Microsoft Surface Pro review

Microsoft Surface Pro review

Summary: The Core i5-based Surface Pro combines ultrabook components with a (chunky) 10.6in. tablet form factor to deliver decent performance and excellent build quality. However, a few design issues, missing features and, above all, disappointing battery life suggest you'd be wise to wait and see how this product develops.

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  • Editors' rating:
    7.5
  • User rating:
    6.1

Pros

  • Solid, elegant hardware design
  • Runs Windows 8 Pro and legacy software
  • Ultrabook-level performance
  • Supports pressure-sensitive pen input

Cons

  • Disappointing battery life
  • Kickstand isn't adjustable
  • No desktop or keyboard dock available
  • Desktop scaling issues when used with a large external monitor
  • Lacks GPS and NFC
  • No mobile broadband option
  • Stylus needs a storage location within the chassis

On 9 October last year, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer told shareholders that: "Fantastic devices and services for end users will drive our enterprise businesses forward given the increasing influence employees have in the technology they use at work". As far as recent Microsoft devices are concerned, two of the most talked-about in relation to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) are a pair of tablets with snap-on keyboards: the ARM-based Surface with Windows RT and the x86-based Surface with Windows 8 Pro.

The Surface RT ($499-$699) shipped on 26 October and has been gathering mixed reviews ever since. Generally speaking, the tablet hardware has been well received (with certain caveats), while the OS, software and general user experience tends to appeal most to those who are already 'plugged in' to the Microsoft ecosystem and can get by with a restricted set of applications. For many, Windows RT's inability to run traditional 'desktop' Windows software and the relative paucity of native WinRT ('Metro-style') apps in the Windows Store are deal-breakers, although the Surface RT does come with a version of Office Home and Student 2013 preinstalled (Office is the only desktop software that runs on the device, though).

Now it's the turn of the much-anticipated Surface Pro, which launched in the US on Friday 9 February (at $899 with 64GB of storage or $999 with 128GB). Can this more traditional 'Wintel' device — which performs much better but is also bulkier, heavier, more expensive and has considerably shorter battery life — make a better impression?

Price comparison
First let's consider the pricing. Whereas the Surface RT comes in at $100 cheaper than the equivalent iPad for the tablet only (price deltas vary depending on the keyboards you add, although the Surface RT is always the cheaper option), the natural Microsoft-Apple comparison for the higher-spec Surface Pro is with the 11.6-inch MacBook Air. Here, the tables are turned, with Apple's notebook costing $29.99 less than the equivalent Surface Pro with the top-end $129.99 Type Cover keyboard:

64GB Surface Pro + Type Cover: $1,029
64GB MacBook Air: $999
128GB Surface Pro + Type Cover: $1,129
128GB MacBook Air: $1,099

For this sort of money, you're entitled to expect the Surface Pro to offer no-compromise ultrabook functionality (primarily in content-creation mode at work), and the convenience of tablet-mode operation when the occasion demands (more often than not, after-hours at home). Let's see how it gets on.

surface-pro-i1
The Surface Pro is a 10.6in. tablet/ultrabook hybrid based on third-generation Intel Core silicon and running full-blown Windows 8 Pro. (Photo: Charles McLellan/ZDNet)

Design
The Surface Pro looks almost identical to its RT stablemate, particularly when viewed from the front. Both have 10.6in. ClearType multitouch displays, although closer inspection reveals that the Pro's screen has a higher 'full HD' 1,920-by-1,080-pixel resolution (compared to the RT's 1,366 x 768) and supports 10-point multitouch (compared to the RT's 5 points). In terms of pixel density (pixels per inch, or ppi), the difference between the two Surfaces is 208ppi for the Pro and 148ppi for the RT (by contrast, the 11.6in. MacBook Air's 1,366 x 768 display has a pixel density of 135ppi). Both tablets also support the same keyboard covers that snap onto the magnetic docking connector — the pressure-sensitive Touch Cover ($119.99) and the 'classic' Type Cover ($129.99).

surface-rt-pro-side
The Surface Pro (above, right) is thicker and heavier than the ARM-based Surface RT, and has a thin cooling slot running around the edge of the tablet. Two internal fans kick in when the system gets warm under load. (Photo: Charles McLellan/ZDNet)

View the Surface Pro from the side, however, and the differences from the earlier model become clear. For a start, although it features a similar chamfered 'VaporMg' chassis design, the Surface Pro is noticeably thicker at 13.5mm versus 9.4mm (or 0.53in. vs 0.37in.). It weighs more, too: 903g versus 680g (or 2lb vs 1.5lb). With the 226g (0.5lb), 6mm-thick (0.236in.) Type Cover added, the Surface Pro's weight and bulk is comparable to that of the 11in. MacBook Air, which weighs 1080g (2.38lb) and measures 17mm (0.68in.) at its thickest. In summary, it's on the heavy side for tablet, but a perfectly acceptable weight for an ultrabook.

