- Solid, elegant hardware design
- Runs Windows 8 Pro and legacy software
- Ultrabook-level performance
- Supports pressure-sensitive pen input
- 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?
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Dimensions (W x H x D)||27.46 x 1.35 x 17.3 cm|
|Case form factor||tablet|
|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|
|GPU||Intel HD Graphics 4000|
|Display technology||ClearType Full HD 10-point touchscreen|
|Display size||10.6 in|
|Native resolution||1920x1080 pixels|
|USB||1 x USB 3.0|
|Wi-Fi||802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g, 802.11n|
|Pointing devices||trackpad (on Touch/Type covers), stylus|
|Keyboard||Touch Cover, Type Cover (optional)|
|2nd camera resolution||1 megapixels|
|Main camera resolution||1 megapixels|
|Audio connectors||audio out|
|Accessories||48W AC adapter|
|Number of batteries supplied||1|
|Number of batteries supported||1|
|Processor & memory|
|Clock speed||1.7 GHz|
|Processor model||Core i5-3317U|