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Microsoft Surface with Windows 8 Pro Review

Microsoft Surface with Windows 8 Pro Review

This is the Surface device that Microsoft should have gone to market with originally

For the past two weeks I’ve been using Microsoft’s Surface with Windows 8 Pro as my only computer, both while sitting at the desk and attached to a bevy of peripherals, and on the go. Hampered only somewhat by its reliance on a current-generation Intel Core i5 chipset and the resultant less-than-stellar battery life, Surface Pro nonetheless makes the strongest case yet for Microsoft’s vision of the future of the computing.

This transition to Surface Pro didn’t come without some work, and some griping, and some second guessing. It’s one thing to declare that highly mobile, highly connected computing devices are the future of computing, but another thing entirely to decommission the perfectly usable (and, let’s face it, comfortable) computers I had been using and switch entirely to Surface Pro. I’ll be discussing this transition in a related series of articles called Going Pro. The first in this series, Going Pro: Day One with Surface Pro, is now available, and I’ll be posting one each day for the next week or so.

For this review, I’ll focus the discussion on Microsoft’s promises for Surface Pro and whether they bear fruit in the final, shipping hardware. And I’ll compare and contrast this new device with the previously-released Surface with Windows RT. Now that its big brother is available too, we can compare these devices in context, and see where each shines—or fails—in relation to each other. The results may surprise you.

At the initial Surface announcement last June, Microsoft presented the Surface products as the hardware accompaniment to the software reimagining it was then plotting with Windows 8, devices that would best “surface” the new capabilities and scenarios in the new OS. That Surface was a brand Microsoft had previously used on a line of poorly-selling and not-well-understood table-top computers was, perhaps, just coincidental: The Surface brand is fantastic, and was correctly repurposed for this far more profound hardware effort. Microsoft, for the first time, would make its own Windows-based PCs and devices.

No compromise?

Windows 8 and Surface were both designed in a “forward-looking way,” as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer put it at the Surface announcement. Now and going forward, most PCs are mobile, and not only desk-bound like desktop PCs and towers. Customers expect to consume and create content from anywhere and at any time. And they want to do so “without compromise,” which is perhaps the recent Microsoft buzz phrase of which I’m the most leery. But Ballmer’s Surface address added a new wrinkle to this over-used phrase. He said it meant that customers wanted to take advantage of all of the traditional strengths of the PC—its amazing desktop software library, hardware compatibility, and so on—while also accessing the new, mobile capabilities of Windows 8.

In this view, only Surface Pro meets the promise of “no compromise.” Where Surface RT serves up amazing battery life of 9-10 hours and a very thin and light form factor, it also compromises by offering compatibility with only Metro apps and the handful of desktop-based Office 2013 applications with which it ships. Surface Pro, meanwhile, works as expected with both legacy desktop software (and hardware) and Metro apps. But it, too, “compromises,” strictly speaking, because it offers only half the battery life of Surface RT—4 and a half to 5 and a half hours in real world use, in my experience—and it requires a slightly thicker and heavier form factor in which, yes, you really can hear the two fans kick in from time to time. More on that below.

But let’s not be pedantic. Any choice is by nature a compromise: You compromise on Windows software and hardware compatibility when you purchase an iPad, for example. The question is whether the Surface Pro compromise—choice, really—makes sense for you.

Microsoft as a device company

When Microsoft announced Surface last year it had yet to also announce its restructuring as a “devices and services” company. So while the firm can make an interesting case for decades of hardware making, from its mice, keyboards, and Xbox and Kinect, its decision to enter the PC space was, of course, controversial. Still is. Windows may be the most versatile software product ever created, but Microsoft has consistently gone to market with hardware partners—mostly PC makers in the past, but PC and device makers these days—and established itself as the dominant force in the PC industry.

