Ask LH: Can The Surface Replace My Laptop?

Dear Lifehacker, I’m liking what I’ve seen from Windows 8, and the Microsoft Surface looks like a really great tablet/laptop hybrid. But can it really replace my laptop? I don’t want to get one if I can’t do any real work on it. Thanks, Suspicious of the Surface

Dear Suspicious,

The Surface does look more like a hybrid than it does a tablet: it’s thin and lightweight, comes with a keyboard cover for better typing, allows you to run the traditional Windows desktop, and is cheap enough that it would seem to make a great laptop replacement at first glance. However, while it’s a solid tablet, it falls a little short as a laptop replacement. We’ve been using the Surface for a few weeks, and here’s what we’ve found.

Windows RT: Great For Browsing . . .

The Surface runs Windows RT, a version of Windows 8 designed specifically for inexpensive, low-powered tablets. As tablets go, it’s great. Browsing is actually the highlight for me, with Internet Explorer providing a better experience than both the iPad and Android. The giant buttons and text boxes of the Windows 8 interface are perfect for touch (especially if you have clumsy fingers), and it even has this nice little ripple effect when you touch a web page that lets you you know where it registered your tap and whether you hit that tiny link correctly or not. The web still isn’t really made for touch, but Windows RT makes up for a lot of the those shortcomings and makes browsing a really enjoyable experience.

The other thing I really liked on the Surface was writing. We’ve talked about how tablets can be great productivity tools, especially when you’re looking for a little distraction-free writing. The soft keyboard cover isn’t that great (since you have to hit it really hard for it to register properly), but the mechanical keyboard cover is awesome. It feels just like a computer keyboard, and lets you get some real typing done without dealing with the shortcomings of a tablet.

. . . Only OK For Everything Else

Unfortunately, Windows RT — at least at this point in time — suffers from the same problem Windows Phone does: a small selection of apps. The Windows Store has some cool stuff, but there’s a lot more it doesn’t have. Forget about reading your Readability or Instapaper articles, let alone anything else. It doesn’t even have an official Facebook app. Again, you could visit all these sites in the browser — and they’d be pretty good — but without a good library of apps, you won’t be doing a lot of other stuff on it (apart from the occasional game of Angry Birds). If you only want to use your tablet for a few things, it’s a great pick — but don’t expect a load of apps just yet.

The other issue is that Windows RT won’t let you install programs from any source other than the Windows Store. You can still drop down to the traditional Windows 7 desktop — and it actually feels really nice on the touch screen — but you can’t actually use it for a lot, except for Windows Explorer and the bundled Microsoft Office preview version. All you have is the limited selection of tablet apps in the Store, which won’t get you very far if you’re looking to replace your laptop.

Wait For The Surface Pro

However, all hope is not lost. Microsoft has announced another device, called the Surface Pro, which is coming in early 2013. Unlike the Surface RT, it will run the full version of Windows 8, which means you can get all your desktop apps up and running, take advantage of more powerful hardware, and have a much more laptop-like experience while keeping all the tablet features that make Surface great. I haven’t used it myself, but from my experience with the Surface I’d say the Surface Pro looks much more suitable as a laptop replacement, provided you aren’t doing anything too hardcore on it.

So the short answer? The Surface is a great tablet for tablet-y things, provided you aren’t dependent upon a lot of third-party apps. But, if you’re looking for something to replace your laptop, you’ll want a device that runs the full version of Windows 8, not Windows RT — there’s a bigger difference than it may look like on the surface (no pun intended).


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