When Microsoft first ventured into the Windows 8 tablet space with its Surface RT, the response was considerably more muted than the company had hoped. The original Surface was certainly not lacking in the design department, and the build quality was excellent when comparing the tablet to anything else on the market.
Unfortunately, the truncated Windows RT experience and some other clunky touches nearly ruined what would otherwise have been a solid offering. Fortunately, Microsoft has successfully addressed most of the prominent issues with the highly anticipated Surface Windows 8 Pro.
The Surface Pro, on first glance, looks to be little more than a slightly oversized clone of the original Surface. The design philosophy is much the same, with a dark, sleek, modern look with minimal branding.
Comparing the tablets’ dimensions, the Surface Pro’s 10.81-by-6.81-by-0.53-inch frame is little changed aside from a 0.16-inch increase in thickness. At two pounds (0.90 kg), it’s also half a pound heavier than its forebear.
The build quality is excellent, utilizing Microsoft’s VaporMg casing to produce a sexy-but-sturdy tablet that feels rugged enough to stand up to daily use.
Offset to the right along the top edge of the tablet is the power button, along with a microphone at center. Along the right edge are a microSD slot, DisplayPort plug, and magnetic power jack.
The bottom sports the same magnetic dock connectors from the Surface RT, which can be used for the Type and Touch covers and likely other add-ons in the future. On the left side are the volume rocker, USB slot, and headphone jack.
Along the bottom half of the back panel is the integrated kickstand, which seems a more elegant solution than the stand found on the Acer Iconia W700. There are twin 720p cameras, one at top front and one at top back, but they’re both pretty poor — even by tablet standards.
Resolving the Details
For many consumers, tablet comparisons often come down to the display. Rightfully so, given it’s the aspect of the tablet that interacts most directly with the user. In that regard, the Microsoft Surface Pro is clearly a winner.
The 10.6-inch, 1920-by-1080 panel is simply gorgeous, whether compared to tablets or traditional laptops. Color and contrast are both spot-on, and the vivid display is maintained through a whole range of viewing angles.
The optically bonded panel substantially cuts down on glare, and there’s plenty of brightness to compensate for virtually any conditions.
Under the Hood
The power plant behind the Surface Pro is similar to competing tablets such as Acer’s Iconia W700 or Samsung’s ATIV Smart PC Pro. A 1.7-gigahertz Intel Core i5-3317u processor is mated with four gigabytes of RAM and a solid-state drive.
Performance is every bit as good as its competitors, and the Surface Pro can handle just about anything most users will throw at it. The problem, however, lies in the storage. There are Surface 64GB and Surface 128GB options, but those numbers barely tell half the story. In particular, the space-eating Windows operating system and its dedicated restore partition leave only 29 and 89 gigabytes of free storage, respectively.
It can become a problem compared to tablets with less demanding operating systems, but it’s a compromise worth making for the excellent Windows 8 operating system. Rather than the abbreviated Windows RT, Windows 8 provides the full PC experience in tablet form, complete with the all-important legacy support.
The Surface Windows 8 Pro, according to Microsoft, is a no-compromise approach to recreating the best of both tablet and laptop in a manageable, handheld form factor. In reality, it’s not quite so simple.
In Desktop Mode with the Type or Touch keyboard attached, the Surface Pro really does hold up well when compared to dedicated laptops. Windows 8 offers a full, unfettered PC experience, and the performance is more than adequate for most ordinary tasks.
The only potential kink is the keyboard, which offers a typing experience that’s class-leading for a tablet but rather poor for a laptop. The trackpad is all but useless as well, making an external mouse a necessity for some uses.
In Tablet Mode, the Surface Pro again seems to hit all the right notes. Windows 8 is ideally suited for a touch interface, and most programs simply feel right with gesture controls. Browsing the internet or consuming media is a breeze, and again the powerful specs make quick work of most tasks.
Unfortunately, although the tablet itself performs extremely well, the user experience is often awkward and uncomfortable. The 10.6-inch form factor is quite large from the start, and the increased size and weight over the Surface RT can produce some decidedly unsatisfactory results.
One-handed use is all but impossible, and even two-handed use can become tiring. It may be the best balancing act we’ve seen thus far, but it isn’t quite the best of both worlds yet.
A comparison of tablets suggests the biggest selling point for the Surface Pro is the full Windows 8 experience, and to some extent that’s true. In terms of replicating the PC experience, it doesn’t get any better than Windows 8.
The operating system especially shines in terms of productivity tools compared to the more limited options available with the Iconia W700 or the ATIV Smart PC. The performance and displays are similar among all three tablets, though the Surface edges out its competitors, thanks to the superior color, contrast and viewing angles.
One area in which the Surface lags is battery life, where its abysmal longevity ranks it well behind the others.