By staking a claim in the hardware market so forcibly with Surface, Microsoft is signaling that the world has changed, and that it must change with it, as must Windows itself. And it’s correct to say that in this endeavor, Microsoft is copying the Apple model. Ballmer, in the Surface announcement I keep referencing, channeled Apple when he said that “we believe that any intersection between human and machine can be made better when all aspects of the experience—hardware and software—are considered and working together.” And while Microsoft has always engineered hardware and software together in fairly limited scenarios—Windows and the mouse, or the Xbox and Kinect—making the entire widget, if you will, with Surface is unprecedented.

So while Microsoft’s traditional hardware partners will deliver more PC models than ever before in history in 2013, owing in part to the strange hybrid design of Windows 8 and a lack of clarity around which types of machines that people will really want, it seems to me that we’ve moved very quickly into a world where you must first choose whether you want Microsoft’s integrated product—Surface—or something else.

Today, Microsoft only makes two Surface devices. Aside from price, I can’t imagine why anyone would purchase a Windows RT device from any other company than Microsoft. And when it comes to highly mobile, tablet-based hybrid PCs running Windows 8 Pro, the choice really does come down to whether you want Surface Pro and, if not, then you can take it down the list of other alternatives. (The choices are of course different in markets in which Surface doesn’t currently compete, such as 7-inchish media tablets, desktop PCs, and so on.)

Personally, I’m betting on Microsoft. This company cares more about the Windows experience than any of its hardware partners, as evidenced by the continued bundling of crapware on new PCs, and the refusal of virtually all of these partners—save new entries, like Vizio—to ship crapware-free Signature PCs that provide a clean and trouble-free Microsoft experience. Microsoft’s entry into this market changes everything. Period. The only question is how long it will take to erase perceptions about the poor quality of Windows-based PCs, perceptions that are almost entirely the fault of PC makers.

Now, I was mixed on Surface with Windows RT when it first shipped in October 2012. This vision of the future of computing was, perhaps, a bit too forward leaning, with its stripped-down hardware and lack of compatibility with familiar desktop software, browser plug-ins, and hardware devices. But if you’re like me, a traditional PC guy, Surface Pro corrects those defects while offering a compelling mobile computing experience wrapped in one the most well-made consumer electronics products on earth. It’s not perfect, partially because of its reliance on traditional PC innards. But as you’ll see, there are some amazing innovations here too.

A better hybrid

Like the OS it runs, Surface Pro is a hybrid, in this case a device for both work and play, for content creation and consumption. It’s mostly successful in this admittedly tough goal, but it’s also fair to say that where Surface RT is mostly consumption/play-oriented with a bit of creation/work on the side, Surface Pro is the reverse: Mostly creation/work-oriented with a bit of consumption/play on the side.

But Surface Pro is better equipped to succeed in its market niche than is Surface RT. That’s because Surface Pro’s biggest strengths when compared to Surface RT—the Windows desktop with its software, browser plug-in, and device compatibility—are already well-established and work from the get-go. Surface RT, meanwhile, is overly-reliant on Metro-style apps that either aren’t ready (Xbox Music and Video, Mail) or just don’t exist yet, and maybe never will (iTunes, Photoshop, many more).

In this sense, Surface Pro is better poised as a transitional device as well. Metro apps will come, of course, but that doesn’t help Surface RT today. Meanwhile, you can continue running traditional desktop applications on Surface Pro until the Metro variants arrive to replace them. And you can do so “on your couch, on your desk, or on the go.”

Well, pretty much.

Nearly identical at first blush

Both Surface devices share a number of components and look quite similar. The differences crop up immediately, however, when you pick them up: Surface Pro’s thicker body—.53 inches vs. .37 inches for Surface RT—doesn’t seem like a big difference on paper, and neither does it’s slightly heavier weight of 2 pounds vs. the 1.5 pounds for Surface RT. But the device seems, well, denser for lack of a better term. You can really feel the difference.

That said, it’s neither thick nor heavy, and Surface Pro of course shares the same wonderful magnesium-based “VaporMg” casing as its RT sibling, which says “high quality” in a decidedly understated way. If Apple made a “Pro” line of iPads, they might look like this, and Surface Pro makes all other tablets—save Surface RT, of course—look like children’s toys by comparison.

