Laptop & Tablet Reviews

Microsoft Surface Pro Review: Too Much Future?

The Microsoft Surface was the biggest new tech of 2012. Its first iteration — Surface RT, a confusingly named and marketed tablet-with-a-keyboard — bombed. Pretty hard. So why believe in the full-powered Surface Pro? Simple. It’s a braver and more divergent take on the laptop-tablet convergence than anyone else has risked so far.

But while the Pro improves on the RT in nearly every measurable way, it presents a whole different problem set for Microsoft. Where the RT was aiming at Tablet Plus — an ambitious enough goal — the Pro cannot afford to be Laptop Minus. In this strange new world of hybrid devices, is that even possible?

Giz AU Editor’s Note: This is a US review of the Surface Pro. We will follow up with a local version shortly.

Why It Matters

The Surface Pro is the fullest expression of the Windows 8 ethos. It has the face of a tablet, the guts of a laptop and the soul of a crystal ball. Where other convertibles have struggled to contort old world design into now-world needs, the Surface starts fresh. This is the best chance we have to prove we might finally be ready to move past traditional, tired designs and interfaces.

But the Pro is also a reality check for Windows 8 itself. Defenders of the new OS insist that it just hasn’t been given the right vessel to showcase it yet. Well, there will never be any righter hardware for Windows 8 than Surface Pro. If it doesn’t work here, maybe there’s a problem.

Design

Like the Surface RT before it, the Surface Pro is gorgeous. The Pro is a bit thicker than the RT, but keeps the same design principles. Trapezoidal angles, sure-footed kickstand, snap-in keyboard cover. Both Surfaces are so pretty and neat and new that you’ll pick them up and touch them when you don’t even need to use them.

At first blush, the Pro looks thick for what it is — a slate — and that can give the impression that it’s bigger than small-for-a-laptop machines like the MacBook Air. Don’t be fooled; it’s actually lighter and thinner than the 11.6-inch Air. Along with the Surface, Microsoft will happily sell you either a Touch or Type cover, both of which function as the Surface’s keyboard and trackpad. The Type cover has a traditional keyboard that’s basically full-sized, while the Touch cover is a flat surface that detects your keystrokes with no moving parts. While these were purely optional on the Surface RT, they’re essential to approaching the Surface Pro’s full-PC potential.

Using It

The Surface Pro runs Windows 8 Pro, meaning it plays nice with all of Surface RT’s Metro apps as well as all your old desktop apps. Its Ivy Bridge i5 processor, the same you’ll find in most ultrabooks, launches apps almost instantly (another big upgrade from Surface RT). Want to use Surface Pro as a laptop? Snap in a keyboard cover, pop out the kickstand, set it down on a table. It works a lot like you see in the commercials.

If you try to use the Surface Pro like every laptop you’ve ever owned, though, you’ll break it over your knee inside of a week. Sitting with it on your lap on the couch or a train seat, for instance, or typing IMs or emails in bed — you’re not going to want to do any of that stuff here. It’ll wobble on your leg. It won’t prop itself up at a viewable angle on your chest. Surface looks and acts like a laptop when it has its keyboard cover in, but it’s not one. It’s less sturdy, less adjustable.

Surface Pro’s point of view is that, well, why the hell wouldn’t you just take the cover off and switch to tablet mode in those spots? That’s its answer to a lot of things, actually. Inconvenient? You should be using touch instead! Which is valid, to a point. Maybe you should use touch to scroll instead of using the iffy trackpad. But that glosses over the loss of real utility, the ability to do some of the most common things people do with their computers, in the most common ways they do them. In many ways, it defeats the purpose. That’s a deal-breaker for many who don’t have any use for the future-is-here features of the Surface.

