Windows 8 RT
The tablet's hardware is top-notch, but what about the software? The Surface runs a stripped-down version of Windows 8. Called Windows RT, it is designed for tablets with lower-powered ARM processors, like the ones that power smartphones and tablets. Unlike Windows 8 for Intel and AMD processors, you can only download apps through the Windows Store; no programs or apps through the Web browser. It comes loaded with Office 2013, which includes Word, Powerpoint, Excel, etc.
Otherwise, Window RT gives you all the other features of Window 8: the Start Screen, which consists of different live tiles or apps, the ability to lock apps side-by-side and swipe in apps from the left. While it includes a traditional Desktop screen, you can only run Office programs from it.
The Surface pushes Windows 8's general interface along smoothly, and the architecture lets it function like the iPad or smartphones. It boots up in under 30 seconds, resumes from sleep in under three seconds, and lasts nearly nine hours on a charge when playing video. (I got considerably less battery life when just using it to write and surf the web). This isn't like the PCs you have come to know; there's no time to get a cup of coffee as it boots or the need to drag a clunky charger everywhere.
However, the software can get sluggish, especially when you're opening apps or running more than a few of them or typing with Microsoft Word. Many times while typing this review on the tablet, I would input a series of words and the tablet would take a few seconds to catch up with my typing. The system can also get bogged down fairly easily, causing small graphical glitches. With the keyboard attached, you come to expect laptop performance of the Surface and it can't always keep up. (I haven't noticed these performance issues on any of the Intel-powered, Windows 8 Pro tablets or laptops I have been testing over the last few weeks.) Microsoft says there should be an update soon to address the issues.
Windows App Store
But even when the keyboard is detached, I found myself getting frustrated by something else -- the lack of applications available in the Windows Store. Now, Microsoft is promising many more apps on Windows 8 launch day (Oct. 26) but as of this writing the apps I use most frequently on my iPad-- including Facebook, Twitter, Flipboard, Yelp, and news apps -- were missing from the store. While there is a selection of games, there's no Words with Friends, Scramble with Friends, etc.
Yes, you can access the websites for many of those services through the browser, but those aren't very touch friendly, and when the keyboard is detached, you want a more finger-friendly experience. Over the past few weeks Microsoft has announced Skype, Netflix, Hulu Plus, Angry Birds and other key apps, but there's no saying when other big-name apps will come along. Also, remember that because you're unable to download other apps through the browser, you are limited to what is in the Store.
The Surface isn't a laptop as the TSA agent thought, but it isn't a tablet either. It's a whole new category of computer, one of many coming out with Windows 8 this week. It has the potential to change how we use our devices – to be a tablet to lean back with on the couch and a full computer when you click in the keyboard.
But only part of its potential is fully realized at this point, and that's the hardware -- ironic for Microsoft, a software company. Windows RT is new and it shows; there are still performance kinks and the disappointing app selection limits the tablet in its functionality, despite its full version of Microsoft Office. Other full Windows 8 tablets and computers, like Acer's W510 and even the Surface Pro coming in January, are more appealing at this point because of their full Windows 8 software.
The Surface is full of potential, but until its software performance and apps are as strong as its hardware, I, unfortunately, will still drag both a laptop and an iPad through security.