(In what you may find to be a troubling comparison, the Surface’s industry design reminds me somewhat of that of the Zune HD, Microsoft’s doomed but well-made MP3 player. Zune is often used as the butt of jokes these days, but I can assure you this comparison is nothing but a compliment. Surface Pro is incredibly well-made and well-designed.)

Microsoft’s decision to limit Surface RT to a single USB 2.0 port is defensible given its content consumption aims, but with Surface Pro, things are a lot more nuanced, especially since there’s no desktop dock in sight. This device should have at least two onboard USB 3.0 ports in addition to the extra port that’s found on the device’s power brick, which is used only for portable device charging.

Also problematic, while Microsoft has moved the micro-SD card slot to a more accessible outer edge—it is hidden behind the kickstand on Surface RT—this device should really have a full-sized SD card slot or, better still, a small multi-card slot. Or both.

Less controversially, while some of the ports have moved positions compared to Surface RT—which, no, doesn’t matter in the slightest since few people will use both—the port lineup is otherwise solid. It includes Mini DisplayPort, instead of HDMI as on Surface RT, enabling support for 2560 x 1440 external displays. (Microsoft sells MDP adapters for HDMI and VGA as well.) It has a headphone jack but no dedicated microphone port.

You’ll be interested to discover that two design changes in Surface Pro were triggered by customer experience with Surface RT. First and most notably, the power connector I complained about with Surface RT has been fixed because so many people had trouble making the connection with the previous device. In Surface Pro, the connector on the device has been bored out more to better fit the power plug, and additional magnets were added to strengthen the connection.

Less noticeably, the tilt of the Surface Pro has been adjusted somewhat subtly compared to Surface RT when the kickstand is engaged. This makes the device more correctly line up with a typical user’s eyes when used at a desk, I was told.

And the power cable is different. Where Surface RT comes with a 24 watt power supply with the brick inconveniently located right at the plug, making it a tough fit on power strips, Surface Pro utilizes a more conventional, PC-like power cable with an in-line (but very small) brick that includes the aforementioned peripheral-charging USB port. It’s also 48 watts, so it charges the device more quickly. (And yes, you can use it with Surface RT; it will charge that device more quickly too.)

The dual video cameras appear unchanged from Surface RT, though I assume the rear camera was adjusted somewhat to work correctly with the new kickstand angle. Both are 720p Microsoft LifeCam units and are just about as lousy as any other built-in PC cameras.

Also unchanged is Surface Pro’s support for the keyboard peripherals that shipped with Surface RT: It utilizes the exact same Type and Touch Covers, and you can mix and match between Surface RT and Pro if you’d like. Microsoft is also delivering some additional Surface peripherals alongside Surface Pro, but I’ll write about those separately. There’s nothing dramatic to report here, and certainly no desktop dock as I’d hoped.

Unique to Surface Pro is the addition of an electromagnetic pen, which many will lose quickly since there’s no way to “dock” it inside the device as was the case with most previous Tablet PCs. This peripheral garnered considerable applause at the Surface announcement last year, and that you can temporarily attach it to the device’s power connector is cool, sort of, but I don’t see this addition as a huge advantage. It’s just too niche, and if this kind of pen was such a big deal, Windows-based Tablet PCs would have sold much better than they did. Still, it’s clear that the pen is going to be a big selling point for some, and I’ll be writing more about this peripheral in the near future as well.

A tale of two screens

And now we get to the Surface Pro feature that, curiously, has proven the most problematic for me. It’s going to surprise you, perhaps. It’s the screen.

You may know that Surface RT comes with a 1366 x 768 screen, a reasonable resolution for a 10.6-inch screen, ideal for the Metro environment and compatible with the (nearly-useless) “snap” feature which lets you tile two Metro apps side-by-side in very limited ways on-screen. And you may know that Surface Pro comes with a “full HD,” or 1920 x 1080 screen. And given this information, you may assume that the higher-resolution Surface Pro is automatically “better” than that of the comparatively low-resolution Surface RT.

