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

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?

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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.

001_Surface_031_typecover

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.

 

002_Surface_properties

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.

003_surface_pro_devices

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.

Page 2: Battery life, storage –>

Topics: Microsoft Surface, Microsoft, Windows 8, Windows 8 in Business

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173 comments
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  • Thank goodness the storage and battery life is higher than the speculations

    Some said that the Surface wouldn't have much space left on it because of the recovery partitions. And some said the Surface would only have 3 hours of batter life. Thanks Ed for this extra info.
    Jabe124
    • From what I've seen, the OEM pro tablets have much more battery life

      Noticed most of the OEM win 8 pro tablets on Amazon are claiming 9 to 10 hours of battery life.
      I've not had the time, where are they lacking over the surface? (obviously they are stronger on battery life). I would guess lesser graphics capabilities and processor...?
      xuniL_z
      • Where are you seeing that?

        Only way to get that kind of run time is with a larger battery life (more weight) or an Atom processor (less computing power).
        Ed Bott
        • Ed, here is one example.....

          http://www.amazon.com/Acer-Iconia-W700P-6821-11-6-Inch-Windows/dp/B009US2FLK/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1360182850&sr=8-1&keywords=Acer+Iconia+W700P-6821+11.6-Inch+128+GB+Tablet

          Intel i5 1.7 Ghz processor. There are others that claim 9 hours or more, battery life.
          This one claims 9 hour battery life.
          xuniL_z
          • That's the only one

            That device has a slightly bigger (16% larger) battery than the Surface Pro, but otherwise it seems to be a freak.
            Ed Bott
          • Well, lenovo has one.,...

            http://www.amazon.com/Lenovo-ThinkPad-12-5-Inch-Touchscreen-Ultrabook/dp/B009MPBFNU/ref=sr_1_13?s=electronics&ie=UTF8&qid=1360264290&sr=1-13&keywords=windows+8+tablet

            Ok, it's 7 hours but still far more than the MS Surface so I think it can be included

            I may have looked at a few RT tablets that Amazon mixed in my "Windows 8 Pro tablet" search and I may have accidentally looked at more than one Acer Iconia models when scanning them but as I said originally, i had not really researched them but only had a quick look.
            Sorry for the bother.
            xuniL_z
          • Other batteries

            The Lenovo you mention is a laptop with a much larger battery under the keyboard. The ACER only gets that kind of battery life connected to the dock with also contains a battery.
            Range41
        • Battery life

          Not entirely so. I have an ASUS TF201. It has 8 hours battery life in the detachable pad and 10 in the keyboard. When the pad gets low, plug it in to the keyboard and the keyboard charges the pad. Effectively 18 hours of battery as a result on a reasonable keyboard.

          It isnt too far fetched to believe that someone could make a keyboard that hooks into the power socket somehow for the Surface and charges it, too. If they did, that solves just this one problem.

          The biggest problem? Microsoft never really learned anything from the old days of Windows ME and Windows Vista. They have released yet another dud OS. Windows 8 on a computer looks and feels very much, to most people, like the Windows 8 on a Surface and Windows 8 on a traditional keyboard and mouse computer is, at best, annoying. When something looks so close to another thing, they get tarred with the same brush.
          greg-w-h
          • greg-w-h. Looking forward to the touch emulator devices for win8.

            I agree with you that when using win8 it feels like this is made for touch and not particually good for my laptop or desktop. I have heard there are devices coming to simulate touch, but that still won't solve the problem due to having a vertical screen, at least it's not ideal but may help some. Although many laptops may tip over trying to use it!
            BUT, with all that said, and after learning more about windows 8, I have come to really like it on our little HP mini 311. And in that case, even the desktop has to be scrolled, so it was initially even more aggravating with that little 10" screen and a mouse.
            But there are many shortcuts and the taskbar area gives you a lot of flexiblility along with arraging things to fit better and fit your daily work patterns. You couldn't do that as easily before. ( i know shortcuts and pinning to taskbar could do the same thing but that solution is not as nice ).
            Plus you have the desktop and if you want it to be your default, put it's tile in the top left spot. there are many ways to replace the start button w/o downloading spyware laden free software to do it, or pay for better implementations. A few new toolbars with links to the right hand items under the start button (including of course the run command), and another with your program files that popup when you click the toolbar so you have an "all programs" equivilent, are easy to create if you must use the win7 interface.
            I am noticing the pattern repeats often. I hate it, it's ok, I love it! and that just takes a little time, like anything else in life.
            xuniL_z
          • I hate Win8, but not if the tablet's good

            Greg w-h: for tablets, touch matters, and the big ugly tiles make sense. So Windows 8 is fine for a tablet.

