On 9 February, the Surface got another lease on life. This version, known as the Surface Pro, tackles head-on many of the complaints about the original Surface RT — especially that model's compromised Windows RT operating system. The Surface Pro offers a full Windows 8 experience that works with older Windows software titles, packs a real Intel Core i5 processor and boldly stuffs the entire PC experience into a sleek and appealing tablet body that's just a tad thicker and heavier than the RT version.
There's a lot to like here, if not to love. While the Surface Pro isn't the first Windows 8 tablet, it may well be the best one to date, at least in terms of design. The magic here is in the details: the ingenious detachable keyboard cover and the included pressure-sensitive stylus both go a long way toward setting the Surface Pro apart from the other laptops, tablets and hybrids we've seen so far.
Can the Surface Pro work as a real, everyday PC — a task that rival iPads, Android tablets and even those Windows RT models couldn't quite handle? For us, initial sceptics, it can. You can colour us impressed.
If you were skipping the Surface RT because you wanted "true" laptop power and performance, the Pro version is definitely the way to go.
But while it's undeniably more powerful, the Surface Pro makes trade-offs — most notably middling battery life, a heavier chassis and a price tag that starts at US$899. That hit on your wallet becomes closer to US$1200 if you go with the 128GB version (a necessity) and add the so-cool-you'll-want-it keyboard cover. And you can say goodbye to the free version of Microsoft Office that came with the Surface RT; Surface Pro buyers will need to spring for that, too.
We're waiting for Microsoft to throw us a bone. The Surface Pro's best feature isn't even in the box; toss in the US$129 Type Cover. Or give us Microsoft Office. Otherwise, we think we're holding out for the inevitable Surface Pro 2 — the one that will undoubtedly offer better battery life and a host of other upgrades. This version makes strides, but it's not the perfect laptop killer yet.
Design: boxy, sexy, cool
Microsoft has done something right with the Surface Pro's overall design: everything works exactly as advertised, and with an extremely elegant, bordering on beautiful, sense of design. The industrial magnesium chassis of the Surface Pro feels solid, but isn't too heavy to hold in one hand. One notable difference between it and the slightly thinner RT version of the Surface is a hairline wraparound vent on the rear that works with internal fans to keep the more powerful CPU running smoothly.
At 2 pounds (903g), the Surface Pro weighs less than a regular ultrabook, and at 10.81x6.81x0.53 inches, it's more compact. But it's bigger than your average tablet, and weighs more, too. It feels like a larger iPad decked out in a fat suit. In fact, it still feels more like a super slimmed-down laptop than a regular tablet, especially with the Type or Touch Cover attached.
The Surface Pro atop an HP Envy x2.
The closest equivalent we've reviewed was the Acer Iconia W700, a nearly identical tablet in terms of specs. The Iconia is longer and wider, and has an 11.6-inch screen; the Surface Pro's is 10.6 inches.
Made of the same "VaporMG" magnesium as the Surface RT, it feels even better than it looks, which — despite being cleanly honed — is a little boxy.
The Surface Pro tips the scales at 2 pounds even; add half a pound (227g) for one of the keyboard covers, and another 0.6 pounds (272g) for the AC adapter and cord. That's heavier than the Surface RT and iPad (both are around 1680g), but lighter than most laptops, even with the keyboard case in tow.
If there's any ergonomic complaint we can level at the Surface, it's the angle of the tablet in kickstand mode when sitting at a desk and using the small kickstand flap that folds out to form the back of the system. The angle is not adjustable, and while it works fine with the Type Cover attached, we would prefer it to be angled up a bit more. We found ourselves hunching over to get to a perfect angle.
The 10.6-inch display is small, especially for a full Windows laptop, but it's crisp and bright and has a full 1920x1080-pixel resolution. We found ourselves able to work on it easily, but we could also see that you'd want to plug in a monitor for all-day use. The good news is that the Surface Pro supports up to 2560x1440-pixel resolution on an external display. Even if you didn't use another monitor, the Surface's IPS display is one of the best we've ever seen on a small Windows computer. Capacitive multi-touch feels buttery smooth. That's the magic that made the iPhone and iPad so fun to use. The Surface Pro, in painting programs and a few other apps we tried, felt comfortable to navigate. It's not quite as brilliant as the iPad's Retina display, but it feels like it's getting spiritually close.
You can connect the Surface to a larger monitor easily; many will. A built-in Mini DisplayPort carries audio and video, and with adapters (sold separately), you can switch over to VGA or HDMI if needed. Working in multi-monitor mode operated exactly the same as you'd expect on a Windows PC. It took some fiddling to get window sizing just right, but we found that working on our desks with the innocuous Surface on the side of the monitor as a PC/second screen was a bit of a treat.
