The Best Back-to-School PC Might Just Be a Tablet

Surface RT tablet

I’m about to do something unthinkable: I’m going to recommend a Microsoft product.

No! Must… resist… Satan!

Nope, it’s happening. Here it comes: The best back-to-school PC is the Microsoft Surface RT tablet.

Whew, okay, I said it, it’s out.

Crazy, right? Everyone knows the Surface RT is a joke, an overpriced, under-capable tablet that’s destined to end up on the Microsoft scrap-heap alongside the Kin, the Zune, and other misfires.

But you know the old saying: money changes everything. In this case, it’s an impossibly low price that forces reconsideration of the RT, especially as a tool for students.

Here’s the deal: For a limited time, and while supplies last, you can score a refurbished Microsoft Surface RT tablet for $189. It has a 10.6-inch screen, 64GB of expandable storage, dual cameras, a USB port, and, perhaps best of all for students, Microsoft Office Home and Student 2013. (Although it’s listed as a “Preview Edition,” my understanding is that you’ll get upgraded to the full version.)

For sake of comparison, Apple’s iPad Air has a 9.7-inch screen, fixed storage, no USB, no kickstand, and a $499 starting price. Granted, in many ways these tablets are (sorry) apples and oranges, but the RT’s bang for the buck is hard to ignore.

Surface Touch Keyboard

I’ve long dinged the entire Surface line for not including a keyboard, especially when every single Microsoft marketing image shows one. But here’s good news: the same reseller has the Microsoft Surface Touch Keyboard for $39.99 (when you purchase it at the same time as the tablet). I rarely see this excellent clip-on keyboard/cover for less than $80.

Thus, for about $230 out the door, you’re getting a spacious screen, a kid-friendly keyboard (meaning their smaller hands won’t mind its slightly cramped keys), Microsoft Office, and a very decent overall tablet experience. It’s kind of a steal, really.

Another perk: Although this is a refurbished unit, it comes with a full one-year warranty. About a month back I actually ordered one of these (from this very vendor), and it arrived in like-new condition. Your mileage may vary, of course, but the seller has extremely positive ratings.

Downsides? Windows RT can run Windows apps just fine, but it won’t run legacy software designed for Windows proper. So if your student wants to install, say, Google Chrome or iTunes, he’s out of luck. There are no app equivalents. And while most popular tablet apps are available for RT (Evernote, Netflix, etc.), a few remain annoyingly AWOL (Pandora, Pocket). That’s hardly a dealbreaker–you can access most such services in your Web browser–but in the app department, RT definitely trails the pack.

For students, though, that hardly matters. Most of them need word processing, spreadsheets, a Web browser, and a keyboard. The Surface RT delivers all that in a slim, lightweight package with great battery life and an unbeatable price tag. If I was shopping for a back-to-school PC for my student, this would be at the top of my list.

Veteran technology writer Rick Broida is the author of numerous books, blogs, and features. He lends his money-saving expertise to CNET and, and also writes for PC World and Wired.



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