Microsoft's Surface Pro: Floor wax or a dessert topping (and does it matter)?

Microsoft's Surface Pro: Floor wax or a dessert topping (and does it matter)?

Summary: The Microsoft Surface Pro is a tablet/PC hybrid that, to me, falls short of being the perfect tablet or the perfect PC. Is the middle path good enough?


A few days ago, a loaner Surface Pro landed on my doorstep, along with instructions not to post my reactions about it until this evening.


I was interested to put the Pro through my "non-reviewer"/normal user review paces.

I bought an ARM-based Surface RT device the first day it was available, even though I hadn't had a chance to try one out before hand, knowing I had 30 days to return it in case I really hated it. (I actually ended up liking it and blogged about my Surface RT impressions here.) Based on the Surface Pro specs, I was thinking it wouldn't really be for me, given its 4-5 hours of battery life and fairly hefty price tag compared to some other PCs on the market.

Did what I had read in the past couple of weeks about the device match my real-life impressions? Yes and no.

I must admit I didn't notice the higher resolution (1366x768 pixels for the Surface RT vs. 1920x1080 pixels for the Pro). I know a number of others who got some time with the Surface Pro at CES remarked on the difference in image quality on the two devices; I guess to my commoner's eye, I just don't see it.

Update: I should point out I have not tried using the Surface Pro to watch movies. I have used it to watch some YouTube clips and embedded video on different Web sites. Paul Thurrott at WinSupersite has more on resolution comparisons between the Surface RT and Pro, with some interesting info on the Desktop side of things.

The Surface Pro is "denser" than I expected. It's actually only about a half pound heavier than the RT, but it feels noticeably heavier to me. The charging cord is heavier, and more of a must-carry if you're someone intending to use the device as a true on-the-go, all-day mobile device, given the 4-5 hour battery life.

The Pro also is definitely snappier and more "performant" (to use a bit of Microspeak). The lags I notice waiting for pages and sites to load on Windows RT are fewer and further between on the Pro.

The Surface Pro, unlike the Surface RT, allows users to install existing non-Metro-style Win32 apps—ones that aren't necessarily available via the Windows Store. That's the upside of having a fully enabled Desktop on these systems. The downside is these apps are not likely to be touch-optimized. That's where things like the new Surface Wedge mouse (which I did like a lot more than I expected) and the digitizer pen that connects using magnets to the charging port on the Surface Pro, figure into the equation.

A new category of device—or a device in search of a category?

Like the Surface RT, the Surface Pro is a hybrid tablet/PC. Microsoft's exact positioning of these Surface devices has shifted quite a bit in the past few months.

Microsoft originally posited that the Surfaces, both the RT and Pro, were meant to be both consumption and creation devices, equally suited to work and "play." Then, the positioning out of Redmond seemed to shift to Surface RT being more of a consumption device, and the Pro, a creation device. This week,  Microsoft's Windows client's Chief Financial Officer Tami Reller told Geekwire that Microsoft was expecting potential Surface Pro customers to evaluate the cost of the purchase of a Surface Pro to the cost of an iPad and a Macbook Air combined, because the Surface Pro is really a PC/tablet hybrid.

I don't think of the Surface Pro that way. Nor do I expect many/any other users to do evaluate it like this. Whatever Microsoft calls the Surface Pro, it is, for all intents and purposes, a PC/ultrabook.

I keep scratching my head over who Microsoft expects to buy the Surface Pro. It's not as good of a tablet, in terms of weight/battery life, as the Surface RT is. But it's also not as good of a Windows 8 PC as other OEM-produced devices, coming in at lower price points with better battery life and other specs.

I keep wondering—as Amy Poehler asked the Best Buy guy in my favorite Super Bowl 2013 commercial—what is the difference between a tablet and "this thing"?

Maybe my inability to process this new category of PC/tablet hybrid is what's bewildering me. Does my inability to put the Surface Pro neatly into an existing category/definitional box affect my perception of the device? Maybe.

