So, what do I want out of my next laptop and what must it include?
Microsoft Surface Pro tablet
Microsoft’s Intel-powered tablet is fantastic, but somewhat flawed. We can live with that
- Brilliant design
- Great touchscreen display
- Excellent add-on keyboard connector
- Significant, inescapable compromise inherent in form factor
- Mediocre battery life for a notebook, terrible for a tablet
- Frustrating power connector
Microsoft's full-fat Windows 8 tablet is hugely compromised, but that's part of its design. We found its versatility useful, but limiting at the same time.
It’s no secret that we’ve been keenly waiting for the Surface Pro since it was first announced in June of last year.
Back then, we were told the Intel Core i5-powered, Windows 8 Pro-toting tablet would be released around three months after Windows 8 itself. In mid-January, Microsoft announced the release date of the Surface Pro, but only for North America.
We know that the ‘Microsoft Surface with Windows 8 Pro’, as it’s officially called, is coming to Australia, but we just don’t know exactly when. We also know that Microsoft has some more accessories up its proverbial capacious sleeve.
With that in mind, we borrowed a 64GB version of the Surface Pro to see what it’s like to use — as a day-to-day PC, as a portable tablet, as a business machine, and for playing the odd game or two.
You can’t currently buy the Surface Pro in Australia officially through Microsoft, or any of Microsoft’s retail partners. We think that will probably change in the next 4 to 6 weeks, though. Until then, you can buy one off an importer like Expansys, who sent us our review unit.
Microsoft Surface Pro: Design, features, and specs and accessories
There’s no getting around this — we think the Surface Pro is the best-looking device that has ever run Windows. It’s simple, elegant, sturdy, and versatile. No arguments. Thank you for reading.
Viewed front-on, the only design flourish on the Surface Pro is a white Windows logo, which also serves as a Windows key. There’s a 720p forward facing camera in the top of the 20mm-thick piano black bezel, but that’s the only distraction from the tablet’s 10.6-inch screen.
The Surface Pro’s LED-edge-lit display operates at Full HD resolution — that’s 1920x1080 pixels. This is the same resolution that almost all of today’s plasma and LED TVs, and many 24-inch and 27-inch computer monitors, operate at, so to see it in a sub-11-inch tablet screen is very impressive.
Turn the Surface Pro over, and the simple approach to computing continues. The body of the Pro is made from cast magnesium alloy — Microsoft calls it VaporMg — and is reassuringly sturdy. There's another 720p camera on the back. The same sturdy flip-out kickstand as we saw on the Microsoft Surface RT takes up the lower half of the Surface Pro’s rear shell, clicking out to a single 26-degree angle — which is generally fine, but not always. Try to use the Surface Pro on your lap with the kickstand, and you'll feel like it's always just about to fall off.
Inputs and output connectors, of the kind you’d hope to find on any PC running Windows these days, are distributed across the right and left rims of the Surface Pro. On the left, you’ll find a headphone/headset jack (you can use an iPhone/Android headset with integrated mic and volume control buttons), volume control buttons, and a single USB 3.0 port. On the right, a microSDXC port joins the Surface Pro’s magnetic power connector and a Mini DisplayPort video-out. The power/sleep button is up top. These connectors (apart from the power jack — more on that later) are excellent — they’re precision-cut, and their placement along the Surface Pro’s chamfered edges means that anything plugged in sits surely against the tablet’s body.
Microsoft has two Cover variants to accompany the Surface Pro, and you’re definitely going to want one of them. That’s just the way it is — so you may as well add another $150 to the Surface Pro’s price tag. It’d be silly to have the versatility of full Windows 8 Pro and not have a dedicated directly-connected keyboard and trackpad.
We used the thicker, proper-keyboard Type Cover with the Surface Pro — we think it’s better suited than the slimmer Touch Cover, which is not as useful if you're going to be typing often. The huge advantage of the Covers is that they’re detachable — for the few times you might not need them — and that they fold back behind the screen (where they are disabled) for when you want to keep them attached but not use them. The magnetic connection is super-strong, works perfectly, and we never had any problems with the keyboard not being recognised — this is a flawless keyboard accessory implementation, bravo Microsoft.
