It's a compelling proposition: all the power and application compatibility of a laptop running a proper desktop operating system, all the portability and convenience of a tablet, all mixed together in one package. That's the core idea behind Microsoft's Surface tablets but, as we saw with the Surface for Windows RTa few months ago, its ARM-based nature resulted in some substantial drawbacks. Namely: app selection.
Running Windows is all well and good, but when you're running the RT flavor, which strips compatibility with the entire, massive and still-swelling catalog of Windows applications, you're left with a desktop-class operating system completely bereft of any desktop apps. Welcome, then, to the Surface for Windows 8 Pro, which promises all the niceties of the Surface RT -- compelling design, build quality, performance -- with full support for x86 Windows applications. (That is: every single Windows app released before the end of last year.) And, adding a 1080p display to the mix doesn't hurt. So, then, is this perfection in a single 10-inch, $899 device? Let's find out.
You'd be forgiven for taking a casual glance at the Surface Pro and thinking that Microsoft designers basically phoned it in here. Look closer and you'll see this is more than a processor transplant.
You'd be forgiven for taking a casual glance at the Surface Pro and thinking that Microsoft designers basically phoned it in here; that they took the dark, angular, visually distinctive look of the Surface RT, made it a fraction of an inch thicker to make room for a 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U processor (plus requisite active cooling) and called it a day. Look closer -- or, better yet, hold them at the same time -- and you'll see this is more than a processor transplant.
Yes, it does start with the same basic design language, monotone and edgy and deliciously free of any branding other than a Windows logo on the back, visible only by being slightly more matte than its surroundings. A little Windows logo is on the front, too, sitting down below the display, but that's functional: it's the capacitive Start button.
Indeed, the biggest change is in the dimensions: 10.81 x 6.81 x 0.53 inches (27.45 x 17.3 x 1.35cm) vs. 10.81 x 6.77 x 0.37 (22.45 x 17.2 x 0.94cm). (At just under two pounds, it's about 25 percent heavier, too.) But rather than just being a thicker version of the same, the Surface Pro looks as if it had an additional plate grafted on the back. The flat kickstand mounted on the rear returns, but here it's set a few millimeters away from the edges of the chassis. This forms a line that is continued around the entire device, a slight and curious gap between the back and the sides.
Where the bottom flips out to form the kickstand, the top is fixed in place and that gap serves as the vent for the device's internal cooling fans. Speakers, too, exhaust their sound through here, rather than the discrete outputs they have on either side of the RT chassis. Those speakers offer decent quality with a predictable lack of low-frequency response. Maximum volume level is fair, but you'll want some powered speakers if you really want to hear anything from across the room.
Port selection is largely the same across the RT and Pro Surface models, but placement is quite different. The single, full-sized USB 3.0 port (versus the 2.0 port on the RT) is found on the left side of the device, opposite that on the RT and situated beside the volume rocker and 3.5mm headphone jack. Travel across to the right side and you'll find the microSDXC slot, which is no longer tucked behind the kickstand as it was on the RT. While this does make it easier to get to, we think most people who use the expandable storage will slot a card in once and leave it alone, so we prefer the more protected placement on the RT. Also on that side is the magnetic power receptacle, which is the same as on the RT, and a Mini DisplayPort connector, which replaces the micro-HDMI found on the RT.
On the top is the power button, offset toward the right edge, and a single microphone toward the center. That's a step down from the stereo mics found on the RT, a change, we're told, intended to reduce the sound pickup from the internal cooling fans. (Sadly, we don't think it was entirely successful, as we'll discuss in the camera section below.) On the bottom resides the magnetic connector used by the Type Cover, the Touch Cover and, presumably, future accessories. We're glad to report all covers work equally well with either the RT or the Pro, though on a few occasions we had to pop the Type Cover on two or three times for the system to detect it.
Now, while that's a healthy selection of physical connectivity for a tablet, many shoppers will be throwing the Surface Pro in the mix when looking for a lightweight Windows laptop. When stacked up against that company, this guy naturally comes up a bit short, with the biggest problems being the single USB port and, in our eye, the lack of a full-sized SD card reader for ingesting photos.
