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

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?
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

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.

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