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ANDY IHNATKO: Microsoft Surface Pro review: Great tablet PC, but needs apps

The new Microsoft Surface tablet

The new Microsoft Surface tablet

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Updated: February 6, 2013 1:31PM

Why is Microsoft itching to produce its own PCs, all of a sudden?

We were all left to ponder that mystery, after the company announced Surface. Why wouldn’t it just partner with ASUS (say) to produce a mobile computer based on a set of specs? Why design and engineer a tablet computer completely in-house? What could Microsoft do that isn’t already being done by Samsung, Lenovo, Dell, Acer, HP…?

It can make a point. It can explain, clearly, distinctly, and in the form of a real, shipping product, where Microsoft is taking Windows. Here’s Microsoft’s vision of the next five years of Windows computing.

Surface RT made the point gently. Surface Pro (available in the U.S. and Canada starting Saturday) double-underscores it. Surface Pro, and not the cheaper, lesser-powered Surface RT, represents the Windows 8 PC that Microsoft wants us to have. Something lightweight and slim, but with a desktop-grade CPU; powerful, but with a long battery life; eager to welcome the tablet-style multitouch apps that define the next generation of computing, yet able to run the huge library of Windows 7 desktop apps that consumers rely on today.

Microsoft’s leaders are sticking their necks out. Whether or not Surface Pro is successful — creatively or commercially Microsoft deserves credit for putting skin in the game.

And when I say that Microsoft is putting skin in the game, it’s actually putting in magnesium alloy. Lots of it. Surface Pro is made out of a single piece of metal — a second piece constitutes the fold-out stand — and the result is a solid, satisfying piece of kit without gaps, wobbles, or rattles. It feels great in your hands and only a user who’s been bitten by a radioactive spider would be able to somehow twist or bend the frame by even a fraction. The $899 Surface Pro isn’t just priced like a premium Windows mobile PC ... it’s also built like one.

Let’s hope it’s as durable as the Surface RT, which appears to have been made via the same processes. A pal of mine dropped his RT straight onto a ceramic tile floor and it didn’t suffer any damage.

At just under 2 pounds, the Pro’s weight lands almost exactly in between that of a full-sized iPad and an 11-inch MacBook Air. Its footprint is somewhere in between as well, and it’s barely thinner than the Air’s thickest edge. All in all, it’s one of the most totable desktop-grade PCs I’ve tried, and one of the very best-made Windows ultrabooks.

Already I’m stumbling over terminology: desktop, ultrabook, tablet. I think the Surface Pro is made out of teflon instead of magnesium; labels don’t really stick to it.

Let’s start off with something simple: Surface Pro vs. Surface RT. They look the same, but the RT tablet is thinner and lighter. RT is much cheaper, starting at $499 versus $899 for the Pro. The key difference is its range of software. Surface Pro is a no-compromises Windows 8 PC that can run slick multitouch apps that use the Modern UI, but it also runs all of the conventional Windows desktop apps already on the market.

Surface RT will only run Modern-style apps. It comes with special editions of the Microsoft Office apps pre-loaded, but those are the only Windows desktop-style apps you’ll ever run on the device. As such, Surface RT represents a considerable gamble. Can you be productive with just Office and the limited range of Modern apps available in the Windows Store right now? Of the two, Surface Pro is by far the more powerful and practical solution. Surface Pro a desktop? A notebook? A tablet?

It’s certainly as powerful as a desktop. An Ivy Bridge Intel i5 processor with integrated GPU runs Windows desktop apps and games without any compromise. I never noticed any stuttering or lags, even when watching HD video. It’s as ultraportable as an ultrabook, no worries there.

And of course it’s got a touchscreen that supports 10-finger multitouch. Surface Pro is a terrific showpiece for Windows 8 Modern apps. Even when I had a mouse connected, I often found myself reaching out to the screen instead. Modern UI just screams out to be touched.

This instinctive reaction is the result of all of the time I spend interacting with my phone. It’s the reason why Microsoft chose to start integrating multitouch into their desktop bread-and-butter sooner rather than later.

How well does the Pro work as a tablet? Its 10.6-inch 16:9 aspect ratio screen is a little awkward in portrait mode. To be fair, Microsoft seemed to make a clear statement about device orientation when it hard-mounted a landscape kickstand into the case. Surface Pro’s natural inclination towards landscape mode doesn’t interfere with reading ebooks, webpages, or comic books. That said, the extra weight (half a pound more than an iPad or Surface RT) is noticeable over time.

