Books written by Ray Sullivan

Thursday, 23 May 2013

RT, But Not Farty

I've spent the last few days getting to know my new tablet, the Microsoft RT.  In many ways this has been a voyage of discovery as I'm learning a new way of working with a tablet and with a new OS.

The first impressions of the RT are very promising - clearly someone at Microsoft has been paying close attention to Apple as unpacking the RT is very much in the same vein as unpacking an iPad or any other Apple product, down to the white packaging and the carefully laid out compartments for each item.  Also in keeping with Apple products, the RT comes with minimal instructions or indeed any other peripheral equipment.  Basically it is the RT and the charger.  The one thing that does strike you, though, is that the RT is a solid piece of hardware - it feels solid and does weigh a bit more than an iPad in my estimation.  The screen size is figured to be larger than the iPad, too, but due to its widescreen format it may or may not appear to be.  The screen format is designed around watching films.

The keyboard is an optional extra - you can use the RT like any other tablet, but I would expect you wouldn't be getting the best out of the supplied Microsoft Office package if you decided against a keyboard.  With my purchase the keyboard was supplied in the price - £399.99 or about US$650. There is a choice of keyboard - they have a flat keyboard with no moving parts that senses when you tap the keys and is essentially waterproof - possibly a good option for those who need to type in a pub.  The alternative is a micro-keyboard that's quite tactile and is the option I took up.  Being a touch typist I find it works very effectively and can recommend it, but please note it is quite clacky in use.

Placing the keyboard close to the RT allows the magnets to do their stuff and the keyboard attaches itself effortlessly and firmly.  Removing and reattaching is a breeze and the keyboard itself doesn't have its own power supply - all power is derived from the Li-Ion battery supplied in the tablet.  Initially, though, the keyboard won't be recognised until you've started your RT and set it up.  However the keyboard provides protection for the screen when it is closed up, and given my recent experience with the Nexus screen cracking spontaneously I can be forgiven for being a little protective of it, even though the guys at the Microsoft stand at the Gadget Show did insist that the screen is Gorilla Glass, as per the iPad.

It's worth recognising at this point the differences between the RT and its big brother, the Surface Pro.  Apart from the price - and for reasons that I haven't worked out I could have bought the same model, with the same keyboard in the same shop for £150 more than I did. Naturally I resisted. The Pro would have cost a lot more, no matter what deals they were doing.  The RT is basically based on mobile phone ARM processor technology and comes in 32gb and 64gb flavours.  I chose the 32gb version which comes with MS Office, the Windows 8 OS and a handful of apps installed and I have about 16gb left to play with.  However there is a micro SD card port that takes up to 64gb cards - one on its way courtesy of eBay for £12.50 including postage - so there's no real need to fill the hard drive up with photos, music and documents.  And of course it automatically links to your SkyDrive account so anything you have up there in the cloud is available on the RT.

So, we have a mobile phone processor.  What else is different?  Well, the biggest issue anyone might find is that you can only load native Windows 8 software on the RT, whereas on the Pro you can load Windows 7 software.  There are some obvious gaps in the limited software that I like to use, including some Apps that are freely available on Android and iOS, unfortunately including Sherlock, the feature of a recent posting.  I've checked with Everett at Kaser Towers and he's not interested in supporting the RT OS while it's still a niche OS..  However this is a new OS and support is building.  For example my printer, an Epson all in one WiFi model, isn't currently supported but Epson state on their site that they are working on making their products Windows 8 compatible.  Until then I'll have to transfer any documents I want to print to the laptop via SkyDrive.  However, as I said in an earlier posting, this device does address the issue that Apple and Android have failed to tackle with their tablets and that is making it a machine you can do useful work on as well as play.  Until Office is available for those other OS machines, this is the most practical option open.

But this is supposed to be about what the difference is between the RT and the Surface Pro, well one major difference between the two models is that you have to pay for MS Office on the Pro, so that makes the RT even better value.

In use the Windows 8 OS is different from any previous Windows interface, but a couple of years of using iOS and Android devices has prepared me for many of the features and I didn't even look at the on-line manual for the first six or so hours of playing with the RT.  As I'd had a preview at the Gadget show I knew to swipe from the right hand side to get the charms, as MS call them, visible.  The most useful charm is the Windows 8 charm which takes you to the Start screen.  From there you can look at your emails - although you need a Microsoft email account to access the on-line features of RT it does allow you to link other email accounts such as Yahoo to it - or one of a dozen other tasks straight out of the box. 

The browser does take a little getting used to - MS were late to the field with tabs in earlier versions of IE and in the Windows 8 browser they appear to have disappeared again.  However, when viewing any webpage, if you swipe down from the top of the screen you reveal all the open webpages and can toggle freely between them.  You can close down ones you no longer need to keep things tidy, but you don't need to - Windows 8 will close down ones you're not using after a decent period.  It's the same with Apps - they stay running until the system decides you're not playing any more, then it closes them down in the background.  You can also save webpages by pinning them to the Start screen.  So if you always open the same webpages every morning you can pin them and you can open them straight off.

Checking what Apps you do have open at any time requires a nifty swipe from the left hand side of the screen, arcing around and returning to the side of the frame.  At that point the left hand side turns into a column of icons showing you what Apps are open.  Touching the App you want to work on opens it up full screen.  if you decide to stick with the App you're currently viewing, just swipe the column back into the side.

Clearly I've only just scratched the - er - surface of the RT but early impressions are very favourable.  I've written this blog entry with the supplied keyboard and RT sat on my knee while sat on a sofa.  I have a wireless mouse plugged into the USB port and I'm currently streaming Joe Bonamassa tracks from the Xbox channel for free, listening through my Sennheisser wireless headphones with no latency issues.  The sound through the built in speakers is pretty good too.  All in all the RT is living up to the promise it makes in the adverts, although I have got over the novelty of clicking and unclicking the keyboard on and off.


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