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

With its new Surface RT tablet, Microsoft is trying to create something that will stand out in the consumer marketplace. Does it succeed?

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.

And now, with its Surface RT tablet, Microsoft is trying to create a thing of its own.

Surface RT must fulfill Microsoft's bid for relevance in a world gone hopelessly mobile. Surface RT must demonstrate that Microsoft can compete with Apple, Amazon, and Google in marrying hardware to software to credit card numbers in perfectly stacked ecosystems. And Surface RT must validate a splendiferous marketing spend, estimated by Forbes in excess of $1.5 billion, every dollar dedicated to making people really, really excited about, oh my God, have you seen this, it's Surface RT!

When Surface RT was unveiled in June, hands-on reports were unanimous in their praise of the tablet's hardware innovations. With a magnesium chassis, an integrated kickstand, and clever keyboard accessories, Surface RT flouts the standard rules of tablet design and defiantly declares, "There's a better way to build these things. The other guys have it all wrong. We have made things right."

The unveiling was four months ago. Today, Surface RT must prove itself against a barrage of new questions: Just how difficult are the Windows touch gestures? Just how competent is Windows RT, the feature-limited version of Windows 8 that gives Surface its name? And what about the $499 price tag of the entry-level Surface RT offering? Is it low enough to compete with the iPad, let alone other Windows tablets?

Microsoft Surface
The Surface RT is a fresh, fun reinterpretation of the basic tablet experience.

I've been using Surface RT every day for the past week, and I can testify that it's a fresh, fun reinterpretation of the basic tablet experience. But does Surface RT have enough, and do enough, to reach "thing" transcendence? Let's dig in deep to find out.

Industrial design

Most tablets are simple slabs of glass and aluminum devoid of moving parts. But not Surface RT, which dares to explore its own physicality in a very showy, public way.

The integrated rear kickstand props up the tablet at 22 degrees. That's just the right angle for some viewing positions, but the kickstand is not adjustable, and I often found myself drifting out of the angle's sweet spot depending on my table height. Made of the same injection-molded magnesium that's employed throughout the Surface chassis (Microsoft calls the material "VaporMg"), the kickstand opens with a faint metallic ting and closes with a confident click. Both audio cues are satisfying -- and they better be, considering that Microsoft specifically engineered the kickstand to not just work but also sound good.

Surface RT
The integrated rear kickstand props up the tablet at 22 degrees.

The point of the kickstand, of course, is to turn Surface RT into an effective productivity machine, and to varying degrees that promise is fulfilled via the system's Touch Cover and Type Cover keyboard accessories. Regrettably, neither cover is included in the tablet's entry-level package, but all Surface RT versions are preloaded with a soph-frosh version of Microsoft Office that includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote, helping users realize the tablet's productivity promise.

At 3mm thick, the Touch Cover lacks physical keys, and instead uses pressure-sensitive touch pads to record keystrokes. The Type Cover features real keys with actual key travel, but extends the thickness to 5.5mm. Can the Touch Cover possibly offer rewarding typing? I answer that question in the section titled "Surface RT as a workstation" below. For now, I can share that the tablet's keyboard docking system is as sweet as Microsoft wants everyone to believe.

You never need to worry about aligning finicky connection points. In fact, you don't even need to look at the tablet and keyboard when snapping them together. Just move them toward each other, and magnetic attraction will attach the two sides -- perfectly, every time. The connection interface also provides the data link between tablet and keyboard, and just like the kickstand, it comes with its own mechanical soundtrack that Microsoft expressly designed to push emotional buttons.

The build quality throughout Surface RT is sturdy and confident, and exudes the same kind of austere precision we find in German performance cars. VaporMg is silky to the touch, yet inflexible when torqued. And at 0.37 inch thick and 1.5 pounds, Surface RT is essentially identical to the iPad in thickness and weight -- this despite the fact that it supports a slightly larger, 10.6-inch, widescreen display.

Quibbles? I frequently worried that the kickstand would scratch wooden tables, and I found the proprietary power connector difficult to insert. But overall I became a quick fan of Microsoft's take on industrial design. The magnesium chassis really does feel like something special, and it's a welcome change from the standard combinations of aluminum and plastic we see throughout the tablet competition. Surface RT is a manifestly tactile device, from its generous (if initially confusing) catalog of touch gestures to its actual moving parts.

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