The 208 ppi 1920x1280 display renders text and photos in crisp, sharp detail. At 208 ppi, it’s much sharper than the display of the MacBook Air and most other ultrabooks. Watching HD video is a treat. It can serve up full 1080p playback and the 16:9 aspect ratio presents HD movies and TV shows in full-framed glory, where other devices force the video to duck down to fit inside a squarer box.

Enough of watching TV and reading comic books. Let’s get to work. I enjoyed using Surface Pro like an ultramobile desktop PC that doesn’t even require wires to a power outlet. A Bluetooth keyboard and mouse allow me to spread out across the table, whether said table is in a conference room, a library, or a coffeeshop. For high-productivity sessions, this “ultramobile desktop” layout is optimal.

But that’s not how most people will think to use Surface Pro, and it’s certainly not how Microsoft is advertising Surface Pro. In the commercials, people use Surface with a keyboard cover that clicks magnetically to a special receptacle at the Surface’s base. Surface Pro uses the same covers as the Surface RT. The $119 Touch cover is thin and light; the $129 Type cover uses mechanical keyswitches instead of capacitative ones that don’t provide feedback. Each style has an integrated trackpad that supports two-finger scrolling and has integrated buttons.

These covers let the Pro look and feel much more like a conventional notebook, without getting in the way of Surface’s utility as a tablet: they’re flexible and they fold around to the back of the screen when not in use...or you can pop them off completely.

Of the two, the Type cover is the obvious choice for productivity. After a brief period of adjustment, my fingers stopped caring that the keyboard wasn’t as nice as the one on my usual notebook...but they never stopped noticing.

It’s just not as nice as the keyboard on the MacBook Air. Surface Pro and the Air aren’t suitable for head-to-head comparison (the Air is a horrible ebook reader, for example) but the MacBook is the best-in-class ultrabook and serves as a good benchmark. It has the same full-sized keyboard and key-switch technology as what you’d find in Apple’s full-size MacBooks and even their desktop systems. The trackpad is a huge sheet of glass and it’s a dream to operate.

The Type cover of the Surface has a trackpad that’s relatively tiny, and its buttons are hard to operate. Over a period of two weeks, I got used to the keys without any complaint, but I never accepted the trackpad. It’ll get you through a workday just fine, mind you. But it’s an obvious shortcoming.

So was I using Surface Pro in “ultramobile desktop mode” because I had no other choice? Naw. It was because it was truly a pleasure. I use my iPad (my main “out of the office” computer) in the exact same way...except I don’t have the added ease-of-use that a mouse delivers.

Speaking of which: Microsoft has produced the “Wedge Mouse for Surface” ($69) and it’s about the nicest travel Bluetooth mouse I’ve ever used. It’s about the size of a bar of hotel soap and yet it’s nearly as comfortable as a standard, fills-your-hand desktop mouse. Highly recommended, even if your notebook or tablet isn’t a Surface.

Thinking of the Surface Pro strictly as a notebook is will only lead to heartache. Examples: with the Type cover attached, all of the Surface Pro’s weight is in the you can’t type on your lap. And although I like Surface’s kickstand, the angle isn’t adjustable. You can’t just tilt the screen a little to eliminate a bit of glare you’re getting from a nearby window.

But if you think of the Surface Pro strictly as a notebook, you’re missing the whole point of the design. A tablet design works much better than a notebook in many places. It works better on the limited space of an airline tray table. It sits on your desk (or on the counter of a diner) like an appliance when you’re watching video, and it stays out of your way. And a tablet design is much easier and accessible. Standing up, sitting down, laying down...tablets excel when you’re doing any of the all three. And it’s great for casual computing, such as when you’re watching “Rollerball” on TV in your living room and you suddenly want to make fun of James Caan’s pantsuit on Twitter.

Another big advantage of Surface Pro over a conventional notebook? Surface Pro’s screen has touch and pen digitizers. When your thick, clumsy fingertip won’t do, just use the included pen for precision accuracy.

Surface Pro uses Wacom pen technology. The stylus (included in the price) is no joke: like any premium Wacom product, it can communicate 1024 levels of pressure and features a side switch (which registers as a right-mouse click and is app-configurable) and a rearmounted “eraser” input.

A stylus — when it’s an option, not a requirement — is a big win for a tablet. You can write block and cursive on the Surface Pro (great when you’re standing up) and you can make Art with it. Why do so few people draw on their notebooks or even their iPads? Because it’s a miserable experience. Sketching with the Surface Pro was such a pleasure that it quickly stopped being a test of the precision and responsiveness of the system and became simple playtime.