As a tablet, the Pro has significantly more heft to it than the iPad or Nexus 10. But the build quality is so strong — everything feels like it just fits — that you don’t really mind, unless you try to use it one-handed. It’s a little too heavy for that, which is understandable considering the guts, but enough to make you question if you actually want a Core i5 in a tablet — a serious concern for the Surface. Apps are fast (even the Kindle app lagged badly on Surface RT), and more importantly, the improved screen (207ppi) makes reading books or articles in the Metro UI at least comparable to the experience on competing tablets. And you’ll actually appreciate having those big fullscreen apps for once, since the decision to switch to touch is more natural than other hybrid laptops.

One of the Pro’s fundamental problems is almost tragically ironic. Its screen is too good. Which is to say, its 1080p resolution is so dense on the 10.6-inch screen that desktop programs seem too small, too cramped. Since you’re already going to probably be hunched over your desk and squinting while using this 10.6-inch screen, teeny tiny text isn’t much of a help. To offset this, Microsoft has made the default Magnification setting 150 per cent. That helps a bit by enlarging icons, text, and some apps, but results in many third party apps — like the Steam client — looking like fuzzy eyesores. It’s a similar problem to non-retina-optimised apps on a retina MacBook Pro.

Even with the magnification, many of the controls remain too small to touch with any accuracy, a problem exacerbated by the too-small trackpad on both covers. A lot of this can be solved up by hooking up Surface Pro to a second screen. But Hey it works fine when you’re stationary at your desk and connected to a huge monitor isn’t exactly the on-the-go uprising the Surface Pro promised.

The Keyboard Covers

There is zero difference between the keyboard covers that come with the Surface RT and the Surface Pro. They’re identical and interchangeable. But unlike RT, Surface Pro needs a real keyboard if it has any chance of fulfilling its potential.

Both the Touch and Type keyboards are totally usable. You’ll need more time to get used to typing on the Touch, with the biggest difference being the lack of tactile feedback when you miss a letter. It’s also a little harder to reliably hit the bottom row of function keys, because they bleed into the palmrest instead of being clearly delineated. Annoying, but manageable, mostly. You’ll be able to type at basically full speed with the Type keyboard, and after a week or two, pretty confidently on the Touch cover as well.

But then there’s the trackpad. It’s (surprisingly!) very accurate on both covers, but it’s just too small. Using the tiny pad to move the tiny cursor in the very tiny Desktop environment is enough to make you blind, and then cross-eyed. And sure, that problem is largely a function of desktop Windows in a mobile environment, and most apps not being touch-optimised yet. But that’s where we are. And frustratingly, it would have been easy to fix.

Microsoft chose to squeeze in a superfluous top row of keys instead of giving the trackpad more breathing room. That top row of is a vestigial remnant of a kind of computing Microsoft abandoned years ago. You don’t need F-keys on modern keyboards. The Touch cover doesn’t even bother applying the F-numbers to them. It dedicates three keys to volume control, all of which are also controlled by a physical switch on the side of the Surface. Four more are dedicated to Charm functions, which can be also accessed by a simple gesture (swipe from the right side) or by mousing to either right-side corner. And the last four keys are reserved for fossils like Home, End, PageUp and PageDown. That leaves Play/Pause (also basically extraneous), Escape and Delete. Lose that upper row, and maybe you’ve got room left for a usable trackpad.

Yes, you can just use a mouse or the (quite good, once calibrated) stylus. But that’s not the insinuation of the Surface — either at its announcement, or in all the commercials selling it as a self-contained über-device.

For Gaming

Gaming is a bit hit or miss. While the Pro runs just fine with all the games you’d expect to play given its guts (Borderlands 2, Diablo 3, The Walking Dead and Portal 2 were all playable at low-to-mid settings; Skyrim, less so), controlling them can be a challenge. The Touch cover especially suffers from the lack of tactile feedback. You can use a bluetooth keyboard to make up the difference, and that’s fine for a desktop setup (the Pro handles a second 1080p screen just fine), but obviously not ideal if you’re planning on gaming on the go.

Touch-enabled games are a different story. Civilization V, for example, has newish touch drivers, and plays exactly how you’d want a turn-based touch-enabled game to. Drag and select units, tap commands, play a full damn PC game as though it were a native tablet app. It’s a glimpse of the fulfillment of Microsoft’s promise of One Device.

