Technologizer

Review: Microsoft Surface Pro, the Surface That’s More PC than Tablet

Microsoft's more powerful Windows tablet tries to be more things to more people, but it can't do everything well

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Microsoft

How do you reinvent the PC for the tablet era?

Microsoft, not surprisingly, has been spending a lot of time mulling over that question in recent years. Its touch-centric new operating system, Windows 8, is largely devoted to answering it. And for the first time, the company decided to show us exactly what it thinks a modern PC-tablet hybrid should be by designing and selling its own Windows computer, Surface.

Except it didn’t come up with one Surface — it built two of them. The first version, Surface Windows RT, shipped in October, simultaneously with Windows 8. Technically speaking, however, it isn’t a Windows 8 machine: it uses a power-efficient ARM processor and a special version of Windows called Windows RT that only runs new programs designed for the touch-friendly “modern” interface, not all the apps written for conventional PCs. Starting at $499, it’s the closest thing Microsoft has to a direct iPad competitor.

And then there’s Surface Windows 8 Pro, which goes on sale at the Microsoft Store, Best Buy, microsoft.com and elsewhere on Feb. 9. (That’s Microsoft’s full official name for it; I hope the company won’t be irked if I refer to it as “Surface Pro,” like everyone else is already doing.) It has much in common with Surface RT: hold one Surface in each hand, and the only hint that they’re not the same device is the Pro version’s additional bulk — it’s 0.53 in. (1.3 cm) thick and weighs 2 lb. (0.9 kg), vs. Surface RT’s 0.37 in. (0.9 cm) and 1.5 lb. (0.7 kg).

Both versions have an elegant vapor-magnesium case and kickstand that props it up for vertical use, and both work with the same whisper-thin Touch Cover, which includes a keyboard that’s nearly flat yet reasonably comfy. Both have 10.6-in. (27 cm) screens, though the Pro’s version, at 1920-by-1080 resolution, packs additional pixels.

But Surface Pro, unlike Surface RT, is a real PC. As its name indicates, it comes with Windows 8 Pro, Microsoft’s top-of-the-line operating system. It sports a powerful Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, either 64GB or 128GB of solid-state storage and a Mini DisplayPort port; you could hook it up to a keyboard, mouse and external display, run any program you throw at it, use it with any Windows-compatible hardware add-on and generally forget that you’re sitting in front of anything but a brand-new conventional PC.

Of course, if that were all you intended to do, you’d be better off simply buying a conventional PC. Surface Pro’s potential lies in its ability to segue between multiple computing scenarios: you can use it like a desktop PC, or a laptop or a tablet. Unlike a Windows RT device, it could be a typical consumer’s sole computer.

Microsoft likes to use the phrase “no compromises” when describing that versatility, but in fact, Surface Pro — like all computing devices — is a study in compromises. It’s bulkier than Surface RT because its components require more interior space. Microsoft’s stated battery life is five hours, compared with eight for Surface RT. Even the AC adapter is portlier. (One nice touch: it sports an additional USB port you can use to recharge your phone or another gizmo.)

The price is heftier too. Surface Pro comes in a 64GB version for $899 or a 128GB one for $999; virtually everyone who buys one will also want either a $120 Touch Cover or a $129 Type Cover. (The latter isn’t as thin as the Touch Cover, but it has real clacky keys that move when you press them.) That puts them in the same price range as the cheaper versions of Apple’s MacBook Air and some of the slicker Windows 8–based Ultrabooks.

In fact, Surface Pro qualifies, specs-wise, as an Ultrabook, even though its substitution of a kickstand and removable keyboard cover for a traditional clamshell case is unique. It works well for the most part, although if you balance the whole setup on your lap, you may find it slightly precarious. If you think of this as an ultraportable PC rather than a tablet, it suddenly gets sexier — it’s thin, light, and well engineered. (It has two interior fans for cooling, but I’ve never heard them at work.)

Those 64GB and 128GB capacities are a tad misleading, though: Microsoft preinstalls a full copy of Windows 8 and reserves space for a recovery partition, gobbling up a major percentage of your space. The 64GB Surface Pro offers 23GB of usable space, which will be tight if you plan on installing many of the third-party programs that give this product its purpose. The 128GB model has a relatively bountiful 83GB. Both models have a microSD slot that allows you to expand the memory; a 64GB card will run you around $60.

