Microsoft’s efforts to unite all its devices under the touch-friendly Modern UI interface were undermined by the decision to release the stripped down “Windows RT” platform alongside Windows 8.
Rather than let its traditional hardware partners lead the way, Microsoft decided to compete against them with its own tablets; the Surface RT running Windows RT and the Surface Pro running Windows 8 Pro.
More than an iPad but less than a Windows 8 notebook, the Surface RT has struggled to find its place in the world. Windows RT is sort of like Windows, but it sort of isn’t. Confused yet? Even Microsoft concedes that it did a poor job of explaining Windows RT to the public.
In a nutshell, Windows RT devices like Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet let you run tablet-style apps in the Modern UI interface. In this way the Surface RT is a bit like an iPad, and sported a similar $500-ish price tag when it first launched.
The big difference between an Apple iPad and the Surface RT is that the Microsoft device lets you push aside the tablet interface to use the traditional Windows desktop. Here you can run a handful of preinstalled desktop applications such as Internet Explorer, Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote.
Outlook was conspicuously absent, but we’ll get back to that in a minute.
Before you get too excited about the Surface RT, it’s important to appreciate that you can’t install your own desktop applications. If you rely on anything like Publisher, Photoshop, Premiere or even an accounting package like MYOB then you’re out of luck unless you can get it to run in the browser.
If the Surface RT leaves you in the lurch you might be better off with the more expensive Surface Pro tablet running a full version of Windows 8 Pro, although the $1000-ish price tag puts it in notebook territory.
Half the problem with the original Surface RT was that most people didn’t understand the difference between Windows RT and Windows 8. The other half of the problem was that most of the people who actually did understand Windows RT decided that the Surface RT wasn’t for them – forcing Microsoft to write off $900 million worth of unsold tablets.
Microsoft is trying again with the Surface 2 but, apart from the name, what’s changed since last year’s Surface RT? Microsoft has significantly revamped the hardware to provide the Surface 2 with a sharper screen, crisper cameras, improved kickstand, more grunt and longer battery life.
It’s also expanded the range of detachable keyboards which you can add if you want to use the Surface RT like a notebook. To sweeten the deal, Microsoft even throws in 12 months’ worth of free Skype calls to land lines and access to Skype Wi-Fi hotspots, along with 200GB of free SkyDrive storage for two years.
That’s quite an overhaul but it doesn’t mean much if Windows RT still doesn’t meet your needs.
Thankfully the Windows 8.1 RT update brings a few extra features to the Surface RT and new Surface 2 which might address the concerns of business users.
The biggest change is that the Surface RT and Surface 2 now include a desktop version of Outlook, rather than forcing you to rely on the Modern UI email app. Outlook 2013 RT is optimised for tablets, like the Surface RT’s other pre-installed desktop Office applications. It supports POP, IMAP and Exchange ActiveSync email accounts, although the lack of Lync, Sharepoint and Group Policy integration will frustrate some business users. Like the other Office RT desktop applications, you’re also missing out on Visual Basic for Applications along with support for macros and some add-ins.
If you read the fine print you’ll find that the new Surface 2 still comes with a “Home and Student” edition of Office, which means it’s not for commercial use. If your business has an Office 2013 volume licence or Office 365 business subscription then this might cover the use of Office RT on the Surface RT or 2.
Apart from the inclusion of Outlook, business users will also appreciate that Windows RT can now join Windows domains in the office and run third-party VPN clients while out on the road.
Travellers will also appreciate improved Mobile Device Management features including granular remote wipe options.
Anything less than a full-blown version of Windows just won’t cut it for some business users, but if you were disappointed that the Surface RT didn’t quite fit the bill then it’s certainly worth another look. If the lack of Outlook was the main deal breaker then the Surface RT or new Surface might finally be the mobile business companion you’re looking for.