But only a glimpse. In order to get Civilisation V to work properly with touch, you’ve got to turn off the Surface Pro’s default magnifications setting that enlarges the UI to usable sizes (remember that?). Otherwise, the touch points don’t match the in-game buttons, even at full screen. And it’s not a simple fix; it requires you to log in and out of your account, and shut down all your apps. Then, once you’re done playing the game, log in and out to change the settings back. Not the end of the world, but needlessly frustrating, and hugely confusing until you realise what’s going on.

The lasting impression you get from gaming on the Surface Pro, though, is potential. There is an ungodly amount of potential here. Playing a game like The Walking Dead, which is a mix of traditional movement and menu-based actions, you imagine how awesome it would be to have touch drivers as well-tuned as Civ V‘s. You imagine the same for games like Cave, Crusader Kings II, or even Skyrim. And then you think, man, this thing is nearly there.

For Pros

The Surface Pro might be one of the most exceptional tools available to visual professionals. Especially once (if) industry standard software catches up to what the Pro is doing.

The Surface Pro has Wacom digitiser technology, which means it can be used with a pressure-sensitive stylus. It works wonderfully. Using the pen to draw in programs like Sketchbook, the performance approaches that of high-end devices like the Wacom’s Cintiq devices. And it’s effectively cheaper, since a 12-inch Cintiq runs $US850, and isn’t a standalone device.

Photography is a little trickier. On one hand, the full desktop suite of Lightroom and Photoshop-like apps is a massive upgrade from the stripped-down versions found on the iPad and other tablets. But Adobe’s products aren’t plugged into Windows’ magnification settings, so on the 10.6-inch 1080p screen, the controls are all painfully small. Dropping down the resolution to 1600×900 helps, and still looks sharp, but obviously isn’t ideal. Still, being able to use the stylus in the field to touch up in Photoshop will be hugely valuable for many photogs. Others who deal with faster pace and and rougher conditions probably wouldn’t be as interested.

One more note that applies to pro users especially — but also to anyone with a decent-sized onboard movie or music collection — is that the usable storage for the Pro comes in well under the listed numbers. 23GB usable for the 64GB model, and 84GB usable for the 128GB. You’ll need to clear it out constantly.

Videographers, well, this one probably isn’t for you just yet. Transfer speeds are great, but the limited storage, cramped controls, and tiny trackpad add up to a crappy field experience that isn’t really enriched by touch controls.

That said, the underlying components perform well enough to use professionally. The transfer speeds on the SSD are impressively fast — faster than the MacBook Air in all tests — and it held its own in the Premiere Pro CS6 render test we run on pro-grade machines.

Like

We talk a lot about the future whenever anyone does something new. While the Surface Pro might not be the future, exactly as it is, it’s absolutely full of ideas and functions that are just off the horizon, or just in from it. A pro-level stylus, touch-based everything, extreme portability, creative new ways to type. This is how you’d build a machine from the ground up if you wanted to make sure there was no chance of it falling behind the curve.

More concretely, the screen is gorgeous when displaying things that are the correct size, battery life is surprisingly good compared to ultrabooks (though nowhere near iPad levels) and the thing is damn beautifully made.

No Like

You’ll need to tinker. Tinker tinker tinker. The process of getting and keeping the Surface Pro into a state that’s comfortable and efficient is involved, largely because of Desktop scaling/sizing issues. Desktop is just too small and hard to control on the Surface. You need to go into a bunch of settings menus and dig and guess and hope to find a workable solution, and even the best are half-measures. Windows being Windows, there will be plugins that help, but this isn’t an open-and-enjoy experience.

