Microsoft Surface Pro hands-on impressions

PCWorld spent a solid 30 minutes with Microsoft's upcoming Surface Pro tablet. Can it atone for the sins of Surface RT?

Perhaps you remember Surface RT. It was Microsoft's bid to become a legitimate computer hardware manufacturer--a Windows-based tablet with a clever, snappy, magnetically attached keyboard cover. It looked great. It felt great. It had all the pluck and presence of Grade A industrial design.

Surface RT gave us the touch control of Microsoft's modern U.I., but was also intended to serve as a solid, no-excuses PC productivity station. The tablet even came with a starter version of Microsoft Office to help fulfill that promise.

But Surface RT was also laden with a crappy OS--hobbled by Windows RT and its "desktop as barren wasteland" conceit. And this is why I now discuss Surface RT in the past-tense. It's not a device that anyone can seriously consider. Not when there are so many worthy Windows 8 Ultrabooks and hybrid designs to choose from.

The good money has always been on Surface Pro. It was announced right alongside Surface RT, with a promised release date of sometime in the neighborhood of January 26. Surface Pro is a slightly thicker, much more powerful version of Microsoft's original Surface tablet. In fact, it looks identical to Surface RT, save for being 0.53-inch thick instead of 0.37-inch thick. And even though it weighs 2 pounds to Surface RT's 1.5 pounds, it really doesn't feel all that much heavier.

But, most importantly, Surface Pro bids adieu to the nonsense of Windows RT, and delivers Windows 8 Pro instead. And that classy, molded magnesium chassis is now stuffed with a Core i5 processor--you know, just like a real PC.

Even though Microsoft all but ditched CES this year (simply delegating Steve Ballmer to class up Qualcomm's absurd keynote), the Surface team did touch down in Las Vegas to show off its new Surface with Windows 8 Pro in a back-room, practically off-the-grid demo.

Screen: Yes, thanks for the extra pixels

Both Surface RT and Surface Pro feature 10.6-inch, optically bonded displays, but where the RT's screen tops out at 1366x768, the Pro version of Surface delivers a true HD resolution of 1920x1080. This bump in pixel density helps address one of my main gripes with Surface RT: Its unmistakable lack of visual clarity compared to Apple's Retina display products.

During my CES demo, I got a good half-hour with the Surface Pro, and every time I held it, I noticed and re-noticed its improved pixel density. It's not anything that leaps forward when Surface is propped on a table in workstation mode, but when you're grasping the device in your hands, tablet-style, the improved resolution is obvious, and in your face.

We also ran Surface RT with an external display, driving a behemoth, high-res monitor via the Pro's Mini DisplayPort adapter. OK, that was a revelation. When attached to an external monitor, the Surface Pro really does become a full PC--and in this mode, the tablet itself can function as a drawing pad for full-fledged graphics applications, thanks to its included pen.

About that pen

The Surface Pro's pen attaches to the tablet's magnetic power adapter port when it's not in use. The fit is snug enough, I guess, and it clamps down to the tablet chassis with all the grip of the power connector itself. But the storage system for the digitizer still worries me. I'm used to storing tablet styluses inside hardware, not having them hang off the side. How many weeks before these pens are lost en masse?

Regardless, the pen itself performed relatively well when drawing in digital ink. There was the slightest--slightest--bit of lag in drawing response, but while it was noticeable, it wasn't consequential. Microsoft couldn't tell me how many levels of pressure sensitivity are offered by the pen, but simply having a full-fledged Windows tablet that can get close to a Wacom pad is a nice bonus feature.

Performance: Smooth, like a PC should

The new Surface will ship with an Intel Core i5 processor, integrated Intel graphics, and 4GB of RAM. Microsoft isn't disclosing clock speeds. I only had a brief amount of time with the machine, and Microsoft didn't demo any desktop applications--but let's all take a moment to thank the more sensible architects in Redmond for letting us run full desktop applications in Microsoft's latest tablet.

(A quick refresher for Windows RT know-nots: The so-called desktop in Windows RT only runs Microsoft Office and basic file system functions. You cannot install traditional Windows desktop applications, and as a result, the RT "desktop" feels like a functionless, pointless, vestigial artifact. Its lack of utility is actually distracting. But the Surface Pro tablet runs a full version of Windows 8, so its desktop is open for business--literally, metaphorically, magnificently.)

Surface Pro did feel a wee bit faster in the modern, live-tiled Windows interface, and that actually says something for the performance of Intel silicon, given that Surface RT's ARM processor is more than capable of handling the new Windows U.I. Of course, the real test will come when we run full-fledged Windows apps and games in desktop mode. My expectation is that we'll find performance perfectly commensurate to i5 machines running the same specs.

During the demo, we did fire up the first-person shooter Bulletstorm, and its frame rate at 1920x1080 was smooth enough to play, but didn't look butter smooth in 60fps+ territory. Still, if nothing else, the game demo did prove that Surface Pro is a legitimate performer, and can deliver what one would expect from other Windows 8/Intel tablet combos running similar components.

Unlike the completely passively cooled Surface RT, the Surface Pro has two built-in fans. During the demo, the fans were perfectly quiet when I was using the Pro as a conventional tablet. I was warned the sound levels would increase during game play, but Bulletstorm was loud enough to drown out the fans (that is, if they were increasing in volume at all).

Waiting for pudding--and proof therein

When Surface Pro arrives at the end of this month, it won't receive all the fresh, new-kid-in-town bonhomie that the world bestowed on Surface RT. When RT hit the scene in October, it wasn't just one of the very few Windows tablet-ish devices available, it also piggybacked on top of Microsoft's greater Windows launch PR effort.

But life is very different now for a Windows 8 tablet or tablet-PC hybrid. There are multiple Windows 8 machines to choose from, and consumers will be incredibly sensitive to pricing options. The 64GB version of Surface Pro will cost $900. The 128GB version, $1000. Touch-capable Ultrabooks are aiming to beat those numbers, and Microsoft will shortly find itself in a pricing war with its hardware partners. The "competitor" machines may not have the design panache of Surface, but will looks matter in an ultra-portable market that's already considered to be priced too high?

Stay tuned. Get ready. The PC landscape is more interesting than it's been in more than 10 years, and Surface Pro can tell us so, so much about what consumers want--and are willing to spend--in a new Windows 8 hybrid.

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Tags CESWindows 8MicrosoftWindowssoftwareSurfaceoperating systems

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Jon Phillips

PC World (US online)
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