Microsoft isn't finished improving the Surface tablet.
This week, the company will release an advanced version of its first tablet called the Surface Pro that's essentially a full-fledged Windows 8 computer crammed into a tablet form factor.
There's an important distinction to be made here: The Surface Pro isn't an iPad or Android tablet competitor like last year's Surface RT. If anything, the Surface Pro is an alternative to thin and light laptops like the MacBook Air and the slew of other Windows-powered Ultrabooks. The cheapest Surface Pro model costs $899, which is in line with many other laptops.
But the Surface Pro is a brand new product category: a funky not-quite-tablet-not-quite-laptop laptop alternative.
So does it work? Keep reading for the full review.
What Is The Surface Pro?
The Surface Pro is just like the first Surface except it's thicker, heavier, costs at least $400 more, and has about half the battery life. It looks like a tablet, but you can snap on an optional (but essential) keyboard cover that turns the Surface Pro into a pseudo-laptop.
So why would anyone buy that?
Unlike the Surface RT, the Surface Pro is powered by an Intel chip (like a lot of regular Windows laptops) and can run older Windows 7 apps. That means if you're still using the old version of Microsoft Office or any other program, you'll be able to run them on the Surface Pro without a problem. There's even a "Desktop" mode that lets you work in a classic Windows 7-like environment instead of Windows 8's touch-friendly tile Start menu.
But that's a small added value for a laptop replacement that doesn't do a great job at replacing your laptop.
You can't rest the Surface Pro comfortably on your lap without it flopping around. You can 't adjust the angle of the screen when it's propped on a table with the built in kickstand. You need to spend at least another $100 to get the full laptop-like experience with one of the special keyboard covers. At 10 inches, the screen feels a bit small for traditional desktop computing. The cheapest model only has 23 GB of free storage, so you'll have to buy a separate memory card because you'll definitely need more than that.
And so on.
That's the biggest problem with the Surface Pro. Between the pricing and the form factor, it feels like the Pro would only appeal to a limited number of people.
The Surface Pro runs on Windows 8 Pro, Microsoft's top-of-the line PC operating system. Windows 8 was designed to run primarily on touchscreen devices like the Surface tablets, so it does take a lot of noodling around to get used to how everything works.
I've been using Windows 8 off and on since it launched last fall, and I've only just now figured out all the nuances and tricks of the new OS. There's a steep learning curve with Windows 8, but I was flying once I got the hang of it. Windows 8 really is a fun platform to use, and it's a refreshing take on the stuffy old desktop.
But when you have a tablet-friendly operating system like Windows 8, you need tablet-friendly apps to go with it. Unfortunately, Windows 8 can't offer that.
Microsoft wouldn't tell me how many Windows 8 apps are available now, but the number doesn't matter. What matters is I couldn't find many of the apps I wanted. Most notably, there still aren't apps for Twitter and Facebook, which forces you to use those services in a browser. That doesn't work very well if you're using the Surface Pro in tablet mode.
Yes, the Surface Pro can still run all the older Windows apps in the classic Desktop mode, but they don't look so great on a tiny screen. For example, the text in TweetDeck is too tiny to read. I had the same experience with most of the other legacy Windows 7 apps I tried in desktop mode, with the exception of Microsoft Office.
In short, it's just awkward to work in an old-school computing environment on a modern device. It's more like working on a netbook or one of those old pre-iPad Windows tablets that never took off.
The Surface Pro has some impressive hardware specs for such a unique form factor. It can go toe-to-toe with any other thin and light laptop. You won't have to worry about performance. In fact, it outperformed my 13-inch MacBook Air in many respects.
The Surface Pro boots up/shuts down a lot faster than my Air, and it wakes up from sleep mode before I can get to "two Mississippi." In that respect, it felt more like using a traditional tablet than a regular laptop. Very nice.
On the other hand, the Surface Pro suffers from some of the same problems as other Intel-powered machines. Battery life is pretty bad, for example; I was only able to use my review unit for about four hours on each charge.
The Surface Pro also comes with a stylus for doodling and taking notes on the screen, but I found no use for it. There aren't many good apps for Windows 8 that take advantage of a stylus, but I did test it out using Microsoft Office's One Note program. (I also like that you can delete items by using the "eraser" at the bottom of the stylus). I doubt many Surface Pro owners will find a use for the stylus though.
Microsoft created a very strange product category with the Surface Pro, one that will likely only appeal to a slim number of people who want to try a funky form factor but still work in a classic desktop environment when they need to.
My experience with the Surface Pro was nearly identical to the one I had with the Surface RT, which makes it tough to recommend a pricier and heavier device with bad battery life. If the Surface intrigues you, check out the RT model first.
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