I've been waiting to review the Microsoft Surface Pro for a long time. When I decided to make the switch to Windows 8, I did a pretty thorough survey of the computing landscape, and Microsoft's second Surface seemed like it might be the one for me.
Microsoft has proven it can build a nice-looking tablet with the Surface RT. Unfortunately, though, that was one of the only things the RT had going for it, and the brutal performance problems outweighed the aesthetic niceties. The Surface Pro was for months just a mythical device, Microsoft's unreleased attempt to blend both beauty and power into the perfect Windows 8 machine.
I've now been using the Surface Pro for a week or so, and I've had a real chance to see if this device, which starts at $899, is able to live up to my lofty expectations. Is it my next? Is it yours? Let's find out.
More Surface to love – or something
On its surface (I'm sorry) there's little distinction between the Pro and RT Surface models. This device is the same testament to Microsoft's newly refined design aesthetic, with simple lines and clean edges that make it a handsome tablet in a business-casual sort of way. It's made entirely of Microsoft's "VaporMg" material, which feels thin but sturdy, and it comes in any color you want as long as it's black. The whole body appears to be made of one piece of that VaporMg, except for two seams along the top edge that are ever so slightly offset, like the last person on the assembly line didn't push quite hard enough. The plastic strip along the top of the RT's back is gone here, since evidently Microsoft figured out somewhere else to put the wireless radios, so it feels even sleeker.
The only major aesthetic difference is a slight gap in the siding of the Surface Pro, which runs around all four of its edges. That's where the fans go — Microsoft is using peripheral venting on the Surface Pro, using that little space to push air out instead of relying on a couple of larger vents. It doesn't look terrible, but it both adds and calls attention to the extra thickness of the device. Still, though, Microsoft did well in the looks department with both Surface models.
The tablet's face is basically nothing but a screen and a Windows logo — the display even blends nicely into the bezel, so it really does seem to be all screen. The power button rests on the angled upper edge; a full USB port, volume rocker, and headphone jack take up the left side. The strange power cord is on the right side — it feels like a cheap knockoff of Apple's MagSafe adapter, a magnetic connector that's really hard and awkward to attach because it's set at such a weird angle. A DisplayPort jack sits next to it, along with a microSD card reader that I didn't figure out was a microSD reader until I actually stuck a card in there – it's just an unidentified slot on the edge of the device.
'Laptop' is a serious misnomer, but so is 'tablet'
The magnetic dock connector along the device's bottom edge is used mostly for connecting the Type Cover and Touch Cover. Those haven't changed since the Surface RT, so check out Josh's take for more; the only thing that's different is small, gold plates in the connector itself — I don't know why it's different, and it doesn't change anything about the Covers, but it's a slight change. I quickly got used to the Type Cover other than its too-small trackpad, but while the Touch Cover may be an impressive technical achievement, I kind of hate using it. It's just not a satisfying typing experience.
It may all look more or less the same as the RT before it, but the Surface Pro feels different. Very different. It's heavy and big — more than a half-pound heavier than the Surface RT (just over two pounds to the RT's 1.5) and almost 50 percent thicker (.53 inches vs. .37). You really notice the difference in both cases, too. Couple that with its 10.81-inch width, and calling this device a tablet borders on the ridiculous. It's absolutely unusable in one hand, tiresome to hold while standing, and big enough that you'll notice it in your bag. Of course, that's only when compared to a tablet — a two-pound laptop is pretty fantastic, and that may be a more fair comparison anyway.
Actually, that's what frustrates me about the Surface Pro. It's definitely not a tablet, but it's also not a "laptop," strictly speaking — I never figured out how to actually use the thing on my lap, with a keyboard attached and the kickstand out. I like kickstands on tablets, and this one is plenty sturdy and clicks in and out with a satisfying firmness. It only goes out at one angle, though, which is too upright unless you're sitting at a desk with the Surface directly in front of you. But the real dealbreaker for me was that it's just unusable in my most common position — sitting on my couch, feet on the coffee table, with the computer on my lap. I'd spend forever getting the device balanced, only to have it tip over as soon as I touched the screen or tapped on the Type Cover. I don't know if a more flexible kickstand would solve the problem or not, but as it is you're pretty limited in the ways you can use the Surface Pro.
