Surface RT was a bit of a letdown -- not because it was bad, but because it could have been so, so good. But Microsoft brought the Pro version to Vegas and let us play -- and I couldn't be happier.
To be blunt, Surface Pro makes RT look like a mistake. Surface RT was a mistake -- but fortunately for Microsoft (and more importantly, for us), Pro makes up for almost every deficiency of its smaller, cheaper sibling. It has the internal power and the physical flexibility to, for real this time, perhaps carve out a whole new category of computer. It could be the device you put in your bag and on your desk above all others. Almost every conceivable facet is superior this time around.
Where the Surface RT's screen was OK but certainly not in the same league as its high-density rivals, the Pro version shines oh so very bright: a luscious 1080p display pops to life each time you wake the thing, and it's as perfectly responsive as any other touch computer you're used to. It's beautiful to look at and rub.
Where the Surface RT's software was embarrassingly spare, well, that's just a non-issue. Pro runs real Windows 8 -- the same thing you'd install on a desktop -- so you aren't confined to Microsoft's anemic, strip mall app store. You can install Photoshop, Civilisation, WinZip, whatever the hell you want. If it's made for Windows and it's somewhat recent, it'll probably run on the Surface Pro -- even some brief time playing Bulletstorm yielded totally acceptable performance, given that the thing is smaller than any laptop. It's not going to be your go-to gaming toy, but graphically, it's wholly decent, and older titles should be butter.
The software importance can't be stated enough. Let's overstate it: this is a real computer, and Surface RT was not. If you don't like a native Windows 8 app, you can kick it over a cliff and download one of the bazillion alternatives available for x86 Windows systems. Almost all of the things you need for work and unwinding. Tons of choice. Tons of flexibility. The Pro model is powerful enough to drive a big, luxurious external monitor. Add in a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and you've got yourself a new desktop. Or stop mirroring, lay the Pro down flat, and use the entire thing as one big wonderful trackpad, with ample room for your fingers or a pen for Wacom-style artistry. The addition of a USB 3.0 port makes the prospect of desktop replacement even more real, and slurping over a batch of JPEG + RAW photo files straight off a DSLR and then viewing them on the big external screen was a joy.
But there must be some tradeoffs, right? Right. But not many. Battery life won't be as good due to power-hungrier components. The Pro requires a (quiet) fan. But the biggest worry was size, and I can assure you that Surface Pro is entirely comfortable. I was afraid it'd be a tank, but it's significantly thinner than my MacBook Air, and at just over 900 grams, slightly lighter, too. It'll never be as comfortable to cozy up with as a Kindle, but it's hand and arm friendly enough to use as a tablet, and given the horsepower inside, fantastically skinny as a laptop rival. So, yes, it's bigger, but not enough to lose points.
What are you left with? The same lovely design as the RT version, without the most glaring shortcomings. I only had about an hour to spend with the Pro, which is nowhere near enough for anything resembling a verdict, but know this: where RT offered heartbreak, Pro offers hope. I just wish it'd been like this from the start.
Stay tuned for our full review shortly.