower definition than its main rivals, the iPad 3, iPad 4, Asus Transformer Infinity TF700 and the upcoming Google Nexus 10 by Samsung. On a 10.1" screen, the 1366 x 768-pixel definition makes for a pixel density of 155 dpi, when the 1920 x 1200 pixels in the Asus TF700 give 224 dpi, the iPad 4's 2048 x 1536 pixels give 263 dpi and the Nexus 10 with its immense 2560 x 1560-pixel def pushes up pixel density to almost 300 dpi.
This does make the Surface feel a little less easy to read. Note that we're not talking about mushy pixels or full-blown blurring here, but the edges of individual letters are less crisp, appearing more "twinkly" in the Surface RT. There's also a visible aliasing effect when you zoom in a bit to read smaller type. It's no match for the razor-sharp edges and lettering you get with the higher-def screens in competitor tablets.
The Surface RT media player is a mix of some good ideas and some general design issues. To get to audio and video content, for example, the specific applications always open onto the associated Windows Store page, which can be quite tiring. Both technically and in terms of practical use, the media player app is a bit of a drag.
A swipe to the left opens the My Movies or My Music tabs. Here, the content directory is clumsily designed, as multimedia files from an external source like a microSD card or a USB flash drive don't appear automatically in the corresponding media library. You have to go find the files manually.
While Android automatically adds external content to the relevant audio and video libraries, Microsoft's manual approach is seems laborious and decidedly unsleek.
Ultimately, Microsoft seems to do very good job of iTunes-style promotion of its own paid-for content, but fails to deliver the kind Android-style openness we're used to seeing elsewhere.
Media file support is surprisingly restricted in the built-in media player, and there aren't exactly a load of third-party media players available in Microsoft's application store yet. That said, we do know that VLC is working on a compatible app, but there's no word of a release date for that yet.
The games section of the Windows Store is currently woefully empty and the few games that are available tend to be over-priced. A game like Rocket Riot 3D, which is already available for Windows Phone 8 at £3.99, is on sale here at £6.99 in a version that's simply been stretched to fit the 10.1" screen! But there are very few—if any—truly interesting games, whether free or paid-for. The newly released Angry Birds Star Wars is on offer for Windows 8, but it'll set you back £3.49 compared with £1.99 for Apple's iPad.
It's therefore difficult to get a decent idea of this tablet's gaming capabilities, even if we've already seen what the Nvidia Tegra 3 CPU is capable of with the Android OS. Note too that with Windows 8 RT, there's no sign yet of the Nvidia TegraZone and its huge choice of exclusive Tegra-optimised games. The chip-maker says it's working hard to bring its games platform to Windows 8 users as soon as possible.
The rear-facing snapper barely performs better than those found in cheap, unbranded, entry-level tablets from 2010. The results are blurred, the colours are crazy and the autofocus is rubbish. The webcam is prone to ghosting and is no match for the kind of quality you get from front-facing cameras in Asus or Apple tablets.
Microsoft promises 8 to 10 hours of battery life with the Surface RT. In practice, we found that it did manage to hold out for practically 10 hours, no matter what we used it for. For video playback it breezes past the 9-hour mark by about 20 minutes on average, and the best result we got with mixed use (e-mail, games, web browsing, video playback, document editing) was just over 9 hrs 40 mins.
Still, it remains to be seen how an intensive heavyweight game would affect battery life in the Surface RT, as there are no such apps in Store yet. The sleep mode is one of the most effective of the kind and a full charge can last for several days if you don't go too crazy (the odd look at your e-mails, a few online jobs, etc.). The Surface RT takes around 2 hours to fully charge, which is very fast for this kind of product (tablets can often take 2 hrs 45 mins to 3 hrs 30 mins to charge).