Also visible from the side is a key differentiator between the 'ultrabook' Surface Pro and the 'tablet' Surface RT: a cooling slot that runs from the top of the kickstand, around the top and down to the top of the kickstand on the other side. Although the Surface Pro runs warmer than the passively-cooled RT, the two internal fans are not unduly noisy, and only activate when the system is working particularly hard.

The keyboard covers snap satisfyingly onto the docking connector on the bottom of the tablet, as they did on the Surface RT. The same couldn't be said for the magnetic power connection on the earlier model, and things haven't improved much on the Pro model: it's still fiddly to line up the connector strip on the angled side of the tablet, and the magnet still isn't strong enough to give you much of a helping hand. Because of its more power-hungry innards, the Surface Pro has a beefier 48W power supply — a small power brick (with an USB port for charging other devices) compared to the Surface RT's 24W plug-integrated unit.

surface-rt-pro-power
The Surface RT has a 24W smartphone-style power adapter (left), whereas the Surface Pro has a 48W laptop-style brick (right) with an integrated USB port for charging another device. (Photo: Charles McLellan/ZDNet)

Another design feature we complained about in our Surface RT review was the non-adjustable kickstand, whose only setting made for an uncomfortably upright screen angle for typing on the desktop. The Surface Pro's kickstand still isn't adjustable, although its 26-degree angle does deliver a marginally better desktop experience over the 22-degree Surface RT.

What's needed is an adjustable kickstand with two or three settings, and also a fully adjustable desktop dock with, among other things, an Ethernet port. Another welcome accessory, given the system's battery life (see below), would be a keyboard cover with an integrated second battery. The tablet's weight probably rules out a properly hinged keyboard dock; as it stands, the combination of a flappy keyboard cover and a kickstand (even an adjustable one) effectively rules out on-lap typing for all but the most determined of users.

A notable difference between the Surface Pro and Surface RT is pen support: the Pro uses Wacom's EMR (ElectroMagnetic Resonance) technology to deliver impressive pressure-sensitive pen functionality with good palm-rejection (so you don't product unwanted lines when resting your hand on the screen while drawing or writing). One design niggle is that there's no permanent place to store the stylus: you can park it in the tablet's magnetic charging connector (it's a passive stylus, though, that doesn't need charging), but when you need to charge the Surface Pro, the pen becomes homeless and could easily get mislaid.

surface-pro-pen
The Surface Pro has pressure-sensitive pen support (left). The stylus's right-click button can dock with the magnetic power connector (right). However, there's nowhere to keep the stylus while you're charging the tablet, and the pen obscures the Mini-DisplayPort connector when docked. (Images: Charles McLellan/ZDNet)

Pen support raises the possibility of attaching an external monitor via the Mini-DisplayPort (adapters are supplied for full-size DP and VGA connectors) and using the Surface Pro as a Wacom tablet substitute. There are two problems with this, though. First, you can only use the pen in 1:1 'pen' mode, rather than switching between pen and 'mouse' mode, as you can on actual Wacom tablets. We got round this by swapping between the pen and a Microsoft Wedge Mouse/Surface Edition mouse that came with the review kit. The Wedge Mouse would be an extra $69.95, although of course you can use any existing Bluetooth mouse you may have.

The second problem with this use case is Windows 8's desktop scaling. The Surface Pro ships with desktop scaling set to 150 percent, in order to make text, icons and other on-screen elements readable and (just about) tappable on the tablet's 10.6in. 1080p screen. However, if you attach a large external monitor (we used a 23in. Iiyama Prolite X2377HDS), you'll get a desktop with seriously oversized elements. To change the desktop scaling to 100 percent — to get a better large-monitor display in graphics-tablet mode — you have to logout of your Windows account and log back in again, which is inconvenient.

surface-pro-scaling
Desktop scaling on the Surface Pro (left) and an extended-desktop external monitor (right). Ideally, you'd set the Surface's 10.6in. screen to 150% (top left) for maximum readability and tappability, and the large (23in. in our tests) external monitor to 100% (bottom right) to get the maximum amount of content on-screen. Because you can't scale the screens independently, the best you can do is compromise on 125% for both screens (middle).