The box that the Surface Pro ships in is spare, but alongside the 48Wh charger (which also has a USB charging port built in — smart), you’ll find the Surface Pro’s bundled digitiser pen. The pen feels a little cheap — it’s plastic, in stark contrast to the Pro’s Iron Man shell — but it does a stand-up job as a sometime Desktop mode mouse replacement, for writing notes, or for graphics tablet work in an app like Sketchbook. You will probably lose it, though — there’s no place to store it in the Pro’s body.
Microsoft Surface Pro: Performance and benchmarks
The Surface Pro is built around identical specs to any other current-generation Intel Ultrabook. For all intents and purposes, the Pro will perform effectively identically to the ASUS VivoBook S400C, the Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro, the Sony VAIO Duo 11 — it’s got the Intel Core i5-3317U, 4GB DDR3 RAM, Intel HD 4000 graphics, and 64GB or 128GB SSD blueprint that any tech-head will recognise. What this means is that it’s got more than enough power for general Web browsing, video watching, quick photo editing, or general business productivity, but it’ll struggle somewhat when it comes to more intensive tasks like Photoshop or HD video editing or gaming.
We ran the usual suite of benchmarks on the Microsoft Surface Pro, just for the heck of it. It returned a result of 45sec in Blender 3D, took 1min 2sec to convert a batch of MP3s in iTunes, and scored 4892 in PCMark 7. CPU performance is adequate, and as good or better than most desktop PCs or notebooks from any more than a couple of years ago, but you will get a more powerful processor in a proper non-Ultrabook notebook or any current desktop.
Graphics performance is a similar story. The Core i5 CPU’s integrated HD 4000 graphics core returned a result of 4231 in 3DMark 06, and E1178 / P604 / X201 in 3DMark 11 — these results are not promising for running any modern 3D game. The Surface Pro just about limps along at 30 frames per second running Sim City at minimum quality at 720p resolution, and it’s doable, but try Battlefield 3 and the struggle is obvious. Just like any other Ultrabook or the MacBook Air, the Surface Pro is made to be used by someone who is at best a casual gamer.
CrystalDiskMark returned results of 110MBps and 440MBps sequential write and read performance respectively for our Surface Pro’s 64GB SATA3 solid-state drive. These are perfectly acceptable read figures, but write performance is inferior to other SSDs we’ve tested. As we expected the tablet is quick to boot into Windows, quick to load up new programs, and generally snappy in day-to-day use.
You’re able to buy the Pro in 64GB or 128GB variants — given the 128GB model is only $100 more expensive, we’d almost certainly choose it out of the two. You can also use the microSDXC slot to boost storage by up to 64GB.
Microsoft Surface Pro: Software and day-to-day usage
The Surface Pro runs the full version of Windows 8 Pro. As such, it boots by default into Microsoft’s touch-driven Modern UI, with one-tap access to the Web, your mail, your social media services, weather, maps, and so on. The Microsoft App Store has access to various apps designed for touch and the Modern UI, although the catalogue is small at the moment. You can also use it just like a regular Windows 7 PC via the Desktop shortcut, and run all the programs you’re used to. One caveat — there’s no Start button, but that’s easily rectified by purchasing Start8 — tack another $5 onto the price tag, then.
We won’t go into detail on Windows 8’s ins and outs, but suffice to say that the Surface Pro is versatile. You can use it primarily as a touchscreen tablet in the Modern UI, you can use it primarily as a notebook with the keyboard in Desktop mode, or you can hit some compromise between the two. It works perfectly well in either way with a little bit of practice. You can plug in an external monitor and a USB mouse and use it just like a proper desktop PC, if you’re so inclined. For what it’s worth, we used it as a notebook on the Desktop about two-thirds of the time, and hand-held as a touchscreen Modern UI tablet for the remainder.
The battery life of the Surface Pro is OK. We measured it at 5 hours and 47 minutes of constant 720p video playback at half screen brightness on Power Saver mode with Wi-Fi on. Switch to High Performance mode and maximise brightness, and this figure drops to 3 hours and 35 minutes. You’re able to eke another hour out when you’re doing light-duty tasks like Web browsing (or writing this review). These are mediocre results that are a necessary result of the all-in-one design.
Like any other ultraportable, you’re able to unplug it and laze on the couch, or take it for an extended train journey, or have a long work meeting and then watch a movie at lunch. It’s not going to stand up to a full work day or an international plane journey without visiting the charger, though. This is a compromise that anyone who’s used a thin and light notebook is familiar with; if you’re comparing the Surface Pro to an iPad or Nexus 10 or any ARM device the battery life gap is less forgivable.
