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At $169, is the Surface RT a Viable Budget Tablet?

Microsoft msftsurfacestandalone1[1]didn’t have much luck with the MS Surface tablet when it launched in late 2012. Originally a $500 tablet, it has been marked down again and again, finally ending up with a $300 price tag (its replacement costs $449). Microsoft even ended up taking a $900 million charge in July 2013 due to unsold inventory, but their loss is your gain.

Today you can get the original Surface RT tablet as a refurb. A reader (Thanks, Patrick!) tipped me to the fact that it’s selling on Ebay for $169, making it potentially a good deal for a budget tablet.

Update: The seller bumped the price to $199.

This 10″ tablet runs Windows RT 8.1 on a quad-core Tegra 3 CPU with 2GB RAM, 32GB storage (only about half is accessible), a microSD card slot, 2 cameras, and BT/Wifi. Screen resolution is a decent 1366 x 768.

The Surface RT was originally conceived as a competitor to the iPad, but now that you can get it for $170 it is arguably worth considering as a budget tablet. The specs alone make it a good deal at $169, though this is a refurb so you might want to also buy a warranty. The screen size, CPU speed, and storage is better than what you can find for large tablets in this price range (unless you’re looking at another refurb).

But the OS, well that’s another matter. This tablet runs Windows RT, which is the cut-down version of Windows 8.  You can run Windows RT apps but not anything developed for an earlier version of Windows, and that limits what you can do with the tablet. You’re stuck with whatever apps have been developed for this particular OS, and if they have quirks or simply don’t work then tough gummy bears. For example, the Kindle app for Windows 8/RT cannot read ebooks that are downloaded from sites other than Amazon. (I think it has to do with this app being the functional equivalent of the Kindle Cloud Reader, but I’m not sure.)

And then there’s the baffling interface. I don’t know anyone who likes the Metro interface on Windows RT/8, and after reading Jane Litte’s review of the Surface Pro 2 I’m pretty sure I’ll hate it as well.

But on the plus side, a couple readers reminded me that this tablet does come with Office RT, which is a more complete version of an office suite than can be found on Android (Thanks, Lynne and Paul!).

And in case you were wondering, it’s not possible to install Android (I checked).

But it’s not like the Surface RT is completely with out apps; there are web browsers, the Nook app, and there was also the Kobo app (before they pulled it), and even Adobe has released a version of Adobe Reader.

So as a $169 budget tablet, this is not a bad deal. But it’s also not necessarily the absolute best deal.

For about $80 more you can get an 8″ tablet which runs a full Windows 8 (and not Windows RT) MS is selling the Toshiba Encore for $249. And if that’s not your thing then you could get the Dell Venue 8 for $265 (at Amazon). Sure, those tablets cost more but are also a heck of a lot more capable than the original Surface RT.

But if you’re as cost-conscious as I am then you’ll probably spring for the Surface tablet refurb, which is still a not a bad deal.


P.S. Or, and just to give you a left field suggestion, you could get the Nook HD+ for $179. I didn’t much care for the quirks B&N introduced but the screen quality and battery life were impressive.

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yuzutea January 24, 2014 um 11:02 am

You can’t get the Nook HD+ for $149. It’s out of stock.

Nate Hoffelder January 24, 2014 um 11:18 am

Whoops. I didn’t notice. Thanks!

Lynne Connolly January 24, 2014 um 12:08 pm

Actually, with a full copy of Microsoft Home and Student Office, with the addition of Outlook, it’s better than good. If you live out of Office, as I do for my work, then that’s the price of a licence. With the addition of a few apps like Freda for reading, Netflix, the inbuilt media player and a news app, with the now much improved Internet Explorer, it’s a great buy. It syncs with Office and One Note, so the transition between desktop and Surface is seamless.
And the ten inch screen is much more user friendly than the smaller tablets above. I have a Nexus 7, but I’d hate to do any work on it.
I like the Touch keyboard, but you can get by perfectly well with an ordinary bluetooth keyboard. the USB port means you can plug in extra storage and the micro-SD card slot gives it extra onboard storage.

Nate Hoffelder January 24, 2014 um 12:23 pm

But does this tablet come with a full version of MS Office RT (and not a limited time trial)?

I would hope so, because a check on Google says that Office RT costs $100 or more. That’s a damned expensive app for a budget tablet, especially considering that Office RT lacks "macros, add-ins, and other custom programs written by users or developed by third parties" found in the full MS OFfice.

In comparison, Android office suites usually cost under $10, and Open Office is free. Unfortunately OO doesn’t appear to be available on Windows RT.

Paul Whitaker January 24, 2014 um 12:49 pm

The original Surface comes with a full version of Office RT, not a time-limited trial. Related, you can’t actually buy Office RT–it comes preinstalled on all Windows RT devices. More info here:

Nate Hoffelder January 24, 2014 um 12:55 pm


Name January 24, 2014 um 6:16 pm

Office RT 's license excludes commercial use and thus can’t be used for work unless you also subscribe to Office 365:

I’ve read good things about Softmaker office as an alternative. Especially on Android, this seems to be your best option. And it even claims better compatibility with MS Office file formats than Libre Office does offer:

frthu January 24, 2014 um 6:30 pm

Regarding Softmaker Office, I forget to mention that you can also download an older version for free:

This used to be Softmaker Office 2010, if I’m not wrong. However, only the 2012 edition also has an Android version.

Lynne Connolly January 24, 2014 um 12:48 pm

Yes, you get the full version of Office. Actually it comes as a trial, because the RT tablet came out before the release of Office, but it will convert to the full version on your first update, and it also adds Outlook once you update to Windows 8.1. Open Office is a vastly inferior version of Office, not suitable for what I do. The more updated version of OO is Libre Office, but it has similar limitations and I don’t know if it is as well integrated with Skydrive as Office is.
It’s nice that you can get a free version of One Note for Android, so it works there, too.
The update to Windows 8.1 can be found in the Play Store, not in Windows Update. I have no idea why, but it pops up once you’ve done a few updates.

Lynne Connolly January 24, 2014 um 12:58 pm

whoops! Not the Play Store, the Windows store!

Nate Hoffelder January 24, 2014 um 1:01 pm

I actually use Libre Office since it was spun off of OO, but I still tend to call it by the ancestral name.

Greg Strandberg January 26, 2014 um 4:34 pm

$169 for something I don’t need? No, I think that’s a waste of money, not a bargain.

Tablets, tablets, tablets.

Is the world ending or something and we’ve got to get rid of all these damn things? Because they way I keep hearing about these toys it seems they’re about to go out of business or something.

Is that tablet going to allow you to catch up to the Jones'? Is it going to get you that big salary raise? Is it going to put your name on the front page?

My bet is it will make your ass fatter from all the time you spend staring into it as if it holds the secrets of the universe.

Try picking up a pen sometime or looking at the stars for entertainment – it might allow you to create a rational and original thought instead of some MS-produced insight, or whatever brand you prefer.

Actually, just ignore everything I said and buy the gadget – while you’re playing I’ll be working.

QWERTY January 27, 2014 um 2:15 pm

You call a computer a toy. Very well. Tell us how you managed to send your comment without one and convince us that we’d be better off without these annoying machines all around us.

Greg Strandberg January 27, 2014 um 4:27 pm

Oh, please!

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