Is the brilliant, quirky, flawed Surface Pro right for you?

Summary:Microsoft's ready to release its second Surface-branded device to the public. Unlike the Surface RT, the new Surface with Windows 8 Pro is a real PC, with all the strengths and weaknesses that go with it. Should you buy one?

Over the past three months, I’ve had countless people tell me they had decided to skip Surface RT and were looking forward to Surface Pro. The top item on the wishlist by far is the ability to run Windows desktop apps, especially Microsoft Outlook.

What’s the difference between the Surface Pro and the Surface RT?

Here’s a list of the key differences between the two devices:

  • Screen resolution  At a full HD display resolution (1920x1080), the Surface Pro is considerably sharper and clearer than the Surface RT, which uses a 1366x768 display. It’s capable of multi-monitor operation, which I was able to test using a 24-inch display connected via HDMI.
  • Storage  The Surface Pro uses a Micron C400 mSATA NAND Flash SSD at 6GB/s. By contrast, the Surface RT uses an MMC flash card, which gets slower performance.
  • CPU  Surface Pro has an i5 CPU; Surface RT uses an ARM-based Nvidia Tegra 3. There’s a considerable difference in horsepower between those two devices, which tilts the scales in favor of the Surface Pro. But with great power comes great power consumption, which means that the Surface Pro really does get about half the battery life of the much more efficient Surface RT.
  • Heat  Higher power consumption means more heat. In even the most strenuous circumstances, the Surface RT remains cool, and it has no fans. The Surface Pro, by contrast is warm to the touch in normal operation—not uncomfortably so, but noticeable. To deal with the heat of that i5 CPU, the Surface Pro has internal fans and air vents that extend all the way around the device. I heard the fans kick in only once during roughly two weeks of use, during an extensive file-copying/indexing operation. The rest of the time they were whisper quiet.
  • OS  Windows 8 Pro allows the Surface Pro to run Windows desktop apps (including browsers other than Internet Explorer 10) and browser plugins besides the in-built Flash Player. It also means that the device is compatible with any device that has Windows 7/8 drivers. The list of devices that works with Windows RT is much smaller. Windows RT also includes a limited version of Office. On Windows 8 devices, including the Surface Pro, Office requires a separate purchase.
  • USB 3.0  Data transfer speeds for the Surface Pro using USB 3.0 devices are much greater than for the Surface RT, which supports only USB 2.0. The more capable port also allows greater expansion options.
  • Security  The Surface Pro includes a Trusted Platform Module 1.2 chip. The Surface RT has TPM 2.0 capabilities built in.
  • Networking  Wi-Fi is powered by a Marvell Avastar 350N chipset. It was fast and reliable in my testing. That’s an upgrade from the Surface RT, which incorporates Marvell networking technology into the Nvidia System-on-a-Chip (SOC).
  • Active digitizer  The Surface Pro comes with a stylus, which cleverly snaps into the power connector for traveling. For some tablet users, this is a killer feature, and the palm rejection worked exceptionally well in my testing.
004_surface_pro_handwriting

Despite the fact that they use the same connector, the power supplies for the two Surface devices are quite different. The Surface Pro has a significantly larger battery (42 W-h versus 31.5 W-h), and thus its power adapter is larger than the Surface RT’s wall wart. It also has a longer cord, making it more suitable for plugged-in use in an office or conference room.

And, of course, the Surface Pro itself is bulkier than its svelte younger sibling. It weighs 938 grams (just a little more than 2 pounds) compared to 690 grams (a bit more than 1.5 pounds) for the Surface RT. By comparison, a third-generation iPad weighs about 672 grams. It’s also noticeably thicker than the Surface RT, at 13.5 mm versus 9.3 mm for the Surface RT.

Those differences in thickness and weight are relative, of course. The Surface Pro is thinner and lighter than any Ultrabook, and even with a keyboard attached it’s thinner than an 11.6-inch MacBook Air and nearly identical in weight.

How long does the battery last?

In my tests, I consistently got between 5 and 6 hours of operation in working sessions, using normal power management settings and occasionally stepping away from the device. That’s not a formal run-down test, but it does accurately simulate the way many people will work.

As a benchmark, I tested continuous video playback on the device, using the Balanced power setting and swapping the video window to a sidebar for two five-minute network file copy operations. In that mode, the system ran for 4:15 before insisting that I plug in or shut down. On a cross-country or intercontinental flight without in-seat power, that’s a serious limitation.

005_surface_pro_power

By comparison, Apple claims that the 11.6-inch MacBook Air will deliver “five hours of wireless web.”

How fast is it?

I’ll leave the synthetic benchmarks to others. In operation, this machine was faster and more responsive than any portable PC I’ve ever used. In particular, Office 2013 apps snap open in under 2 seconds. Even Outlook, which was connected to an Outlook.com (Hotmail) account.

Which leaves the big questions still to be resolved: How does Surface Pro compare to a high-end Ultrabook? Is it the equal of a tablet? And who (if anyone) will want to buy one?

Page 3: Go Pro or say no?

Topics: Microsoft Surface, Microsoft, Windows 8

About

Ed Bott is an award-winning technology writer with more than two decades' experience writing for mainstream media outlets and online publications. He has served as editor of the U.S. edition of PC Computing and managing editor of PC World; both publications had monthly paid circulation in excess of 1 million during his tenure. He is the a... Full Bio

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