Editors' note: The original Surface Pro, reviewed below, has been replaced by the Surface Pro 2, available October 22.
On February 9, the Surface gets another lease on life. This version, known as the Surface Pro, tackles head-on many of the complaints about the original Surface RT -- especially that model's compromised Windows RT operating system. The Surface Pro offers a full Windows 8 experience that works with older Windows software titles, packs a real Intel Core i5 processor, and boldly stuffs the entire PC experience into a sleek and appealing tablet body that's just a tad thicker and heavier than the RT version.
There's a lot to like here -- if not to love. While the Surface Pro isn't the first Windows 8 tablet, it may well be the best one to date, at least in terms of design. The magic here is in the details: the ingenious detachable keyboard cover and the included pressure-sensitive stylus both go a long way toward setting the Surface Pro apart from the other laptops, tablets, and hybrids we've seen so far.
Can the Surface Pro work as a real, everyday PC -- a task that rival iPads, Android tablets, and even those Windows RT models couldn't quite handle? For me, an initial skeptic, it can. You can color me impressed.
If you were skipping the Surface RT because you wanted "true" laptop power and performance, the Pro version is definitely the way to go.
But while it's undeniably more powerful, the Surface Pro makes trade-offs -- most notably, middling battery life, a heavier chassis, and a price tag that starts at $899. That hit on your wallet becomes closer to $1,200 if you go with the 128GB version (a necessity) and add the so-cool-you'll-want-it keyboard cover. And you can say goodbye to the free version of Microsoft Office that came with the Surface RT; Surface Pro buyers will need to spring for that, too.
I'm waiting for Microsoft to throw me a bone. The Surface Pro's best feature isn't even in the box; toss in the $129 Type Cover. Or give me Microsoft Office. Otherwise, I think I'm holding out for the inevitable Surface Pro 2 -- the one that will undoubtedly offer better battery life and a host of other upgrades. This version makes strides, but it's not the perfect laptop-killer yet.
|Price as reviewed / starting price||$999 / $899|
|Processor||1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317U|
|Memory||4GB, 1,600MHz DDR3|
|Hard drive||64GB SSD ($899), 128GB SSD ($999)|
|Operating system||Windows 8|
|Dimensions (WD)||10.8x6.8 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||10.6 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||2 pounds / 2.6 pounds|
|Category||Ultraportable / Hybrid|
Microsoft has done something right with the Surface Pro's overall design: everything works exactly as advertised, and with an extremely elegant, bordering on beautiful, sense of design. The industrial magnesium chassis of the Surface Pro feels solid but isn't too heavy to hold in one hand. One notable difference between it and the slightly thinner RT version of the Surface is a hairline wraparound vent on the rear that works with internal fans to keep the more powerful CPU running smoothly.
At 2 pounds, the Surface Pro weighs less than a regular ultrabook, and at 10.81 inches by 6.81 inches by 0.53 inch, it's more compact. But it's bigger than your average tablet, and weighs more, too. It feels like a larger iPad decked out in a fat suit. In fact, it still feels more like a super slimmed-down laptop than a regular tablet, especially with the Type or Touch Cover attached.
The closest equivalent we've reviewed was the Acer Iconia W700, a nearly identical tablet in terms of specs. The Iconia is longer and wider and has an 11.6-inch screen; the Surface Pro's is 10.6 inches.
Made of the same "VaporMG" magnesium as the Surface RT, it feels even better than it looks, which -- despite being cleanly honed -- is a little boxy.
The Surface Pro tips the scales at 2 pounds even; add half a pound for one of the keyboard covers, and another 0.6 pound for the AC adapter and cord. That's heavier than the Surface RT and iPad (both around 1.5 pounds), but lighter than most laptops, even with the keyboard case in tow.
If there's any ergonomic complaint I can level at the Surface, it's the angle of the tablet in kickstand mode when sitting at a desk and using the small kickstand flap that folds out to form the back of the system. The angle is not adjustable, and while it works fine with the Type Cover attached, I would prefer it angled up a bit more. I found myself hunching over to get to a perfect angle.
The 10.6-inch display is small, especially for a full Windows laptop, but it's crisp and bright and has a full 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution. I found myself able to work on it easily, but I could also see that you'd want to plug in a monitor for all-day use. The good news is that the Surface Pro supports up to 2,560x1,440-pixel resolution on an external display. Even if you didn't use another monitor, the Surface's IPS display is one of the best I've ever seen on a small Windows computer. Capacitive multitouch feels buttery-smooth. That's the magic that made the iPhone and iPad so fun to use. The Surface Pro, in painting programs and a few other apps I tried, felt comfortable to navigate. It's not quite as brilliant as the iPad's Retina Display, but it feels like it's getting spiritually close.
You can connect the Surface to a larger monitor easily; many will. A built-in Mini DisplayPort carries audio and video, and with adapters (sold separately) you can switch over to VGA or HDMI if needed. Working in multimonitor mode operated exactly the same as you'd expect on a Windows PC. It took some fiddling to get window sizing just right, but I found that working on my desk with the innocuous Surface on the side of my monitor as a PC-slash-second-screen was a bit of a treat.
Type Cover, Touch Cover: Killer accessories, neither included
Nearly this entire review has been written on the Surface Pro, using a combination of Type and Touch covers. The $130 Type Cover has an actual keyboard with depressible keys, whereas the $120 Touch Cover is a membrane keyboard. They both weigh about half a pound, and double as screen covers for the Surface.
The Type Cover keyboard feels wonderful, easy to bang away on, and largely responsive. The Touch Cover...well, not quite as much. It's usable, however. The key spacing on the Touch Cover is identical, and as long as you can get used to the lack of actual key motion and give in to tapping away lightly on what amounts to raised polyurethane squares, then it can work -- even with touch typing.
The Type Cover has a real but tiny honest-to-goodness multitouch touch pad with lower click zones; the Touch Cover's touch pad has "clickable" areas delineated below the touch-pad space with cut-out grooved lines. The Touch Cover is fun (it's available in multiple colors), but the real keyboard on the Type Cover only costs $10 more.
I can't say enough good things about the Type Cover keyboard -- if I were reviewing it separately, it would get an Editors' Choice hands-down. It attaches magnetically and seamlessly to the Surface Pro's bottom. It forms a pretty attractive cover along the lines of Apple's own (keyboardless) Smart Cover, but with the addition of that Surface-powered keyboard-touch-pad combo that doesn't noticeably drain battery life at all.
And, yes, it forms a strong enough bond to dangle the Surface Pro upside down, but I wouldn't try this at home over a concrete floor.
Working with the included touch pad gets the job done, but you can just as easily use the Surface's touch screen -- or add a Bluetooth or USB mouse or touch pad. I used the Microsoft Wedge Touch Mouse that Microsoft included with this review unit. It's expensive but small enough, and it pairs nicely with the Surface.
The Surface Pro supports pressure-sensitive styli, and the Surface Pro comes with its own Surface Pen that magnetically attaches to the power connector to hold it in place when you're on the go. Writing and sketching felt natural, and the pen worked far more responsively than a capacitive iPad stylus (the technology's different).
Using a few basic drawing apps from the Windows Store, it all worked easily enough for my 4-year-old son and myself to enjoy.
The "fun factor" is definitely present in the Surface Pro, but there isn't the incredible level of tablet-friendly app support that iOS and Android enjoy. You can run legacy Windows applications on the Surface to your heart's content, but those won't be nearly as touch-friendly.