Wireless connectivity is comprehensive, offering 802.11a/b/g/n along with Bluetooth 4.0. No cellular models are on offer at this point, and Microsoft isn't talking about whether there will be one in the future.
The Surface RT features a quite nice display, but we couldn't help but be a bit disappointed by the native resolution of 1,366 x 768. Ahead of that tablet's release, Microsoft went out of its way to show that resolution isn't everything, and indeed it isn't, but more resolution means more workspace, and if you're trying to eke maximum productivity from your slate, you'll take as many pixels as you can get.
The 10.6-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 display looks great, but that resolution makes things a little complicated.
But, with the Surface Pro, the resolution added by stepping up to 1,920 x 1,080 makes things a little more complicated. Here we have a 10.6-inch display that looks great, offering very nice contrast and brightness, plus viewing angles that maintain that contrast from just about wherever you can see the display. (Helpful, that, because the non-adjustable kickstand means you'll quite often be looking at this thing from a less-than-optimal perspective.) It's optically bonded, like on the RT, which reduces glare when compared to a traditional glossy panel.
It's that higher resolution that we occasionally struggled with when running desktop apps. By default, the tablet is set to scale text to 150 percent its original size, making most (but not all) menus and buttons huge and reasonably finger-friendly. That's great when you're actually using your fingers, but it results in a lot of wasted space on the display when you're using a mouse. More troublingly, it made the text and icons in many apps appear rather blurry.
150 percent vs. 100 percent scaling in Windows 8. Click to see full-size.
So, we tweaked the scaling down to 100 percent and the result is the 1:1 pixel rendition that you'd normally expect from Windows. Everything now looks perfect and the fact that you can even toggle this option feels like a luxury compared to the Retina MacBook Pros, where OS X mandates some degree of scaling. When running apps at 100 percent, the visuals are much cleaner, and those who want maximum screen real estate will be happiest here -- but in this view scrollbars and other on-screen controls are tricky to hit accurately with a finger. Interacting with the desktop without a mouse suddenly becomes a chore.
So, then, one scaling size is good for fingers, the other for productivity with a keyboard and mouse. If you could quickly jump between the two that might not be so bad, but from the desktop it's five taps and swipes into the Control Panel just to get to this setting and, when you change it, Windows forces you to log out of the computer -- thus closing all your currently running apps. It's hardly a quick change, so we wound up going for the unhappy median of 125 percent up-scaled text.
The OS desperately needs a way to quickly toggle between finger-friendly and native scaling of apps.
Now, this is only a concern if you'll be working in the traditional Windows desktop frequently, something of a problem since compatibility with legacy Windows applications is a huge selling point here. The OS desperately needs a way to quickly toggle between finger-friendly and native scaling of apps.
We spent quite a bit of time with the Surface Pro, sampling a variety of day-to-day scenarios to see how it fared versus the tablets and laptops it will be competing against. To test its productivity chops we opted to go for the more tactile Type Cover than the Touch Cover we focused on in the Surface RT review, making this feel more like a laptop. And, indeed, it offers a passably good typing experience, much easier to get up to speed on than the Touch. Still, the cramped layout and short throw of the keys, plus the dinky, unresponsive trackpad, gave us chilling flashbacks to the netbooks of yore. It's far better than 99 percent of the aftermarket tablet keyboards out there, but pales in comparison to even the keyboard on the similarly tiny ASUS TAICHI (which we'll be covering in more detail soon).
Every app we threw at the tablet ran like a charm, which is a nice change from the RT.
Still, every app we threw at the tablet ran like a charm, which is a nice change from the RT. When we tested that device we tried to be productive, but the lack of support for x86 Windows apps meant we were without an IRC client and didn't have access to the suite of text-, photo- and video-editing tools we use on a daily basis. The Surface Pro ran 'em all with no troubles, and after 30 minutes of downloading and double-clicking on a bunch of setup files, we were getting some actual, honest-to-gosh work done.