You would be incorrect. If anything, the full HD screen used by the Surface Pro is in fact this product’s biggest design flaw. And I wish Microsoft would consider releasing a version of Surface Pro that dispenses with this screen and uses the 1366 x 768 Surface RT screen instead.

Blasphemy, you say? Allow me to explain.

Both Surface RT and Surface Pro sport 10.6-inch ClearType displays with a 16:9 aspect ratio. Surface Pro’s screen has two attributes that I suppose are technically superior: 10 touch points vs. 5 on the Surface RT, and the separate touch and pen digitizer layers on the Pro unit that enable pen use and an admittedly cool palm block technology that lets you write on the screen without triggering touch events with your hand.

You’d think that the full HD display in the Surface Pro would offer one benefit in the Metro environment: That Text would be clearer, thanks to the ClearType sub-pixel rendering technologies that can take advantage of the extra detail. But that’s not the case at all. In numerous side-by-side comparisons, I couldn’t see a lick of difference in Metro apps. The text on both Surface RT and Surface Pro is identically clear and crisp. Literally identical.

Beyond that, you get the exact same Start screen layout, too, with just three rows of tiles. That’s because Metro’s pseudo-resolution-independence takes screen size into account, not just the resolution. Looking at the Start screens on the Surface Pro and Surface RT side-by-side, you cannot tell the difference at all.

So 1080p offers no advantages in Metro. What about the desktop?

Sadly, the full HD display really falls apart on the Windows desktop, which is otherwise one of Surface Pro’s biggest strengths. Text, icons, and other on-screen elements are far too small to be useful at the default, 100 percent desktop scaling. It’s like viewing the desktop from space. So Microsoft actually ships Surface Pro with desktop scaling set to 150 percent. This skews some on-screen elements a bit, but the overall effect is that it makes the desktop seem like a 1366 x 768 display in that on-screen elements—icons, text, and so on—are now readable and even somewhat tappable with a finger. This seems like an OK idea, and it actually is, assuming you never need to dock the device or use it with an external display. (And in that case, why not just leave it at a native resolution of 1366 x 768?)

See, that’s where it all falls apart.

That 150 percent scaling is fine for the tiny 10.6-inch Surface Pro screen. But on a desktop display, like the 27-inch 1920 x 1080 Planar screen I use, the result is a Fisher Price disaster, with gigantic on-screen elements. And because the Windows desktop is so utterly useless at this sort of thing, there’s no way to set the scaling differently for each display. So you can choose between tiny on-screen elements on Surface or gigantic on-screen elements on the external display. There’s no happy middle ground—trust me, I’ve spent hours on this, and it is not easy or quick to change this setting if you move between your desk and a Surface-only mobile configuration.

It gets worse. The desktop’s lack of technical smarts also means that all of the application windows you use will be resetting and resizing every single time you move between your desktop and that on-the-go configuration. Every single time. Every. Single. Time.

Did I mention this happens every single time? Allow me to repeat that because it is really annoying. Really. Annoying.

Now, maybe you intend to use Surface Pro without an external display. And that’s neat. But why would you ever need a 1080p resolution on such a tiny screen? It’s not ideal in that configuration at all.

But if you want to use Surface Pro with an external display be prepared for frustration. And get used to accessing the Display control panel—and moving and resizing your windows—again and again and again. Anyone who uses a laptop today with a desktop dock and an external display knows what I’m talking about. This is just a lackluster configuration, thanks to a legacy Windows feature that we all know will never be fixed.

And to be clear, Microsoft claims that Surface Pro is ideal for this dual use scenario. “For the millions of professional desktop users out there, people who use their PC every day to design and to create things, this [Surface with Windows 8 Pro] is a great choice for you,” Microsoft’s Michael Angiulo said at the Surface announcement last June.