            Thank you, Mr. Bott. Many of my clients are peripatetic. Good handwriting recognition would be important, as they can't be bothered typing. So imagine the surprise..

            I COULD READ YOUR HANDWRITING; IT SEEMED ORIGINAL. But it wasn't a scan, was it? Someone in PC World told me that Win8's handwriting recognition was sterling, but speech recognition is no better than in Win7, yet.

            So the third big MUST, is connectivity to one's home or office computer. Is it good, secure? Dell has this thingy called 'Latitude ON'; it's a mini-Linux (ARM?) vehicle for hooking into your company's network. Maybe it's outdated now, I'm not sure, but the idea is intriguing: can the Surface really CONNECT?

            Millions of lawyers, doctors, etc. would kill for one of these, if those three features were truly functional. Price wouldn't matter, as no one else has solved those three problems. Battery isn't an issue, just keep an extra in your briefcase.

            It also won't matter that Win8 is the OS, because you can just tell the tablet what you want. I dictate to Win7 when to open something, get on the internet, post a comment in Youtube, etc., even from 25 (?) feet away. Which is great, because I can't find anything in Win7. :)

            So did MS finally solve these three things in the Surface Pro?
            brainout
      • A spec-by-spec comparison is the only way ...

        ... to know. But consider just this ... a 1920x1080 screen has 98% more pixels than a 1366x768 screen. That accounts for a significant drain on battery life. Add to that the fact that Windows 8 is a full-featured operating system instead of being a run-time OS (as is iOS, Android, and Windows-RT) and five hours instead of 9 is not at all surprising.
        M Wagner
        • Acer Iconia W700P intel i5 1920x 1080 HD graphics, 9 hours avg. battery..

          xuniL_z
          • acer's slate

            It's not from Microsoft. This is why it's not cool. :)

            I saw that device, it's slim and beautiful. It can also have a dock. Spec wise it is no worse than the Surface Pro. It looks well built.
            Would be interesting to compare it with the Microsoft product.
            It is also way cheaper! (The one I saw was selling for about 450 euro)
            danbi
    • Great review

      This review contained more specific details than everything else I've seen combined. In particular, I was under the impression that Surface Pros were going to be running the latest Atom chip. Hearing that it's a Core i5 changes my opinion about the future of Surface. Despite the mediocre battery life, this version might actually sell some major units, especially to those who can live with Windows 8. They probably should have led with this version of the Surface and released the RT later as an alternative option.
      BillDem
      • Sales will be EXCRUCIATINGLY SLOW & DISAPPOINTING

        I predict that sales will be EXCRUCIATINGLY SLOW & DISAPPOINTING.

        I agree completely with you: PRO *SHOULD HAVE BEEN* the thing they led with, because RT's are, allegedly, being returned in droves! HUGE failures on Microsoft's part, regarding communicating the differences in models, as well as other pertinent things.

        As for battery longevity claims - they are like "miles per gallon" claims - Road testers drive the cars with NO AIR CONDITIONING OR HEAT TURNED ON, and with PURE, ZERO-EHTANOL GASOLINE - and THEN they quote: 41 MPG blah blah, etc. - while WE are forced to use gasoline with ethanol, which reduces mileage; and we use heat and air conditioning - also, they drive in a 'flat, straight line' - all these things, so they can 'exaggerate' mileage claims - ditto with PC/laptop/tablet "battery use."
        bitdoctor
        • so much for spelling :)

          ETHANOL, not EHTANOL. - lol
          bitdoctor
        • bitdoctor, I predict exaggerated reports. Do you have a link?

          You claim you've seen where RT units are allegedly being returned in droves. Will you share your source with us please?
          xuniL_z
          • RT returns

            Perhaps he's referring to this story?

            http://www.pcworld.com/article/2026781/high-surface-rt-returns-could-point-to-deeper-problems-for-windows-rt.html
            JoeShlabotnick
    • Apps..

      An excellent review but I found one comment that didn't make much sense.. Your comment about the 'lack of apps'.. now I know technically there aren't lots of apps in the APP store but because this PC runs real windows on an X86 chipset.. you can run ANY windows software on it that runs in Windows 7 or Windows 8! That's a LOT of apps.. Appstore, Smapstore.. who needs it with the Surface Pro! The battery life is a bit of a pain but in this form factor with this much oomph I don't see how they (MS) could have done better.. I've found the Surface RT an excellent device but never get to use it as the wife and munchkin fight over it.. so I might get myself a Pro..
      ursulus
    • Storage

      Was it just me who failed to see any info about the real available-to-user storage in the article? I guess its not that good, as recent Windows versions are very fat.
      polarcat