Review Microsoft Surface Pro Build in Windows 8

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The Microsoft Surface Pro Windows 8 tablet is a big deal. If you're a techie you've been following the four months of buzz around Microsoft's second computer, and it looked like the one to beat them all. This is no ARM or Intel Atom tablet, but rather a full Intel Core i5 1.7GHz machine with 4 gigs of RAM and the brains of an Ultrabook all packed in a 10.6", 2 pound package. In those past 4 months we've seen several other hot Windows 8 tablets that may have taken some of the luster off Surface Pro, but we still think it's an important and compelling product for road warriors who need serious computing power. That's currently the smallest Windows 8 tablet with an Intel Core i5 that you'll find on the market (the others like the Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T and Acer Iconia W700 are about the same weight but are larger at 11.6"). And yes, it can run your Windows 7 apps as well as Windows 8 Live Tile Metro apps.

Review Microsoft Surface Pro

The Surface Pro looks nearly identical to the Windows RT-based Surface RT that launched in the fall of 2012. It's a little bit thicker at 0.53" and heavier at 2 pounds vs. 1.5 pounds for RT. Some ports are in different locations, but both share the vapor Mg dark metal casing, rear kickstand and compatibility with the Touch and Type covers. The price starts at $899 for the 64 gig model and $999 for the 128 gig model. What doesn't it have? There's no 3G/4G, GPS or NFC. Surface Pro runs on the usual Ultrabook Intel Core i5-3317U 1.7GHz CPU with 4 gigs of DDR3 RAM and a 64 or 128 gig SSD. It has dual band Marvell WiFi (that means no WiDi Intel wireless display), Bluetooth 4.0 and two distinctly average 720p webcams.

Design and Ergonomics

The corners are angled a bit more steeply than Surface RT's and the Pro is a little bit thicker. You'll notice a very thin air gap running around the sides, and that's perimeter cooling. There are fans inside, but they're nearly silent when doing productivity work and they're as loud as any Ultrabook when playing demanding Windows 7 games. No ugly big vents here, and it distributes cooling so that your hands won't easily block significant sections of the ventilation system. Unlike many laptops that have cooling vents on the bottom, laying it on a couch won't give it heatstroke, though we'd let the back enjoy wide open spaces for best cooling if you're stressing the CPU and GPU.

It's all good news in terms of quality and stylish good looks: this is a luxury piece and the Surface Pro is a captivating looking computer. To look at it is to lust for it and it could easily inspire an emotional purchase based on the product's unique and attractive design. The incredibly solid metal casing is modern, industrial and understated. It can also take quite a beating as we've seen in drop tests and anecdotal testaments about the abuse Surface RT and Pro have survived. The Corning Gorilla Glass 2 display means that you'll have to worry a bit less about a tablet's weakest point: the glass display.

The rear kickstand deploys and closes with a pleasing damped "thunk". There's a sculpted-out grab point on the left side (when the side with the screen is facing you)-- maybe leftie Bill Gates had a say in this, though it's pretty easy to grab and lift the kickstand from the bottom edge too. Fortunately, viewing angles are very wide, though that can't make up for the less than perfect ergonomics when used in casual sitting positions. The kickstand is very stable in landscape orientation and in fact it's sturdy enough for portrait use, though the 16:9 elongated tablet is a bit tall and thin and thus easier to topple in portrait mode. The kickstand angle isn't adjustable and is set up to work best when Surface is on a desk rather than a low coffee table or your lap.

Touch Cover and Type Cover Keyboards

The Touch Cover and Type Cover do indeed home in on the tablet and lock on with a vengeance if you get them within a quarter inch of each other; it's almost scary. And just like the commercials, the keyboard covers lock on so securely that you could grab the Surface by the keyboard and it will stay locked to the keyboard. Microsoft has three limited edition touch covers with patterns on the back that sell for $130, which is the same price as the black Type Cover than has traditional moving keys and a nicely curved soft-surface wrist rest. Both Touch and Type covers have a small trackpad that's surprisingly functional. To remove it, grab the keyboard from a side to break the magnetic hold. These are the same keyboards that are offered for Surface RT, and the neat but perhaps overpriced $120 Touch Cover is available in several vibrant colors as well as staid black.


