Windows 8 Hybrids, Tablets And Laptops (Part 4) : Microsoft Surface with Windows RT

5/7/2013 11:23:13 AM


Considering the rise of tablets played such a big part in shaping Windows 8, it’s strange that so few manufacturers have decided to make one. Only Microsoft knows what it truly expected when it unveiled the Surface last June wounded manufacturing partners were hardly queuing up to offer congratulations but the outcome is that hybrids and touchscreen laptops have been the focus for most rivals. Taking on the Surface doesn’t appear to have been high on most agendas.

That’s a shame, since a Windows 8 tablet can offer more flexibility than a fixed hybrid.

Spare parts

Asus’ VivoTab RT works brilliantly: it’s a tablet that transforms into a comfy, lightweight netbook

Asus’ VivoTab RT works brilliantly: it’s a tablet that transforms into a comfy, lightweight netbook

Although the keyboards are optional for the tablets we’ve reviewed this month, Windows 8’s dual UI and the inclusion of Office RT mean that, in many ways, it makes sense to invest in one.

There are two key questions to consider, though. What kind of keyboard is it? And how does it connect to the main tablet? This may not seem like a vital consideration, but it makes a big difference to where the device is most useful.

Take the Microsoft Surface, for example. You have a choice of keyboards: the thin and flat Touch Cover, or the thicker and more tactile Type Cover, with mechanical keys. Either is fine for typing on a desk – although the lack of feedback on the Touch Cover takes some getting used to but that’s the ideal scenario. For those times when you’re not at your desk, using a Surface on your lap is a shakier experience.

Once the kickstand is resting on your knees, and you’ve manoeuver the keyboard into a comfortable position, it takes a delicate touch to keep things that way while typing. The connection between the two pieces is designed to be flexible, but in this position it means a misplaced wrist can push the keyboard down and fling the tablet backwards, and before you know it the kickstand has folded in and your Surface is heading for the floor .We’ve taken to resting the whole thing on an A4 notepad when using it on our knees, which presumably isn’t the elegant look Microsoft was aiming for.

Microsoft’s Surface works well at a desk, but the kickstand is too wobbly on a lap

Microsoft’s Surface works well at a desk, but the kickstand is too wobbly on a lap

The alternative is to lay it flat on your thighs. This position is certainly more stable and comfortable for typing, but it sets the screen at an awkward angle; you’ll either have to lean over it a bit more, or put your feet up on something in order to raise the angle towards you.

Asus has plenty of experience manufacturing hybrids, so it does things differently with its tablet. We’ve watched the Transformer line of Android devices go through several refinements to improve the base and the hinge mechanism, and that accumulated knowledge is evident in the solidity of the Asus VivoTab RT TF600T. Compared to the Surface, this feels like a proper laptop, complete with adjustable screen angle and a firm base. It’s no less usable on your lap than any 10in laptop.

The trade-off comes in the form of its thickness and weight. With the keyboard attached, it’s basically a netbook. There’s no way to fold the keyboard out of the way, as with the Surface; you have to remove it entirely to use the VivoTab as a tablet. That’s both strength and a weakness: you can leave the keyboard at home if you know you won’t need it, but if the need arises to switch to tablet mode when you’re out, you’ll be stuck with the onscreen keyboard.

The final way is that of the Acer IconiaW700, and it’s the most mundane: a dock for the tablet and a separate keyboard.

This will work best for people who spend most of their time at a desk, but it isn’t as elegant as the other solutions.

Single function

It’s quick and easy to rip off the Microsoft Surface’s keyboard cover and use the device as a 10.6in tablet

It’s quick and easy to rip off the Microsoft Surface’s keyboard cover and use the device as a 10.6in tablet

The difference in approach to solving the keyboard problem is what gives these devices their focus, and that should play a big part in any buying decision. After all, one device may look better on paper, or feel nicer in the shop, but if you can’t comfortably use it in the ways you’re expecting to, it will be on eBay in no time.

However, you can also buy each of these tablets as a standalone device, and use the onscreen keyboard for typing just as you would with an iPad or any Android tablet – and we’re sure to see more standalone tablets as time goes on. Whether this is what people want from a Windows 8 device remains to be seen: take away the work angle and you’re effectively forced to use apps installed from the touch-focused Windows Store, which isn’t exactly rich in content right now.

