October 26, 2012 marked a historic date for Microsoft. When it comes to Windows, everything has changed in a way that we can still feel today. That was the day the company released its first personal computer, the Surface RT, and it was also the release date of Windows RT and Windows 8. A few months later, the Surface Pro arrived.
I bought both within a week of their release. I often tell the story of how Hurricane Sandy hit my neighborhood and I still buy a Surface RT knowing I won’t have the strength to charge it. This is good though. I’ve been a Windows enthusiast my whole life, and this was new Windows.
Windows RT was a version of the operating system built for Arm processors, specifically the Nvidia Tegra 3 in the case of the Surface RT. The Surface Pro was announced at the same time, although it was much thicker and heavier, so we’d never leave Intel as an outsider. It had the advantage of running Windows 8 Pro (the products are 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 horrific failures, and almost all of them were for different reasons. The Surface Pro ended up being a successful product line, and a lot of the elements in Windows 8 live more accurately today.
But the Surface RT, along with its Windows RT operating system, will forever be known as two of Microsoft’s biggest mistakes. While Microsoft made the Surface 2 and Nokia built the Lumia 2520 Tablet with Windows RT, you’ll be hard-pressed to find another device that runs the OS. Every other OEM has canceled their Windows RT products, or quickly discontinued them after their release.
As for the Surface RT itself, it ended up writing off $900 million for Microsoft. After that, the sale of fire began. Microsoft just started selling these for dirt cheap to remove unsold inventory. She clearly thought she could sell more product than she did.
Surface RT was really good
To this day, I still own the original Surface Pro that I bought back in 2013. It was a workhorse I could always rely on, but it didn’t make much sense as a product. As a laptop, it was very small with a 10.6-inch screen. As a tablet, it was thick, heavy, and bulky. On top of that, you’d get a 3rd generation Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, and 128GB of storage for a thousand dollars, and the keyboard wasn’t included (at the time, the stylus came in the box).
I don’t have the original Surface RT I bought a decade ago, but XDA bought one for its 10th anniversary, and when I started playing with it, I remembered one thing: It’s actually pretty good. Coming at half the price of the Surface Pro, it comes with an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, 2GB of RAM, and either 32GB or 64GB of storage. Weighing in at 1.5 pounds, it’s still the lightest of any Surface Pro.
It also had a USB Type-A port, something Microsoft really tried to show as a value proposition in its tablets, right through the Surface Pro 7. It was a time when a lot of consumers were deciding if they really needed a new PC Portable, or if they can get one of Apple’s cool new iPads. Microsoft was trying to provide a solution that would solve both problems, and of course keep you on Windows.
Of course, the USB Type-A port always highlights how much Microsoft is sticking to the legacy while its competitors focus on updating. The irony with the Surface RT was that Windows RT couldn’t run old apps. But that wasn’t the tablet’s fault.
Being an iPad user in 2012, I remember feeling like it was more comfortable to use because it has those smoother curved edges. Microsoft was busier with sharper angles, and I felt a little jarring. Fast forward despite a decade. Everything has sharp corners now, and suddenly the Surface RT feels comfortable to use.
It’s not perfect. The tablet was always a little weak, something that was solved in the next generation. Also, the Touch Cover was an absolute rubbish. When I bought mine, I returned it within the 14 days I owned it and got a Type Cover, a product that actually lived past the second generation.
However, when using it today and putting it into perspective of something a decade ago, I have to really say, the hardware is really good.
Windows RT was awful
You mentioned earlier that Microsoft was trying to offer a unique product that no one else could respond to for people choosing between laptops and iPads. This was done with both Windows RT and Windows 8. Windows RT was the processors used in Arm and could only run apps from the Store. There was one obvious problem: Windows RT looked and behaved exactly Like Windows 8, so if you have a brand new Surface RT and a brand new Windows 8 laptop, they behave the same way but do different things.
It was made for a very confusing experience. Apps like Google Chrome and iTunes might say they were available for a certain version of Windows and newer, so if you have Windows RT, the latest version of Windows, you think it will work, right? wrong – wrong – wronged This primary aspect of users who expect things to work and then not work has been a major weakness.
but that is not all. As Richard Devine wrote recently, Windows 8 already had a good user interface for a tablet. Unfortunately, not everyone had tablets, so this weird hybrid OS didn’t make much sense. When using Windows RT or Windows 8, you’ll start from the Start screen; That’s right, the Start menu has disappeared in favor of a full screen set of horizontally scrolled tiles. If you launch an app that came from the Store, it will open in full screen mode in the Metro environment. You didn’t even have the option to put it in the window at the time.
If you run an app that didn’t come from the Store, it will open in a completely separate desktop environment, which was more like what you used in previous versions of Windows.
Windows RT would have made more sense if it didn’t have this desktop environment, since you can’t install apps from outside the Store, but it did. The reason is that some applications, which were previously installed, were opened on the desktop. The biggest examples of this are the Office RT apps, which are free versions of the Office 2013 suite that are designed to run on Arm.
So for this OS that is optimized for tablets, you still have a desktop environment. Not only that, but the Store was barren as well, so there wasn’t much to do when the entire existing design of Windows seemed to fail.
Windows RT 8.1, which is still supported today (for another two months), fixed several issues with the original operating system. When Windows 10 came out, there was no upgrade path, which was saying a lot since 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 did it start and how is it going?
The Surface RT was Microsoft’s first computer, and the first attempt at the Arm Windows PC. While Windows RT was an immediate failure, it tried again with the Surface 2, replacing Nvidia’s Tegra 3 with Tegra 4 and introducing a new silver color that became a staple in the Surface family. The Surface 3 was powered by Intel, which is a kind of payback to the original tablets.
The idea for Arm PCs didn’t surface until December 2016. That’s when Qualcomm and Microsoft announced Windows 10 on Arm, which, unlike Windows RT, will include emulation of x86 applications. The idea, which persists today in Windows 11, was that the experience would be Windows only.
In late 2019, Microsoft introduced the Surface Pro X with a new version of the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx called the Microsoft SQ1 processor. It was the first arm deck since the Surface 2, but of course this time it was fully Windows.
Fast forward to today. On the eve of the Surface RT’s 10th shipping anniversary, the Surface Pro 9 has begun shipping, marking the first time a Windows with an Ar processor has been considered mature enough to share the same branding as its Intel-powered counterpart.
The Surface Pro 9 looks very different from the Surface RT. Since then, the aspect ratio has changed to 3:2, the Surface Connect port has changed, and there is support for the stylus with touches now.
However, the Surface RT was really good for its day. If it weren’t for the terrible software, it might not be $900 million to write off Microsoft. Of course, we’ll never know.