The Microsoft Surface Pro delivers on its promise to provide the most laptop-like performance yet from a tablet. But like most groundbreaking devices, it has flaws—including limited storage and hefty weight and size—that mean it's suited mainly to road warriors who can't wait for a better super-tablet device to come along.
Launched this week, the Pro, which has a 10.6-inch screen and costs $900 and up, is close to a true hybrid of tablet and laptop. That's mostly because (unlike its sibling, the Surface RT) it doesn't run Windows RT, the company's new mobile operating system, but uses the same Windows 8 OS that powers new laptops.
That platform obviously brings clear advantages to the Pro over other tablets, notably the ability to run the legacy Windows programs and apps you now run on your PC. Yet the requirements of running full Windows 8 are also at the root of most of the Pro's shortcomings.
While our testers continue to put the Pro through its paces in order to add it to the Ratings next month, here are some first impressions and observations:
Performance was excellent, as good as that of other laptops with the Core i5 processor. It also beat the performance of most detachable laptops, which generally use Atom processors. Like the Surface Pro, many convertibles (laptops with screens that slide, fold, or twist into a tablet but don't detach) that we tested also use a Core i5 processor.
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The screen was also excellent. Like the Surface RT, the Surface Pro has an excellent display, and the viewing angle equals that of the iPad. But the resolution is lower, and you don't get as many pixels per inch as you do on the newer iPads with the Retina display. As a result, the picture won't be as crisp.
Colors also were excellent, although they were slightly washed out and not quite as good as on the iPad.
It's at its best with the optional keyboard. Having paid at least $900 for the Pro (the cost of the 64GB version), you may choke on spending an extra $120 or more on one of its custom keyboards. But we recommend doing so. We used the Pro with the Type Cover, which combines a cover for the screen with a traditional keyboard with raised keys (but is thinner and lighter than a regular keyboard).
Sure, the accessory adds another 9 ounces (or 7 ounces for the alternative Touch Cover, which is flatter) to a device that already weighs in at 2 pounds, which is half a pound more than a third-generation iPad. But the Covers are low in profile (a tenth of an inch thick for the Touch Cover and 2 tenths of an inch for the Type Cover), and they facilitate productivity—that is, work rather than play—which is what you're likely to be doing much of the time on the Pro. Both Covers snap easily and quickly onto the bottom of the Pro with a magnetic clasp. (If only the magnetic power-cord attachment, which resembles that of Apple laptops, worked as seamlessly; we found it awkward to align, especially when the keyboard was attached.)
The Pro also has its flaws as a tablet, as we note in the items below:
It's bulky for a tablet. In addition to its weight, the Pro's depth disconcerted me. At a full half-inch thick, the Pro's around 50 percent thicker than the Surface RT and most other 10-inch tablets, including the third-generation iPad. I found the Pro awkward to hold in my lap for long. It felt more like what it really is: a small laptop minus the keyboard.
Storage is limited on the 64GB version. Unless you plan to store very little on your Pro, you may want to spend yet another $100 to step up from 64GB of storage to 128GB. That's because the OS and included programs alone eat up a whopping 45GB of storage—leaving, on the 64GB version, a mere 20GB or so for everything else.
You do have other storage options, admittedly. Unlike the Surface RT, which has just one, the Pro has two USB ports—one on the device, one on the power charger. The one on the tablet works like any USB port on a computer: It expands capacity and charges devices. But the one on the charger can be used only to charge USB devices. The Surface Pro also has a microSD memory-card slot.
Also, as with most tablets, you can consider cloud storage. Microsoft offers its SkyDrive cloud storage with 7GB free when you sign up and has lower prices than either Apple iCloud, Google Drive, or Dropbox if you want to add additional storage.
Battery life isn't likely to be great. We haven't tested battery life on the Surface Pro yet, and as yet Microsoft lists no specific claim. But it's unlikely to rank among the longest-running tablets, which keep powered for up to 12 hours or so in our tests.
For one, the 11- to 13-inch convertible laptops we've tested using the same Core i5 processors got anywhere between 4.5 and 8 hours in our tests. Also, Microsoft, in its online guide to choosing between the Surface and Surface Pro, asks would-be Pro buyers if they are "willing to sacrifice some battery life for processing speed and compatibility," which suggests the Pro will run for less time than the Surface (which ran for 10 hours in our tests).
There's no 4G capability. Another respect in which the Pro is more laptop than tablet is in the absence of a version with built-in 4G capability. Of course, for many people, Wi-Fi access is sufficient for a tablet or laptop. And if it isn't, you can always do what you can with any laptop: Get a 4G dongle that fits into one of the Pro's USB ports. That's an adequate solution, but it's less elegant than built-in capability.
Bottom line. It's good that the Surface Pro is here, since there's a clear need for a tablet that offers the performance oomph and operating system to handle much or all of what you'd ordinarily do in a laptop. If you need such a device, perhaps to reduce your gadget count when on the road, just be aware that, with the Surface Pro, you'll be getting a tablet that's less portable, because of its weight and battery life, than the better models out there.