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Surface RT at $350: Time to Buy?

Surface RT at $350: Time to Buy?

A sale is not a sale if you do not need the thing being sold

With retailers suddenly dropping the price of Surface RT dramatically over the weekend, some are wondering if this is the time to take the plunge. Folks, put away your credit cards: Surface RT isn’t a good deal at any price.

The issue here is simple. Windows RT is the first-generation version of a new kind of Windows that is completely incompatible with the Windows desktop applications you actually use and much of the hardware peripherals you already own. And Surface RT, based as it is on current generation ARM hardware that was designed for smart phones and media tablets, is simply too underpowered to provide a satisfactory experience.

Nothing can change these basic truths.

I was reminded of how lackluster the Surface RT experience is when I fired mine up for the trip to San Francisco a few weeks back, the plan being to upgrade it to the Windows 8.1 Preview so I could compare the ARM experience with that of more typical and compatible x86 devices. Immediately, I was struck once again by how horrible the performance is on ARM. Windows RT does everything slowly. Everything. The day-to-day experience is terrible.

(Even the Windows 8.1 Preview upgrade was incredibly slow because Windows RT doesn’t support Ethernet adapters and I had to download the gigabytes-big installer over slow Wi-Fi.)

Some will try to tell you in the comments to this post that they love Windows RT and/or Surface RT and cannot for the life of them imagine why Paul, the big, bad, brutish Windows RT hater, keeps stating otherwise. My response is that 20 years of writing about technology and pretty extensive experience testing a wide range of Windows 8/RT hardware sets me up to understand this topic pretty well: Windows RT in general, and Surface RT specially, is not worth the investment. It’s like throwing money away.

That said, I do have a couple of related points to make on this topic.

Price. $350 is indeed the price that Microsoft should have gone to market with for Surface RT. This is the right price point for this product line. (If you got a Surface RT for $99 at a recent Microsoft event, bravo. That is certainly an OK price for this piece of junk.)

Sucker. Surface RT is being priced this low now to clear out inventory. Don’t be a sucker: This thing was obsolete the day it shipped last October. It’s no better today.

Surface RT 2 is coming. I’m curious to see if a Surface RT 2, based on next-generation Tegra/ARM hardware will perform better.

Atom vs. ARM. As I previously reported, systems based on the Intel Atom “Clover Trail” architecture provide all of the benefits of ARM devices—i.e. excellent battery life—and then surpass them with better (than ARM) performance and complete compatibility with the desktop software (iTunes, Photoshop Elements, Windows Essentials, Google Chrome, etc.) and hardware devices and peripherals you actually want to use. Check out Windows 8 Architecture Wars, Part 1: Clover Trail vs. ARM for more information.

Atom vs. Haswell. I’m also curious to see whether Haswell-based Windows 8 tablets will offer a better mix of performance and battery life, and early indications are that they will, rendering both ARM- and Atom-based systems superfluous going forward. See A Tale of Two Hybrid Windows Devices: Clover Trail vs. Ivy Bridge for a peek at how Atom compares to Haswell’s predecessor, Ivy Bridge.

Form factor. I should remind people that the Surface RT device itself is a great combination of size and weight. I’d love to see a Haswell-based Surface Pro with this exact body (but with perhaps at least one more USB port).

What to do? If you absolutely have to buy a Windows tablet this summer for some reason, you’re better off with an Atom-based system. Even the Acer Iconia W3 I lambasted in my First Impressions and Photos post is a better deal than Surface RT right now. Yes, really. But you are so much better off if you can wait for the fall and see how the new Tegra-based RT devise and Haswell/Bay Trail-based Windows 8 devices shake out. No one needs a Surface RT. No one.

I’m sorry this isn’t better news. And I’m not super-interested in hearing from RT defenders right now, sorry: You’re wrong about Surface RT. This may be an operating system for the future, sure. But it’s not the future. It’s 2013, and this thing was built last year using components that were obsolete before it even hit the market. Do not fall for this Crazy Eddie pricing. You will only be disappointed.

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