I will duly report that I was indeed able to add a duck to the window of the farmhouse, with a thermometer in its beak, watching his friends the chicken and the pig playing tetherball in the foreground. I could place lines and strokes precisely where I wanted them and the Surface wasn’t confused when I rested the palm of my pen hand on the screen.

Ports are another area in which Surface Pro straddles the world of Tablet and Notebook. It includes a high-speed USB 3.0 port and a Mini DisplayPort. Each of these can do everything they can do in a notebook: connect to any kind of USB accessory, hook up external displays (with the correct dongle, sold separately) and use the external display as a second or mirrored screen. There’s even an external display mode (untested by me) which leaves Surface’s built-in screen dark but its digitizer active, so that you can use it as a pen input.

These outputs, plus the power of the Surface Pro’s third-generation i5 processor, would leave me with few worries if I had to rely on this as my sole PC (something I’d dock on my desk, but unplug and carry out of the office).

Surface Pro’s range of ports is better than what you get on most tablets (zilch). It’s a bit thin for a notebook, though...particularly one that costs $899. That single USB port is a concern. When I tested Apple’s first-generation MacBook Air, I found its sole USB port to be limiting and annoying. I suspect that a Surface Pro user would last about two weeks before they’d order themselves a travel-sized USB 3.0 hub from somewhere.

Microsoft attributes its selection of ports to the problems of compromise; add a second USB 3.0 port and what will it cost in terms of battery life? Or heat? Hmm.

At least Microsoft went ahead and did something clever: It added a powered USB charging port on the Surface’s (compact) charging brick. You can’t use this second USB jack to attach a flash drive or a printer, but you can charge your phone off of it, at least.

Speaking of battery life and heat. Battery life is good. I got about five hours of life when I took no measures to conserve, and a little under eight when I was more cautious. Heat wasn’t an issue at all. Surface Pro was always comfortable to hold, and if either of the Pro’s two fans ever kicked in, I never heard them. The device is smart enough to sense how you’re holding it and it switches up the fans to make sure Surface is never blowing hot air onto your skin. Nice.

A microSDXC slot allows you to expand Surface’s storage by up to 64 additional gigabytes, with as many cards as you wish. Alas, that’s your sole option for user upgrades. The $899 Surface Pro includes 64 gigs of SSD storage, with about 30 gigs taken up by the OS and related apps; $999 buys the 128 gig model. Both include 4 gigabytes of application memory.

Twin 720p cameras, front and back, complete the package. Internally, there’s an ambient light sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, and compass. This ought to work out to be a great gaming platform.

Microsoft speaks of Surface Pro as their ultimate expression of Windows 8. I can see that. People who’ve tested out Windows 8 and the Metro interface on a conventional notebook or desktop should come into a store and see how great it works on Surface Pro.

What I liked the most about the Windows 8/Surface Pro experience was how well the device managed its relatively small display. I love the 11-inch MacBook Air and I was loath to return it when Apple’s editorial loan period ended. All the same, on the Air’s small screen the multiwindowed MacOS desktop interface is cramped, scaled-down, and cluttered. You suffer through it for the sake of ultraportability.

On Surface Pro, Windows 8 offered me the best of both worlds. I began writing this review on Surface with the desktop Microsoft Word app. My notes were in Evernote. I was able to simply open the Modern edition of the Evernote app and then pin those notes to the side of the screen, referring to them as I worked. Perfect! The Evernote panel was big and clear, and no Desktop window was able to cover it up. Here’s another win for Surface’s 16:9 aspect ratio: the Modern Evernote panel left a perfect classic desktop-aspect-ratio square for all of the Desktop apps to run in.

What didn’t I like about the Surface Pro As A Desktop-OS Computer Experience? I came to think of Surface Pro as a super-awesome tablet, which meant that when I’d pull it out of my bag and wake it, the ten to fifteen seconds between flicking the power switch and seeing signs of life seemed like an eternity.

Overall, though, I’m very pleased with Surface Pro. It’s a tantalizing preview of what tablet computers, and Windows 8, will become if Windows developers become enthusiastic about creating Modern-style apps. It seems like a necessary step forward, unless consumers start clamoring for larger screens instead of laptops that are more mobile. The classic Windows Desktop experience has the same cramped, scaled-down problems on the Surface Pro’s 10.6” display as the MacOS experience had on the 11” Air’s.