If you want to use an external monitor in extended-desktop rather than duplicated mode, you can of course set the resolution of internal and external screens independently. However, Windows doesn't let you do the same for desktop scaling — ideally you'd go for 150 percent on the tablet screen and 100 percent on the external monitor. With our external 23in. Iiyama screen, we found the best compromise — although it's an unsatisfactory one — was to select a middling 125 percent scaling factor.

There are a few changes to the ports and slots on the Surface Pro compared to its ARM-based stablemate. We've mentioned the Mini-DisplayPort, which replaces Surface RT's Mini-HDMI port. Elsewhere, the USB port is USB 3.0 rather than 2.0, and the MicroSD card slot has been moved from its awkward location under the kickstand on the Surface RT to the right-hand side, towards the top.

Despite its increased bulk, weight and remaining design issues, the Surface Pro — like the RT — has a classy overall look and feel. One of the goals of the Surface range is to provide an exemplary showcase for Windows 8, and in this Microsoft has largely succeeded.

(continued)

Specifications

General
Dimensions (W x H x D) 27.46 x 1.35 x 17.3 cm
Case form factor tablet
Weight 0.903 kg
OS & software
Operating system Windows 8 Pro
Software included Office 365 Home Premium (30-day trial)
Chipset & memory
RAM installed 4096 MB
RAM capacity 4 GB
Video
GPU Intel HD Graphics 4000
GPU type integrated
Video connections Mini-DisplayPort
Display
Display technology ClearType Full HD 10-point touchscreen
Display size 10.6 in
Native resolution 1920x1080 pixels
Connections
USB 1 x USB 3.0
Flash card MicroSD
Wireless
Wi-Fi 802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n
Bluetooth 4.0
Input
Pointing devices trackpad (on Touch/Type covers), stylus
Keyboard Touch Cover, Type Cover (optional)
Fingerprint reader No
Camera
2nd camera front
Flash No
Main camera rear
2nd camera resolution 1 megapixels
Main camera resolution 1 megapixels
Audio
Audio connectors audio out
Speakers stereo
Microphone yes
Miscellaneous
Accessories 48W AC adapter
Battery
Battery technology Li-ion
Number of batteries supplied 1
Number of batteries supported 1
Removable battery No
Processor & memory
Clock speed 1.7 GHz
Processor manufacturer Intel
Processor model Core i5-3317U
Solid-state drive
Interface SATA III
Capacity 128 GB
Expand

Prices

Price
Price USD 999

Topics: Microsoft Surface, Laptops, Reviews, Tablets, Windows 8

About

Charles has been in tech publishing since the late 1980s, starting with Reed's Practical Computing, then moving to Ziff-Davis to help launch the UK version of PC Magazine in 1992. ZDNet came looking for a Reviews Editor in 2000, and he's been here ever since.

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Talkback

124 comments
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  • Try Harder MS

    3.0

    Jack of all trades yet master of none.

    Needs to $500 to succeed.
    Alan Smithie
    • Try harder, Intel (not Microsoft)...

      8.0

      Jack of all trades, master of many.

      But ultimately the biggest issues with it (battery life, thickness and weight) are in the hands of Intel and not Microsoft.
      wp7mango
      • Amen

        1.0

        A truly portable device that I will carry EVERYWHERE has to have huge battery life, be lightweight, and be thin. This device is/has none of the above. If I wanted to carry something only relatively portable to create massive amounts of content, I'd buy a real Ultrabook over this half-a$$ed version. It tries too hard to target both audiences and it is a mediocre version of both. Major fail.

        If they can double the battery life, make it thinner, and make it lighter, it MIGHT stand a chance at catching up with the iPad in popularity. As it exists now, there is no way that's going to happen.
        BillDem
    • Yeah that was my first impression

      as well. Its trying to be everything and so succeeds at nothing.
      baggins_z
  • how come it takes that long for a review ?

    6.0

    All other major tech sites have long covered this tablet.

    Regarding the tablet : Neither fish nor fowl.
    Want a REAL tablet : go Android or iOS = smaller, lighter, better battery lifetime
    Want a REAL laptop : any ultrabook will do = sturdy, works in lap, better connectivity (ethernet, more USB port, docking station, ...)

    How many users need a device that is such a compromise ? Only a few. All others either go for a tablet or laptop or both.
    EnticingHavoc
    • Agree with you

      I have been away for a while. I notice a lot of new(?) handles and a very organized pro-MS flagging campaign. MS must be desperate to try to control the narrative around the Surface Pro.