[UPDATE: ZDNet’s Ed Bott reports that the 128GB Surface Pro actually has 89.7GB of free space, and that the numbers I quoted were based on a pre-release version of Surface Pro.]

Unlike Surface RT, the Pro models don’t come with a bundled copy of Office 2013. But they do include a digital pen based on Wacom’s pressure-sensitive technology. You can use it for sketching, note-taking and handwriting or simply as a mouse substitute; it doesn’t require batteries, but cleverly attaches to the tablet’s magnetic power connector when not in use.

Hit Surface Pro’s power button, and you get a little reminder right away that it’s more PC than tablet: Unlike Surface RT, which springs to life more or less instantly, it takes a few seconds to wake up. But then you land in Windows 8’s start screen, which looks exactly like Windows RT’s version. Bundled apps like Internet Explorer work the same; so does the Windows Store, which is gradually filling up with third-party apps.

If you’ve chosen a Surface Pro over Surface RT, it’s because you want to run conventional Windows apps. You do that in the Desktop, the section of Windows 8 that is essentially a modestly refreshed version of Windows 7 stripped of its iconic Start button. I installed a selection of them, including the Office 2013 suite, Adobe’s Photoshop CS6, Chrome, Firefox, iTunes, TweetDeck and more.

And over and over again, these useful programs reminded me that they weren’t designed to work well on a new-wave computing device like the Surface Pro.

When I first tried Chrome, it acted like it had taken leave of its senses: when I tapped on one message in Gmail’s inbox, a different message would open up. According to Microsoft, that’s because the current version of Chrome wasn’t written to use touch input properly on a high-dots-per-inch screen like the one on the Surface Pro. Neither of the workarounds Microsoft suggested — running Chrome in full-screen mode with teensy type or avoiding using the touchscreen — made the browser truly usable. (Google can presumably fix this with an update, and I hope it will.)

Surface Pro has enough raw horsepower to run Photoshop well, but the application’s menus and icons are minuscule on the 10.6-in. (27 cm) display; tapping the right feature felt like threading a needle, even when I used the pen rather than my fingertip. Firefox looked good at first blush, but getting taps to register often required multiple jabs, and some websites, such as nytimes.com, loaded with microscopic type and too much white space.

Even Microsoft’s own Office 2013 programs — the only ones with interfaces that were in fact rejiggered slightly to be more finger-friendly — aren’t really pleasant to use with the touchscreen. I ended up using them mostly with the Touch Cover’s touch pad. It’s not bad given its matchbook-like dimensions, but Windows 8 works best with a much roomier touchpad.

Now, using a mouse with Surface Pro would eliminate most of the issues I encountered — and Microsoft supplied the review unit I tested with its Wedge Touch Mouse Surface Edition, a product that acknowledges at least some Surface owners won’t be ready to go mouse-free. It’s also possible that updates from third-party developers will make their wares more usable on Surface. They’re going to need to think more about touch: Intel plans to make touchscreens a mandatory feature on the next generation of Ultrabooks.

I’m not arguing that Surface with Windows 8 Pro is a machine without a market. If you equip it with an external display, keyboard and mouse, it becomes a serviceable desktop PC, and if you stick to Windows 8 apps, it may be the best Windows 8 tablet so far. If I were shopping for an Ultrabook and my budget allowed, I’d consider it. But used with the applications I tried, Surface Pro doesn’t prove that one computing device can do everything well. Instead, it makes clear that there’s no such thing as no-compromise computing.

That’s not the lesson Microsoft intended, but it’s a useful one nonetheless — for consumers, for the industry and maybe even for Microsoft.

18 comments
jimmymackey93
jimmymackey93

I didn’t realize the Surface Pro was not the first version to be sold; I’m glad I waited because I would have been disappointed.I want to run my PC programs on it when I buy one.I want something more versatile than my iPad though, so I can use it for both my work I do at DISH and entertainment.Now I use my iPad to watch my TV shows by using DISH Anywhere and my DISH Hopper DVR at home.I love it because I can watch TV while I’m on the train, through the internet and get caught up on TV watching when I usually don’t have time at home.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

This idea is going to appeal to some people, but frankly, it's NOT a PC and it's NOT a replacement for anything.  It's just a reconfigured laptop on which you can fingerpaint. It's probably a boon for space-strapped students, assuming the price is lower than a laptop with similar specifications.  For the consumption market, a Kindle Fire is probably all they'll ever NEED since they mostly just do some light surfing and e-mail.

