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Review: Surface Pro is the world's best Windows tablet, but still can't close the deal

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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.

image: robert cardin
Sure, it looks like a Windows 8 laptop, but its screen dimensions harken back to netbooks, and its keyboard features aren't ideal.

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.

image: robert cardin
Microsoft clearly has cornered the VaporMg market. Maybe it should have saved some of the raw chassis material for the Surface pen.

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.

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At a Glance
  • Surface Pro is the best Windows tablet, but depending on your needs, it may not be the best Windows 8 hybrid for you.

    Pros

    • Ultrabook-caliber components.
    • Beautiful, 1920-by-1080 display.
    • Windows 8 grants full desktop application support.

    Cons

    • Pen is a nice touch, but chintzy.
    • Display size and keyboard comfort will make you think twice.
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