If you want a slim (for a laptop), handsome device that's easy to carry back and forth between your desks at home and work, the Surface Pro fits the bill pretty nicely — I have near-identical keyboard / mouse / monitor setups at The Verge office and in my apartment, and only having to lug two pounds back and forth was great. But if, like me, you often find yourself using your computer on the couch, on your lap, on your chest while you lie in bed, or really anywhere without a desk, both Surface models feel clumsy and awkward. You're much better off with a device like the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13, or really any device that's a laptop first and something else second.
Specs, cameras, and display
There's a lot of horsepower in this chunky package. The Surface Pro is equipped like a laptop, and a pretty good one at that: it has a 1.7GHz Intel Core i5-3317u processor with integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000, 4GB of RAM, and either 64GB or 128GB of internal storage. (If you can, buy the 128GB model — Microsoft's OS and pre-created recovery partition mean there's only 23GB of usable storage on the 64GB Surface Pro.) There's Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, of course, along with a light sensor, accelerometer, compass, and gyroscope. As with the Surface RT, there's no way to get 3G or 4G radios built into the device, without which the Surface Pro doesn't feel quite as portable as it could. A cheap Mi-Fi solves that problem neatly, though, so I'm not terribly worried about it.
Update: Microsoft has updated its measurements for exactly how much storage you'll get on the Surface Pro, and says that the usable storage on the 64GB Pro numbers 29GB instead of 23. You'll be able to use 89GB on the 128GB model. The story's a little better than we thought, but not much.
There are two cameras on the Surface Pro, both capable of recording 720p video. In my entire time using the device, I only ever used the rear camera explicitly for testing, because taking pictures with a two-pound, 11-inch slab of metal is ridiculous. On the other hand, the super-wide-angle front-facing camera does really well for video chat. The speakers tell a similar story: you get decent performance, with relatively clear (but not particularly loud) sound.
When I went to Redmond for a behind-the-scenes tour of how the Surface came to exist, Microsoft reps made a big deal about the device's screen. On the Surface RT, I didn't quite see why – it's just a 10.6-inch, 1366 x 768 display that had great colors but not enough pixel density — but the Surface Pro makes it clear that Microsoft knows what it's doing. The 10.6-inch, 1920 x 1080 panel on the Pro is gorgeous, maybe the best laptop screen I've ever seen. Blacks are deep and whites are bright (my MacBook Air's display looks comparatively yellowish now), and colors are both accurate and vibrant. Since it's 1080p, it also holds up to closer pixel-level scrutiny when you're holding the device nearer to your face in tablet mode.
Having such a pixel-rich display does cause a slight problem with scaling in Windows. A lot of things are made too small by having pixels so close together, so Windows scales things up to 150 percent by default — that makes a lot of things big, and a lot of things blurry. Scaling back down to 100 percent makes everything look good again, but also makes some elements, particularly in the Desktop, too small to be really touch-friendly. I went with smaller and harder to touch, but you have to pick your poison to some extent.
There are two small things about the Surface Pro that struck me as remarkably smart moves by Microsoft. One is small: there's a USB port on the charging brick, so you can charge your phone and your Surface through the same outlet.
The other is much bigger: the Surface Pro comes with a Wacom-made, pressure-sensitive stylus that is an awesomely useful companion to the device. It's fantastic for drawing apps or Fruit Ninja — the pixel-dense display gives you accurate control anyway, and the pen makes it even better — but not especially useful for tapping around the operating system, since it just ends up moving apps on the Start screen instead of scrolling. You can even right-click or erase, with the click of a button on the pen itself. The device itself even knows when your pen is nearby, showing a dot on the screen before you even tap; that's huge for using Photoshop, or anything else that requires a deft touch. The pen's not something you'll use all the time, but it's a great addition to a touch-friendly device. It attaches to the power connector, which handily holds it in place on the side of the device when not in use, but it still fell off every time I put the Pro in my backpack.
Based on specifications alone, the Surface Pro can compete with almost any similarly-priced ultrabook on the market. I'm impressed that Microsoft managed to get so much extra power into a device that's still slimmer and lighter than most ultrabooks, and the fact that it could makes me wonder why the Surface RT exists at all. More on that in a minute.