Still, a standalone tablet does make sense if you plan to use it primarily at home on the sofa. That’s where a huge number of iPads are used, and a Windows tablet is no different. It isn’t only about browsing the web and playing games, either, as the Xbox Music app can play tracks wherever you are, or stream content to an Xbox.

There isn’t a great deal of difference between the devices on test if you only consider the tablet part. They’re thin and light, with good screens and built-in speakers. However, the Surface’s kickstand gives it the edge for sheer flexibility, since it’s easy to prop it up on the coffee table when you start a film or use it as your jukebox. To get the same freedom with the Asus VivoTab, you’d need to buy the keyboard; the same goes for the dock with the Acer.

Wait and see?

We know from the past few years of gargantuan sales that tablets are popular, and the first Windows models take different angles on getting the most out of the OS. All work well in their own ways.

It’s hard to make a convincing argument at this early stage that Windows RT devices have enough to them to warrant a purchase over an iPad or Android device, though. What we really want to see is an x86 model like the Acer, but with a more portable all-round design than the clunky dock and keyboard approach. Give us a mix of the flexibility and power of a Windows 8 x86 tablet, with the versatile base of the VivoBook, and we’re sold.

Microsoft Surface with Windows RT

Superb build quality and flexible design that feel at odds with the restrictions of an ARM processor and Windows RT

Price: 32GB with Touch Cover, $599; 32GB with Type Cover, $636

Ratings: 3/6


The 10.6in display is bright and vivacious

The 10.6in display is bright and vivacious

The flagship of the Windows 8 tablet movement is Microsoft’s own baby, and there’s no doubt it turned a lot of heads when it was unveiled last summer. Its detachable keyboards and kickstand made it look like a genuine do-it-all device: portable enough for use in tablet mode, yet usable as a laptop as well.

To some extent the final product lived up to expectations. No matter which you choose, the keyboards add little weight or bulk, and the build quality and design are both outstanding. The two parts connect magnetically with a satisfying thunk, and it still feels comfortable to use when the Touch Cover is folded round the back; the physical keys of the Type Cover make it less so. The Surface is far more portable than any of the hybrids.

The screen impresses, too: its 400cd/m2 maximum brightness and IPS panel give the iPad some competition. We’re less keen on the 1,366 x 768 resolution, but it isn’t very noticeable in full-screen apps. It’s more visible on the desktop, but since this is a Windows RT device, there isn’t much to do in that environment anyway.

It has a good selection of ports, including micro-HDMI and microSDXC to add to the 32GB or 64GB of storage (of which 16GB and 45GB respectively are available for your own content). There’s also dual-band Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4, although no 3G option yet.

If it all sounds rosy so far, that’s because when you hold the Surface that’s exactly the impression you get – it’s a lovely piece of kit. Alas, its weaknesses become apparent through use. This is an ARM-based device, and although performance is fine in most apps, opening big files in the preinstalled Office RT suite quickly slows things to a crawl. Running two apps side by side can cause stuttering, and moderately demanding 3D games are juddery too.

The kickstand is a smart piece of design

The kickstand is a smart piece of design

By the standards of the full Windows 8 devices on test this month, battery life is better: it lasted 9hrs 5mins looping a video, which is pretty good, but still some way short of the iPad and the Asus VivoTab with its battery dock connected.

The other issue is the stand, which works fine with the Surface sat on a desk, but sets the screen at too upright an angle for comfortable viewing on your lap. Not that you’ll want to use it much in this position. The thin keyboards are light and portable, but they’re too unstable to form a good typing position perched on your thighs. You may find it more comfortable to close the kickstand and lay the whole device flat while typing – even that isn’t ideal.

We don’t mean to be too hard on the Surface, since it’s a superbly made device. Its keyboards in particular show just how portable yet usable such accessories can be. But given the weakness in practicality, and stiff competition from Asus’ VivoTab RT TF600T, it isn’t hard to conclude that you’re better off waiting to see if the x86-based Surface Pro is the tablet you’re really looking for.

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