Microsoft just released the Surface RT tablet, a competitor to the iPad and Google Droid devices.

Front view of Microsoft Surface RT

The Surface RT offers flexibility not found on the iPad, including a built-in keyboard, kickstand, USB support (for printers, flash drives, etc), Office 2013 software, and the familiar Windows desktop. Microsoft has tried to cover all the bases that Apple has with the iPad and then add new features and value. The Surface RT is targeted to consumers. A business focused tablet called Surface Pro, will be released in Q1, 2013. We will test that device as soon as it is available as well.

We tested the Surface RT to see how well it compares to the iPad. We answer the question if the Surface RT will provide value to businesses in search of a bridge device that straddles the line between laptop and tablet.

To see the device in action, please click the video link below.

How is it different from the iPad?

Keyboard – The Surface includes a keyboard built directly into the cover. This saves a lot of space, works well (connects directly to the device with a magnetic connector similar to the iPad’s smart cover design). You can buy third party keyboards for the iPad, but they don’t attach to the iPad nor are as thin as Microsoft’s design. There are two types of Surface keyboards, the basic Surface Touch Cover (no mechanical keys, but is quite responsive once get used to the feel) and the Surface Type Cover (additional cost, but has the feel of a traditional keyboard so you’ll feel right at home).

Microsoft Surface Keyboard cover options

Kickstand – The Surface, unlike a regular laptop, is too lightweight to lay flat when the screen is raised. The weight of the screen would flop the device over. So Microsoft added a kickstand that flips out in the back, propping the device up at a pleasing angle for viewing. (For a good view of this, make sure to check out the demo video).

Microsoft Surface RT kickstand, rear view

Screen – The Surface has 10.6 inch widescreen display, larger than the iPad’s 9.7 inch screen. The Surface screen is a longer and thinner rectangle shape, (16:9 aspect ratio for those video inclined). This is the same shape used on HD Televisions. So videos will play and fill up the screen without letterboxing (black lines above and below the screen).

Office – The Surface comes with Office 2013 Home & Student version. This includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. This is a consumer version of the product, so it does not include the Outlook email software.

Run Apps Side by Side– The Surface is able to run App Side by Side, which means you can have a chat session with friends while watching a film. This is also useful for when working, such as having a Skype video session while using Word or Excel.

Will this help my Business?

Despite the enhancements listed above, the Surface RT device has limitations for the typical business user. The Surface RT is really best suited for consumer use at this time. Some of the limitations of the device from the business user perspective:

No Outlook –Though Office 2013 is included, it is the consumer version that does not include Outlook. You can check Outlook webmail via the web browser. Microsoft does include a mail app, but that is targeted to your Hotmail, gmail, and other cloud based email options.

WiFi only, no Broadband –The Surface offers support for connecting to WiFi networks only at this time. There is no included option for a broadband Internet card, such as those from Verizon/AT&T. This limits the device for remote Sales people, who can get this embedded in laptops or iPads now.

Can’t install regular Windows applications –The Surface runs a stripped down version of Windows 8 called Windows RT. Think of this as analogous to Apple’s iOS. You can download and install Apps from the Windows Store, just like you can on the iPad/iTunes Store platform. Unfortunately this means that you cannot install regular Windows applications on the device, so no specialty utilities, line of business applications, etc. But you can access web applications.

What is on the Horizon?

Microsoft is currently working on a business version of the Surface, called the Surface Pro. This is targeted for release around the New Year, Q1 2013. This will address many of the limitations mentioned above. The Surface Pro is slated to ship with the following:

Full Windows 8 –This full version of Windows will allow you to install your typical Windows based applications, including Outlook and line of business apps.

Support to join a Windows domain –This will allow Intivix to centrally manage Surface Pro devices, lock them down as you would a regular laptop or desktop. The same security methodologies that we use to manage your computer systems currently will extend to Surface Pro.

PC in a Tablet case –The Surface Pro can run desktop applications, the new style Windows apps found on the Microsoft Store. The same form factor and enhancements that we’ve described above will spill over to the Pro.

Broadband Internet support –We have not heard confirmation on this point, but we really hope Microsoft is able to include this. This would increase the appeal of the device for Sales people, traveling executives who desire a laptop replacement that allows connection from anywhere with a cell signal.

The Verdict?

We’ve been using the Surface RT since the day it was released. There are some design elements that really increase mobility and useability, specifically the kickstand, USB port, and embedded keyboard in the cover. Microsoft has done its homework with the hardware design and it is quite elegant in our opinion. But, at best, this is a consumer targeted device that will have limited utility for a business user.

Is it better than an iPad? It depends on what you need. If you are willing to pay the premium for the polished iPad experience with its walled garden approach, then you are set. However, if you want to have more flexibility, a more laptop-like user experience with a little less cost then the Surface RT is worth a look. At least for consumer use.

For businesses, we suggest waiting for the Surface Pro which can be a real game changer. If Microsoft is able to pull off the Surface Pro, they will have a device that will provide a business user with the best of both worlds, an elegant, light device that offers enough functionality to tie into your corporate LAN in a secure and manageable way. It has the potential to replace a Salesperson laptop and help the traveling Executive stay connected with a minimal fuss. It could well be a bridge between the PC laptop and tablet form factor while not sacrificing business application robustness and useability.