In some ways Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet, going on sale Saturday, is a radical new device.
It’s the first full-blown PC made by Microsoft and one of the most potent tablet computers on the market now, especially at a starting price of $899 for a 64-gigabyte model. I’ve been testing a 128-gigabyte model that lists for $999.
It’s a strong debut for Microsoft’s PC-making efforts, especially for a company that usually takes three tries to really nail a new product.
With its usual naming panache, Microsoft is officially calling it the Surface with Windows 8 Pro. Everyone else calls it the Surface Pro.
The 2-pound, half-inch-thick slab contains an Intel Core i5 processor, a solid-state hard drive and 4 gigs of RAM. That’s faster and more powerful than most new desktop and laptop PCs. Yet the tablet still starts up in about 12 seconds, which is less than half the time it takes my iPad.
The Surface Pro also has a memory-card slot, USB 3.0 port and a digitizer that lets you use a stylus for more precise input on its 10.6-inch, high-def touch screen, which also tracks 10 contact points at once.
Then there’s the ability to install and run most PC applications — from iTunes to business apps — as well as the growing selection of apps built just for Windows 8.
For business users, the list of features and computing capability make the Surface Pro a more logical choice than an iPad or Android tablet.
For everyone else, it’s liberating to have a decent, modern tablet that you can use like a PC, without being tethered to a restrictive app store.
Yet in other ways the Surface Pro is a little underwhelming, especially if you’ve seen the parade of Windows tablets that have been released over the past decade.
The Surface Pro may be the latest and greatest, but it also shows why it has taken so long for the PC industry to get this far: It’s hard to build a device that’s an open platform — yet secure — and uses standard Intel hardware still not ideal for mobile computers.
Battery life is a challenge with the Surface Pro. It doesn’t last a full workday without recharging, unlike tablets that are based on less powerful, phone-type processors, such as the Surface RT tablet Microsoft began selling for $499 in October.
Microsoft is sensitive about the battery life issue, and I suspect that’s why the company declined to build in cellular radios to connect Surface tablets directly to 4G wireless networks. LTE radios are battery hogs, but Microsoft needs to add them anyway for road warriors who are coming to expect built-in broadband in their mobile devices.
The Surface Pro looks nearly identical to the lower-powered Surface RT. It’s a handsome, modern design with a sturdy magnesium case.
Some may be turned off by the new device having a design they’ve seen before. Others may enjoy knowing that with the pro model they’ve got more horsepower hidden under the hood, like driving a sedan with a supercharged V-8.
The pro version is a bit thicker than the RT version, a half-pound heavier and has its memory-card slot in a more convenient spot on the side of case, instead of hidden under the built-in kickstand. It has full 1080p, compared with the RT’s 720p resolution, but it’s hard to notice the difference on an 11-inch screen.
The pro also comes with a stylus that snaps into the battery-charging slot. The stylus is a nice addition and works with Wacom inking technology built into the tablet. But I didn’t trust the magnet to keep the stylus attached, and grew tired of unsnapping it several times a day to plug in the charger. Microsoft needs to offer a docking station that lets you leave the stylus attached while you charge.
That extra half-pound was noticeable when toting the pro on the bus or holding it up in bed, for an extended period, but it still weighs less than a laptop.
Also noticeable were the fans required to cool that Intel processor.
Microsoft cleverly designed the fans to blow heat away from you, depending on how you’re holding the tablet, but it couldn’t eliminate the fans’ noise. At my office this low whirring was imperceptible, but when I played Solitaire late at night on the tablet it sounded like a tiny UFO was hovering over my bed.
One thing that was not noticeable was the amount of disk space on the device. There has been a flap over the available space on Surface Pro devices, which have large system recovery partitions.
This might be a concern for some on the 64-gig model. On the 128-gig version that Microsoft loaned me, there are 78 gigs available plus a 7.8-gig recovery partition. If you need massive storage on your tablet you may need to change the partition, use the memory-card slot or consider another device.
Of bigger concern is the dual-mode desktop. To me, the Surface Pro suffers more from the split personality of Windows 8 than its little brother, the Surface RT.
With the RT, Microsoft followed the Apple model and created a “walled garden” device like a smartphone, that only runs only preapproved apps designed for its new tiled desktop. There are trade-offs: You give up some liberty and privacy in return for convenience and simplicity.
It’s convenient to sign in once on an RT or iPad, for instance, and have your signature apply to all the apps loaded on the device.
Microsoft is taking all PCs this direction with Windows 8, which prompts users to sign in. On the Surface Pro, I signed in to Windows, then still had to repeatedly sign in to Xbox Live, Office and various other apps and services. I prefer the open-platform approach of a PC, but on a tablet I expect the convenience of a single sign-on.
The Surface Pro, like other Windows 8 systems, straddles the old and new Windows modes in other ways. It runs new Windows 8-style apps that you get from Microsoft’s app store on the modern, tiled desktop. You can also tap the screen and flip to a traditional Windows desktop.
You do an awful lot of flipping back and forth, especially if you’re using the Surface Pro mostly for PC apps. This back and forth is almost instantaneous, but it gets tiresome.
It’s also disorienting for people trying to figure out what’s a PC and what’s a tablet. This is getting harder now that we have two flavors of Windows 8 tablets on the market— one that’s a “real PC” and one that’s just a Web tablet.
The constant flip-flopping between tablet and desktop modes in Windows 8 mirrors this confusing state of affairs, and makes it harder for people to figure out what’s going on. Eventually it may not matter – categories will blur together and every surface may be a computer. Meanwhile Windows 8 will remind us that we’re in a transition period.
The Intel processor in the Surface Pro is powerful. I was able to run games from Valve’s Steam service, even though it warned me that the system may not have enough graphics oomph, and output them to a TV set.
But it runs hotter than the RT; after five minutes playing a game its case felt like it had been sitting in the sun.
I mostly used the Surface Pro with the $130 “Type” cover with a thin keyboard. A keyboard is almost mandatory for people who type a lot, which brings the entry-level price to $929. The thinner, colorful, $120 “Touch” covers for Surface tablets are neat, but I can’t type fast on them.
The covers work well when the Surface is set on a flat surface. On a lap they flex a bit and can partly separate from the tablet, losing connection.
This raises the question: Are you better off buying a Surface Pro or a laptop? There are some exciting $800 to $1,100 laptops available now that are just as thin as the Surface; some even convert into tablets.
But if you’ve been waiting for a powerful tablet that works like a PC, Microsoft delivers with the Surface Pro.