Before You Consider That $350 Microsoft Tablet…

Is the Surface RT a good deal now that it's $150 cheaper?

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After nearly nine months of selling the Surface RT for $500, Microsoft is knocking the price down by $150.

Today, $350 will get you a 32 GB Surface RT tablet at any of the retailers who offer it, including Best Buy, Staples and the Microsoft Store. The 64 GB model, previously $600, is getting a similar price drop to $450.

Is the Surface RT a good deal now that it’s $150 cheaper? Probably not. Though it’s possible to be happy with a Surface RT, especially at the lower price, there are a few big reasons to stay away:

The Keyboard Case Will Still Cost You

If Microsoft’s own ads and slogan (“Click in and do more”) are any indication, Surface is incomplete without either a Touch Cover or Type Cover, which snap into the tablet and double as screen protectors. Neither are included with the $350 Surface, nor are they any cheaper now than they were before. You’ll still have to fork over another $100 for a black Touch Cover or $120 for a different color. If you prefer the Type Cover’s mechanical keys over the pressure-sensitive flat panel on the Touch Cover, you’ll have to pay an extra $130. In other words, you’ll still pay close to $500 for the whole package–not a great deal considering Microsoft was giving those covers away a month ago.

The App Situation Is Still So-So

Like all Windows RT tablets, the Surface RT cannot install any desktop software. That means no iTunes, no Photoshop, no Dreamweaver, no Chrome. Surface RT does include a free version of Microsoft Office 2013, as well as some other basic desktop apps like Calculator, Paint and Explorer, but for everything else, you must go through the Windows Store.

Microsoft has done an admirable job building the Windows Store from scratch, with about 100,000 apps available so far. But compared to Apple’s iPad, there are lots of gaps in the catalog, and some apps just aren’t as full-featured as they are on other platforms. Unless you’ve decided that you don’t need apps, you will run into frustrations.

Performance Needs to Be Better

The Surface RT runs on an Nvidia Tegra 3 processor, which is more than a year old, and the tablet’s performance has been routinely criticized as sluggish. Windows expert Paul Thurrott, who has far more experience using Windows RT and Surface RT than I do, sums it up in a recent blog post: “Windows RT does everything slowly. Everything. The day-to-day experience is terrible.”

This is one of those cases where waiting for future hardware outweighs the cost savings of buying today. Chances are we’ll be seeing new Surface tablets soon, along with a slew of low-cost Windows 8 tablets later this year.

So Who’s It For?

There are always a few commenters in stories like this who insist that the Surface RT is a great product at any price. I’ll take the charitable view that these folks aren’t crazy, and I’ll allow that Surface RT makes sense in a handful of specific circumstances. Namely, if all you need in a tablet is a web browser and maybe a handful of basic apps like Netflix, and if full Office compatibility is essential for getting work done, then maybe the Surface RT handles all your needs for under $500.

Otherwise, richer 10-inch tablet experiences await in both Apple’s iPad 2 and Google’s Nexus 10, which both cost $400 and offer a better, more vibrant selection of apps. You can even tack on a Bluetooth keyboard case and use an Office alternative on these devices (I’m partial to OfficeSuite on Android and QuickOffice Pro on iPad) for some light work. Although the Surface RT’s price is lower now, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to do more with it.