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?


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.

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.


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 (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, Windows 8 in Business

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • 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.
    • 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...?
      • 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.....

          Intel i5 1.7 Ghz processor. There are others that claim 9 hours or more, battery life.
          This one claims 9 hour battery life.
          • 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.,...


            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.
          • 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.
        • 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. 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.
          • 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?
      • 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..

          • 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)
    • 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.

        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."
        • so much for spelling :)

          ETHANOL, not EHTANOL. - lol
        • 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?
          • RT returns

            Perhaps he's referring to this story?

    • 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..
    • 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.