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?


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.


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, 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.