Like all tablets, the screen is too small to be effective in a lot of things - video and picture editing for one.  Yes, you CAN do it, but your eyes will hate you and you won't be as fast or efficient.  There's only one keyboard option (the thicker, more expensive one) on which typing (which means productivity speed) can even begin to approach the speed and accuracy of a standard keyboard. The storage space is extremely limited (I run with 5 TB and still need more for my projects).  It has extremely limited configuration options for those who want more - even more restricted than a laptop.

As I said, it's just a reconfigured, very small, one-size-fits-all laptop and one can't rationally expect to do any more on it than one could do on a similarly sized laptop.  It's not a PC.  It's a laptop.  Enjoy the fingerpainting.  Be sure to wash your hands before you touch it.

akc99999
akc99999

It's a first strikes for apple, SURFACE PRO 2.1 will be 5G, GPS, NFS, 8 MP front camera, 12 MP  rear camera, loaded free MS OFFICE and more...................

akc99999
akc99999

Just my opinion MS SURFACE will be big successful for Microsoft. CUZ can use everywhere, for office, school, mobile business and home ect......... 

GoogleFeed.com
GoogleFeed.com

With due respect to all The Microsoft Fans, In my opinion Microsoft is Just trying a Confused Mixed up of Laptop and Tablet and I Don't think it Gonna succeed Because its Competition is very very Tough. 

http://wallstnews.blogspot.com/

marosettivillamor
marosettivillamor

I think Surface Pro is awesome. It's what I've always needed. The idea, I mean. An ultraportable touch-screen with specs that of the PC. I guess Microsoft should've thought about the availability of software designed for Surface. Maybe made deals or partnerships or something to make a bigger impact.

JohnKolak
JohnKolak

For people on the go, the Surface Pro overcomes the objections people have to buying tablets - they are not full PCs. They offer the ease and convenience of a tablet when in transit, but when at the destination, they allow the full keyboard and mouse experience needed for serious work.

danisidhe
danisidhe

These unresearched reviews are driving me crazy. I'm trying to find a review of this computer as a tablet, but all I'm getting is "it's not a laptop and it's not an iPad". Let me help you understand something. When MS talks  about using the Surface as a tablet, they mean as a tablet PC, not a toyblet that runs iOS or Android. Reviewers seem to be unaware that tablet PCs have been around for 10 years, so there are people, like me, around who, if we were asked, could tell you that a tablet PC, with a pen as the primary input tool provides workflow possibilities which are utterly different to notebooks (sorry, laptops) and toyblets. These Win 8 tablets are not 'tweeners' they are, finally, replacement computers for the tablets of 2003. I used mine until it died GPU update death in 2009 and then could only replace it with a hulking HP tx2, which was an awful pen experience and too heavy to cradle in my arm, not flat enough to rest on a desk to write on in portrait mode. At last, there is a proper replacement so that I can get back to the optimized workflow of writing and editing that I was afforded 10 years ago, when Microsoft began the tablet era (and was killed by similarly imagination-lacking reviews like this one.) If you had done your research you'd be able to write a review letting us know useful things such as whether MS has returned the 'write anywhere' function to tablets, which was removed from the tablet OS in 2005, and replaced with the, extremely annoying, document-covering TIP. 

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

I'm sure someone will fine it useful, but I can't help thinking it's too small to be a good laptop and too heavy to be a good tablet. My iPad 2 is 1.33 pounds, and I wouldn't want it to be an ounce heavier. Two whole pounds is monsterous for a tablet.

imacdvguy
imacdvguy

No such thing as no-compromise computing... that is a bit of text well worth thinking about as we move forward. A greatly appreciated point of view.

johnwbaxter
johnwbaxter

Having mentioned the Chrome and Firefox browsers it would have been nice to compare them with the IE 10 the machine comes with. IMHO there is little reason to switch away from IE 10 (yes, there were IE versions it was good to switch away from).

However, I haven't seen IE 10 on the Surface ... Pro. It's what I use (in Windows 8) on all (both) my Windows machines (I have to go elsewhere now to use Windows 7).

Thanks for the review, which might save me a trip to the Microsoft Store.