      Just watch the flagging of this post. Will the MS shills be able to resist?
      D.T.Long
      • Are you serious?

        Why is it that any opinion other than your own automatically means they're an "MS Shill"? Don't you get tired of calling people that? Has it occurred to you that perhaps there are people out there who genuinely enjoy their MS products?

        Probably not. I want a Surface Pro, yes I'm aware of the trade offs. But with it I can leave my iPad at home for my daughter and give my Ultrabook back to the company. It's a perfect devices FOR ME. And I'm not paid by MS, although I would be more than happy to take some money. Perhaps even a free Surface Pro. Since you say there are so many MS employees roaming these boards I'd be okay if one of them wants to contact me regarding such opportunities.

        And for the record, I'm a Systems Engineer at a company that isn't even a MS Partner. We specialize in Storage, Route/Switch, Compute and Virtualization. So no, I don't depend on MS for my living either.
        LiquidLearner
        • Face it, you guys are shills

          1.0

          Who in their right mind would use, or let alone defend M$’s products? A shill would, that’s for sure. Regular people wouldn’t since they make the worst junk you can buy. Would a regular person who spent money on one of their products, only to find out what a piece of crap it is, then go out and defend them after M$ just ripped them off?

          Wake up. It’s clear the only people defending MS are the shills that get paid to come here and do that.
          I Am Galactus
          • Spoken like a real impartial neutral observer

            And you truly want us to believe you purchased both an RT and Pro Surface?
            The same person who states "they make the worst junk you can buy".
            Its ok, not to like a product or company but at least be honest about it.
            No other name for you except LIAR.
            thekman58
          • I.T.

            Are you a teenager?

            Just because someone DARES to not agree with your point of view, doesn't mean they work for Microsoft.

            I can only hope, that when you get into the big boys world you will see arguing about I.T. equipment only makes you look like a total moron who doesn't work in I.T. This goes for you and D.T. long.

            My view, the surface pro is a tool that will fit in some categories, but I think I would rather have a Dell flippy screen tablet / ultrabook. I doubt it will do that well. I hope MS stick to what they are good at, software, and leave the hardware to the experts!

            And no, I don't work for Microsoft.. or Dell. I work for a non I.T. manufacturing company.
            carbine-465cb
          • I think they did a great job with the Surface Pro

            "I hope MS stick to what they are good at, software, and leave the hardware to the experts!"

            This is a much better tablet then some of those put out from hardware companies filled with experts. And iOS seems to be doing well even though it comes from a hardware company with no software experts.

            Looking at the surface, I would have to conclude that MS does indeed have hardware experts within their walls.
            William Farrel
          • I don't even know what a shill is but,

            10.0

            I'm an engineering student at UT and I actually bought the RT before exchanging it for the pro. I love the Surface Pro. Sure the battery life kinda sucks compared to the RT,(which is basically just a cool iPad). For people that need more productivity than entertainment, I think the Surface Pro works great. The pen input is super accurate with no lag whatsoever (I write all my physics and calculus notes on it). If you don't need a device with these capabilities then get a MacBook air, but otherwise it's a great laptop replacement.
            ruckon7
          • Paid Shills

            Paid MS Shill, that's ridiculous, or are you saying that because you are an Apple or Google paid shill? Get a life.
            groberts116
      • Same here.

        I flew in Sunday only to find that once I logged back in that cloggeddbottom7 looks to have made a few more "users" to help flag any non-MS hating filled or non-MS insulting posts.

        A new low, even for him.
        William Farrel
    • here is what you dont get..

      9.0

      The Surface Pro shines in the IT scenario... and ITs have a lot of employees all around the world.

      Neither android nor iOS shine in the IT scenario.
      Simon Tupper
      • True

        2.0

        but neither Android or iOS are more expensive than a fucking Mac only to offer what is essentially a medium-spec laptop
        bean520-0b405
  • Too little, too late.....

    Once again, Microsoft scrambles to try to catch up and by the time they do, AAPL will have moved on, creating a new market for the next big thing.

    Just good enough isn't good enough anymore..... sorry. This will just be an also ran in the overall market.
    techno_bob
    • crapple is now scrambling to catch-up

      10.0

      isheeps are worried they've got nothing like this
      ozinanoypi
      • POS

        2.0

        Toaster and a fridge.
        Marzell
      • Having the Surface

        3.0

        and mSheeps are worried because they do - just sayin'
        earljgray