Surface RT for education: Is it worth it?

Microsoft recently unveiled a new initiative for the education sector, but is it worth it? Take a look at some of the other top tablet contenders and weigh in with your thoughts.

Surface for Education

On June 17th, Microsoft unveiled their new initiative for the education sector. Through the end of August, Microsoft will discount the 32GB Surface RT to $199 for the standard device, $249 with the Touch Keyboard cover, and $289 with the Type Keyboard Cover, for discounts of $300, $350, and $340 respectively. The discount is only available to K12 and higher educational institutions in 25 countries, not directly to students. In a further attempt to garner goodwill with teachers, Microsoft also gave away 10,000 units at the 2013 ISTE conference.

With a steep discount such as this, the Surface RT can be a tempting proposition, but is it the right choice for your -- quite likely constrained -- educational budget?

Before we delve into the merit of the Surface RT, it's important to note that Microsoft’s motivation behind the discount is questionable. Microsoft may be attempting to unload these devices on schools to avoid having old stock around that hasn’t been updated to Windows RT 8.1, or perhaps they're trying to jettison the 32GB SKU in favor of the 64GB SKU, bowing to criticisms about the installation footprint of Windows RT taking up 16GB. Of note, Microsoft has released a 256GB version of the Intel Core i5-based Surface Pro in Japan. Although this SKU has not been announced for release elsewhere, it isn’t difficult to fathom that Microsoft may also be preparing a 128GB version of the Surface RT to match the 128GB version of the fourth-generation iPad.

Of additional interest, according to IHS iSuppli, the total cost of manufacturing and parts for the Surface is $284. However, that figure is from last November, and with the inevitable decline in component costs and factoring for economies of scale, Microsoft’s losses in this promotion are probably contained, if not simply at a break-even point. Microsoft’s margins on this promotion likely improve drastically when combined with the optional covers.

With this information in hand, we can consider the merit of the device itself. Windows RT is still far behind Android and iOS in the size of their app catalog, and complaints about “Modern UI,” otherwise known as Metro, have been frequent and vocal. My colleagues at TechRepublic have delved deeper into the overall usability of the device, with Donovan Colbert declaring that it's the first tablet ready for the enterprise and Debra Littlejohn Shinder finding it less than suited for much more than content consumption. Considering these opinions, the public preview of Windows 8.1 not inspiring an influx of enterprise rollouts, and the fact that the final release will likely be ready in time for the start of the school year, attempting a discourse on the merits of Windows RT here would be either redundant or outdated. Instead, the focus of this article is on the merit of Surface RT compared to tablets offered by other companies.

Unlike workstations and laptops running Windows, Windows RT (and therefore Surface RT) does not support connecting to a domain for network logins or using Group Policy for device management. However, Microsoft does offer System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM) licenses starting at $62 per device for the Configuration Manager Client, though other pricing is available for Software Assurance Customers. With a Type Keyboard Cover and the Configuration Manager Client, the initial investment is just over $350.

For comparison, the 4th Generation iPad is available to K-12 and higher education institutions at $479 for the 16GB SKU when purchased in bulk. Of note, although we’re comparing the 32GB Surface and 16GB iPad, both are the entry-level SKU and have a comparable amount of free space remaining on the device with the OS installed. However, the iPad lacks a removable media slot, whereas the Surface RT accepts microSDXC cards. In contrast to Microsoft’s management and deployment options, the Apple Configurator app is free. Also of note is that iOS has more education-oriented apps than Android or Windows RT, with apps for Accelerated Reader and many others. Unfortunately, the drawback to the iPad is the same drawback that all Apple devices have: the price. Although Apple does discount for higher education, the price is still a prohibitive factor.

There are more options available for Android. The Google Nexus 10 is available as a 16GB model for $400, though -- like the iPad -- it lacks the option for expandable storage. One notable benefit is that the Nexus 10 features a roomy 2560×1600 screen. And while the retail price is lower than the retail prices of the Surface RT and iPad, Google offers no educational discount program.

There are other Android options as well. The Onda V973 combines the same Retina display panel of the 3rd and 4th generation iPad with Android 4.2.2 and an Allwinner A31 processor, along with 16GB of storage and a microSDHC slot for $220. (For comparison, the Onda V972, which is slightly thicker and features a slightly less powerful battery, is $200. Orders of 50 or more receive an 8% discount.) It also features an unlocked boot loader and ample resources and documentation for customizing and distributing custom ROMs for the device. The Allwinner A31 processor is ample for most tasks, but it falls a bit behind for high-end games, which is not a particularly large concern in education. The device is a good value, but the risk of not buying a name brand brings back memories of old “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM” adverts.

Ultimately, the decision on what tablets to deploy should be based on usage needs. While the Surface RT and Onda V973 are a good value, if you require apps for iOS, the discounted prices on those devices are of no real use. Do you agree? What tablet do you think fits the education sector best? What tablet is best for the enterprise? Share your opinion(s) in the discussion thread below.