1080p Touch Screen with Wacom Pen

Surface Pro has a ClearType 10.6" display with wide viewing angles and 10 points of multi-touch. Colors are natural if a tiny bit less vivid than the Sony Vaio Duo 11 and glare is bearable thanks to the bonded glass that reduces reflections. At almost 400 nits of brightness, it's plenty bright enough for well lit indoor environments, though you may want to disable Windows 8's auto-brightness setting in Windows 8's General settings to see full brightness indoors. That said, Windows 8's auto-brightness feature works better on Surface Pro than other Core i5 Windows machines where it's much too draconian and dim.

Thanks to the 1920 x 1080 resolution on the relatively small 10.6" display, we have 208 ppi pixel density and that means sharp text that's easier on the eyes and you can watch 1080p video without scaling on the internal panel. Yes, it looks very sharp and clear, and once you get used to it, you won't want to go back to 1366 x 768 displays on lower resolution Windows tablets. Microsoft sells these for Surface Pro for $40 apiece, though you can find other brands for less at Fry's and Microcenter since Apple laptops use the same mini DisplayPort. Likewise, if you're accustomed to Retina iPads, this will look perfectly lovely. The tablet has a mini DisplayPort that can drive higher than 1080p monitors (that's a good thing), and you can get mini DisplayPort to HDMI or VGA adapters as well. Speaking of Apple, we didn't have luck with Apple's Cinema Display or their ThunderBolt display, though Dell's high resolution monitors with a DisplayPort did work.


Horsepower and Performance

Though Surface Pro looks like a mobile OS tablet and is the same approximate size as the Surface RT, iPad and Nexus 10 Android tablet, it's every bit a full Windows 8 64 bit computer running Windows 8 Pro. The tablet's back is always warm (think of a warm roll that came out of the oven not long ago) but not burning hot. Even when doing demanding tasks like HD video editing or playing 3D games, it doesn't get burning hot and the casing stays below body temperature. Anything an Ultrabook can do, Surface Pro can do, which is quite an engineering feat given its small size and limited real estate for cooling. The display actually gets a bit warm, which you'll notice since it's a touch screen. When doing productivity tasks and playing video the fans are nearly silent. But stress it with Skyrim and Civ V and you'll hear it blowing like any laptop doing the same task.

The Microsoft Surface Pro is still an Ultrabook with Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics: it's not a gaming rig. That said, we played Civ V at 1080 resolution with low settings and the DirectX 9 Touch UI enabled and it played fine. Older games should play fine as will Windows 8 Metro games, but not Crysis 2 or the latest Call of Duty. Skyrim was good at 1366 x 768 with low settings for better than 30 fps, but native 1080p resolution was weak at 20 fps.


WiFi and Bluetooth

Though we wish Microsoft had used Intel WiFi since that supports Intel's WiDi wireless display, we don't have any other complaints about the Marvell dual band WiFi 802.11b/g/n module in Surface Pro. It managed good download and upload speeds, even when it fell one bar short of our bigger laptops with Intel wireless (-6 db signal difference). Even better, since it's dual band WiFi, we could take advantage of the 5GHz band, unlike Lenovo IdeaPad tablets and Ultrabooks, to avoid interference with Bluetooth on the 2.4GHz band. That's important if you're using Bluetooth headphones or speakers when streaming video from Netflix, YouTube or Hulu.


Camera, Front and Rear

This will be a short section: the front 720p camera is adequate for Skype video chat and it's largely the same stuff you'll find on other tablets and smartphones. The rear 720p is sad. Clearly Microsoft intended this for video chat use and not much else. While other tablet makers are rolling with 5 to 8 megapixel rear cameras, some with LED flashes; the Surface Pro takes photos and video as well as a 2007 camera phone.

