Microsoft's second tablet, the Surface with Windows 8 Pro, was originally announced back in June 2012, with a launch date pencilled in for 90 days after the ARM-based Surface with Windows RT. That's fast approaching, and while a specific launch date remains a closely-guarded secret, the final hardware has made its first appearance in an offsite meeting room at CES 2013 in Las Vegas. We spent about 45 minutes with the Surface Pro, and although that's not enough time to get much beyond the surface of the Surface, we were able to examine some of its key features.
Compared to its ARM-based sibling, the Surface Pro is slightly larger (0.53in./1.35cm thick versus 0.37in./0.94cm) and heavier (2lb/0.9kg versus 1.5lb/0.68kg), and returns to Microsoft's Wintel roots with a third-generation Core i5 processor and the Windows 8 Pro operating system. That means you can run desktop software — and with a Mini-DisplayPort adapter, you can also add a second monitor. Design-wise, the Surface Pro and the Surface RT are very similar, with the same-size 10.6in. multi-touch ClearType screen — although the Pro has a higher 'full HD' (1,920-by-1080-pixel) resolution than its stablemate's 'HD' (1,366 by 768 pixels). Because it will draw more power, the Surface Pro has a higher-capacity battery (42Wh) than the Surface RT (31.5Wh).
This general design similarity means you can use the same TouchCover and TypeCover keyboards with the two Microsoft tablets, although we expect many users to opt for a Bluetooth device.
Unlike Surface RT, Surface Pro comes with a pen. Designed to connect to the tablet's magnetic power connector when you're travelling, the pen is comfortable and easy to use, with an offset right-click button that's less likely to be accidentally clicked. The screen's active digitizer is pressure sensitive, and so should work well with art software. The magnetic connection isn't as strong as the Surface Pro's keyboard connector, but it's good enough for most purposes — although we'd be inclined to keep the pen in a pocket or a carry case for safety.
The Surface Pro runs surprisingly cool, thanks to its peripheral venting. Heat isn't pushed out of a single vent by a fan, but is evenly ejected via a slot that surrounds the entire tablet. It's an interesting approach, and one we'll need to spend more time exploring — especially under heavy CPU load. The vent also makes the Surface Pro seem thinner than it is, drawing the eye away from the rest of the case.
More accessible MicroSD slot
Microsoft has moved the Surface Pro's MicroSD card slot from its Surface RT location under the kick-stand to one of the sides. That makes it easier to pop flash storage in and out when you're using the Surface Pro in tablet mode. Unlike a traditional notebook there are very few ports: you only get one USB 3.0 port alongside the Mini-DisplayPort (which replaces the Micro-HDMI port on the Surface RT). With built-in Bluetooth 4.0 and the Surface Pro's proprietary keyboard connector, a single USB port is just enough — and USB 3.0 is extremely fast: we were able to bring a 30Mpixel image off a camera in just a couple of seconds.
A desktop slate?
One intriguing use case for Surface Pro is as a desktop slate. Laid flat on a desk, with an attached monitor mirroring the Surface Pro's full-HD screen, it becomes an editing tool much like a Wacom Cintiq. Using a mix of touch and pen, you can use desktop Windows software such as Adobe's Photoshop or Lightroom to edit images — using the Surface to control the image on a full-size monitor. Attach a Bluetooth keyboard and a mouse, and you've got a tablet that can also be a fully-fledged design workstation.
What Microsoft is delivering with Surface Pro is a laptop that's also a tablet (in a similar way, the Surface RT is a tablet that's also a laptop). It's shaping up to be the Tablet PC done right, with a mix of hardware and software that should make it attractive to many users — and at an ultrabook price point ($899 for 64GB of storage, $999 for 128GB — not including keyboard covers).