Type Cover, Touch Cover: killer accessories, neither included
Nearly this entire review has been written on the Surface Pro, using a combination of Type and Touch covers. The US$130 Type Cover has an actual keyboard with depressible keys, whereas the US$120 Touch Cover is a membrane keyboard. They both weigh about half a pound (227g), and double as screen covers for the Surface.
The Type Cover keyboard feels wonderful, easy to bang away on and largely responsive. The Touch Cover...well, not quite as much. It's usable, however. The key spacing on the Touch Cover is identical, and as long as you can get used to the lack of actual key motion and give in to tapping away lightly on what amounts to raised polyurethane squares, then it can work — even with touch typing.
The Type Cover has a real but tiny honest-to-goodness multi-touch touch pad with lower click zones; the Touch Cover's touch pad has "clickable" areas delineated below the touch-pad space with cut-out grooved lines. The Touch Cover is fun (it's available in multiple colours), but the real keyboard on the Type Cover only costs US$10 more.
We can't say enough good things about the Type Cover keyboard — if we were reviewing it separately, it would get an Editors' Choice award hands down. It attaches magnetically and seamlessly to the Surface Pro's bottom. It forms a pretty attractive cover along the lines of Apple's own (keyboard-less) Smart Cover, but with the addition of that Surface-powered keyboard/touch-pad combo that doesn't noticeably drain battery life at all.
And, yes, it forms a strong enough bond to dangle the Surface Pro upside down, but we wouldn't try this at home over a concrete floor.
Working with the included touch pad gets the job done, but you can just as easily use the Surface's touchscreen — or add a Bluetooth or USB mouse or touch pad. We used the Microsoft Wedge Touch Mouse that Microsoft included with this review unit. It's expensive but small enough, and it pairs nicely with the Surface.
The Surface Pro supports pressure-sensitive styli, and the Surface Pro comes with its own Surface Pen that magnetically attaches to the power connector to hold it in place when you're on the go. Writing and sketching felt natural, and the pen worked far more responsively than a capacitive iPad stylus (the technology's different).
Using a few basic drawing apps from the Windows Store, it all worked easily enough for my 4-year-old son and myself to enjoy.
The "fun factor" is definitely present in the Surface Pro, but there isn't the incredible level of tablet-friendly app support that iOS and Android enjoy. You can run legacy Windows applications on the Surface to your heart's content, but those won't be nearly as touch friendly.
Audio, conveyed through built-in stereo speakers, sounds adequate but not spectacular. It's better than you'd expect out of a machine this small, however.
The Surface Pro has two cameras, front and rear facing, and they're both 720p. No high-megapixel camera is included. That's OK for front-facing web chat, but for rear camera photos, it's a bit of a letdown, even though we can't ever imagine holding a Surface Pro up to take a picture.
Software and security
Microsoft Office does not come preinstalled on the Surface Pro, though it will run the full version of Office as well as any similarly configured Core i5 laptop. You get a bare-bones set of basic software, and that's it. Microsoft does include BitLocker encryption to more safely protect the data on your solid-state drive (SSD), but that's not a feature we tested.
We're comparing the Surface Pro to an ultraportable PC instead of a tablet, because for its feature set and price, that's what you'll be comparing it to when shopping. We don't think many people will choose a Surface Pro over an iPad, but some people might indeed consider it over an ultrabook or 11-inch Windows 8 ultraportable.
And based on that comparison, one of the big drawbacks of the Surface Pro as your main PC is its limited set of ports. A single USB 3.0 port, microSDXC card slot, and Mini DisplayPort are all you get. Granted, having USB 3.0 is better than the USB 2 on Atom-powered Windows tablet-laptop hybrids, but at least those (like the HP Envy x2) have two USB ports, plus a normal SD card slot.
There's no Ethernet jack, and not even a packed-in USB dongle, which might be the most bothersome part of all. It means you'd better be ready to live off Wi-Fi. There's nothing technically stopping you from plugging in a USB-based Ethernet adapter, but we found doing so hard to set up. They're not all made alike.
The Surface Pro needs a dock, particularly one with Ethernet. Something small that it can preferably jack into via the same magnetic connector strip that the keyboard covers attach to on the bottom. If the Surface Pro is meant for pros, wouldn't a dock that adds a few USB ports, Ethernet, SD card slot and HDMI make sense? We hope it happens soon. The Mini DisplayPort's bottom-right position is easy enough to plug a monitor into when the Surface is in kickstand mode, but we'd prefer something more elegant.
Consider that the Acer Iconia W700, another Windows 8 tablet, has its own dock with extra USB ports. We like the Surface Pro's design better, but have a hard time accepting the lack of a dock.
