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).

Cheers Lifehacker

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    I think that the big question, what with Surface Pro be like? At the moment I'm looking for a desktop/laptop combination for work. Something powerful enough to do my work stuff. Mostly Microsoft Office package with some other business apps. But light and portable to take with me to meeting, trips etc. I would love an Air but we are locked into the Windows world at work so an Ultra book with dick system for desktop work. Surface Pro would also fit this model BUT I need it now... I'm not sure MS did the right thing RT and Pro should have come out together.

      I think MS is waiting for new Intel tech to come out, which will make the Surface Pro viable.

      Surface looks sweet. However the alternative to waiting for Microsoft to release their Surface Pro is to consider one of the alternate vendor offerings. I'm looking forward to HP releasing their Spectre x2 this month (hopefully), it looks sweet and it uses the full Windows 8. Just my 2c.

    *dock. Ops!!!

    This is ridiculous, why are people comparing RT to a regular OS? If you want to compare it to something, compare it to Android or IOS or CHrome. IT is not and was not, intended to be a full OS. AS for Surface, imo it is useless as a laptop, however as a replacement for any of the tablets out there that don't have a keyboard it is superior for speed and usability. Of course I'm going off the many reviews for that info. Stop comparing it to a full working OS like Windows 8 or 7 or any of the other full OS's out there, As for the price, is the surface RT even available in Australia yet?

    Last edited 08/11/12 8:21 am

      I agree that at the moment its a slightly unfair comparison, but I think it is fair to talk about because it looks like Microsoft have positioned the surface to be able to replace a laptop for at least some people, and I suspect that long-term (in a couple of years) they will be hoping for Windows RT to be used on personal computing devices more than Windows x86.

        Sorry, I disagree.. I think RT was meant as a competitor to the current plethora of tablet devices out there. I say RT and not Surface because the surface RT tablet is in no way going to be a comfortable laptop device with that stupid kickstand. You will not be able to use RT as a business tablet unless you have a set of Apps that are specifically capable of doing the work you need done without the power. In other words you will never be able to use it for Photoshop or any of the more power hungry programs out there.

      It is intended as a companion device.
      The idea is that you can do all your work at work on the desktop. Then when you're out and about you can still do things like view and edit Word documents, presentations etc which is all that many laptops are used for outside the Office.

      Quite right. Unfortunately this is partly Microsoft's fault for not making the distinction clearer. But people with brains can surely understand the concept.

      Consumers, on the other hand... ;)

        Yeah - my g/f basically said - so they've reinvented the laptop, only its more expensive and the keyboard is only OK. I tried to explain its more of a tablet, but I think MS have really oversold te keyboard on the Surface.

      You compare it to a regular OS because that's what the person who wrote in asked.

        Why compare what is essentially a tablet with an add on keyboard similar to Android devices etc to a full blown Windows Pro OS PC. What's the point ?

    Surface is available in Australia, I've got mine and loving it. Took me a couple of days to get used to the touch cover, but now I'm writing word docs on it like a pro.

    Can the author of this article please correct the misleading statement, "... the bundled Microsoft Office trial." It is not a trial. It is a a preview version, which can immediately be upgraded to the RTM version via Windows Update. It is free for home and student use. If you want to use it for work, you will need to have your office IT department include you in their MS Office licence agreement.

    I think that Excel, Word, PowerPoint and OneNote are the four killer apps for this device. You really cant honestly say that a lack of a Facebook or Twitter apps compares, and keep a straight face.

    GMH very good point indeed

    As some others have stated in the comments above, the Surface RT is not positioned as a laptop/desktop replacement. That's the Surface Pro.

    Having said that, I know a lot of people who have essentially replaced their work laptops with iPads (among other tablets) while still using a desktop back in the main office. For them to now switch to the Surface RT would make a lot more sense.


    I personally find the surface keyboard to be really good. It has a bit of give so it's not just like typing on a touch screen, I love how thin it is and how it serves as a cover for my surface. I don't find I need to press very hard and windows has a bit of autocorrect on the typing which also helps.

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