Microsoft has never really been a hardware company. Oh sure, it dabbled in keyboards and mice, creating a joystick here and there, and then trying its hand at proper gaming consoles with the Xbox and subsequent Xbox 360, but there has never really been a solid effort at making a Microsoft computer, until last year, that is.
A year ago, we saw the first official Microsoft tablets, with one of them based on the slightly handicapped version of Windows 8 (RT) and the other using the full edition.
The Surface Pro is the latter, and displays Microsoft’s best attempt at creating a Windows 8 touch experience, complete with solid design and powerful parts, in the hopes that this can be the best Windows tablet yet.
Does it succeed, or will you find better elsewhere?
A tablet designed and engineered by Microsoft to be the best representation of Windows 8? Can it be true?
Apparently it can, and Microsoft’s Surface Pro is now here, although it’s here over six months past the release of Windows 8.
Launched in October of 2012, Windows 8 changed Microsoft’s desktop system by making it faster, more contrasty, and designed to accommodate touchscreens better than the traditional mouse-centric design of prior iterations of Windows.
Like most Windows-based machines launched since October, Windows 8 runs on the Surface Pro, and that’s a good thing, because as the show-pony for Windows 8, Microsoft is including technology aimed at showing this off.
That includes a 10.6 inch Full HD 1920×1080 touchscreen display with ten points of multi-touch, and supporting ClearType, Microsoft’s way of making text look better and sharper on LCDs.
Based on a tablet design, you can expect some high-end technology, but not necessarily the storage of a laptop. As such, there’s a third-generation Intel Core i5 processor here, 4GB RAM, and a choice between either 64GB or 128GB storage. Our review unit had the 128GB option, though because there’s only 110GB of actual storage, there was merely 80GB available after Windows was installed.
Storage can be expanded over the microSDXC slot on the right side, but you’ll also find a full-size USB 3.0 port for plugging in other devices, a Mini DisplayPort, and a headset jack. The power pack uses a proprietary magnetic charging port, but the pack does come with its own USB port for recharging devices while the Surface is receiving charge.
Connections also exist in the form of a headset jack, in case the built-in speakers and microphone make you too loud and obvious, while wireless exists as Bluetooth 4.0 and WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n. Two cameras sit on this laptop, both the front and the back taking pictures at 720p HD.
The chassis of the Surface Pro is created out of magnesium (VaporMg, in fact) making it very strong, and a kickstand is built directly into the case, allowing it to stand by itself and without the help of an extra case.
It’s worth noting that like the iPad, the Surface Pro does not include a keyboard, and is all touchscreen.
One can be purchased to work over USB, though Microsoft has built the custom Touch Covers to connect to the magnetic cover hinge at the bottom, which arrive as either a touch-based keyboard (called the “Touch Cover”) or as a physical keyboard built into the cover (“Type Cover”). Both of these are optional, and add an extra cost, but do some with a small touchpad built into the accessory.
Another way of using the tablet is included with the Surface Pro, and that’s a pen stylus, which also features a magnetic clip that utilises the same port as the power, able to sit in that spot when the Surface Pro isn’t plugged into the wall.
We didn’t get to see Microsoft’s first Surface. One of the downsides of having an in-demand product and only so many review units, we guess, so you can imagine how excited we were to see the Surface Pro.
The concept is intriguing: a tablet designed by Microsoft and crafted out of metal, built to be the showcase for everything Windows 8 is about. Does it work?
Picking it up, you’ll notice the solid magnesium build quickly. That’s one thing Microsoft has made obvious from the get-go: this is a machine designed to feel awesome.
It’s solid, but heavy, and thanks to its overall weight – which is roughly a hundred grams shy of the full kilogram mark – is next to impossible to carry comfortably in one hand and use with the other.
Those of you with bigger hands and a bit of muscle behind them may not have issues here, but we did, and that made the Surface Pro a machine made more for desks, which is an odd prospect for a device labelled a “tablet.”
Using it on a desktop, you’ll want one of the keyboard cover cases.
We had the full tactile keyboard edition, called the “Type Cover,” and this is one of the nicest thin keyboards we’ve ever had the pleasure of using. The keys are large and easy for any typist to become comfortable with, and there’s a nice click to every press, so that’s good too.
There’s no caps lock light, a pet peeve of ours, but at least the keyboard is well designed outside of this, and both left- and right-handed typists will be at ease here. The included trackpad on the cover means you still get a mouse, albeit a small one.