Configuration options are limited; you can either choose 64GB or 128GB of SSD storage, for US$899 or US$999, respectively. That's expensive for a tablet, but just a small premium over many Windows 8 touch-enabled ultrabooks this small.
The funny thing about the Surface Pro's available memory is that according to Microsoft, only 23GB of the 64GB Surface Pro's hard drive can be used for user files. That's odd, because we only found about 20GB of system files on the fresh-out-of-the-box Surface Pro, which would leave 44GB free on the 64GB version. If true, it would really hamper the use of the 64GB Surface Pro, and it practically dictates that you pick the 128GB version instead.
The Surface Pro is a lot different from last year's Windows RT version of the Surface, despite similar branding and looks. The Surface RT had a Tegra 3 processor, less RAM and a lower-resolution screen, and it lacked improved stylus support. (The RT can use capacitive styli like the iPad, but it lacks the pressure sensitivity and palm-blocking technology of the Pro version.)
Whereas the Surface RT costs AU$559, the Surface Pro costs US$899. But even though they look alike, they're very different beasts; the Surface runs off an ARM processor and uses Windows RT, whereas the Surface Pro has an Intel Core i5 processor and runs full Windows 8, just like a laptop.
The original Surface RT tablet received mixed reviews, largely because of its Windows RT operating system. The Surface Pro is the more significant product, because it makes no computing compromises: it's a strong case for a tablet as your PC, while the original Surface felt more like an iPad competitor. Not only can you use the tile-based Windows 8 interface on the Surface Pro, but you can also visit a regular desktop and open older applications, run Steam and do anything you'd do otherwise — including Java, Flash and legacy Windows apps. The Surface Pro connects to monitors and outputs at resolutions beyond 1080p, and you can add Bluetooth and USB 3 peripherals like mice, keyboards and external hard drives.
The great part of having a tablet with a Core i5 processor and 4GB of RAM is that it's every bit as powerful as a regular ultrabook. On our benchmark tests, it more than held its own, and even matched some Core i7 ultrabooks. The integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics are good enough to run some games on Steam with settings dialled down a bit. They match what's on any current ultrabook without discrete Nvidia or AMD graphics.
As opposed to the dialled-down Atom-based performance on an HP Envy x2 or Acer Iconia W510, you can open lots of windows and perform simultaneous tasks with relative ease. The system fans kicks in after a while, and we found the bottom getting hot when using it on a bed, particularly since the wraparound thin vents are on the back of the Surface Pro.
If only the Surface Pro had excellent battery life. It doesn't. In our video-playback battery-drain test, the Surface Pro lasted four hours and 31 minutes, regardless of whether the Type Cover was connected. That's not far off some other high-powered 11- and 10-inch ultraportables, but it's a big step down from the six-hour mark on many ultrabooks. The Acer Iconia W700 lasted more than seven hours, despite having a similar processor. Intel's newer processors coming later this year should result in a more battery-efficient Surface Pro at some point. As it currently stands, the Surface Pro can last you a good chunk of a day, but you'll need to monitor battery life and keep that sleek charger handy (which, incidentally, has its own extra USB charge port for accessories or phones). This qualifies as fair-enough battery life, but disappointing compared with other tablets — though not totally surprising.
Conclusion: where Windows 8 is taking us via the Surface
We've already seen a number of hybrid and convertible laptop/tablet designs from Microsoft's usual hardware partners, including the Lenovo Yoga 11S, the HP EliteBook Revolve and the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix, not to mention more experimental gaming-centric devices like the Razer Edge. And, with Intel's newer processors on the horizon, you'd have to wonder whether the Surface Pro could be refreshed to benefit from even more tablet-ready CPUs.
The Surface Pro will compete with those devices and others. But based on how good that Type Cover is and how good the Surface Pro's screen feels — not to mention its small size — the Surface Pro seems well positioned to rise to the top of the pack. From the moment the Surface was announced, the real killer feature was the Type Cover. The success or failure of the Surface hinges on the ability of that cover to be comfortable and productive. And we think it is. It also draws power from the tablet, never needs recharging and has a grip strong enough to hold the whole Surface tablet from the cover alone.
Microsoft and the Surface have proven the hardest point of all: that a tablet with a funky keyboard cover can replace a regular laptop, or even a desktop PC. The finer points of needing a dock, finding a better price that includes the Type Cover instead of making it a side purchase and improving battery life — and, maybe, slimming down a bit — will hopefully come in the next iteration. Right now, the Surface Pro works. It's not the most price-logical Windows 8 PC in the world — for US$1000, you might get an iPad Mini and a cheap Windows 8 laptop instead — but we think a fair number of people are going to end up being Surface Pro fans.
Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
Microsoft Surface Pro
Acer Aspire S7-391-9886
Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13
Dell Latitude 10
HP Envy x2
Acer Iconia W510P-1406
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)