There's no compromise with the Surface Pro's internals
Software and performance
The Surface Pro is powered by Windows 8 – actual, honest-to-goodness, no-compromises Windows 8. Since it's powered by an Intel processor, it can run legacy Windows apps, so your Quicken and Photoshop needs will finally be satiated. And in general, it runs remarkably smoothly. I consistently switch around between a dozen different apps, some streaming music or movies, and the Surface Pro never stumbled once in normal use — I was actually shocked at how quickly it would resume playing House of Cards on Netflix when I alt-tabbed my way back to the app. Where the Surface RT took forever to load anything, and stumbled its way through any kind of intensive task, the Pro simply flies. Even from the moment you turn it on, it's fast: the Surface Pro boots in eight seconds and resumes in less than two.
There's something really weird about running Windows on a tablet, though. I never think about getting a virus on my iPad, or making sure to comply with constant system updates. Even on the Surface RT, those things aren't a problem. But you'll have to maintain the Surface Pro just like any other Windows machine you've ever used — a process that Microsoft tries to hide — and that makes this device feel like a lot more work than a tablet should. Running full Windows is an absolute must for a laptop, but seems weirdly out of place on a tablet, which I want to use to watch movies and read books.
Of course, this isn't exactly a gaming rig, so you'll have to keep your expectations in check. I was able to play most Steam games, like Borderlands 2 and Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, on low settings and resolutions, but frame rates were fairly choppy even then. That's no worse than most of its ultrabook competition, so I don't really fault Microsoft here – plus, trying to play a game using the Touch Cover's keys and trackpad was one of the more frustrating things I've ever tried.
Intel chips run a lot hotter than the Tegra 3 inside the Surface RT, so the Surface Pro does get a little warm as you use it, especially on the upper left side. It's not nearly hot enough to be an issue, just a small reminder that you're using a laptop and not a tablet. Same goes for the fans, which work with only the slightest hint of noise — if I hold the device to my ear I can hear it whirring, but the Surface Pro is usually the least noisy thing in the room when I'm using it.
I'm happy to make sacrifices for the extra power of the Surface Pro, and neither heat nor noise nor girth annoyed me enough to ever make me wish for the Surface RT. But every four hours, when the Surface Pro's battery died, I longed for a Tegra 3-powered device. The Pro lasted 3 hours, 59 minutes on the Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of websites and high-res images with screen brightness set to 65 percent. That's about an hour below what I'd consider acceptable battery life for an ultrabook, and it's less than half of what I'd expect from a tablet — the Surface RT easily lasts a full day of regular use, for instance, and the iPad chugged along for more than nine hours in our strenuous test. Not being able to use my "tablet" for an entire cross-country flight is a tough pill to swallow.
In addition to all the apps you already use, the Surface Pro can also of course access the new Windows 8 Store. The Store is slowly but surely coming into its own: I've found a handful of really good games and apps, and there seem to be more every day. It's still a long way from being a really competitive app store, but it's growing – and since I can run Windows 7 apps anyway, I don't mind so much. One thing that's missing from the Pro is Office, which comes pre-installed on the Surface RT — you get a one-month free trial of Office 365, but that's it.
I was worried about battery life, and boy was I right
The Surface RT was riddled with compromises, from the odd omissions — five-finger multitouch rather than ten — to the dealbreaking performance problems. The Surface Pro has none of those. It's as fast, consistent, and capable as any ultrabook I've tested in the last several months, and from a touch and responsiveness standpoint may be the best I've used. It has no confusing app incompatibilies, no weird performance issues. Sure, it's heavier and thicker than the Surface RT and has frustratingly poor battery life, but it's worth both the tradeoff and the extra expense. If you're going to buy a Surface, buy the Surface Pro. Period. (And buy the 128GB model.) But if you're going to buy a $900 tablet, get the decked-out iPad with LTE and 128GB of storage, and if you're going to buy a Windows laptop, check out the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga or the Dell XPS 12. Which leads me back to the same question Josh asked about the Surface RT: who is this for?
Even a well-executed Surface still doesn't work for me, and I'd bet it doesn't work for most other people either. It's really tough to use on anything but a desk, and the wide, 16:9 aspect ratio pretty severely limits its usefulness as a tablet anyway. It's too big, too fat, and too reliant on its power cable to be a competitive tablet, and it's too immutable to do everything a laptop needs to do. In its quest to be both, the Surface is really neither. It's supposed to be freeing, but it just feels limiting.