In the end, for me, the Surface Pro is just OK. I am waiting/expecting Microsoft to do better, in terms of delivering a Windows 8 PC. Microsoft may consider itself among those attempting to reinvent a computing device category by delivery a PC/tablet hybrid. But the Surface Pro isn't the best on either front. I am hoping for another Microsoft Surface-branded device that might be my next Windows PC. The Surface Pro is not this machine.

Microsoft is officially launching the Surface Pro at midnight on February 9. If you are in New York City for the launch on Friday, join us at our tweetup/drinkup at Swift Hibernian Lounge starting at 9 pm ET.

Topics: Microsoft Surface, Microsoft, Tablets, PCs, Windows 8


Mary Jo has covered the tech industry for 30 years for a variety of publications and Web sites, and is a frequent guest on radio, TV and podcasts, speaking about all things Microsoft-related. She is the author of Microsoft 2.0: How Microsoft plans to stay relevant in the post-Gates era (John Wiley & Sons, 2008).

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  • Neither a good tablet or a PC

    - Battery life is terrible for $900
    - Portrait mode is useless
    - Won't sit in your lap
    - Doesn't come with Office
    - Needs more than one-position tilt
    - No desktop/laptop docking
    - Where do I put my digital pen again?
    - No option for integrated wireless?
    • Hate those arguments...

      Kickstand: Wheres your kick stand? oh yes you dont have one.... a complaint about the kickstand angle not moving is like complaining that the ice in your drink is to cold... at least it has one... at least the one it has is the best built in stand on any tablet....
      Portrait: just go away, I have used pcs and tv's for a long time... most are 16:9... most are wide... not tall... 4:3 is usefull for a book or SOME web pages... thats it... I have had a tablet 2 years and i never use it in portrait. and i wouldn't buy one 4:3, Now i conceed alot do use portrait but sorry i count it sh*t if its 4:3... going backwards to the 80s are we?
      Wireless: 3g/4g is less than 5% of all tablets... NO-one buys it so i dont see why all the complaints. you know any Laptops/Mac books with 3g? NFC?
      Office: Again i don't know any pc/laptops/mac's that come with any office software unless its a deal....
      Lap: yes it will sit on your lap... unless you dont have a lap... then it wont...
      • don't waste your time with this moron, leave IT to me.

      • Designed by a committee

        The Surface Pro is neither fish nor fowl. It's a terrible tablet and an even worse laptop. It's Microsoft's show device. They know you can't get any work done with it. It has a toy keyboard and no trackpad.
    • Best of both worlds

      - Battery life is the same as similarly priced/speced 2lb ultrabooks.
      - Portrait mode works great for many apps, especially for reading emails and web pages or taking notes in OneNote.
      - Sits in your lap just like any other tablet. Put the kickstand down and set it flat.
      - Comes with Office 365 trial which gives you Office 2013. SkyDrive's Office 2013 web apps and OneNote are also available for free.
      - To change the tilt, hold it in your hand and tilt your hand (same as you would with a phone or any other tablet).
      - Put the kickstand down and it works on a desktop. Plug in a monitor and get your Bluetooth keyboard/mouse turned on.
      - It clips to the edge.
      - Correct. I'd rather use a MiFi or phone WiFi routing since that's more flexible.
      • Ultrabook Comparison

        We have two MacBook Air devices that easily get over 6 hours of battery life. More critically, you can close the lid and re-open it a week later and continue where you left off with most of the battery that was there still available.

        I regularly use the MBA on my lap while sitting on the couch. My Surface RT device needs to be on a flat surface - a desk.

        The magnetic power connector is a pain to connect on the Surface RT, so I suspect the same issues will be worse with the stylus on the Pro.
        • If It Is True

          that you have difficulties connecting the power connector to the Surface R/T then it is likely true that you also have difficulties when it comes to feeding yourself and that then makes your attempt at feeding us fud way out of your league!
        • Works fine in my lap

          Surface RT works fine in my lap with the keyboard. But even if you have short legs or a belly that gets in the way you just flip it into tablet mode and use the on screen keyboard like you would with an iPad. As AdamzP said: Best of both worlds.
    • Really?

      Show me a Mac that fits in with all of those categories.
    • ???

      Moron, shutup and go some where else.