Battery Life

No, this isn't a mobile OS tablet like Android or the iPad. This is a power hungry Intel Core i5 laptop in a tablet disguise and it guzzles. That's obviously comparable to a Windows 8 laptop rather than a mobile OS tablet like the Nexus 10. But then, this isn't a mobile OS tablet, is it? Standby times were better than average and the tablet goes into a deep sleep state to conserve power (it takes ~ 8 seconds to wake from deep sleep). We averaged 5 hours of use in a mix of productivity tasks (MS Office 2013, drawing with ArtRage, social networking, music playback and 45 minutes of streaming video) with brightness set to a very adequate 50% and WiFi on. We managed 2.4 hours of Civ V unplugged and 4 hours of MPEG4 video playback. I honestly hate having to turn my tablets on and off several times each day, and have been happy with Surface Pro's very efficient sleep mode.


The Core i5 Competition

When Microsoft announced Surface RT and Surface Pro in the fall of 2012, there was virtually no competition in the Windows 8 tablet and convertible space. Now we have the upcoming $1,500 Lenovo ThinkPad Helix with a Core i5 and two-piece design, the Samsung ATIV 700T transformer, and the Acer Iconia W700 tablet. And in the heavier but sometimes more laptop-like space we have convertibles like the Sony Vaio Duo 11, Toshiba Satellite U925t, Asus Taichi, Lenovo ThinkPad Twist and Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13. It's great to have choices and there are distinct use cases for transformers, convertibles, Ultrabooks and the Surface Pro which doesn't quite fit into any of these camps.


Review Microsoft Surface Pro


Conclusion

The Microsoft Surface Pro isn't just novel, though that certainly is part of its appeal along with the sexy design and high quality look and feel. It's a landmark marriage of computing power and portability. The Surface Pro is a head-turner, wildly easy to take with you and usable as a laptop with the Type Cover, even if it's not as easy to use in a variety of laptop positions. The question is: do you need a miraculously portable tablet with the computing power of a Core i5 laptop inside? That's for you to answer, and I know many of you do crave extreme portability on the road. And for digital pen folks, be you handwriting types or artists, the Surface Pro is one of the easiest to hold for long sessions. It's fast, it runs a clean install of Windows 8 Pro 64 bit with none of the manufacturer bloatware that bogs down most Windows machines and battery life is acceptable for a laptop, though not laudable.

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Price: $899 for 64 gig and $999 for 128 gig. Touch Cover: $119, Type Cover: $129
Website: www.surface.com
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Specs:

  • Display: 10.6" ClearType LED backlit display, wide viewing angles, 400 nits brightness, 1920 x 1080 resolution. 10 points of capacitive multi-touch plus Wacom active digitizer with pen. Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics. Mini DisplayPort (adapters sold separately to convert this to HDMI and VGA). Has accelerometer, ambient light sensor and gyroscope.
  • Battery: Lithium Ion rechargeable. 48 watt compact brick style charger included. Charger has USB charging port for smartphone and tablet charging.
  • Performance: 1.7GHz dual Core Ivy Bridge third generation Intel Core i5-3317U ULV CPU. 4 gigs of dual channel DDR3 RAM. 64 or 128 gig mSATA SSD (ours was made by Micron).
  • Size: 10.81 x 6.81 x 0.53 inches. Weight: 2 pounds.
  • Camera: 720p front and rear webcams.
  • Ports: 1 USB 3.0 port, 3.5mm combo audio, mini DisplayPort and keyboard cover port (for Touch and Type keyboard covers).
  • Audio: Built-in stereo speakers, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone jack.
  • Networking: Integrated dual band Marvell WiFi 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0.
  • Software: Windows 8 Pro. Windows Mail and Messaging; SkyDrive; Internet Explorer 10; Bing; Xbox Music, Video, and Games.
  • Expansion and Ports: 1 SDXC microSD card slot

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