Hands-on with the Microsoft Surface Pro


Panos Panay, the general manager of the team behind the Microsoft Surface holds up the new Microsoft Surface tablet during the launch event for Microsoft Windows 8 in New York, October 25, 2012. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)
February 7, 2013

Microsoft’s newest device, the Surface with Windows 8 Pro, makes a big promise to consumers. It’s unique form — a tablet-like touchscreen with a full, snap-on keyboard and touchpad — offers the specs of a light laptop with enough tablet DNA to make it attractive to those who prefer the more portable devices.

In many ways, the Surface Pro fulfills that promise. It’s a strong alternative for those who’ve held off on trading in their laptops because they can’t do the work they need to do on a tablet. The Surface Pro can run full programs for Windows 8 and Windows 7, thanks to its speedy processor. It has a quality screen, capable of displaying 1080p HD video that’s great for viewing and editing high-resolution photos; the touch-screen navigation is very intuitive; features like its stylus (which attaches to the Surface’s charging port) are handy for note takers who want to convert their handwriting to text or want to use the pen to draw; and its keyboards — both the flat $120 Touch Cover and the $130 Type Cover — include a trackpad and mouse button, offering a third navigation option found a traditional laptop.

Enterprise and government customers will be able to “domain join,” or sign into their work networks from home. Those who buy Microsoft Office will get some of the extra features that come with a touchscreen device. In PowerPoint, for example, users will be able to look ahead during a talk or use a laser-pointer mode to highlight presentation points from the Surface screen.

And, according to Microsoft’s Arlington, Va., store manager, Corinne Drummer, military customers also like that the Type Cover’s flat form, which makes the keyboard easy to wipe down and impervious to the problem of getting sand between the keys.

But for all that, the Surface Pro’s design doesn’t quite fit the laptop label.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean some trade-offs. The Surface Pro can slip into almost any purse or briefcase easily, which is certainly to its advantage. Two pounds, however, is still noticeably heftier than the iPad (1.44 pounds) or the Galaxy Note 10.1 (1.3 pounds) — a difference that matters when you’re holding it for long periods of time. And while it’s just about as portable as a tablet, Microsoft’s device still has a laptop’s battery life of four hours. For those who aren’t near an outlet, it’s better to opt for a tablet with a long battery.

Also, the Surface’s kickstand, while useful for watching video on a coffee table or typing at a conference tablet, doesn’t exactly make it lap-friendly. For off-desk work, it’s best to fold its keyboard cover back (which deactivates the key inputs) and use the on-screen keyboard instead.

Where the Surface’s limitations stand out most, however, is in how it runs traditional Windows software. Office, for example, ran quickly and well, but the menus haven’t been redesigned for a much larger screen, making fiddly work of selecting more complex menu options. You can zoom into the screen to navigate more easily, but that’s not exactly a seamless experience, either.

There has been some chatter that the operating system itself takes up the bulk of the Surface’s memory. The device comes with either 64GB or 128 GB of memory. In a public Q&A on Reddit Wednesday, the Surface Pro lead engineer, Panos Panay, said the tablet will have around 30 GB or 90GB of usable memory. Drummer, the Arlington store manager, also said that users can ask Microsoft to uninstall some standard programs after purchasing to free up more disk space.

Overall, the Surface Pro is a good choice for those who want a new, light laptop with great portability. But it’s not a device for people who want a tablet experience with an added keyboard. If that’s what you’re looking for, better to find a tablet you like and buy the keyboard as an accessory.

The Microsoft Surface with Windows 8 Pro costs $899 for the 64 GB model and $999 for the 128 GB model. It goes on sale Saturday, Feb. 9.

Related stories:

Microsoft chips in $2 billion in $24 billion Dell buyout

Microsoft prices Surface with Windows 8 Pro

VentureBeat: Microsoft’s Surface Pro: A better tomorrow (review)

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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