Review: Surface Pro is the world's best Windows tablet, but still can't close the deal
At a Glance
Microsoft Surface Pro (128GB)
Surface Pro is the best Windows tablet, but depending on your needs, it may not be the best Windows 8 hybrid for you.
Surface RT was a broken promise. When it launched in October, it showed the world a vision of a revolutionary tablet-laptop hybrid, but it couldn’t close the deal. But now we have Surface with Windows 8 Pro, part two of Microsoft’s always fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking Surface saga. This is the hardware everyone has been waiting for. Surface RT was the warm-up act, the proof-of-concept, but the good money has always been on Surface Pro, the Surface sibling with PC-caliber specs and a fully functioning desktop.
The good news: Surface Pro is a marked improvement over Surface RT. It has a vastly better display and Ultrabook-caliber components. And thanks to Windows 8 Pro, it can run all the legacy desktop applications that we need for serious productivity. Surface Pro comes much closer than Microsoft’s ARM-based RT offering to fulfilling that elusive promise of uniting a tablet and a PC in a single, uncompromised package.
The bad news: Surface Pro doesn’t run away with the Windows 8 hybrid crown. And based on your needs, it might not be the best Windows 8 portable you can buy in the neighborhood of $1000. This is a problem because Surface Pro needs to stand out as a kick-ass reference design, and not be just another interesting-but-imperfect hardware option for anyone taking the Windows 8 plunge.
Microsoft is Microsoft, damn it! It owns Windows. Its war chest is huge. If it can’t conceive, manufacture, and market the hands-down best Windows 8 hybrid in the world, it’s got unfinished business.
Thicker chassis, better display
Relative to Surface RT and the latest 9.7-inch iPad, Surface Pro is thick, chunky, and heavy with palpable mass. Both the new iPad and Surface RT weigh 1.5 pounds and are 9.4mm thick, while Surface Pro weighs 2 pounds and measures 13.5mm thick. The tablet’s heft and girth aren’t deal-breakers, but I’m disappointed that the engineers in Redmond weren’t able to dazzle the world with a truly svelte design. A technological breakthrough along those lines would have made headlines and buoyed the flagging Surface brand.
Still, if you want a handheld tablet and an Ultrabook-caliber PC in the very same molded magnesium case, you’ll have to accept some compromises (at least until technology catches up to ergonomics).
Releasing Surface Pro with a Retina-caliber display would have given Microsoft an impressive talking point, but that didn't happen. Nonetheless, the new tablet’s 1920-by-1080-pixel, 10.6-inch screen delivers 208 pixels per inch for a level of visual clarity that’s practically indistinguishable from that of the latest iPads (whose pixel pitch is 264 ppi). In comparing Surface Pro to my third-generation iPad, I really had to search for visible pixels and differences in display quality, and any deficits exhibited by Surface Pro melted away when the tablet was farther away from my face, and propped on a desk.
Bottom line: The Surface Pro display is a serious upgrade over Surface RT's 1366-by-768-pixel, 148-ppi screen.
Basic visual quality aside, the Surface family’s 10.6-inch screens don’t offer enough real estate for complex desktop productivity tasks like image editing. Nor can you comfortably run multiple open chat windows on such a puny display. For these reasons, it’s nice that the Pro comes with a Mini DisplayPort, which can drive not only HDMI connections (a trick Surface RT also offers via its “HD video out” port) but any device with a VGA input. The upshot is that you can take your Surface Pro on the road, and connect it to any antiquated monitor or projector you may encounter—a boon if you need to present a PowerPoint deck to a bunch of insurance underwriters in Tulsa.
The Surface Pro didn’t have any trouble driving a 24-inch Dell monitor at a resolution of 1920 by 1080, mirroring the two screens at the same resolution. And when I added Microsoft’s Wedge Touch Mouse to the mix, the setup handily delivered a desktop experience—save for the lack of a comfortable keyboard, which I discuss below.
Because Surface Pro is a PC-class device running an Ultrabook-caliber Core i5 processor, it faces all the heat dissipation issues that confront a true laptop. As a result, unlike Surface RT with its sealed exterior, Surface Pro has an open grille that runs halfway around the perimeter of the chassis. Inside the tablet, two nearly silent fans dissipate heat through this venting.
During my testing, Surface Pro never felt unusually hot. In fact, I’ve felt more heat coming from the back of my third-generation iPad at times. As for fan noise, I could hear the blowers only when I put the tablet against the side of my head. It’s like raising a shell to your ear in order to “hear the sound of the sea”—inoffensive and ultimately inconsequential.