As a portable desktop with the keyboard cover, the Surface Pro is a great experience, and one merely needs to click the kickstand at the back of the case into place to find exactly that.
The screen is lovely and sharp, too, with wide viewing angles and some really lovely text recreation. Overall, it might be seen as a touch too reflective, but looked at dead on, and the Full HD screen is one of the better parts of the package.
You can get a decent amount of work done on the computer, too, and the 1.7GHz Core i5 should be enough for most people.
This isn’t designed for games, and we’d have appreciated a touch more memory, but unless you’re taxing either the built-in Intel graphics or memory too much, this set of specs should be fine.
While the system performance can handle its own, the battery is much less impressive.
It’s a little all over the shop here, but for the most part, you’ll find an unimpressive three to four hour maximum, and that’s through relatively basic tasks such as surfing the web, writing documents, and general usage.
Use it less and you might find more life is possible, but we didn’t manage more than a couple of days on standby, and this is one machine you’ll want to leave on charge often.
A shame, too, as this is the big demonstration for Microsoft, and yet it doesn’t last as long as some of the other tablets produced by other brands.
The price is also a huge factor, and with a starting price of $999 for the 64GB version (or $1099 for the 128GB model we checked out), and then the addition of a $140-150 keyboard cover, this is not a cheap entry into the world of Windows 8.
That’s around $1100-1200 for a machine that doesn’t offer a whole lot of battery life or usability in transit.
That last factor is something we test quite heavily, knowing that many users take to cars, buses, planes, and trains to get work done. Hopefully you’re not driving while working, but we know that both the front and rear passenger seats are used for homework for some families.
In the Surface Pro, about the only thing you can type on while moving is the touchscreen itself, which is about as flawed as regular touchscreens and relies on you not being the fastest of typists.
The stand, however, is technically stable, but won’t hold its own in a moving environment, and because of the heavy weight of the Surface Pro, will inadvertently fall backwards at the first sign of momentum.
It doesn’t help that the keyboard cases don’t really work well without a flat surface, and you run into a rather irritating dilemma for the Surface Pro.
As such, it prefers a desk, and quite a flat desk at that. Good luck using it anywhere else.
Some of the other niggles come in the form of pieces of design that initially look good, but fall over very quickly.
One of these is the pen, and if you don’t lose this very quickly, we’ll be very surprised.
Having a stylus is actually quite useful, because even though Windows 8 is designed better for touch than previous generations, only app made for Windows 8 show evidence of that. Software designed for the older “desktop” edition of Windows (think Windows 7) – which include Microsoft Office, strangely – still like mice more, and that means either a stylus or trackpad is going to be your best bet.
And Microsoft includes one of these – a stylus, yay! – though you get the trackpad if you buy the keyboard case cover.
It even includes a place to store that stylus. Sort of.
You see, the pen features the same magnetic port on the side as the power port, which means whenever your power isn’t plugged in, you can attach your pen here.
But whenever the power is in, your pen has to go somewhere else, making the chances of losing it higher. Doubling these chances is knowing that the magnetic clip is a little flimsy and a simple brush will cause that pen to go tumbling off, potentially getting lost in the process.
So much for that idea, Microsoft.
We also like the magnetic cover case clip, but the moment you fold that keyboard to the other side and hold the tablet like, well, a tablet, desktop-based apps (again, like Office and Word) won’t show an on-screen keyboard.
Windows 8 based apps will, no worries there, but Office is for desktop, and we suspect a lot of apps people will want to use won’t automatically load that keyboard.
The weight is also something we’re not huge fans of, and at just shy of a kilogram (0.9, in fact), this is not a light tablet, not by a long shot.
Make no mistake, this is more of a computer than a tablet, but because of its heavy weight, it’s actually harder to carry around with one hand than your regular tablet, and that means you’re probably going to use this thing on a desk more than in a portable environment, which – the last time we checked – was exactly the point and purpose of tablet computing.
Microsoft’s first proper attempt at a Windows 8 tablet is an interesting one.
There are a lot of things to admire about it, as aspects of the design are very cool, the innards are reasonably powerful, and when setup on a desk with a keyboard cover case, you actually get a decent little tablet-laptop computing experience.
But then there’s poor battery life, that ridiculous heft that means it can’t be used with one hand, and that awful price, and these elements make it hard to recommend.
Some will love what Microsoft have accomplished here, but we’re not one of them, and while it’s an interesting product, there are better tablets out there already that make better use of Windows than even the makers of Windows can manage.