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

@balij2010 With grammar like that do you think anyone is going to take you seriously?

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

@danisidhe : Glad to hear you're excited about the Surface. But the fact is, it's a small laptop. You may be willing to lug around a 2 pound tablet all day, but most people aren't willing to work so hard when there are cheaper and lighter alternatives available. Most people like the idea of the full windows experience, but Apple has shown most people can be quite productive with an OS designed for touch.

From my own experience with photos for example, I like to import my photos from my camera to my iPad first and do most of my editing there. Then, I send the photos to my Mac where I tag them with Faces, Places, Keywords, and Ratings. I'm more comfortable with the larger screen for that part of the workflow, but I've found cropping and color adjustments are easier on the iPad.

Your mileage may vary, but most people have certain expectations about tablets these day, namely weight and battery life. The Surface Pro fails both of these conditions.

harrymccracken
harrymccracken moderator

@johnwbaxter Well, right now, IE 10 works far better on the Surface than either Chrome or Firefox: It's much more touch-friendly and runs in both modern and desktop modes. Chrome doesn't really work with touch at all, and I had trouble getting Firefox to register my touches.

CryingFreeman
CryingFreeman

@mtngoatjoe

Uhhh. You're missing the point. You're using an iPad and then your Mac for one task. The Surface Pro lets you have one machine, not two to do the one task. So if you're on vacation and editing photos you just take one tablet with the specs of a Macbook Air, not two devices. 

I bought the Asus EP121 tablet two years ago (Core i5, 4Gb RAM, 64Gb SSD, Win 7) and I'm very happy with the ability to have a "real" computer and a touch device in one. I do a lot of hand sketching and painting on it and have done presentations using Powerpoint and SketchUp. I will be in line Feb 9th for a Surface Pro as a present for a family member.

You're right about the battery life if you compare it to a slower, iOS or Android tablet (see the Anandtech.com benchmark tests). But if you think of this as an ultrabook with a touchscreen, then the battery life is comparable. 

If the Surface Pro's extra half pound more than the iPad is too heavy for you, I suggest you stop by the gym more often. 

worleyeoe
worleyeoe

@mtngoatjoe @CryingFreeman Um. You missed the point. Unlike your iPad, Surface Pro comes with a microSDXC slot, allowing you to add an additional 64 GB's of onboard memory. Moreover, an additional 8 GBs of memory can be added simply moving your recovery partition to a USB drive, which makes a lot of sense if the whole SDD goes kaput.

As for the battery life, the Surface Pro and MB Air have identical battery life. And you seem smart enough to realize that comparing the Surface Pro to anything over than another tablet running a real Intel iCore processor is not apples to apples. Add you can add 50 GB's of Skydrive storage for $25 compared to $100 for iCloud.

Finally, the screen is 10.6" which is about as large as the MB Air. And again your missing the point. For many people, the Surface Pro will be a companion device that is in addition to their desktop or larger screen laptop.

mtngoatjoe
mtngoatjoe

@CryingFreeman : Uhhh, I think you missed the point. I could not do all my photo tasks on a Surface Pro. I have over 25K photos that take almost 50GB of space. Even the 128GB SP would not be enough for me to accomplish my tasks (there are other things I deal with in addition to photos). On top of that, the 10 inch screen would make for some really bad editing and organizing. And the same thing can be said about an iPad. The point is, the 10 inch screen is great for reviewing photos (deleting the bad ones, fixing red-eye, cropping, and adjusting white balance, exposure, contrast, etc.), but 10 inches is too small to manage large photo collections. Just because the SP can run regular windows apps doesn't mean it's a suitable machine for all tasks.

As far as battery life goes, I stand by my claim: 5 hours of battery life is pathetic for ANY machine that claims to be a tablet. Microsoft missed expectations here by three hours. They also missed the weight expectation by over half a pound. Two pounds isn't heavy, but hold it in your hand for more than a little while, and it won't matter how much time you spend at the gym, you'll want to put that SP on a table. Two pounds is not going to be comfortable on the couch, in bed, on the bus, or anywhere else but a table. And if you're gonna use it on a table, then you might as well get a real laptop with a bigger screen and more storage.

Like I said, if people are happy with their SP purchase, then good for them. But I think they're going to be a minority in the tablet and laptop worlds.