Still, try as we might, we could never quite get comfortable in this layout. That keyboard slowed us down and its trackpad continued to frustrate. Due to the lack of finger-friendliness in the vast majority of legacy Windows apps mentioned above, we were frequently reaching for a mouse -- in this case a Wedge, whose small size made it a good traveling companion for the Surface. Without it, accurately selecting toolbar buttons and controls was often difficult and precisely wielding photo-editing tools was impossible.
Thankfully, Microsoft saw fit to fix that particular issue with the inclusion of a stylus, which uses Wacom tech and offers 1,024 degrees of pressure-sensitivity -- just like the Samsung Galaxy Note II. There's nowhere in the chassis to slot the pen in, but it does clip magnetically on to the power connector. It's a reasonably secure fit, but if you toss the tablet in your bag you're likely to have to rummage around to find the pen later. The pen works anywhere in the OS, but it's best-suited to the graphics and various other creative apps, including OneNote. It's not something we'd see ourselves using daily, but it sure makes quick sketches and doodles mighty easy.
While we spent much of our testing with the keyboard attached, to experience the thing as a tablet we popped off the Type Cover and headed to the couch, spending hours web surfing while inane TV programming slowly rotted our gray matter. Using IE in this way is quite good, as it's finger-friendly and responsive, and of course in this way you're encouraged to use all the great Windows 8 gestures, which become intuitive enough after only a few minutes of use. Additionally, the on-screen keyboard offers a selection of usable layouts, and the predictive text and autocorrect functionality mean you can type reasonably quickly.
Weight, combined with the angular edges that dig into fleshy parts of hands, means this is not a tablet you'll want to hold for long.
But, we still had a problem: we physically couldn't get comfortable with the tablet. When laying it flat on a lap it's fine, but we could never find a good way to hold it in a more upright position. At about two pounds, it's definitely on the heavy side, which is one major strike against and that, combined with the angular edges that dig into fleshy parts of hands, means this is not a tablet you'll want to hold for long. Sure, the kickstand means you can set it up on a coffee table if you like, but that's hardly the ideal, couch-based, lean-back experience most tablets do so well.
Additionally, when used as a tablet you'll want to steer as far clear of the traditional desktop as possible. We mentioned issues with text scaling, but typing is an issue as well. While there is a virtual keyboard for the desktop, it's wholly separate from the version you get in native Windows 8 apps. It doesn't offer any of the predictive text or autocorrect functionality offered by the (identical-looking) keyboard you get when running an app that plays nice with the tiled interface. Switching back and forth is incredibly confusing and makes typing a real chore.
Finally, just getting into the tablet takes longer than the Android or iOS competition. Hit the power button and you'll have to wait for about three to four seconds for the display to pop on. Then, assuming you've set a password, you'll have to type that in, and secure passwords are rarely fun on virtual keyboards. Login passwords can be replaced by a simpler PIN or even Microsoft's innovative picture login (where you tap on specific areas of an image), but there's no way to tell the OS to only ask for credentials after a certain period of inactivity. If you're the type who likes to quickly pop on your tablet to check for new email or Facebook messages every few minutes, you may find yourself forced out of that habit here.
Now, few of those laptops and tablets the Surface Pro will be compared against can cross those disparate use cases quite as well as this guy can, but within those individual categories of laptop and tablet the Surface Pro struggles.
Overall performance of our Intel Core i5 Surface Pro more than met our expectations. A cold boot is completed in eight seconds or less, which is quite impressive indeed, and apps launched snappily and reacted well. Performance here is definitely adequate to get some serious work done, impressions that were backed by our benchmarks. The Surface Pro attained a 4,673 average score in PCMark 7 and 3,811 in 3DMark06, marks that favorably compare to the similarly specced Acer Iconia W700.
