I spent the past 48 hours with a Microsoft Surface Windows RT tablet. Here’s my review.

Last Friday we received our Microsoft Surface RT, and, like thousands of other bloggers, I spent the weekend playing with it and writing a review. Brian is somewhere on the other side of the world, so you're just getting my impressions for now.

Last Friday we received our Microsoft Surface RT, and, like thousands of other bloggers, I spent the weekend playing with it and writing a review. Brian is somewhere on the other side of the world, so you’re just getting my impressions for now. But he and Gabe have been emailing and texting me asking, “Did you get it?" "How awesome is it?" "Can you type on it?" and "What do you think?”

This article will essentially be a combined review for the Surface hardware, Windows 8 and RT, SkyDrive, several touch-based Windows apps, and Office 2013. A lot of this is pretty subjective and based on my own preferences for how I work, so with that disclaimer, here we go!


Pulling this thing out of the box, I was immediately impressed. The packaging was nice and minimalist, but the real moment of awe was when I pulled out the Surface itself—it is definitely sleek and well-built for a non-Apple device. The only disconcerting thing is that I can see light from the back of the screen through various ports on the side and around the hinge for the stand. This isn’t actually a problem right now, but it seems like it would indicate that any moisture or dust has an easy path inside the device.

A note about the keyboard covers: not knowing at all what to expect from the Touch Cover (the one with non-moving keys) we ordered a Type Cover (the one with real keys). However, we got to know what they’re both like anyway, thanks to Microsoft automatically bundling the Touch Cover with the 64GB version of the Surface that we bought. Evidently Microsoft is making the assumption that if we’re buying the expensive version we’ll want a cover no matter what, but then they didn’t give us a choice, meaning that we had to pay extra to get the keyboard cover we wanted.

And since we’re talking about the keyboard covers, they’re both pretty cool, but with a few missing details. They both have a cloth, felt-like back, and the Touch Cover’s keys are cloth-feeling too, which is cool. They both have trackpads and two mouse buttons, which is really great, but the trackpad area is pretty tiny. Another problem is that neither cover has a magnet to hold it closed, and they don’t lie super close to the body of the Surface in either the closed or open position.

The Touch Cover would be nice for someone who wants to use the Surface more as a tablet, and the Type Cover for those that want it to be a laptop. The problem with that is that the Type Cover, which is indeed impressively thin, is a bit awkward when you flip it around to the back to use in tablet mode because you’re constantly depressing keys as you hold it. (Fortunately it’s smart enough to know not to register the key clicks.) Using the Surface with either keyboard in your lap or in bed is possible, but not ideal. Since it relies on the fold-out stand and not a stiff hinge connection to stay upright, things are a little precarious and not quite as solid as I’d prefer for typing.


Since a lot of people have been using Windows 8 for months now, I won’t comment on navigating the tile world, other than it didn’t seem to take too long to get used to. This is the first time that I’ve spent more than a minute or two with it, and like others I would want to avoid the UI formerly known as Metro on non-touch devices, but I’m fine with it as a touch-based UI.

As for the mail, calendar, and contacts apps, I’m not a fan. The interface is just too minimalist—I could use a bit of texture or shadows to grasp onto. Overall, the apps feel like they’re not taking advantage of screen real estate—I would welcome having some of the (scant) buttons and functionality come back to the main interface of these apps, instead of being stuck in the swipe-in side menus.

What about Office? I have no big complaints here; I think Microsoft did a decent job. I do most of my spreadsheets and writing in Google Drive, and the amount of functionality here seemed comparable: there’s enough to do get the job done in most cases, and I can live with it. Even PowerPoint worked acceptably well with some of our graphic-heavy slide decks.

What do I miss on the Surface? Like I said, I use Google Drive to do all my writing, but since there’s no Chrome or Chrome web apps here, that means I don’t get to work offline. I’m also into using iTunes to take care of my media—I know that many of my friends (and pretty much all of them with Android phones) are more into streaming services like Pandora these days, but for me the lack of iTunes is a bit of a buzzkill.

But by far the biggest problem is that offline file syncing with Windows RT and SkyDrive is a few years behind the times. There’s simply no way to have files sync locally without manually download and re-uploading. Now, when the Surface Pro comes out we should be able to take care of this with desktop syncing agents for our clouds of choice, but for right now, this lack of real syncing is a major problem. Since Skydrive doesn’t sync offline files, you have to move them back and forth. There’s no Dropbox app, so you’ll have to download and upload manually to the website. There is a Box app, but when you download a file, it shows a warning that says “Switch back to Box after you’re done to upload any changes you make.” Seriously. This is all ridiculously annoying. I guess I can use Evernote if I want something that syncs automatically, but even that app was a bit buggy, preventing me from ever successfully uploading changes to a note.