Ultrabook-caliber specs and performance
When you dig into Surface Pro’s specs and benchmark results, you see not a tablet, but a full-fledged Windows 8 hybrid. Like the Acer Iconia W700, Dell XPS Duo 12, Lenovo Yoga 13, and Lenovo ThinkPad Twist, Surface Pro includes a 1.7GHz Core i5 CPU, 4GB of RAM, and an integrated GPU care of Intel’s HD Graphics 4000. And like all of those other new Windows 8 machines (except the ThinkPad Twist), the $1000 Surface Pro comes with a 128GB SSD (a $900, 64GB version of Surface Pro is also available, but we didn't get one in for review).
With its familiar selection of internal components, Surface Pro delivered unsurprising benchmark results. In the PCMark 7 productivity suite, Microsoft’s tablet trailed the Acer W700 but out-performed all of its Core i5 stablemates mentioned above. Surface Pro also finished second in our Photoshop CS6 image editing test, outpacing all of its direct competitors except the Dell XPS Duo 12.
I spent a fair amount of time using Surface Pro for Photoshop work, and the machine delivered all the raw processing performance I needed for website production. Files opened lickety-split, and resizes, rotations, and filter conversions zipped along at a rapid clip—including work on a 70MB TIFF file. The Photoshop performance is remarkable when you consider that Surface Pro is only half a pound heavier and 4mm thicker than the latest iPad.
The Pro’s integrated graphics will break your heart if you try to play 3D games at the machine’s native resolution of 1920 by 1280. In our Civilization V and Dirt Showdown gaming tests, frame rates were unplayably poor, with numbers in the mid-teens at best. You shouldn’t expect much better from any device running a Core i5 processor and integrated graphics. We did, however, see a playable 34 frames per second in Dirt Showdown after reducing in-game resolution to 1366 by 768 and setting visual quality to low.
Unfortunately, Surface Pro doesn’t boast much interior space compared to larger Windows 8 tablets and hybrids. This constraint limits the physical dimensions of anything stuffed inside it, which probably explains why Microsoft specced Surface Pro with just a 42-watt-hour battery. This component represents a big leap forward from the 31-watt-hour battery deployed inside Surface RT, but other Core i5 hybrids run beefier cells. Acer's W700 and Lenovo's Yoga 13, for example, are bigger devices that pack 54-watt-hour batteries.
The upshot is that Surface Pro’s battery endurance is mediocre. In our video rundown test, the Pro lasted only 5 hours, 8 minutes, whereas the W700 gave up the ghost in 6 hours, 7 minutes, and the Yoga 13 pooped out in 5 hours, 37 minutes. (Also noteworthy: Those two competing hybrids have bigger screens, which puts heavier demands on their batteries.) Of course, many pure Ultrabooks post similar battery life numbers, but Surface Pro looks like a power glutton compared to ARM-based tablets like Surface RT and the iPad, which can run for more than 9 hours before finally collapsing in defeat.
Much has been made of Surface Pro’s lack of usable storage space. The 64GB version provides only 23GB of open storage—less than 36 percent of the machine’s marketed capacity. The operating system, preinstalled apps, and a recovery partition consume the remaining gigabytes. The 128GB Surface Pro, meanwhile, offers 83GB of usable storage capacity, good for 65 percent of the machine’s marketed capacity. These are disturbing figures, given that Surface RT grants 50 percent of its marketed capacity in the 32GB version, and 70 percent in the 64GB version. The 128GB iPad, meanwhile, makes more than 96 percent of its marketed spec available.
The annoying dearth of storage space reinforces the idea that Surface Pro can’t be your only PC. Rather, it becomes the machine you throw in your carry-on bag when you need legitimate PC power, but not all your applications and documents. Instead, you grab what you need from the cloud (hello, SkyDrive and Office 365), and then make do with the limited storage capacity that Microsoft provides.
You can free up some SSD space by copying your recovery partition to a USB key (here you’ll be glad that Surface Pro supports USB 3.0), and then deleting the partition from your machine. There’s also a MicroSDXC card slot in case you want to add onboard flash memory.
Putting pen to virtual paper
Surface Pro’s most novel feature is a bundled pen that turns the tablet into a drawing/writing surface for artwork and handwritten notes. The pen is 100 percent passive (that is, it doesn’t draw any electricity), but it clicks into the tablet’s magentic power port for storage. Microsoft licensed Wacom technology for this accessory, which offers 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity. If you use the pen to simulate natural media in, say, the Fresh Paint app, pushing very lightly will scarcely apply any paint, whereas pushing very hard will saturate your virtual canvas with color.
I found the pen’s pressure sensitivity to be almost as linear as that of Wacom’s entry-level Bamboo products, but response was laggy and getting the drawing tip perfectly calibrated was a chore. I was also disappointed with the build quality of the pen itself. It feels cheap and plasticky, and I don’t entirely trust the physical integrity of its parts. The bottom of the pen comes with a spongy-feeling nubbin that works like an eraser (though the erasing function must be supported by whatever app you’re using). The pen also has a flimsy-feeling pocket clip, and you can depress the magnetic connector to emulate the right-click function of a mouse.