E917 / P572
E989 / P563
It should be noted, however, that while running these benchmarks the back of the tablet did get very warm to the touch and the little fan in here certainly let its presence be known with a somewhat shrill, high-pitched noise. We rarely heard it during less-intensive use, but full-screen video playback was enough to make it kick in.
While performance was just fine, battery life wasn't.
But while performance was just fine, battery life wasn't. On our standard Windows battery rundown test, in which we fix the display brightness and loop a video endlessly to exhaustion, the Surface Pro scored just three hours and 46 minutes, despite having a 42.5Wh battery -- a third larger than the 31.5Wh pack in the Surface RT. That's just more than a third of the nine hours and 36 minutes the Surface RT scored, well lower than the similarly specced W700 (which managed seven hours) and short of every touch-friendly Windows 8 device we've yet tested.
Like the Surface RT, the Surface Pro has dual 720p cameras, one pointed in each direction. And, like the Surface RT, they're both pretty poor. Photos are incredibly full of noise and the sensor seems to be completely unable to manage contrast, resulting in images that are either totally washed out or far too dark. It's like anti-HDR. See for yourself in the gallery below. Video quality is similarly limited and we couldn't help but notice a whirring, buzzing noise in the background of all the footage we captured. Is this the CPU fan spinning away inside? You be the judge.
If you're looking to buy, we'd highly recommend stepping up to the 128GB model.
There's only one CPU on offer, the 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U, and only a single RAM config, that being 4GB. Really, then, the only choice is how much integrated flash storage you want -- but this, too, is an easy decision. For $899 you can get the 64GB model, but there's only 23GB available thanks to the recovery partition and, of course, the OS itself. If you're looking to buy, we'd highly recommend stepping up to the 128GB model, which has a far more livable 83GB free. (Note that you can delete the 8GB recovery partition, which helps a bit.)
When it comes to devices you might be cross-shopping with, the most direct competition is the $1,000 Acer Iconia W700, which features the same processor paired with the same allotment of RAM and storage (4GB and 128GB, respectively). Performance was slightly better here than the W700 in most respects, but both were well within spitting distance of each other. The integrated kickstand in the Surface is infinitely better than the clunky, cranky external stand Acer packs in, but Acer's pack-in keyboard is far more comfortable than the Type Cover -- though far less portable. It did, though, clock in more than seven hours on the battery rundown test.
We're also intrigued by the Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro (which costs $1,200 for a 128GB model with S Pen) and the 11.6-inch convertible Lenovo ThinkPad Helix Ultrabook (starting at a rather more dear $1,500), but as we've not had a chance to review them just yet, we'll withhold judgment for a little while.
And then, of course, there's the most direct competition for this guy: the Surface with Windows RT. It's priced $300 less and offers comparable perceived performance with nearly three times the battery life, more usable storage space and all in a thinner, lighter package. But, as it's running the RT flavor of Windows 8, compatibility with legacy apps is... well, there isn't any. You're wholly restricted to what you can do on the web and to the still very limited selection of RT-compatible apps that have been released. If your intended usage leans far more toward casual content consumption, or if you do most of your work through a browser, these concerns may not bother you much at all.
We're still completely enraptured by the idea of a full-featured device that can properly straddle the disparate domains of lean-forward productivity and lean-back idleness. Sadly, we're still searching for the perfect device and OS combo that not only manages both tasks, but excels at them. The Surface Pro comes about as close as we've yet experienced, but it's still compromised at both angles of attack. When trying to be productive, we wished we had a proper laptop and, when relaxing on the couch, we wished we had a more finger-friendly desktop interface -- though more native Windows 8 apps might solve the problem by keeping us from having to even go there.
That it offers compatibility with the massive back-catalog of Windows apps gives this a strong leg up over the earlier Surface RT, but the thickness, heft and battery life are big marks against. We're confident Microsoft will keep refining Windows 8 to make the OS as a whole more seamlessly tablet-friendly, and we look forward to testing the dozens of touch-friendly hybrid and convertible devices due this year, but sadly Microsoft's second tablet doesn't have us reaching for our credit cards. Not quite yet.