That’s debatable. But I have adapted to using it in this way, and as I noted up front, I’ve replaced both my desktop tower PC and my regular-use Ultrabook with this one device. It’s not ideal. But after a lot of futzing around with settings, and using just about every possible combination of desktop scale settings, I’ve settled on simply keeping the scale at 125 percent. On the desktop display, I put up with some almost silly-huge UI elements, especially in File Explorer and IE. And on the Surface Pro, I put up with small UI elements in applications like Chrome and Photoshop that couldn’t care less about desktop scaling. But I would caution any true Windows power users about this kind of set up. It’s very much a compromise.

Performance, heat, and fan noise

One of the coolest things about Surface Pro, literally in this case, is its unique cooling design, which Microsoft calls perimeter venting. This innovative and patented feature channels heat out of the device through a thin vent that runs along the entire back edge of the device, and does so intelligently: It won’t force air where you’re holding it. So if you’re holding the device normally, in a landscape orientation, Surface Pro will force hot air out through the top and bottom. Change the position and the air flow adapts.

It’s really neat, and it works. So even though Surface Pro has not one but two fans inside, they won’t ever kick in during normal use. The machine whispers along with a barely audible hum, and is essentially silent in normal use. This is true whether you’re using it on the go or when it’s docked to a full complement of desktop accessories as I use it, via a USB 3.0 docking solution.

That said, the fans do kick in from time to time. When I’m encoding video, as I do when taking screenshots of the Xbox 360, playing video with the desktop-based VLC Media Player application, or playing modern 3D games, the fans come on and it sounds like any other portable computer. And that’s because it literally is any other portable computer: Beating in the heart of Surface Pro is a perfectly middling Intel Core i5-3317U processor, as I had exclusively revealed in Microsoft Surface with Windows 8 Pro Preview. This 1.7 GHz part, in combination with 4 GB of RAM (non-expandable), SSD storage, and integrated graphics delivers a perfectly middle of the road Windows Experience Index (WEI) score of 5.6, with the low-point being the graphics. In a demo a few weeks back, Microsoft showed off Hyper-V with a Windows 7 virtual machine and a high-end CAD application as proof of its high-end PC chops, but I think the fair thing to say here is that Surface Pro is a PC. A middle of the road PC. It runs Windows desktop applications as expected.

But until the expected Haswell-based Surface Pro, ahem, surfaces in late 2013 (perhaps), Surface Pro is what we’ve got. And it’s certainly not horrible.


The most controversial aspect to Surface Pro, perhaps, is battery life. And while I wish I could provide some secret bit of good news here, the truth is that battery life is what I’d call minimally acceptable for a device of this kind: 4.5 to 5.5 hours in real world use. This is a far cry from the 9-10 hours you get with Surface RT. More to the point, it is well below the real world battery life you can get with virtually any modern Ultrabook: Laptop Magazine reports that average battery life for Ultrabooks today is 6:12.

Is this a problem?

You bet it is. And unlike any of the other Surface Pro negatives, this is the one where I think a potential customer could make the most reasonable case for waiting for the next version or choosing another device. And while there aren’t any truly comparable devices, the Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T comes pretty close: That gets 5-6 hours of battery life. Granted, it does so in a heavier, bulkier, and less elegant package too. It’s also more expensive, and doesn’t offer the normally silent performance as does Surface Pro.

I’ll be putting up with this and seeing how it goes. On the two miniature road trips I’ve made recently, both to Boston, battery life wasn’t an issue, but then these weren’t big trips at all. But there’s no way to sugarcoat this. The battery life is a step back.

The intangibles

Where Surface Pro, like Surface RT, is eminently successful is in the intangibles, those design-related wins that are hard to categorize but are likewise immediately obvious. You can tell looking at Surface Pro that this device is well-designed and well-made. And when you pick it up, that feeling is reinforced and then amplified. It’s something you’re happy to carry with you, that you almost sort of caress because it’s just so well made.

This is an uncomfortable area of discussion for a pragmatic PC guy like myself, something that is more common and accepted in the Apple-oriented parts of the tech world. But don’t get squeamish: This kind of connection with hardware will sell a lot of these devices, when customers begin thinking a bit more with their hearts than with their heads. It’s not common in the PC world, not yet. But Surface could help reorient this discussion in a way no Microsoft product has ever done. It’s not just talk.

