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This Surface RT makes a great tech spare tire, as long as you don’t have to run on it for too long (GeekWire Photo / Geof Wheelwright)

It pays to have a spare tire. Even if it’s one of those “space saver” spare tires that you can only use for a limited time, having a spare is a lot better than nothing.

That’s kind of how I’ve looked at my original Microsoft Surface RT for the last several years. It gets pressed into service now and then when my main laptop isn’t available for one reason or another. Well, I recently ended up spending several weeks using it as my main machine when I mistakenly left my laptop in another city (and that’s another, far less interesting, story).

The original Surface RT.

I wanted to share my insights about that experience, as it reminded me of what a lost opportunity the original Surface RT was — and how much you can still do with it.

You may recall that Microsoft’s ill-fated, cut-down version of Windows 8 for ARM processor-based systems powered the original Windows RT-based Surface RT tablet. It was released to underwhelming sales numbers in 2012 and a subsequent $900 million charge on Microsoft’s balance sheet in 2013.

Microsoft later released an update to Windows 8.1 for the Surface RT — and, in fact, you need to have that update in order for your Surface RT to remain covered by the Mainstream Support for Windows 8.1 (which ends on January 9, 2018) or Extended Support (which finishes on January 10, 2023). But I digress.

A worthy ‘spare tire’

Getting back to the issue of how good the Surface RT is as a computing “spare tire,” I would give it decent marks. It’s fast, has a great screen (a 10.6 inch ClearType HD display) and is pretty light (1.5 pounds) to carry around. Some of the advantages Microsoft touted over the iPad in its original TV advertising for the Surface RT (see below) also are part of what make it a good spare computer.

Battery life is impressive — it will last for most of a day without needing to be charged, depending on what I’m doing with it. If I’m using the USB port to drive something that requires more power (such as an external hard drive), that does tend to cut back on battery life. I also find myself using the USB port on the Surface RT to charge other devices that don’t have such great power consumption (such as my Android phone).

The fact that there’s a full version of Office Home and Student 2013 RT included with the Surface RT is further bonus, although no longer a unique advantage since Microsoft started offering Office for both iOS and Android tablets.

The WiFi and Bluetooth support is also respectable for a system of this vintage and, in general, pretty much connects when I need it to.

Even when not using the Surface RT as a backup machine, it has been a great way to provide Netflix, Amazon Video and Hulu on older flat panel TVs using the built-in HDMI output.

A missed opportunity

There are a number of reasons why the Surface RT was a missed opportunity for Microsoft and why, for me, it’s just a spare machine. They include:

  • Poor range of browser choice – If I has one thing that I could change about the RT, it would be its inability to run other mainstream browsers (including Google Chrome and Firefox). There is an alternative to Internet Explorer from Guangzhou, China-based UC Web Inc. (called simply the UC Browser), but it’s pretty limited in function and its main advantage over Internet Explorer is speed. UC Web also is one of the few companies to offer alternative browsers for older Windows Phones.
  • Very limited software choice. The browser issue is only one symptom of the broader problem with Windows RT: no one writes apps for it anymore. In fact, it got so little traction that only a limited number of apps were written in the first place.
  • Inadequate keyboard – The “Touch Cover” keyboard makes a better screen cover than a keyboard. So if you don’t have the better “Type Cover,” the Surface RT is really just a fun quasi-Windows tablet good for playing older games and watching videos. If you want to have your Windows RT machine as an emergency computer, invest in a Type Cover. They can now be had for as little as $20 (such as this one, available on Amazon).
  • Limited storage and memory – My Surface RT only came with 32GB of storage, although I do have a 64GB MicroSD card in it that helps to overcome this limitation. Despite that, it does also only include 2GB of RAM – and I found that I really needed to be careful about how many applications I had open at any one time. So I stand by my earlier statement that the Surface RT is fast, but with the caveat that you don’t load it down with too much.

Microsoft would be wise to take note of these lessons as it prepares to take another crack at this market. The company is reportedly preparing to release a “Windows 10 Cloud” operating system and a Chromebook notebook competitor.

My last word on my trusty Surface RT is that it may be moving further down the back-up machine bench. While the Surface RT was doing duty as my main machine, I also invested $97.99 in a new 10.1-inch NeuTab Android tablet – which may ultimately replace the Surface RT if I can figure out a decent keyboard and mouse combination for running the Android version of Office on it.

Until then, my Surface RT will be standing by.

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