Microsoft Surface Pro reviews: Device is good, not great, critics say
The Surface Windows 8 Pro arrives on store shelves Saturday starting at $900, and the verdict is in for Microsoft’s marquee PC-meets-tablet device.
Unlike the ARM-based Surface RT, which is primarily for running touch-based apps, the Surface Pro has an Intel chip and can run almost any traditional Windows desktop program. The Pro also has the Windows 8 modern UI interface for those times when you want a touch tablet.
So how did the Surface Pro do as both a tablet and a Windows desktop PC?
Five reviews of the Surface Pro by The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg, Engadget’s Tim Stevens, The Chicago Sun-Times’ Andy Ihnatko, Time’s Harry McCracken, and PCWorld’s own Jon Phillips say the device falls short in both usage scenarios, but it has its high points and may be a good choice for some people.
Before we get into the specifics of what the critics thought was great and what wasn’t about the Surface Pro, here are the basic specs: a 10.6-inch multitouch display with 1920-by-1080 resolution at 208 pixels per inch, 4GB RAM, and a 1.7GHz Core i5 processor with integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000.
Microsoft’s tablet comes with 64GB or 128GB of storage, a stylus, one USB 3.0 port, an SD card reader, mini DisplayPort, Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, and front- and rear-facing 720p cameras.
Great build quality, but…
The consensus is that the Surface Pro looks great and has a solid build quality thanks to its vapor magnesium housing and the handy kickstand built into the rear of the device.
The Pro isn’t that different in look and feel from the RT, but it does check in a bit thicker and heavier than the RT. The Pro measures just over a half-inch thick compared to the RT’s 0.37-inch profile.
Great display and speedy performance, but…
The Surface Pro’s 1080p display impressed most reviewers and was a big hit, and the device performed well running apps like Photoshop and Office in a flash.
The screen’s smaller size, however, was problematic, especially when using traditional desktop in Windows 8. “The application’s menus and icons are minuscule on the 10.6-inch display; tapping the right feature felt like threading a needle, even when I used the pen rather than my fingertip,” McCracken said about using Photoshop on the Surface Pro.
That’s one heavy tablet
Part of the appeal of the Surface Pro is that it can be used as either a laptop-like device with a portable keyboard or as a tablet. The problem with the Pro’s tablet mode is that it is noticeably heavier than similarly-sized tablet choices such as the iPad. The Surface Pro weighs in at two pounds, while the Wi-Fi only iPad with Retina Display is a little lighter around 1.44 pounds.
That extra weight was largely seen as a detriment to the Pro’s tablet prospects. “The Pro weighs 2 pounds, which is light for a laptop but anvil-like for a tablet,” Mossberg said. Stevens concurred, saying the Surface Pro’s heft combined with its angular designs dug into your hands. “This is not a tablet you’ll want to hold for long,” Stevens said.
But not everyone agreed.
“I came to think of the Surface Pro as a super-awesome tablet,” Ihnatko said. “It’s a tantalizing preview of what tablet computers, and Windows 8, will become if Windows developers become enthusiastic about creating Modern-style apps.”
Another dent in the Surface Pro’s tablet appeal is its failure to have that instant-on feature of the iPad, Android tablets, and even the Surface RT. “Hit Surface Pro’s power button, and you get a little reminder right away that it’s more PC than tablet,” McCracken said. “Unlike Surface RT, which springs to life more or less instantly, it [Surface Pro] takes a few seconds to wake up.”
Battery life and storage
Depending on whether you think of this device as a tablet or laptop, the battery life either sucks or is respectable. Most reviewers got around 4 to 5 hours of battery life out of the device, which is ridiculous compared with the 8 to 10 hours or more you can squeeze out of most tablets. But for a traveling laptop PC it’s fine. It just depends on your point of view.
Most critics took offense with the Surface Pro’s paltry amount of real storage, similar to problems with the RT. If you pick up a 128GB Surface Pro, you can look forward to about 83GB of real storage; the rest of the space is reserved for the system.
You can free more space up by slapping your 8GB recovery partition onto a USB key, which makes you wonder why Microsoft didn’t include a recovery USB key instead. The good news is you can swap out SD cards up to 64GB in size for extra storage.
The Surface Pro comes with one accessory, a stylus, and most reviewers tried out the Surface Pro with Microsoft’s slim Type Cover, a tablet screen cover with raised, tactile keyboard keys.
Most reviewers felt the Type Cover was awkward to use and the accessory’s built-in trackpad was not great. Phillips called the Type Cover’s keyboard an “odd-duck layout that I’ve never really gotten used to.” And Steven said the Type Cover’s “dinky, unresponsive trackpad gave us chilling flashbacks to the netbooks of yore.”
Phillips had the biggest problems with the stylus, calling the pen’s build quality “cheap and plasticky.” PCWorld’s editor also found the pen was a little bit laggy in terms of responsiveness.
The Pro’s stylus also clips on to the outside of the device instead of having a slot inside the tablet’s chassis. That may be problematic if your pen gets bumped during daily outings, especially when throwing the Surface Pro in a bag, Phillips noted.
Ihnatko, however, enjoyed the stylus. “Sketching with the Surface Pro was such a pleasure that it quickly stopped being a test of the precision and responsiveness of the system and became simple playtime,” he said.
Summary of summaries
Overall, the Pro got good marks as a device that will appeal to frequent travelers looking to use a single device on road trips and don’t want to lug both a tablet and PC around. But the Pro is decidedly a work in progress as Microsoft and the rest of the PC industry try to create the perfect tablet-PC hybrid.
Phillips: “So, so close to that sublime, perfect marriage of tablet and PC. Surface Pro isn’t the answer—but it comes close.”
Ihnatko: “It’s good in its first incarnation and leaves me eager to see how much it’ll improve in future iterations.”
Stevens:“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 … The Surface Pro comes about as close as we've yet experienced, but it's still compromised at both angles of attack.”
Mossberg: “Like many products that try to be two things at once, the new Surface Windows 8 Pro does neither as well as those designed for one function.”
McCracken: “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.”