Microsoft Surface Pro Review: A Tablet/Laptop Hybrid With Compromises

Does Microsoft's Surface Pro prove to be the best of the tablet and laptop world? ABC News reviews the new tablet-laptop hybrid.

ByJoanna Stern
February 05, 2013, 5:42 PM

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.

RELATED: 8 Things You Need to Know About Using Windows 8

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.

RELATED: Microsoft Surface RT Review

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!

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