Surface Pro and Mac mini: more similar than you'd think

Most people think of the Surface Pro as a heavy tablet with benefits, but our own intrepid David Gewirtz takes a look at it as though it were just another PC, one that's smaller and lighter than most.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Well, the Surface Pro is finally out. This is Microsoft's tablet that actually runs Microsoft Windows 8 (as compared to the Surface RT, which acts like it runs Windows 8, but doesn't really).

I spent the last weekend installing Windows 8 on my Mac mini, and I had the chance to get to know the machine quite well as a Windows device. At the same time, I've been reading the excellent reviews and in-depth reports of the Surface Pro, and realized the two machines — while very different — are, in fact, more similar than you'd think. And yes, I'm talking about comparing the Surface Pro to the Mac mini, not the iPad.

My work with the Mac mini was setting it up as a media center computer, with the intent of hooking it up to my big screen TV. I spent about a thousand bucks on my Mac mini (server edition). After reading the Surface Pro articles, I realized that, if I wanted a compact, very flat device that could drive video on my TV rack, I could probably also use the Surface Pro and spend just about the same amount.

Now, I'll admit, using a Surface Pro as a Windows 8-based media center is probably just about as silly as using a Mac mini as a Windows 8-based media center. But if you want something low profile and quiet (and didn't want to just go out and buy a laptop — I've found they tend to overheat and die with the screen closed), the Surface Pro might, maybe, sorta, kinda, fit the bill.

To see what I mean, the following table compares the Surface Pro with the Mac mini. As you can see, both devices have the same processor, the graphics subsystem, and even some of the same limitations. 

 Table 1: Surprisingly similar features of the Surface Pro and the Mac mini

Feature Surface Pro Mac mini
Processor Core i5 Ivy Bridge Core i5 Ivy Bridge
Graphics processor Intel HD4000 Intel HD4000
Base system RAM 4GB 4GB
WiFi networking 801.11a/b/g/n 802.11a/b/g/n
Bluetooth networking Bluetooth 4.0 Bluetooth 4.0
Mini DisplayPort Yes Yes
Built-in speaker Yes Yes
USB 3.0 Yes Yes
Able to run Windows 8 Yes Yes
Analog headphone and mic ports Yes Yes
Comfortable to hold as a tablet No No
Runs for more than 5 hours on battery No No

Now, of course there are differences. For example, the Surface Pro weighs 2 pounds, while the Mac mini weighs slightly more than half a pound more — but even that's not much of a difference.

If you set aside the fact that one machine comes with a display and another comes with bigger persistent storage, you realize that these are slabs that both could (if you close your eyes and think happy thoughts), work as quiet, low-power media center PCs running something like XBMC.

Table 2: Surprisingly minor differences between the Surface Pro and the Mac mini

Feature Surface Pro Mac mini
Processor Speed  1.7 Ghz 2.3 - 3.3 Ghz
Wired networking No Gigabit Ethernet
Max system RAM 4GB 16GB
Persistent storage Store it in the cloud (or, about 30-89GB usable) 256GB to 2TB
SD card slot microSDXC card slot SDXC card slot
Secondary display option 1080p built-in display Thunderbolt port
Sensor devices

Ambient light sensor

Fanboi attitude monitor
Reality distortion field
Kool-Aid drink dispenser*

Vanity accessories

Dual 720p cameras to admire oneself

Permission to call yourself an Apple purchaser for that sense of smug superiority*

Built-in, limited battery backup Yes No
Weight (without keyboard)  2 lbs  2.7 lbs
Volume 37.87 cubic inches 83.00 cubic inches

So, would I, in truth, buy a Surface Pro and use it as a media center PC? No, not really. The fact is, I use a lot of RAM (I run virtual machines, development systems, and a wide variety of tools on the couch PC).

I also have my house wired with Gigabit Ethernet to each wall, so I prefer a wired connection for my media. Finally, while I actually could survive with a minimal amount of persistent local storage since I have a media tank serving almost all my files, I'm still somewhat nervous about running a machine with 30-89GB of acessible storage.

But could the Surface Pro be used as a media center PC? My guess is yes, actually. It's running Windows 8, has a DisplayPort, has a pretty solid graphics processor, and might actually work. If you're brave enough to try it, let me know how it works out.

*Features might not, strictly speaking, ship with actual product.

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