When Microsoft released its first-ever Surface device back in October, the first wave of reviews was less than kind, to put it mildly. Most reviewers praised the hardware but panned the Windows RT software.
So now it’s time for the sequel. In a few days, Microsoft will begin selling its second Surface device, this one with innards that are more like a conventional PC.
Spoiler alert: I expect the first wave of reviews for this device to be only moderately better than those that the first Surface garnered. This device is filled with brilliant design touches, but it also has enough flaws that many potential buyers will either say no outright or play wait and see.
The Surface Pro (that’s not its official name, but let’s go with it) isn’t for everyone. If you make your living as a writer, it’s an especially poor fit because of the Surface line’s unique approach to input devices. If you insist on above-average battery life or a traditional keyboard and touchpad, you should look elsewhere. But if your needs line up with the Surface Pro’s strengths, you might find it just right.
Like its little RT-powered brother, the Surface Pro isn’t easy to categorize. And a bunch of reviews that match it with iPads and Ultrabooks won’t help.
The Surface Pro exists in a segment of its own, outside the mainstream, probably ahead of its time. Lining it up next to a conventional portable PC or a popular tablet like the iPad or Nexus 10 results in a comparison with too many places where the respective features and capabilities don’t match up at all.
In this review, I want to avoid falling into the one-size-fits-all trap. So I’ve decided to write this review in Q&A format, with the goal of helping you quickly sort yourself into pro-Surface or no-Surface camps.
What is the Surface Pro?
Spec-wise, the Surface with Windows 8 Professional is nearly indistinguishable from a high-end Windows 8 Ultrabook. It has a third-generation Core i5 (Ivy Bridge) CPU, with 4 GB of RAM and either 64 GB or 128 GB of flash memory for storage.
At a quick glance, it’s remarkably similar in appearance to the Surface RT. Both devices are made from the same matte-finish titanium-colored VaporMg material, with a 10.6-inch display, front- and rear-facing cameras, and a kickstand that props the device up for typing or viewing. The device is chamfered from front to back, with a beveled edge that slopes at 26 degrees (compared to 22 degrees for the Surface RT).
The only visible bit of branding on the device is the new Windows logo, which identifies the button centered below the display when viewed in landscape mode. Some additional bits of information, including the Microsoft logo, the device name and model number, legal disclaimers, and certification logos (UL, for instance) are hidden beneath the kickstand.
Surface Pro uses the exact same “click in” Touch Cover and Type Cover keyboard/trackpad accessories that the Surface RT does. If you have both devices, you can mix and match the covers, which I’ve been doing in my testing over the past couple weeks.
On one side, the Surface Pro has a single USB 3.0 port, a volume control rocker, and a headphone jack. On the other side you’ll find a mini DisplayPort connector (the review unit I received came with adapters for VGA and full-size DisplayPort connectors), a 5-pin magnetic power connector (more about that in a minute), and a microSDXC Card slot.
In terms of attention to design, this is clearly a premium product. Nothing about it feels cheap or flimsy. The packaging is first-rate as well, leading to an overall experience that compares favorably to Apple and should embarrass some of Microsoft’s OEM partners.
This Surface runs Windows 8 Pro, and it is remarkably free of any third-party software. The only additions to a clean install are Skype (naturally) and a custom app for configuring the Touch and Type Covers.
Yeah, yeah, I can hear you asking: How long does the battery last? And how much user data can I put on it, really? For the answers to those and more questions, including a detailed list of the differences between the two Surface devices, turn the page.