Windows 8 Hardware (Part 1) : Microsoft Surface RT

12/31/2012 9:02:20 AM

Microsoft’s Re-imagined OS is only half the equation

A s has been reported exhaustively by now, Windows 8 can be a very unsettling experience for longtime Windows users. It’s like going to visit your parents and finding dad decked out in drag. The person you’ve known for so long is still there, but a new, unexpected element to his persona has you flummoxed and fumbling for how to behave.

The big, blocky, colorful, touch-centric Modern UI (the official name, according to Microsoft) seems about as natural to a desktop jockey as seeing pops in a bouffant blonde wig and a body-hugging velour pantsuit. But while adjusting to dad’s new way of Life could take considerable time, and possibly therapy, adapting Lo Windows 8 might simply be a matter of having the right hardware.

Windows 8 is a new OS for a new way of computing. Obviously, mobile is a big part of that. Microsoft’s Surface RT tablets as well as a host of portables combining tablet and notebook qualities in one have been built expressly with Windows 8 in mind. But there’s also hardware that makes Windows 8 more agreeable for tower users touchscreen monitors, touchpads, Win8-optimized mice and keyboards. On the following pages we take a look at several of these products to determine which ones succeed in making sense of Windows 8.

Microsoft Surface RT

Software giant takes on tablets

Microsoft is thought of only as a software company by most, but people often forget the company’s long string of hardware victories over the years, such as the Xbox 360, as welt a tine of award winning and coveted mice, game controllers, and keyboards.

Frankly, we think you can add the Surface RT to that list of impressive hardware pieces. The Surface RT exudes luxury with its stylized and solid-metal case, clever kickstand, magnetic power connector (a first on a tablet that we know of), and innovative key board cover.

Description: Frankly, we think you can add the Surface RT to that list of impressive hardware pieces.

Frankly, we think you can add the Surface RT to that list of impressive hardware pieces.

Windows RT the pared down Windows 8 OS in the Surface RT and its Modern UI (née Metro), makes for a truly unique (god help us) “reboot” on how you interface with a touch-enabled computer. Yes, by bucking the rows of icons we’ve used for years now to interface with touch, the learning curve is steeper, but there’s something enjoyable and refreshing about Windows’ new tiled UI.

For hardware, the Surface RT packs an Nvidia Tegra 3 part clocked at 1.4GHz, 2GB of LP-DDR3, 32GB (or 64GB) of storage, front and rear cameras, and a 10.6 inch 1366x768 screen. Given the RT’s premium price, Microsoft has taken dings for the screen’s resolution. With the fourth-gen iPads resolution at 2048x1536 and the Nexus 10’s at 2560x1600, it’s no surprise that people see the relatively low resolution of Surface RT as a minus. In practical use, it won’t kill you, but there will be times when you wish the Surface RT had a few more pixels to smooth things out.

Description: For hardware, the Surface RT packs an Nvidia Tegra 3 part clocked at 1.4GHz, 2GB of LP-DDR3, 32GB (or 64GB) of storage.

For hardware, the Surface RT packs an Nvidia Tegra 3 part clocked at 1.4GHz, 2GB of LP-DDR3, 32GB (or 64GB) of storage.

Performance of the Surface RT is difficult to gauge, as there are no standardized benchmarks that can be run outside of the browser on the iPad, Nexus, and RT. We did run several browser based benchmarks, but obviously, you’re not getting that close to the metal and each platform’s browser has a significant impact on performance. If pushed to make a call, we’d say it’s a split in the numbers game, as each device won at least one benchmark. Using our Mk. 1 eyeball as a benchmark, the Surface RT didn’t feet slow in the apps we tried and the scrolling seemed creamy smooth certainty better than the severe stutter we experienced on pre Jelly Bean Androids tabs. One thing that’s apparent, though, are the Stow application launches. It takes from five to six seconds to launch the most basic apps, which is unacceptable on a premium tablet. Once cached, it’s fine, but the initial launch is Stow.

While we’re harping on hardware, we’ll also ding the camera used in the Surface RT. Both front and rear are 72Op, which is pretty sad in this day and age, but maybe that will dissuade people from embarrassing themselves by using the tablet as a camera. Another hardware issue worth mentioning: The 32GB version we reviewed is about half spent on OS storage. That’s fortunately mitigated by the inclusion of a Microsoft slot, so an additional 64GB is just one Amazon click away.

The most impressive feature of the tablet is the integrated key board cover. Two versions are available: a 5.75mm thick Type Cover that uses mechanical keys and a 3mm Touch Cover that uses membrane keys that don’t move at all. We purchased the Touch Cover with our Surface RT and initially worried that it would remind us of the Atari 400 keyboard. Surprisingly, it wasn’t that bad and we could comfortably type on it once we became accustomed to it. The track pad, however, is too small. Both covers attach via a clever magnetic connector that’s strong enough to hold the weight of the Surface RT when picked up by the cover.

Some people have criticized the inclusion of a keyboard as a sign of weakness in the Windows RT OS. We strongly disagree. First, you don’t get the keyboard for free you have to pony up $120 for the Touch Cover and $130 for the Type Cover. Ouch. There’s also no strong emphasis on the keyboard in the OS. You can navigate perfectly fine using just touch.

 Users can also switch into a more traditional desktop mode.

 Users can also switch into a more traditional desktop mode.

What we do have problems with is the OS. We, again, think Modern, or whatever you want to call it is a refreshing and futuristic take on a touch interface, but Windows RT is marred by minor irritations such as no uniform controls in the applications (some apps feature a back button, and some don’t) and difficultly controlling some aspects of the OS. Our biggest complaint, though, is that portions of the OS aren’t finished. For the most part, 90 percent of the OS is in the fat finger friendly Modern UI. But doing something as common as changing the power mode drops you into the desktop mode. And while stilt surprisingly easy to manipulate with your finger, the desktop mode is jarring why, in a touch centric device, would you force someone to use a non-touch UI? It’s just surprising to us that Microsoft relegates so much of the control in Surface RT to the desktop mode. Want to use basic calculator functionality? Do it desktop mode.

From what we can see. Windows RT is just a recompile of Windows 8 for ARM. Want a DOS box? Got it. Manually make reedit changes? That’s there, too. It’s simply mind-blowing for anyone coming from the four rubber walls of iOS, or the slightly less confining environs of Android. Don’t get us wrong, we Like command Lines and tweaking the guts of an OS and we know it’s there in iOS and Android, too it’s just a Little disconcerting to have it so prominent in Windows RT.

We suppose there’s some strength here. If a Large company could port its custom Win32 app to Windows RT, the desktop mode would be a seamless way to transition to a tablet. Unfortunately, apparently only Microsoft has permission to install applications for the desktop mode, so what’s the point of even having it? To us, this makes the real competition for Surface RT its x86-based brothers. With the barren shelves of the Metro app store, x86- based Windows 8 tablets at least give you the fallback of millions of Win32 apps already out. With Surface RT and a keyboard at $600 versus a full-on x86-based tablet such as Acer’s Ionia W510 hybrid al $750 with a keyboard dock, it aren’t pretty.

Ultimately, we’re impressed by the Surface RT. Yes, it has some rough spots, and yes, the app store Looks like a grocery store after the zombie apocalypse has hit (we expect that to change rapidly), but this is a very good first effort with a lot of potential for those who are willing to risk the burn of being early adopters and are free to think different. 

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