Tangentially related to battery life is the Surface Pro’s power connector. The magnetic power jack is one of the most annoying things about using the Surface Pro every day. After living with and loving a series of MacBooks with Apple’s peerless MagSafe connector, we were bitterly disappointed to find that the Microsoft solution is not nearly as easy to use — the magnetism is very weak, and the connector doesn’t sit entirely securely once it’s clipped in.
Sometimes we clipped it in only for the Windows charging indicator to flash on and off, and it’s possible for the magnets to hold the connector against the Surface Pro’s charging port without making electrical contact. Most of the time it works, but not always — and it’s those times that are so frustrating, and so disappointing given how excellent the magnetic Cover connector is.
As we alluded to earlier, the Surface Pro’s 10.6-inch ClearType Full HD touchscreen looks excellent. It’s incredibly detailed at 208ppi, it’s got a high enough maximum brightness to make it usable outdoors in daylight and overcome the very glossy finish, and it’s vibrant and colourful with reasonable colour accuracy out of the box. Being a proper Windows PC, you’re also able to calibrate it for near-spot-on colour accuracy if you’re so inclined. Viewing angles are fantastic vertically and nearly fantastic along the horizontal axis.
The screen’s 16:9 ratio is a smart choice, making the Pro a natural fit for streaming or downloading movies and TV shows. You’ll get an academically better screen in a 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, or a more detailed one in an iPad 4 or a iPhone 5 or any Full HD smartphone, but the compromise between size, detail, brightness, portability and aspect ratio feels just right in the Surface Pro.
The screen, and the metal body, and the Type Cover, are fingerprint magnets on the Surface Pro. Oleophobic coating or no, use the tablet for a day of Windows 8 tapping and swiping, keyboard typing and scrolling, and general carrying about, and it gets noticeably grimy. This is true of any glossy touchscreen device, and it’s not really the Surface Pro’s fault, but it is something to consider. When we used it day-to-day, we took to carrying the power adapter around in a cleaning-cloth case, and our standard procedure was to set up the tablet, plug in the power, and give the screen and body a quick wipe-over. That’s not something we’d bother with for a notebook or a smartphone.
Microsoft Surface Pro: Our closing thoughts
The Surface Pro is a computing device with a lot of compromises inherent in its design.
Analyse it as an optimist, and you’ll see a high-powered tablet that has an add-on keyboard, and more accessories on the way, with a clean touch interface that becomes standard powerful Windows with a few clicks. It’s incredibly well built, can stand up on its own, can be used just like an iPad or just like an Ultrabook. It’s got enough battery power for a day of use as a tablet, enough power for business tasks, it’s portable, it’s versatile.
Analyse it as a pessimist, and you’ll see a bulky, heavy tablet that needs a pricy accessory to work properly, with a stand that only works at one angle, with terrible battery life, mediocre computing performance, running an operating system that doesn’t know what it wants to be, with a touchscreen pen you’ll lose, and an unreasonably high price tag.
We happen to sway closer to the former. If you look at the Surface Pro with the understanding that the compromises are necessary for it to be the size that it is, with the power that it has, with the operating system that it uses, it’s an impressive technological feat. An iPad can’t really be used to replace a desktop PC in a business environment, not properly. An Ultrabook can’t really be used to watch a movie while you’re standing up on the train, not properly.
In our fortnight with the Surface Pro we used it in Desktop mode for a couple of days of typing reviews, news and features for this website. We used it in the Modern UI running touchscreen Internet Explorer browsing the ‘net, watched movies in bed with the kickstand, read The Hunger Games (don’t judge us!) in portrait mode like an e-reader. Having this versatility is a godsend — we haven’t used our Kobo Arc that is usually on Netflix and Reddit duty, or the 15-inch notebook that normally handles review writing and couch-side Web browsing, and our gaming PC will continue to get slightly less use if we can tolerate low-res Sim City.
The Surface Pro is a lot more than an iPad in some ways, and a lot less than an Ultrabook in the same way. We happen to think it’s fantastic for our use case. Whether it’s right for you is down to your own personal requirements — consider everything that you want the Surface Pro to do, consider if there’s something else that will do that better, and then make a decision.
The Surface Pro isn’t out in Australia yet — it’s currently only widely available in the US and Canada. We think it’ll probably be available locally in 4 to 6 weeks. Until then, you can order one from an importer like Expansys, who loaned us a 64GB review unit.
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