      Yes, I will do that until you quite. If this is your day job, I am sorry.
    • Gee, it sits on my lap!

      This is not your list. You copied it from another ZDnet blogger.

      I certainly would not agree with most of these complaints.
      M Wagner
  • Compare screens with real time trading charts

    Wiggle vs real time with real money might change your view.
  • It's a "transportable" device - to resurrect an old, OLD computer term

    But with a new twist. Note: Back in the day, the original Osborne 1 (at 10.7 kg) was considered a transportable device.

    Today, that term might be applied to mobile computers that weigh less than an Ultrabook or traditional laptop but more than a tablet.

    I actually think it is the best engineering design compromise today for OneNote type memos using a digitizing pen for input.

    The Surface Pro definitely is too heavy for primary tablet duties. (A Retina class iPad Mini, Nexus 7 or Kindle HD tablets will evolve into the preferred tablet design, IMO)

    But as a companion device, it has certain design advantages (that environment hardened vapor mag case being one of them) which will fill more needs than a niche product can but still come up short to a more dedicated or mainstream product.

    I am curious about one thing, however. In normal use (say two or three hours at a time), did the case ever get too hot while holding the Surface Pro? That is to say, where your hands effected negatively by the exhaust air from the Surface Pro vents?
    • words

      kenosha77a--"That is to say, where your hands effected" Did you mean to say: were your hands affected..? As it is written it is not understandable, with out translation..
      skunkwurx: "that the ice in your drink is to cold" "too cold" to cold makes absolutely no sense, "then it wont..." won't--you lost an appostrophe, to indicate the missing 'o', without the appostrophe, it changes the meaning entirely. Wont is an adjective or a verb, not the contraction meaning will not. "conceed alot " alot does not exist. It is: "a lot."

      As for the subject of the article, it does seem like a short battery life, but how many laptops have better? It is not a small handheld tablet with a cutailed OS, and applications, but a full blown PC. I think I would rather have a laptop and a smaller tablet than a large machine doing both. Sure it provides one stop service, I suppose, just not the portability, most of us don't need the one machine for everything, but small niche machines such as a phone and possibly a tablet to do other things not reasonably done on a phone.
      I don't have a tablet/e-reader so I cannot speak from experience. Never have used OneNote either, so can't say anything there, except I don't even really know what it is used for.
      • A bit of off topic "words of advice to the wise" suggestions, dhays.

        Most everyone that contributes comments on ZDNet's Talkback section understands the consequences of this web site's lack of an comment edit function. As a result, comments regarding observed spelling or grammar mistakes are ultimately "not worth the effort".

        I knew about my spelling error - actually, a wrong choice of a particular word - in my comment after I posted it. I'm sure others, like yourself, were able to understand the intent of my comment even with my poor choice of the word "effected".

        That being said, I don't have a clue about the purpose regarding the rest of your grammar points mentioned in your first paragraph. Perhaps you copied and pasted a section from a prior rant into the comment addressed to me. In either case, I understand perfectly the grammar points you were illuminating. It's a pity they didn't apply to my original comment.
        • yup, don't bash commenters for minor errors...

          Oh that lack of comment editing! Hey, bash the article writer if they seriously screw up (but MJF rarely does that!), but us commenters are stuck with no editing after post (and remember some might be typing on other than ideal entry devices, like iPhones or iPad mini.. ;-)
      • It is not a small handheld tablet with a 'cutailed' OS,

        did you mean to say 'curtailed'?
        • It is somewhat ironic is it not?

          That a "grammar Nazi" should err is comical.
    • Unpleasantly Warm

      @kenosha77a : "In normal use (say two or three hours at a time), did the case ever get too hot while holding the Surface Pro? That is to say, where your hands effected negatively by the exhaust air from the Surface Pro vents?"

      I played around with one at a Best Buy. In my mind, the Surface Pro was unpleasantly warm even at idle. Probably not much of a concern if you use it docked to the keyboard, but the Surface Pro is a lousy tablet.
  • Microsoft Bashers

    If it were too PC or too much pad, you'd be complaining you wanted something in the middle. Such blatant MS bashing is sad.