The pen should be an attractive value-add for people who have neither a Windows tablet nor a Wacom tablet, but are looking for the functionality of both. To this end, Surface Pro can serve as a pure drawing surface when connected to a desktop monitor. You simply set it up as 'Second screen only' in your Devices charm, and you’re off to the races. The system also employs “palm rejection” technology, which ensures that when you rest your hand on the drawing surface, your skin won’t trigger unintended stylus strokes. It works as advertised.
Altogether, the pen is inoffensive: useful when you need a drawing pad, but irrelevant if you have no use for digital ink. Nevertheless, I have issues with it. First, there’s the aforementioned build quality. The Surface Pro itself is more than a tablet. It’s a design statement. Its chamfered angles and strong, silky VaporMg chassis inspire confidence. The pen, meanwhile, is just a plastic piece of tat. It should be made of VaporMg, just like its tablet companion, and not look and feel like a $2 mechanical pen.
Second, I’m worried about losing the pen. Sure, it clicks into the tablet’s power connector with a satisfying snap, but it just sits there, naked, exposed, and easy to pry loose. As a result, I never felt comfortable tossing the Surface into the bottomless pit of my backpack when the pen was attached. I believe pen accessories should be sheathed inside their tablets, and not strapped to the side with a hope and a prayer. Regardless, if you do lose the Surface pen, a replacement costs $30.
Third, Microsoft could direct me to only three apps that support the pen: Fresh Paint, Autodesk SketchBook Express, and OneNote. That’s a rather stingy, pedestrian selection for demonstrating a marquee feature. Indeed, if Surface Pro is to become a marque tablet, and if Microsoft is to become a marquee mobile hardware company, features like the Surface pen must launch with marquee software support—or with at least one killer app that gets people talking. Some kind of awesome new casual game that makes novel use of digital ink would have been just the ticket.
Could you live with Surface Pro every day?
Despite the poor selection of high-quality, big-name mobile apps in the Windows Store, I have no vehement objections to Surface Pro as a tablet. Sure, it’s not as svelte as the iOS and Android competition, but we have to accept some compromises if we want Core i5 performance.
My bigger gripe is that Surface Pro isn’t particularly accommodating as a replacement for a PC laptop. It has the core components to compete against Ultrabooks, but its screen dimensions and keyboard options don’t offer Ultrabook-caliber comfort.
A 10.6-inch display might be fine for touchy-feely Windows 8 apps, but one of Surface Pro’s biggest selling points is desktop application support—and doing serious spreadsheet or content editing work on such a small screen isn't easy. Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn’t have much room to wiggle out of this conundrum. Consumers have emphatically told manufacturers that they want smaller tablets (see Google’s Nexus 7) not larger ones (see Toshiba’s Excite 13). Indeed, if you exclude the new—and unproven—trend toward tabletop tablets like the Sony VAIO Tap 20 and Lenovo IdeaCentre Horizon, you have to conclude that the next Surface product will be smaller not larger.
Microsoft’s answer might be to offer a mobile monitor accessory, à la Lenovo’s ThinkVision Mobile Touch. Your answer, meanwhile, might be to purchase a different Windows 8 hybrid with a larger screen. Yes, you’ll give up the portability and comfort that the tablet form factor provides, but users need to consider their priorities, and decide where to compromise.
Just as meh are the Surface family’s keyboard options. Microsoft has made its Touch and Type Covers a central selling point, and last October, during my testing of Surface RT, I was impressed by what Microsoft delivers in the Type Cover. In retrospect, however, I think I was mostly giving credit to Microsoft for delivering a fair amount of keyboard in a remarkably low-profile package.
Three months later, the time I've spent with the two Surface tablets has taught me that I’d always rather use either a traditional laptop keyboard or a Bluetooth accessory keyboard. Both of those options provide greater key travel, better key response, and more-traditional key layouts than the Type Cover does. One problem is that Microsoft’s Type Cover keys are remarkably large—larger than I prefer—but have very little space between them. It’s an odd-duck layout that I’ve never really gotten used to.
Judged on sheer typing comfort, Surface Pro gives me pause. And if I had to buy a Windows 8 hybrid today, I’d lean toward the Lenovo Yoga 13 or Acer W700 because, for my needs, comfortable typing trumps Surface Pro's small packaging and cool factor.
Surface Pro is superior to Surface RT on multiple levels. It’s also the world's best pure Windows tablet (its keyboard accessories notwithstanding), and the Surface model I recommend. But the Windows 8 hardware universe has changed significantly since the Surface brand launched last October. We have many more options to choose from, and hybrid devices that offer more PC than tablet are looking like the machines that make the smarter compromises.
Give me more screen real estate, Microsoft. Give me a keyboard that I can type on all day. You’re getting so, so close to that sublime, perfect marriage of tablet and PC. Surface Pro isn’t the answer—but it comes close.