October 26, 2012 marked a monumental date for Microsoft. When it came to Windows, everything changed in a way that we still feel the effects of today. It was the day the company released its first PC, the Surface RT, and it was also the launch date for Windows RT and Windows 8. A few months later, the Surface Pro arrived.
I bought both within a week of release. I often tell the story of how my neighborhood was hit by Hurricane Sandy and I still bought my Surface RT knowing I wouldn’t have electricity to charge it. But it’s OK. I have been a Windows enthusiast all my life and this was a new Windows.
Windows RT was a version of the operating system made for Arm processors, specifically the Nvidia Tegra 3 in the case of the Surface RT. Never to leave Intel as the odd man out, the Surface Pro was announced at the same time, albeit thicker and heavier. It had the advantage of running Windows 8 Pro (the products were named after the operating system), so while Windows RT could only run pre-installed apps and apps from the Store, the Surface Pro had full Windows.
All of the products I mentioned above were horrendous failures, and almost all of them were for different reasons. The Surface Pro ended up being a successful product line, and many of the elements of Windows 8 live on today in a much more refined form.
But Surface RT, along with Windows RT OS, will forever be known as two of Microsoft’s biggest flops. While Microsoft made a Surface 2 and Nokia made the Lumia 2520 tablet with Windows RT, you’d be pretty hard-pressed to find another device running the OS. Every other OEM either canceled their Windows RT products, or discontinued them quickly after release.
As for the Surface RT itself, it ended up being a $900 million write-down for Microsoft. After that the fire sale started. Microsoft has just started selling these things cheap to clear out unsold inventory. Clearly, it thought it could sell a lot more product than it did.
The Surface RT was actually good
To this day, I still have the original Surface Pro that I bought back in 2013. It was a workhorse that I could always rely on, but it never made much sense as a product. As a laptop, it was too small with a 10.6-inch screen. As a tablet, it was thick, heavy and bulky. On top of that, you got a third-generation Core i5, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage for a thousand dollars, keyboard not included (back then, the pen used to come in the box).
I don’t have the original Surface RT that I bought a decade ago, but XDA bought one for its 10th anniversary, and when I started playing with it, I was reminded of something: it’s actually pretty good. Coming in at half the price of a Surface Pro, it came with an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, 2GB of RAM and either 32GB or 64GB of storage. It weighed 1.5 pounds, which is still lighter than any Surface Pro.
It also had a USB Type-A port, something Microsoft really tried to show as a value proposition in its tablets, all the way up through the Surface Pro 7. It was a time when many consumers were deciding whether they really needed a new laptop , or if they could just get one of Apple’s cool new iPads. Microsoft tried to offer a solution that would solve both problems, and of course keep you on Windows.
Of course, the USB Type-A port has always highlighted how much Microsoft clings to its heritage while its competitors are focused on modernization. The irony of the Surface RT was that Windows RT couldn’t run older apps. But it wasn’t the tablet’s fault.
As an iPad user back in 2012, I remember feeling that it was more comfortable to use because it had the softer, curved edges. Microsoft was more interested in sharper angles and it almost felt a little jarring. But fast forward a decade. Everything has sharp angles now, and suddenly the Surface RT feels comfortable to use.
It’s not perfect. The tablet was always a bit underpowered, which was resolved in the next generation. Also, the Touch Cover was absolute rubbish. When I bought mine, I returned it within the 14 days I had and got the Type Cover, which was the product that actually lived on beyond the second generation.
Still, when I use it today and put it in the perspective of something that is a decade old, I really have to say that the hardware is very good.
Windows RT was horrible
I mentioned earlier that Microsoft was trying to offer a unique product that no one else could in response to people choosing between laptops and iPads. This was done with both Windows RT and Windows 8. Windows RT was the one for Arm processors and could only run apps from the Store. There was one obvious problem: Windows RT saw and acted exact like Windows 8, so if you had a brand new Surface RT and a brand new Windows 8 laptop, they acted the same but did different things.
It made for a very confusing experience. Apps like Google Chrome and iTunes will say they were available for a certain version of Windows and above, so if you had Windows RT, the latest version of Windows, you’d think it would work, right? Error. This fundamental aspect of users expecting things to work and then not working was a major pain point.
But that’s not all. As Richard Devine recently wrote, Windows 8 actually had a very good user interface for tablets. Unfortunately, not everyone had a tablet, so this weird hybrid OS just didn’t make sense. When using Windows RT or Windows 8, you start at the Start screen; that’s right, the Start menu disappeared in favor of a full-screen series of tiles that scrolled horizontally. If you launched an app that came from the store, it would open full screen in the Metro environment. You didn’t even have the option to put it in a window back then.
If you launched an app that didn’t come from the Store, it opened in a completely separate desktop environment, more similar to what you’d been used to in previous versions of Windows.
Windows RT would have made a lot more sense if it didn’t have that desktop environment, since you couldn’t install apps from outside the store, but it did. The reason is because some apps, which came pre-installed, opened on the desktop. The biggest examples would be the Office RT apps, free versions of the Office 2013 suite that were made to run on the Arm.
So for this OS that was optimized for tablets, you still had a desktop environment. Not only that, but the store was also barren, so there just wasn’t much to do as the entire current design of Windows seemed to fail.
Windows RT 8.1, which is still supported today (for another couple of months), fixed many problems with the original operating system. When Windows 10 arrived, there was no upgrade path, which was saying a lot since even Windows Phone had one. It ended up landing on Windows RT 8.1 Update 3, a mostly cosmetic update that brought back the Start menu.
How it started and how it goes
The Surface RT was Microsoft’s first computer, and the first attempt at an Arm Windows PC. While Windows RT was a clear mistake immediately, it tried again with the Surface 2, replacing the Nvidia Tegra 3 with a Tegra 4 and introducing a new silver color that became a staple of the Surface family. The Surface 3 was Intel-powered, and served as a kind of redemption for the original tablets.
It wasn’t until December 2016 that the idea of Arm PCs resurfaced. That’s when Qualcomm and Microsoft announced Windows 10 on Arm, which, unlike Windows RT, will include emulation of x86 apps. The idea, which lives on today in Windows 11, was that the experience should just be Windows.
In late 2019, Microsoft introduced the Surface Pro X with a rebranded version of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx called the Microsoft SQ1 processor. It was the first Arm Surface since the Surface 2, but of course this time it ran full Windows.
Fast forward to today. On the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Surface RT shipment, the Surface Pro 9 started shipping, marking the first time that Windows with an Ar processor is considered mature enough to share the same branding as its Intel-powered counterpart.
The Surface Pro 9 looks completely different from the Surface RT. Since then, the screen’s aspect ratio has changed to 3:2, the Surface Connect port has changed, and there’s pen support with haptics now.
Still, the Surface RT was very good for the day. If it wasn’t for terrible software, there might not have been a $900 million write-down for Microsoft. Of course, we’ll never know.