For example, in the past week, there was a pointless “debate” about the amount of free storage space customers will find on Surface Pro, which I wrote about in Thinking About a 128 GB iPad … and a 64 GB Surface Pro. Those who professed outrage and surprise at the supposed lack of free space on a Surface Pro are old-school tech-elite PC users. A too-vocal minority. The people you won’t hear from are those who walk into a Microsoft Store, see a Surface Pro, and simply have to have it. They’re not super concerned about specs—yeah, yeah, it runs PC software, great—but are very concerned with the quality of the device and that intangible gotta-have-it quality.

Oh, but it is a PC. So it satisfies the pragmatic too. That’s the point of these hybrid devices, ultimately. Creative and productive. Be beautiful but get work done. No compromises.

But is it successful?

OK, I’ve written a lot here. The big questions, of course, are whether Surface with Windows 8 Pro is successful, and whether you should get one.

Looking back one last time to that original Surface announcement, Mr. Ballmer noted that “the Surface is a PC, the Surface is a tablet, and the Surface is something new that we think people will absolutely love,” with the emphasis on its dual-use, hybrid design. Where Surface RT was a tablet first/PC second, of course, Surface Pro is … well, a bit more nuanced. It’s a tablet PC, a hybrid PC. It’s the most portable Ultrabook in the world, in some ways, but then that assumes you overlook the battery life issue.

On Twitter the other day, one of the many trolls I seem to deal with a regular basis rhetorically asked why anyone would purchase a $1000 Ultrabook that didn’t even include a keyboard. That, of course, is the wrong way to approach Surface Pro. Instead, Surface Pro is a $1000 Ultrabook where you get to choose which keyboard you use, and you can then change that choice at any time. This is the “something new” that Ballmer was alluding to at the announcement. And it’s something—arguably not a small something—that continues to set Surface apart from the competition.

Overall, Surface Pro is, like its RT-based predecessor, a compromise of sorts. I argued earlier that the word “compromise” has been contorted to mean something very negative, in the same way that people use terms like “bias” somewhat incorrectly to cast a negative light on opinions they wish to undermine. I can tell you that based on decades of experience testing computing hardware—or what others would incorrectly call “bias”—that Surface Pro is an absolutely wonderful device, one that reaches a nice mix the pragmatic (PC compatibility) and the emotional.

Surface Pro is also not for everyone. And while I and others will endlessly compare this device to Surface RT, given their shared heritage, that comparison is ultimately unfair, since Surface RT isn’t a real computer. No, Surface Pro needs to be compared to the touch-capable Ultrabooks and other Windows 8-based hybrid PCs that are now hitting the market.

On paper, it appears to fall short. You can’t expand the RAM or the internal storage (beyond adding microSD storage), and the battery life is middling at best. The screen will be too small for many, and when you factor in its 1080p resolution, it’s even worse in some cases. There’s only one USB port on the device, and no desktop dock expansion. It’s pretty expensive, about $1130 for a reasonable configuration with a 128 GB of storage and a Type Cover. (Surface Pro starts at $900 for the 64 GB version.)

But Surface Pro is also the nicest Windows 8 device I’ve used, and by far. It’s better made than virtually any Windows 8 device in the market, with the Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1 Touch being its only possible equal. And there’s just something compelling about this form factor, where Microsoft appears to have gotten the top-heavy, guts-are-in-the-top bit “right” in ways that other device makers have not.

Ultimately, I must of course leave it to you to decide whether the tradeoffs presented by this device constitute an acceptable compromise. For me, the Surface Pro is a far better solution than its predecessor, and while I’m not happy with the battery life or screen/resolution issues, I intend to continue using this as my only PC for the foreseeable future. And as I’ve noted in the past, that isn’t just the ultimate compliment I can bestow on a product. It’s also the ultimate endorsement.

Microsoft Surface with Windows 8 Pro is recommended, but do your homework first. And if possible, try to get some hands-on time at a Microsoft Store or other retailer.

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