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Microsoft Surface Pro review

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.
Written by Charles McLellan on

Microsoft Surface with Windows 8 Pro (64GB)

Very good
$100 at Amazon
  • 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
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

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.

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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)

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).


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.


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.


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.


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.


The Surface Pro is powered by a third-generation dual-core Intel Core i5-3317U processor running at 1.7GHz (up to 2.6GHz in Turbo Boost mode) with integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000. This is the same CPU/GPU combo used in the MacBook Air, and it has a Thermal Design Power (TDP) rating of 17 watts -- TDP being the maximum amount of power a system's cooling system needs to be able to dissipate. Although Nvidia doesn't quote comparable TDP figures, the ARM-based Tegra 3 used in the Surface RT has been measured consuming less than 2W under load. The trade-off, of course, is that the Core i5 is far better performer, as our benchmarks show (see below).


There was pre-launch speculation that the Surface Pro might include Intel's new low-power Y-series Core processors, which at CES Intel claimed "will operate as low as 7 watts", but this didn't happen. It turns out that these new chips have a TDP of 13W, the 7W quote referring to a new Intel measure called Scenario Design Power (SDP) that estimates the average power consumption under load. Looking further ahead, the low-power variants of Intel's fourth-generation Core processors, codenamed Haswell, will have a TDP of 10W. Clearly, there's scope for lowering the power consumption of the CPU/GPU subsystem, and therefore increasing the battery life, in future versions of the Surface Pro.


The Surface Pro comes with 4GB of (non-expandable) RAM and either 64GB or 128GB of SSD storage. Our review sample had 128GB, and reported 89.6GB of user-available capacity out of the box (see above). There has been some controversy over free space reporting on Microsoft's Surface tablets: check out Ed Bott's blog post for the details. Suffice to say that if you find the out-of-the-box free space insufficient, you may want to consider moving the system's 7.81GB recovery partition from the SSD to a USB flash drive using Windows 8's Recovery Media Creator utility. You can, of course, add more storage (up to 64GB) via the tablet's MicroSD card slot or attach a storage device to the system's USB 3.0 port; you also get 7GB of free SkyDrive cloud storage with your Microsoft account.

You'll have to rely on wireless connectivity, as there's no Ethernet port on the tablet, and no USB Ethernet adapter supplied. The Surface Pro has a dual-band Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n) Marvell chipset, reported as the Avastar 350N, which also includes Bluetooth 4.0. Wi-Fi connections seemed solid enough during testing, both on our office network and at home. There's no mobile broadband option for the Surface Pro, although many might find this useful on a more work-oriented system such as this. As it stands, you'll either have to attach a USB dongle, taking out the tablet's only USB port, or connect via a smartphone over Bluetooth.

As far as productivity software is concerned, the Surface Pro merely comes with a 30-day trial version of Office 365 Home Premium -- unlike the Surface RT, which has Office Home and Student 2013 preinstalled. The same set of 'modern-style' apps are preinstalled, and of course you can install both legacy desktop apps and native apps via the Windows Store.

Performance & battery life
Given that it contains a solid set of ultrabook components, it's no surprise to find that the Surface Pro delivers solid ultrabook-level performance. Its Windows Experience Index (WEI) of 5.6 (out of 9.9) is determined by the lowest-scoring subsystem -- in this case, the Intel HD Graphics-driven Desktop graphics performance. The other scores, topped by 8.1 for the SSD-driven disk subsystem, are shown here:


The demanding Cinebench 11.5 benchmark confirms the Surface Pro's ultrabook credentials, as it more than matches a recent Core i5-based convertible Windows 8 tablet, the Lenovo ThinkPad S230 Twist, on the CPU and OpenGL tests:


To get an idea of the Surface Pro's performance compared to its ARM-based Surface RT stablemate, we ran a series of browser tests (using the 'modern' version of IE 10) -- Sunspider 0.9.1, Rightware Browsermark 2.0 and Microsoft Fishbowl on both systems:


Clearly the Surface Pro trounces the Surface RT on these tests, delivering 6.3, 1.7 and 2.6 times the performance on Sunspider, BrowserMark and Fishbowl respectively.

The Surface Pro is powered by a non-removable 42 watt-hour battery -- a considerably heftier unit than the Surface RT's 31.5Wh battery. To test its longevity, we measured the (fully charged) system's power draw under various conditions: idling with the screen at 25, 50 and 100 percent brightness, and performing a significant workload (Microsoft's Fishbowl HTML5 test) with the same trio of screen brightness settings. Dividing the average power draw into the battery rating gives an estimate of the expected battery life (Wh/W=h). Comparable figures for the Surface RT are also shown:


With estimated rundown times ranging from a paltry 1.5 hours (under continuous load with the screen at 100% brightness) to 6.7h (idling with 25% brightness), it's clear that the Surface Pro is short on battery life. Under real-world conditions, with the system alternating between periods of load, idling and sleep, you might expect the battery to last somewhere between 4 and 5 hours, if you keep the screen brightness down. The Surface RT, by contrast, delivers around twice the battery life of the Pro -- a far more acceptable figure.

In case you were wondering about the accuracy of our battery life estimates, we performed a sanity check with the load/100% brightness setting. Our power draw measurements gave an estimate of 1.5 hours; on running down the fully charged system, we got a battery warning at 1h 33m and expiry at 1h 37m.


Like the ARM-based Surface RT, the bulkier, heavier and more powerful x86-based Surface Pro is very much a version 1.0 product. As with the RT model, build quality is generally excellent, although we have a few gripes, including the non-adjustable kickstand, the fiddly magnetic power connector and the lack of a slot to house the stylus. Because it's more of an ultrabook with tablet capabilities, there are a few missing features that would really make a difference if addressed, including a desktop dock with extra ports (USB and Ethernet in particular), a keyboard cover containing a second battery and support for lower-power processors than the 17W third-generation Core i5 currently used. Also, if you're going to work with a large external monitor, be prepared for some fiddling around with desktop scaling settings.

As ever, fans of all things Microsoft, and early adopters generally, will embrace the Surface Pro warmly -- particularly the 128GB version. It's certainly an intriguing bit of kit that should give other makers of hybrid tablet/ultrabook hardware plenty to think about. But it's not perfect yet -- especially when it comes to battery life. We look forward to the next iterations of Surface with interest.



Surface Pro opinions from around ZDNet & Tech Republic

"Surface Pro flirts with greatness, but its caveats could become show-stoppers for a lot of users."

"The product brilliantly weaves mouse and keyboard and pen computing in ways that feel very effective and useful."

"The problem with Surface Pro is that it's trying to bridge the gap between two products, a laptop and tablet, and it doesn't quite stand out enough at either function."
--Jason Hiner

"The ideal buyer of this device, I suspect, is someone who works in a large office and is continually bouncing between meeting rooms, with ready access to Wi-Fi and power outlets. The Surface Pro absolutely shines in that scenario, and it works for occasional trips outside the office as well: an hour or two in a coffee shop, a short flight to a customer meeting, a few hours on the couch in the evening with one eye on the big screen and the other on Twitter."

"It helps, too, if the person using this device is well connected to Microsoft products and cloud services and is already familiar with Windows 8 and eager to switch to a touchscreen device."
--Ed Bott

"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."
--Mary-Jo Foley

"What Microsoft is delivering with Surface Pro is a laptop that's also a tablet (in a similar way, the Surface RT is a tablet that's also a laptop). It's shaping up to be the Tablet PC done right, with a mix of hardware and software that should make it attractive to many users -- and at an ultrabook price point."
--Simon Bisson


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