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?

There is no question that the Surface Pro is a PC that can do double duty as a tablet. But its ability to switch between those modes means deliberate design choices that can frustrate anyone who wants one device or the other, without any compromises.

What makes the Surface Pro different from other Windows 8 hybrids and Ultrabooks?

The screen resolution is one obvious differentiator. Most devices in this size and price point (especially those with touchscreens) include 1366x768 screens. Windows 8 adapts the resolution of the Start screen and modern/Metro apps to keep tiles and fonts similar in size to those lower-resolution devices. On the desktop, the DPI is set by default to 150% of normal, making menus and onscreen fonts larger than they would normally appear at such a high resolution. The result is a much crisper display than you would expect.

The digitizer with stylus is also a feature usually found only in high-end business-class notebooks.

But the real differentiator is the extreme portability of this device. Other OEMs have introduced Windows 8 hybrids, but mostly they have stiff dedicated keyboards (with or without extra batteries) with hinges so that the screen can detach from the base. The availability of the Touch Cover (and to a lesser extent the Type Cover) makes either Surface capable of being carried comfortably without a separate case and keyboard. That makes it easy to slip into even a thin pocket and open in cramped spaces (like a coach seat on an American Airlines international flight).

What makes this different from a dedicated tablet?

The Surface Pro faces most of the same criticisms as the Surface RT when used as a tablet. The current selection of apps in the Windows Store is … well, let’s call it a good start. The built-in Bing News/Sports/Weather apps are brilliant, but the Mail app needs a significant upgrade before the Windows power users who will stand in line for this device will accept it.

There’s no comparison, yet, to the robust selection available for the iPad or the slightly more erratic but still large selection of Android tablet apps.

But the biggest failing of the Surface Pro as a tablet can best be expressed as follows (do your own Steve Ballmer imitation here): “Battery, battery, battery!”

At 4-5 hours of continuous battery life, this device forces its owner to constantly be thinking of where the next outlet is located and how to nurse more minutes out of each charge. An iPad might not run Office, but it can run for an entire working day and even into the night, which is a clincher for some would-be buyers.

How much user data can it store?

If you use the Surface Pro as a companion device, and you can count on a readily available wireless network for access to cloud storage, this question won’t matter to you. But if your work demands that you haul around large amounts of data and this is a primary work device, you might have to think twice.

The good news is that the depressingly small numbers you might have heard quoted for Surface Pro free space aren’t accurate. Last week, Microsoft sparked a brief furor by issuing a statement that confirmed some surprisingly low amounts of free space that buyers would have for user data in the two standard configurations.

In my testing of the 128 GB Surface Pro configuration, those confirmed numbers were far too low. And a source within the company confirms that those estimates were not correct and that the actual published specs for available space will be revised upward before the device goes on sale.

In my testing, the $999 128 GB model had 89.7 GB of free space after a clean install, up significantly from the 83 GB that was incorrectly confirmed by last week’s statement. By extrapolation, that means the 64 GB model should offer very close to 30 GB of available data storage.

006_surface_pro_storage

The Recovery partition takes up 7.81 GB of disk space. On either Surface Pro model you can copy the recovery partition to a bootable USB flash drive and reclaim the space. You can also uninstall several hundred megabytes’ worth of built-in Windows 8 apps, such as the Travel app, resulting in free space equal to 38 or 98 GB on the two Surface Pro models.

In addition, you can add extra storage capacity in the microSDXC card slot. (Currently, 64 GB cards are the maximum you’ll find through normal retail channels, but larger capacity cards are in the pipeline. The SDXC spec supports cards up to 2 TB in size.)

Of course, you can also connect fast external storage through the USB 3.0 port, which means this device would be more than capable of serving as a mobile editing workstation for photos and video, even in uncompressed formats.

Is the price right?

I’ve heard some critics complain that the price of the Surface Pro is insanely high, but I think it’s perfectly fair, at least compared with devices of equivalent capability.

At $899 for the 64 GB Surface Pro plus $120 for a Touch Cover, which can reasonably be considered the entry-level package, you’re at a starting point of $1,019. Bumping the configuration up to the $999 128 GB model, upgrading to a Type Cover (an extra $10), and adding a 64 GB microSD card (+$60) brings the total up to $1189.

That can’t compete with the scores of cheap Windows notebooks that have flooded the market in recent years, but it’s right in line with the price of high-end touch-enabled notebooks from other PC OEMs.

And that brings us to the final question: Are there enough potential buyers out there who are willing to pay a premium price for a brilliant, quirky, imperfect product?

In other words:

Who is the Surface Pro for, anyway?

The ideal buyer of this device, I suspect, is someone who works in a large office and is continually bouncing between meeting rooms, with ready access to Wi-Fi and power outlets. The Surface Pro absolutely shines in that scenario, and it works for occasional trips outside the office as well: an hour or two in a coffee shop, a short flight to a customer meeting, a few hours on the couch in the evening with one eye on the big screen and the other on Twitter.

It helps, too, if the person using this device is well connected to Microsoft products and cloud services and is already familiar with Windows 8 and eager to switch to a touchscreen device.

In short, this is a great product for anyone who’s already committed to a Microsoft-centric work environment. It isn’t likely to inspire many iPad owners to switch, unless those Apple tablets are in the hands of someone who has been eagerly awaiting an excuse to execute the iTunes ecosystem.

I don’t expect Surface Pro to be a breakout hit for Microsoft. Too many people will have good reasons to say no, at least for now. But it does represent a solid, interesting, adventurous alternative for anyone who wants to spend some quality time today exploring Microsoft’s vision of the future.

The big question is how large that market is, and whether Microsoft can evolve both the Surface hardware and its accompanying apps and services so the next iteration is capable of breaking out in a big way.

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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