Your Surface RT Can Become Useful Again, With Raspberry Pi OS

Over the years there have been so many times when Microsoft came up with a product that so nearly got it right, but which tanked in the market because the folks at Redmond had more of an eye to what fitted their strategy than what the customer wanted. The Surface RT was one of these: while the hardware was at least as good if not better than Apple’s iPad, its ARM CPU and an ill-advised signed-apps-only policy meant the tablet couldn’t access the huge existing library of Windows software.

Consumers didn’t want a tablet with next-to-no apps, so it failed miserably. Never mind though, because [Michael MJD] has a video showing how an RT can be given a new life from an unlikely source, with the installation of Raspberry Pi OS.

The video pretty closely follows this guide, and involves creating a Raspberry Pi OS install medium modified with RT-specific kernel modules and device tree. It’s possible because the 32-bit ARM architecture is one of those which Raspberry Pi OS targets, and while a few things such as graphics acceleration don’t work, it’s still successful (if a little slow).

Oddly this is a technique not unlike one from the earliest days of the Raspberry Pi, when we remember people in Raspberry Pi Jams showing off the ancestor of the modern OS running on cheap ARM-based netbooks. In those cases the hack relied on transplanting the Pi userland over the device’s existing kernel, we’d be interested in an explanation of how the RT can use the Pi kernel without the famous Broadcom BLOB intended for the Pi.

We have a soft spot for the RT, as we said a good product held back by a very bad software decision. Seeing it take a new life years later is thus pleasing to us.

Surface RT image: Decade City, CC BY 2.0.

17 thoughts on “Your Surface RT Can Become Useful Again, With Raspberry Pi OS

  1. “The Surface RT was one of these: while the hardware was at least as good if not better than Apple’s iPad, its ARM CPU and an ill-advised signed-apps-only policy meant the tablet couldn’t access the huge existing library of Windows software.”

    Bold statement with no basis in reality.
    “If only” it had access to a vast array of software not designed for the experience on the device it would have been… like a dozen other available laptops.

    1. I’m not interested in a fight between Apple and Microsoft, but the iPad at the time was the iPad 3. It was a dual core 1 GHz machine with 1GB of memory. That’s half the cores and half the memory of the RT. The one hardware advantage the iPad had going for it was the Retina screen, but that also was a huge hinderance as it cost a lot of power to run and the underpowered GPU had trouble driving it at a reasonable frame rate in 3d graphics. It was also a bit of a chonker–the huge battery for that display took up a lot of space and didn’t last that long. Oh, and it introduced the horrible Lightning connector.

      So, Apple wasn’t all kittens and sunshine at the time. The iPad 4 and later models got a lot better, though.

      The tablet I would compare it to is the 2012 Nexus 7 which had the same CPU, the same resolution of screen, but in a more reasonable DPI–it was smaller after all. The RT’s screen, like the iPad 2 before it, was horribly low resolution for its size.

      Back to the topic at hand, I think it’s great that the RT finally getting access to a useful OS. I wish the iPad 2 could run something useful. I’ve got two sitting here doing nothing but geting older and dustier.

      1. Not that I disagree with you about the original Surface RT, but the Surface 2, which was the first one I have in my tech drawer would probably be better tech wise, OS wise is a completely different situation.

        The Surface 2 running Windows RT was never as good as the more modern versions of the Surface running the full version of Windows and was extremely limited, in fact the moment I was able to get my hands on a copy of Ubuntu that would run on the system, I made the switch in the operating system. To compare with the full Windows versions that started coming out with the Surface 3 and my first being the Surface Pro 3 given to me by my job (with a new one every 2 years since) my newest is the new Surface Pro 9, I also have the Surface Pro 8 still running Windows, while I did switch the Surface Pro 7 (original not the +) to Ubuntu and I don’t even use the Surface 5 anymore.

    2. What do you mean no basis in reality? The machine was locked down so you had to use signed applications from the store and couldn’t install whatever you wanted. There were open source programs available but iirc you had to do some magic to unlock it enough to run them.. and then sign them yourself for your specific unit. And that was stuff that was recompiled to work on the system. The sad thing is it would’ve caught on more if they hadn’t locked it down like that.

    1. I have a Nexus 7 (2012) and an Ouya as well as two other tablets using that chip and yeah, it is and was an under performing device. It was marginal for the Nexus, but underpowered (even with the higher clocks) in the Ouya. What a great concept: Make a cheap console out of low prices phone/tablet SoCs that were far enough past their prime to be cheap. Do it frequently instead of ever 5-6 years like the big consoles did. Too bad they didn’t even get to the Ouya 2 before it all came crashing down. :(

      Though I’ve heard you can get the Ouya running again with a community run app store, so maybe….

      1. I just got an RT with cover kbd from eBay for £30 and it’s a cracking machine that runs it’s built in MS office pretty fast. I only use it for writing and a bit of excel. Amazing hardware at a stupid price.

  2. My Surface Pro 128GB with 4GB RAM from that era is still working great, even running Windows 11. People complain about reliability and (rightly) repairability issues, but my mileage has indeed varied. It’s good to see good hardware saved from the e-waste bin.

    1. You can’t replace the battery. Once the battery gets too old to hold a charge—which would be the surface pro 3 and down at this point—you are left with a machine that must stay plugged in. I have a surface pro 3, which I fell in love with, that has a fan that screams and gets hot enough to fry eggs. It runs quickly for it’s age, but it needs a new battery, fresh paste, and a bigger nvme…all of which you can’t do without removing the screen…which will probably break.

  3. I feel the author should credit the community that wrote that documentation that Michael followed. Not even a mention of the surfaceRT community that worked so hard to make it possible.

  4. Early on I decided not to consider the Surface tablet line; later, not to bother with it. Something about Microsoft I find untrustworthy and repellent. I didn’t know about any of this at the time, but the company’s direction since Gates left it troubles me.

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