I was an early user of Microsoft Surface RT, in fact, it was my carry-around laptop for nearly two months. I truly loved several things about the device, including its weight and price, and one thing I truly hated, the email client. For the life of me, I could not figure out why Microsoft would leave out Outlook, which was connected at the hip to the Exchange service (I’m an Exchange addict). Well, with Windows 8.1 out in Preview form now, Outlook, with some limitations is back in and that one part I’ve been missing is back.
But this week, Microsoft also announced that for qualifying educational institutions, it has dropped the price of the Surface RT tablet from just under $500 to just under $200. Now that is a pretty amazing value, but Microsoft knows that if it loses education, it’ll lose the market, much like Apple nearly did about a decade and a half ago.
Let’s talk about Surface RT this July 4th week.
RT: The Real Windows 8
Windows RT, the x86 version, is a hybrid that tries to meld the legacy software of the past to the new interface Microsoft has created in Windows and Windows Phone. By making a clean cut, the product doesn’t need the level of protection against malware that the full version does, because most simply won’t run on it, and it provided a much more consistent user experience than its sister product, which had to balance between the new and the old.
It wasn’t perfect, though, because initially, some of the old menus did come across and Domain Join and VPN support were painfully not in place or extremely limited. Having said that, even with all of these issues, it provided purer experience and 10-hour battery life, sub-$500 price, and iPad-like carry weight. The danger was that you might forget it because you can’t tell if it is in your backpack or not. All of that made this a wonderful product to use.
8.1 Making Windows RT Real
While this still can’t be joined to a Domain, any more than any other tablet, Microsoft has increased VPN support and does have a Domain Join workaround that most should find acceptable. It has put Outlook back into the device so that if you are an Exchange user, you don’t feel crippled on RT. It has replaced most of the Windows 7 admin menus with Windows 8 menus so the product is even more consistent. Yes, you still have to deal with the new interface and, particularly in RT, the legacy interface isn’t much use. But then, try to run any of those apps on any other tablet without hosting them on a server and you’ll find this is no worse.
All of the stuff that made Windows RT work is still there, from the massive battery life to the amazing carry weight and, at least for me, the annoying stuff is gone.
This brings us to Surface RT. You know my favorite product in this class was actually the Lenovo Yoga product because it had a ThinkPad keyboard. I really never got that comfortable with the keyboards that shipped with Surface. Ironically, what I ended up doing is using the keyboard as a cover and then buying the Keyboard Apple sells for the iPad, wireless of course, and using that instead. By flipping the keyboard under the kickstand, the Surface tablet was less likely to take a header off the table on an airplane and the Apple keyboard was, though not as good as the Yoga, quite delightful.
We are getting close to a Surface update (looks like NVIDIA Tegra 4) and I expect this to be one of the things that gets fixed. Still, for $200, which is what education will pay for this tablet, it is one hell of a deal, particularly given that it comes bundled with full Office now and you can always get a better keyboard.
Wrapping Up: Windows 8.1 (Blue) Makes RT Real
In the end, Windows 8.1, which used to be called Windows Blue, makes Windows RT real and vastly more usable than it was in its .0 iteration. Nice thing about a software fix is my old Surface RT tablet will be automatically upgraded to 8.1 when it comes out and the upgrade, based on what I saw at Build, is pretty seamless. I’ve been playing with 8.1 on a Surface Pro tablet and there really is a lot to love here, but I love it far more on Surface RT.