In part one of my Surface review I looked at the hardware and in this part of the review I am going to look at Windows RT the operating system behind the Surface.
In case you didn’t know there are going to be two versions of the Surface, there is the one we have here and the Surface Pro which is due to be released in January. The Surface available now runs Windows RT and is powered by an ARM processor and the Surface Pro is Intel powered and runs Windows 8.
At first glance Windows RT looks like Windows 8, there is the new style start screen with the Windows Store apps, there is the Windows desktop and things familiar components like the command prompt but there are some differences. The main differences is that you can’t run standard Windows applications on Windows RT, so you will not be installing Outlook, iTunes or Visual Studio on your Surface. There are Windows applications like Notepad, Paint, Snipping Tool, Command Prompt and Office 2013 but you will not adding your own desktop application.
Where you can add apps is via the Windows Store, these apps (formally knows as Metro apps) work on Windows 8 and Windows RT (with a couple of exceptions),in part three of the review I will take a look at the built in apps and some of the apps available in the app store but for now I am going to focus on Windows RT.
The power of the Surface is that it has the tablet UI of the new start screen and apps but it’s still running Windows. This means you can plug in a USB device like an external hard drive and copy files to and from the Surface. I plugged in my Samsung Galaxy Note in to the Surface and I copied photos from it to the Surface. So I could write a blog posts and upload photos from the Surface without any other device needed. To do the same thing from the iPad would be very fiddly and complicated. It’s not just phones, I tried a digital camera, Nexus 7, USB hub, memory sticks and a keyboard and mouse. Windows RT has a set of class compliant drivers and if you device can use it and doesn’t need special drivers installing it should work.
Windows RT also detected my wireless HP printer and I could print without installing drivers. From what I have read is if Windows has your printer driver you will be able to print to it but you will not be able to install the drivers from a manufactures web site.
When you go to the Desktop you can see that it is really Windows running under the flashy new start screen and it has a proper folder structure. When i first started using the Surface there was about 18GB free of the 32GB and after installing apps and using it for a few days I have 12.7GB free. To avoid filling up the Surface with my music and videos I purchased a 32GB MicroSD card and added that to the Surface with all my music on. Out of the box Windows will not add removable media to the libraries in Windows but using Disk Manager I was able to add the SD card as a folder to the C Drive (I will write up how to do that later).
There are a couple other differences from Windows 8, there is no Windows Experience Index, no remote desktop hosting (there are remote desktop clients), no telnet or SSH clients, no Windows Media Player, and of course no Windows Media Center.
The other thing you can’t do is install codecs, so you can’t add mpeg2 decoders (unlike the Raspberry Pi that charge £2), you can’t play MKV files or WTV (Media Center) files. This is a shame, it means your going to have to transcode the files before playing and your not going to be able to copy TV shows or DVD rips directly to the device (well they would copy but you will not be able to play them). I think a developer could create an app that would play them and sell it in the app store but I haven’t seen anything like that yet.
The networking stack seems the same as Windows 8, all the same standards are supported. I tested connecting to a VPN server and was impressed how quickly it connected and how fast it re-connects to a Wi-Fi network from standby.
So while you do loose some features in Windows RT you gain the long battery file of a ARM chip, I can get well over a full day with intermittent use maybe not as long as an iPad but better than any laptop I have ever used. Other benefits are things like instant on.
Overall Windows RT works very well if you can live with the limitation of not being able to install your own application. It works great with the Surface, basically it feels like you have an iOS style mobile operating system with the Windows Store apps but with the power and flexibility of a PC.
In part three I will look at the apps that ship with Windows RT and see how well the whole thing works as a package.