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Decide Between the Two Microsoft Surface Tablets

Microsoft sells two types of Surface tablets: Windows 8 Pro tablets and Windows RT tablets. The two models look and behave almost identically. Both share many features:

  • Windows 8 Pro’s new tile-filled Start screen

  • The Windows desktop

  • Downloadable apps from the Windows store

  • A USB port and memory card slot for adding storage

  • The ability to create different accounts for different users

Yet the two tablets differ in subtle ways that lets them each serve different niches.

Surface with Windows RT—the good

The simple, minimalist RT version doesn’t run Windows 8 but a new operating system called Windows RT. The Windows RT version of the Surface offers quite a few advantages over the Windows 8 version:

  • Lower price: The 32GB version of Surface with Windows RT costs $499; adding a keyboard cover adds $120, and the 64 GB RT version costs $699. Tablets running Windows 8, by contrast, start at around $900.

  • Longer battery life: Perhaps the biggest attraction is that the Windows RT version runs for eight hours or more before needing a recharge.

  • Connected standby: Even while it’s asleep, the Windows RT version remains connected with the Internet, fetching your latest e-mail in the background. And as soon as you touch it, it wakes up, looking just like you left it.

  • USB support: The Windows RT version works well with natively recognized USB gadgets. That means you can plug in storage devices (flash drives, portable drives), USB hubs with more USB ports, mice, keyboards, cameras, headsets, and some USB printers.

  • Bluetooth support: Nearly anything that connects wirelessly through Bluetooth works well with Windows RT.

  • Memory card slot: To add storage, slide a memory card into the microSDHX slot. That slot works with microSD, microSDHC, or microSDHX cards, which let you add 64GB storage space.

  • Microsoft Office: The RT version includes Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013 RT, which comes with Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote.

  • Apps: Surface RT runs apps downloaded from the Windows Store.

Surface with Windows RT works best during your leisure time, letting you watch movies, listen to music, browse the web, and connect with your friends.

Should you need to work, open the Desktop app. There, the built-in Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote apps should carry you through until you can get back to the office.

Surface with Windows RT—the bad

In order to meet its exceptional battery life, the Surface RT brings some unique compromises.

  • No desktop programs: Surface RT can only run apps downloaded from the App store. You can’t install desktop programs like you can on a desktop PC.

  • No Windows Media Center: Unlike Windows 8 computers, Surface RT won’t let you install Windows Media Center for watching or recording TV shows.

  • No Windows Media Player: Windows RT’s Desktop doesn’t include Windows Media Player. To watch movies and listen to music, you must use the Surface RT’s built-in Music and Video apps, or download new apps from the Windows Store.

  • Can’t start a homegroup: When connected to a network, the Surface RT can join homegroups and access files from other networked computers. However, those computers can’t access your files. To share your files, you can either upload them to SkyDrive, copy them to a portable flash drive (or hard drive), or send them through e-mail.

  • No driver support: Windows RT requires its own set of drivers—special software that lets it communicate with plugged-in accessories. Without drivers, it won’t work with some USB gadgets like network adapters, TV tuners, barcode readers, GPS units, and other devices.

  • No GPS: Lacking a GPS chip, the Surface with Windows RT relies on Wi-Fi to estimate your location. That narrows down your location to within a few hundred feet.

  • No NFC (Near Field Communication): Too new of a technology to disappoint many, NFC lets two devices exchange bursts of information when they bump into each other, like shoppers in a crowded grocery aisle.

  • Limited storage space: A 32GB Surface RT only leaves you with 20GB of storage space. The operating system consumes a whopping 12GB.

Surface with Windows 8 Pro

Whereas the Surface with Windows RT aims to meet the consumer’s needs, the Surface with Windows 8 Pro gives professionals all the power of a desktop PC in a rugged tablet. And, when work calls, you can load the full-powered Windows 8 Desktop to run the same Windows programs you run on your desktop PC.

Windows 8 Pro also lets you pony up an extra $15 for the Windows Media Center Pack. This lets you play DVDs, if you plug in a USB DVD drive. Plug in a TV tuner, connect a TV signal from cable or an antenna, and you’ve turned the Surface into a complete digital video recorder, ready to record TV shows for watching later.

The Surface with Windows 8 Pro is basically a desktop PC flattened into a tablet. Any software that runs on a Windows 8 desktop PC runs on a Surface Pro.

The same holds true for gadgets you plug into the Windows 8 Pro’s USB port: network ports, bar code readers, scanners, MIDI gadgets, and other specialty items.

But all that power brings a few compromises:

  • Battery life: The battery life is estimated at five hours.

  • No Microsoft Office: Unlike the Windows RT version, the Windows 8 Pro version doesn’t come with Microsoft Office. You need to buy and install it separately.

  • No connected standby: When the tablet’s asleep, it’s really asleep. It won’t collect your e-mail in the background.

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