First Look: Windows 8 Surface RT

Is this tablet the iPad killer?

Microsoft Surface RT

Surface RT, the Microsoft-built tablet/notebook, offers a sleek design and sturdy feel. It’s got more memory per dollar, a bigger screen and more external storage options than its chief rival, the iPad. It doesn’t have the wealth of applications that the iPad does yet, but that will surely improve over time if the device earns a following. Here is a first look at a Surface RT we got to trial courtesy of the Microsoft Store in Natick, Mass.

Microsoft Surface RT

The two keyboards

Surface RT has two detachable keyboards, one called Touch, the other called Type. Touch (the blue one in the photo) is just 3mm thick and the keys don’t move when you strike them although there is a soft clicking noise. It’s made of a suede-like material and has notches in the f and j keys so you can feel where your fingers ought to be. The Type keyboard is thicker at 5mm but has mechanical keys that depress when struck. It’s a lot easier for someone used to a traditional keyboard to type on the Type than on the Touch. You can buy Surface RT without a keyboard ($499), or bundled with Touch ($599). You can buy the keyboards separately - $120 for Touch, $130 for Type. Touch comes in four colors other than black that cost $20 more.

Microsoft Surface RT

Keyboard features

Both keyboards attach to the Surface tablet via a powerful magnetic hinge strong enough to hold the weight of the tablet if you grab it by the keyboard. There are six pins centered on the hinge that touch corresponding contacts on the tablet body through which the keyboard and computer talk to each other. The top row includes Search, Share, Devices and Settings keys – the same as the charms buttons that can be swiped in from the right side of the touchscreen when using the device without the keyboard. This is a very convenient feature. The touchpad areas of both keyboards can be tapped and swiped and those motions are interpreted by Windows 8 the same as input from the touchscreen. Below the touchpad are right and left mouse areas. Switches in the hinge turn the keyboard on only when it is within a certain range of angles relative to the tablet.

Microsoft Surface RT

The angle

Surface RT features a kickstand that flips out the back with an authoritative click to prop up the screen at 22 degrees off the vertical – an angle Microsoft says is optimal for viewing the screen when typing. To compensate for this, the front facing camera is angled slightly down and the rear facing camera is angled slightly up in order to capture images of whomever is at the keyboard or directly in front of the device.

Microsoft Surface RT

The Apple enemy

For comparison, here’s an iPad without a keyboard propped up by its protective cover. Third parties make Bluetooth keyboards for iPads, but they don’t try to coordinate the angle with the cameras the way Microsoft does with Surface.

Microsoft Surface RT

The storage

Flipping open the kickstand reveals a small slot close to where the kickstand hinges. This is the micro SDXC port for adding 64GB of storage today, with plans to add up to 2T Byte. The Surface tablets themselves come with either 32G or 64GB of storage onboard.

Microsoft Surface RT

The ports

Along one edge of Surface RT are ports for USB 2.0 devices, video output as well as a magnetic connection for the power cord (left) and a speaker (right). The device sports a speaker on both sides and two along the top edge as it stands connected to the keyboard. On the opposite side from the USB port and video output port are a mic jack and a volume-control rocker. The two on-board mics are on the top edge as it sits propped up by the kickstand.

Microsoft Surface RT

Aspect ratio

The Surface RT screen has a 16:9 aspect ratio, like an HD TV, which is a departure from some popular tablets such as the iPad, whose aspect ratio is 3:4. This makes it somehow intuitive to grab the device by the ends and manipulate the screen with your thumbs. With the charms bar swipeable from the right and the active applications swipeable from the left, it’s very convenient for thumb operation.