What else? I could go on and on. The Netflix app was fine, though the Surface’s speakers aren’t loud enough for me to hear a TV show while doing anything remotely noisy. The Surface recognized a printer, but wouldn’t actually print; USB drives opened up just fine; and keyboards and mice worked as well. The Skype app was fine; the Wikipedia app is actually pretty neat; there’s no Facebook app, and BrianMadden.com videos (hosted by Brightcove) don’t work :(

And one last thing: despite Justin, our local IT admin Howard, and I all trying for an afternoon, we couldn’t get the Surface to connect to TechTarget’s wifi.

Completely subjective personal feelings about the Surface RT

After all this, how do I feel about the Surface overall? Brian wanted to know if it could replace his laptop and/or iPad. So if you’re reading this, bro, it does some neat things, but don’t hold your breath.

The Surface is in a hard place, trying to be both tablet and laptop at once. At first it felt weird to switch into desktop mode and suddenly see non-touch UI elements, but then you remember, “Oh, wait, this is still Windows, afterall.” But can it be both? I can only answer this for myself:

The Surface is a serviceable tablet, but it lacks a few features that I want in a tablet: iTunes, lots of cool apps, maybe a 3G connection, 7 or 8 inch size (my personal preference), and being separate from the device that I’m trying to do all my real work on. (I like to have two devices for situations when I’m watching TV on one and doing light work on the other.)

And it’s also a laptop (in fact, it’s the laptop-like features that I tend to like more about the Surface) but it also lacks what I want in a laptop: the ability to do anything and everything, lots of real of apps, iTunes, offline syncing, Chrome apps, and the ability to actually use it on my lap.

Come to think of it, for about the same amount of money (or less, actually) that we spent on the Surface, I could get everything I want by buying an iPad Mini and a Chromebook—and both of these are devices that I would prefer to spend my time in over the Surface. Still, there’s something that makes me root for this thing. Because it’s actually a viable option for people that want both tablet and laptop in one device, (something that Apple isn't doing) (or maybe just because of all the hype) it’s compelling and thought-provoking. Hopefully some better options for local syncing will come out, and in the meantime the Windows app store is growing and we’ll have the Surface Pro in a few months.

Last words

If you really do want to combine a tablet and a laptop into one device, this is the way to do it, and the Surface does a passable job. It’s just not what I’m looking for in a device right now.

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Wait.. to be clear, the Skydrive client on Windows RT doesn't sync your files for offline? WTF? I mean why even bother with Skydrive versus Box or Dropbox?

Seriously, if this thing can't sync files for offline, and they don't have 3G.. I mean really.. yikes!


Jack - Can you load the "desktop" Skydrive to get offline sync? I had to do this on Win 8 recently.


never mind. looks like that's not possible

"Note that the SkyDrive desktop app can't be installed on Windows RT."



Jack, well written review I enjoyed reading and you touched on  all the points I was interested in. I'm a bit disappointed I had high hopes for this tablet and still do. I think a lot of the software limitations you mentioned can be updated.

How is the responsiveness? Is it as smooth as an iPad or does it gave that annoying android like lag??



Great review, dude! Love the little details. That answers all the first impression stuff that I want to know. I still want you to send it my way so I can try it out, though.

The lack of applications for it falls on the ISVs, I would assume, barring some fundamental technical reasons. I'd imagine many of those kinks you mention will get worked out, but it's not really helping WinRT on the first-impression-o-meter.

To Brian - I don't really care if SkyDrive doesn't work if something else takes its place, but that's not the case here. Yikes indeed.

As for the TechTarget WiFi - I've never been able to connect to it with Windows, Mac, or iOS, so don't feel bad.


I'm holding out hope that through either a SkyDrive update or some other ISV we'll get real syncing—I'll keep trying to  figure out some sort of workaround this week. If anybody hears about anything, let me know.

Also, since the edition of Office 2013 on here is technically just a preview, there's always a chance that some sort of syncing functionality is on its way.

@Eli—the smoothness (and overall speed) were fine. It's not iOS, but it's pretty smoother and far better than some of the clunkier Android tablets that have been around. It's funny, there were a lot of aspects of the Surface like this—pretty good, works fine, solid but not mind blowing. Which I guess is pretty remarkable.


You know, the challenge with new Windows 8 style tile world apps for Windows RT for file syncing is going to be that Microsoft has all sorts of restrictions for what these apps can and cannot do. In the x86 world, Microsoft basically says, "If you don't like the tile world restrictions, just run the app in desktop mode." But of course on Windows RT this is not possible since Microsoft does not allow third parties to install apps into the desktop mode.

So where does that leave us for file syncing apps for tile world? I'm not sure it's going to be possible. Based on my (albeit rudimentary research) it looks like there are all sorts of restrictions for tile world APIs (and many RT-specific ones) around file system access. For example, this article (lunarfrog.com/.../winrt-folders-access) seems to indicate that the tile world application would need to specify every file type it would like to access in the user's documents folder. Does this mean that file sync would only work with the file types that the app maker thought of ahead of time?

