Feb. 5, 2013 -- Life is about compromise, they say. We make compromises at our jobs, for our families, for the people we love. And our computers?
Microsoft made a very clear statement when it released Windows 8 last October. The new operating system was for tablets, laptops and desktops -- it was about not compromising. The software was built for the lean-back tablet experience with lots of new apps and a Start Screen with bright tiles -- but also for the lean-in experience of using a laptop for work.
Microsoft designed its very own Surface tablets to make the point -- the tablet was, well, a tablet, but innovative keyboards with built-in trackpads "click in" to turn it into a laptop.
Microsoft released the Surface RT tablet when Windows 8 launched. In our review at the time, I said it wasn't either a great tablet or laptop. The tablet couldn't run traditional Windows programs, there weren't enough great apps to pull me away from my iPad, and it got slow at times.
The Surface Pro aims to solve those issues with a faster Core i5 processor and a full version of Windows 8. It sounds like a laptop and it's priced like one too -- it costs $899 (or $1,000 when you add the keyboard). But is it a good laptop and a good tablet?
Heavier and Thicker
Looking at the Surface Pro from afar, you wouldn't know the tablet was any different than its brother the Surface RT. It has the same all-black design with squarer edges than the iPad, a full USB port, and a mini-HDMI port. It's crafted of the same durable VaporMg metal material, allowing it to withstand the nastiest drops and bumps. But pick up the tablet and the differences will hit you fast.
The two-pound, .53-inch Surface Pro is a half a pound heavier and 0.16 inches thicker than the Surface RT and the iPad. Those numbers might not mean much on paper, but they make a big difference in your hand or in a bag. It's too heavy to hold up and use to read on in bed, and the tablet took up more space in my shoulder bag than I preferred.
Of course, if you are comparing the tablet to a laptop with similar internal parts, it's much more compact than most. However, there are some similarly sized ultrabooks and the 11.6-inch MacBook Air only weighs 2.38 pounds and is 0.68 inches at its thickest point.
The hardware does feel sturdier than the other Windows 8 tablets I've tested from Samsung, Asus and Acer, but you sacrifice some portability for that premium make. Why is the tablet so much heftier than the RT version? Largely because of the bigger battery and the higher performance parts Microsoft crammed inside. More on that soon.
A Screen with a Higher Resolution Kick
The kickstand that sits flush with the back of the tablet does come in handy when the Pro becomes too heavy or cumbersome to hold. While I have gotten pretty good at making pillow tents to stand up my iPad, the nicely integrated stand was hugely convenient when I just wanted to prop the tablet up and watch some episodes of "The New Girl" on Hulu in bed. (If only it could make the incessant ads go away!)
And I'd much rather have the Surface Pro than the Surface RT for watching those episodes. While the Pro got the heft, it did get a nicer screen. The 10.6-inch screen has a higher 1920 x 1080 resolution now, making everything look crisper and higher quality than the RT's 1366 x 768 display. The increased resolution does make it easier if you want to run programs side by side, but the screen size is a bit cramped when it comes to turning the tablet into a laptop to do work. When I attached it to an external monitor I had plenty of screen real estate to run other programs and work effectively, but on the go, I found myself wanting to use my 13-inch laptop.
Keyboards and a Pen
The screen and the kickstand set the stage for the last important piece of hardware that transforms the tablet into a laptop: the attachable keyboards. The Pro is available with the same two keyboards as the RT version. The Touch Cover looks a lot like Apple's Smart Cover and uses strong magnets to latch to the bottom of the tablet. It is only 3mm thick. A layer of touch sensors creates for a new typing experience without actual keys. As I said in the RT review, it's a brand new experience and very odd at first, but after a week I was able to type about 75 words per minute on it. That's less than I can type on a regular keyboard, but about equal to my speed on some of the iPad Bluetooth keyboards.
However, I wrote most of this review on the Type Cover, the other keyboard available. The black Type Cover has physical keys and a more usable trackpad for navigating Windows 8 with a cursor. I was able to type at a faster clip (86 words per minute) using the Type Cover too. It's not as thin as the Touch Cover (and you can't get it in the colors of the rainbow), but I figure the tablet is already thick, so what's another few millimeters?
Another note about using it as a laptop: The kickstand and keyboard together allow you to transform the tablet into a clamshell device, but it doesn't sit very well on a lap. It's a balancing act, to say the least. You have to position the keyboard just right; if you lean back just a bit the whole thing can go toppling over. Good thing the tablet can withstand that drop on the floor!
In addition to the touch screen and mouse input there's another way of navigating on the Surface Pro. Included in the box is a plastic black pen that resembles a mechanical pencil, complete with an eraser. It actually functions as one on the screen: scribble something wrong, flip over the pen, rub where you made the mistake, and it will disappear! The pen is very accurate and works great with Windows 8's built-in handwriting recognition tool. It's also great for sketching or taking handwritten notes in One Note. Additionally, the screen didn't pick up anything when I rested my palm on it when taking notes with the pen.
World of Programs and Performance
The beauty, though, of the Surface Pro is that you can download any previous Windows sketching program or any program for that matter. While the Surface RT version would only run the newest apps available in the Windows Store, the Pro is like any other Windows PC. You can download any of the apps in the Store that were designed for touchscreens, and also any programs via the web for Windows 7.
The wider selection of apps solves one of the biggest issues of the original, but the lack of some apps in the store is noticeable. There are still no great Twitter or Facebook apps for Windows 8, and while you can access either of those through the two Web browsers (the one through the desktop and the one on the Start Screen style version), they're not touch-optimized.
The Surface Pro does a nice job running lots of apps simultaneously. Powered by a Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM and the 64GB solid-state drive, the Pro is just as capable and fast as most laptops. Programs load quickly and, in contrast to the Surface RT, there's none of that lag or stuttering when switching apps or swiping them in from the left. It also resumes from sleep in seconds and boots in under 10 seconds, but it's also very quick to run out of steam.
The tablet has a larger battery than the Surface RT, but lasts about half the time on a charge. In regular use, which included writing this review, checking email in Outlook and surfing the Web, I got close to five and a half hours of power. However, when looping a video it lasted under five hours (4:40 to be exact); the Surface RT lasted nearly nine hours on the same test and many laptops run for nearly seven or eight hours. There are also some tablets with keyboard docks that are equipped with batteries that can double their endurance.
The Surface Pro solves a lot of the issues I had with the Surface RT, but has some new ones. It can now run a lot more programs, but the tablet is much thicker and heavier. It is now a lot faster, but it only lasts five hours on a charge. It has a beautiful, high-resolution screen, but it's now more expensive.
As a tablet, the Surface Pro is not as strong as its competitors. It's larger, the battery life can't compete and still lacks critical apps. As a laptop it's hampered by its smaller screen size, lack of a good mouse option and the fact that it doesn't really sit on your lap. Putting the two together results in a breed that's simply not as compelling as separate tablets and laptops.
The Surface Pro is a good choice for a niche mobile user, one who is willing to pay $1,000 for the power and robustness of a full Windows computer in a small and very compelling form factor. Many people, however, will likely prefer to get a tablet and buy a separate Windows laptop, so they don't have to make another compromise.