Most pressing, though, are all the ways that people looking for the perfect laptop/tablet hybrid can’t use it like a laptop. The keyboard covers only work on flat surfaces; it’s pretty bulky as a tablet even though it’s well built; the trackpads are barely usable anywhere. A lot of this isn’t quite the Surface Pro’s fault. We have an ingrained set of habits we’ve formed, and the technologies to move past them — voice input, Kinect-like spatial gestures, eye tracking, SoC processors — haven’t gotten to the point that they can make up for the Surface’s shortcomings. It’s a machine out of its time, in a way. And a lot of us aren’t quite ready for it yet.

Test Notes

• While battery life compared well to ultrabooks in everyday laptop usage, it varied wildly in our tests, dipping as low as two hours 24 minutes (running just desktop Chrome, 20 tabs, 10-hour YouTube video running). Every other test lasted far longer; several programs and a video game running simultaneously lasting three hours 40 minutes. That said, leaving the Pro in standby mode while asleep sucks down battery unless you turn off a bunch of laptop-like functions.

• You can’t just set Surface Pro down and pick it up days later and expect it to be charged, like you can with a tablet.

• When we first began using the stylus, its accuracy was totally fine in the center of the screen, but warped drastically around the top edge. That made it tough to use with apps like Photoshop. Calibrating the pen improved that hugely, though, and it was wonderful from then on.

• The stylus and the charger both attach to the Surface using the same mediocre magnetic connector. It’s tough to get the charger to stick in there, and the pen just falls off in your bag. And you’ve got to find somewhere to put the stylus while Surface Pro is charging, obviously. Basically, you’re going to lose the stylus.

• The Pro is always warm to the touch. Seriously, always. That’s more or less expected given the guts at play, but it runs more consistently warm than a MacBook Air or a Lenovo Yoga when performing similar tasks. That’s a bit of a problem for something you’re intended to hold, though leaving the cover on helps.

• While speakers on a tablet or laptop are rarely worth mentioning, the Pro’s sound is faint enough to actually be an issue. At max volume and with the screen literally six inches from my face, it was still impossible to make out some dialogue in a streamed video. Onboard sound is still a minor issue—you’re probably using headphones—but it’s a shame because the screen is so gorgeous while playing movies.

• One thing about Windows 8 that the Surface Pro highlights is the absence of a touch-based Explorer. The interface already exists in the SkyDrive app! There’s no reason to not have a way to go through your files in the touch interface, instead of the miniaturized desktop version.

• If you’ve ever owned an iPad, you know that the Smart Cover streaks up your screen more than anything else. The Touch cover has a fun (not fun) variation where instead of three vertical streaks, it imprints an entire keyboard’s worth of squares on your screen.

• A nice hidden benefit of the Surface’s full Windows 8 Pro build is being able to use web-only/mobile-premium services like Hulu or Spotify on a tablet without paying a premium.

Should You Buy This?

If it fits your professional needs, you’ll at least want to consider it. Same goes if you have enough scratch to take a flyer on a secondary computer (that also happens to represent the future of computing). For anyone else, the Surface Pro probably isn’t worth it.

The Surface Pro is ultimately the best answer to questions a lot of people haven’t bothered asking yet. That’s different from being extraneous — it’s more like being the girl who shows up 30 minutes early to every party — but it still means the Pro isn’t for everyone. For a lot of you, a thick, superpowered tablet isn’t necessary, and a laptop-like (and laptop-priced) machine that makes it harder to bang out emails, IMs, and tweets while on the couch or in bed is nothing you’re interested in.

Specs as tested:

Display: 10.6-inch ClearType 1920×1080 (207ppi)
Processor: Intel Core i5 Ivy Bridge
Graphics: Intel HD 4000
Memory: 4GB
Storage: 128GB SSD
Ports: Full-size USB 3.0, microSDXC card slot, Headset jack, Mini DisplayPort, Cover port
Cameras: Two 720p HD LifeCams, front-facing and rear-facing
Dimensions: 10.81 inches x 6.81 inches x 0.53 inches
Weight: 907g
Price: $US1000; $US130 more for a Touch Cover (Australian pricing and release date yet to be announced)


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