(By the way, the "WinRT" references in that article are to the programming interface which is behing the tile world applications. It's a different thing than the "Windows RT" OS which runs on ARM processors.)

I don't know the answers here though.. maybe a real developer can straighten me out. But I kind of think that if it were easy enough to write file sync for tile world, then wouldn't Microsoft or Dropbox have done it already?


I read that you need Access Gateway Enterprise AND Storefront setup (NO CSG or WI allowed) to attach to a Citrix farm from a Windows RT box...that is a bit of a limiting factor for many places.


The fact that Microsoft released this product and Windows RT with 32 GB or more, WiFi only and no way to keep files offline is mind-boggling quite frankly. Likewise, when I went to see one at a Microsoft Store, every single employee I asked there said it could do this. I had to show them myself by disconnecting it from Wifi before they got it. I'm guessing MS is going to have a large number of these returned.


David Frederick,

You are correct, the Receiver for Windows 8 Preview only support SF and AG.  There is no WI or CSG support.




@David, that's a good point. The only reason we bought the 64GB was because we assumed we could sync our whole Skydrive to it. But since we can't, we definitely don't need the 64GB. Also as Jack pointed out, the 64GB included the touch keyboard cover as a mandatory option, even if you wanted the type keyboard. So I feel like Microsoft screwed me out of $200 right there.


@Carl and @Jeff,

An option you can try is Ericom AccessNow for Citrix - it supports IE10 on Windows 8, and XenApp from version 4.5 and up. It doesn't use SF or require AG. Obviously there will be some extra license costs involved.




How did you do it Brian?

How did you clone yourself? :)

Is Jack your MiniMe or a lifesize clone?


Seriously thanks - That was some good information.

I found it really strange that you have to conect to Citrix through the SF or AG. Traditional shops are out of luck and internal users have to use the AG or SF?


I appreciate all of the Surface reviews, but I don't like the fact that limitations of the Surface hardware are portrayed as platform downfalls, maybe at least mention some of the alternatives.  For example not being able to use the Surface on your lap.  I figured that would be an issue without even seeing one in person.  This is why I purchased the Vivo Tab RT.  Now I can use it in my lap.  Maybe review some of the other RT options rather than making it into a decision of Surface or iPad.


Thanks for the review, lots of good information. I am surprised not to see much about using it as a Citrix client device. My assumption is that it would be a better device to access a Citrix or virtual desktop environment, especially given the built-in trackpad.

I am disappointed to hear about the limitation on CSG / WI for Receiver which will make the test device we are about to get pretty much useless for now.


It is worth mentioning a couple things:

- Online sync would be great but it is not a show stopper. You can always copy the local file back to the online service of choice. Extra step? Yes. Impossible? No.

- RDS 2012 with Surface rocks, simply. You get all the same as CAG/SF/XA/XD with pure RDS, all integrated to the device. AND it does work perfectly even connecting to remote RDS SH servers over the WAN. If you have not tried this, make sure you do. You will be impressed by how much this device can do out-of-the-box with RDS 2012 on the backend.

- The simple fact I can edit Office documents NATIVELY, without losing any formatting (like you do on any iPad app) is simply the biggest reason for me to go for the Surface. I have been doing this since release and I am very impressed so far.

- Bugs: yes, they are there. BUT hopefully Microsoft will address these in a hotfix/SP soon. Same for Office, currently available as some sort of Beta/Preview.

- As Jack commented, Microsoft MAY update the SW at one stage to allow SkyDrive offline sync.

- Outlook is not there. Well bugs me a little bit for sure. But for my needs, the built-in Mail app (does support Exchange Active Sync) has been working fine. Same for the calendar app. Sure not the same as Outlook but worst case I launch OWA.

- More apps: definitely needed. Some critical stuff for my needs are not there. Visio, Project, LogMeIn, etc. Not that hard at all to compile these for ARM so we may see these available on the Windows Store at one point.




I completely agree with the author. I can't see why anyone in their right mind would buy a Windows Surface RT tablet. Windows RT tablets are basically oversized Windows 8 phones which can't make phone calls and can't run Windows applications (it runs only Metyro applications of which there are precious few). They cost $599 including the flat keyboard cover but is very slow compared to $249 Chromebook, iPad and most high end smartphones.

The ARM Chromebook has a Peacemaker benchmark of 1162 whereas the Windows Surface RT only manages a Peacemaker benchmark of 348.


The $249 ARM Chromebook is 3.34 times as fast as the $599 Windows RT, has vastly more apps available, is a first class Internet citizen, and has a superb keyboard and touchpad, which is not the case for the Windows Surface RT. Why on earth would anyone in their right mind buy a Windows RT device?