And Modern UI is a fantastic thing. It’s beautiful and powerful and I return to my iPad and my Mac with lingering feelings of lust.

Throughout my two weeks with Surface Pro, I kept searching the Windows Store for a Modern-style word processor that I could use for actual work. If Microsoft were shipping a Modern version of Office, I wouldn’t have even considered using the desktop edition. It’s the best of both worlds: Windows 8 and Modern UI can give me the clean, clear, distraction-free interface of a tablet with the tiled, multi-app workflow and productivity of a desktop.

Alas, those Modern apps have been slow in coming. And so, the force of Surface Pro is slightly blunted. Modern apps are part of the whole reason for Surface Pro to exist. For now, the Windows Store is full of entertainment, media, and accessory apps but it’s short on the sort of apps that help you to knock projects off of your To-Do list and make your mortgage payments.

It’s a well-built machine and packed with appeal. But it isn’t a universal appeal. If you’re mostly running desktop apps, and you expect a device to behave as a notebook, your money and your expectations are best placed elsewhere. It might not even be superior to the pairing of a less-expensive Windows 8 notebook and an $330 iPad Mini or a $200 Nexus 7 tablet. The combination can be had for about the same amount of money as a Surface Pro and a keyboard.

You know what I’m saying? Surface Pro is exceptionally well-made, it performs well, and even its lack of ports is...well, it’s unfortunate but excusable, given the goals of the device. As much as I like Surface Pro, though, I probably wouldn’t buy one.

Here in early 2013, it doesn’t make a compelling case for itself. There are great tablets (the fullsized iPad, as well as the the compact iPad Mini, Nexus 7, and Kindle Fire) and great light notebooks. The strength of the Surface Pro is that it has some of the advantages of both. It’s not great at being solely either kind. As a tablet, the Surface Pro is heavy and it has half the battery life of an iPad. As a notebook, the Surface has a subpar keyboard and trackpad, it needs another USB port and a fullsized SD card slot, and you can’t use it without a level table underneath it.

Even as a hybrid device, Surface Pro has competition. Nearly every maker is creating devices that try to bridge tablets and conventional notebooks, and they’re taking a route that’s more conservative (read: appealing to existing consumers) than the Surface Pro. Lenovo, Dell, and Samsung’s hybrids begin with a laptop-style frame and find ways to stash the keyboard and trackpad out of the way. Lenovo’s has a 180 degree hinge; Dell has a screen that flips around in its bezel; Samsung has a nice Windows tablet that hard-docks into a rock-solid keyboard hinge and the keyboard module brings a supplemental battery to the party.

All of these alternatives have their own problems. Either they’re a third to half again as expensive as the Surface Pro, or they’re built around chintzy mobile processors, or the construction is cheap and flimsy. But they’re familiar and safe.

Meanwhile, the truly adventurous consumers are bold enough to think “Why do things halfway?” and might be inclined to choose a high-end iPad as their ultramobile device. The iPad has its problems as well, but “lack of software” isn’t one of them.

That’s really the only big problem I see with Surface Pro. It’s incomplete without a mature library of professional-grade productivity apps, written for the Modern UI, that are designed to take advantage of the Surface Pro’s unusual strengths. Because if all of the apps that justify its price tag are traditional Windows Desktop software, why bother buying a nontraditional PC at all?

The good news is that the device’s basic ideas are sound, and $899 isn’t a lot of money for an ultrabook with these features (a desktop-grade CPU and rock-solid construction).

Surface Pro isn’t a good choice for the majority of consumers. But I can see its appeal to lots of different groups. It’s a good choice for people who love multitouch and don’t see the sense in owning both a laptop and a tablet. It’s for artists who want what amounts to a travel version of a Wacom Cintiq...something that allows precision, pressure-sensitive drawing right on the display....It’s for people who are quite confident that Modern productivity apps will start to appear before too long. People who value a PC that’s flexible across the many postures (standing, sitting, lying down) that one assumes when using a computer in the 21st century.

And maybe it’s for consumers who, like Microsoft, want to put a little skin in the game. If you keep complaining online that desktop operating systems and the machines that run them haven’t changed much in 15 years, well, here you go: it’s something fresh and different and exciting. Like an early hybrid vehicle, it points to the future. It’s good in its first incarnation and leaves me eager to see how much it’ll improve in future iterations, and with a bigger Modern software library.

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