- Review Date: 02/07/2013
- Bottom line: The Microsoft Surface Windows 8 Pro is the Windows 8 slate tablet to beat when you need the performance and convenience of a PC in a compact tablet form factor.
- Pros: Compact. Improved UI: Things don't look "too small" in desktop mode. Comes with pressure-sensitive stylus. Works with Surface covers. Truly Windows compatible. Ultrabook components. Full 1080p HD screen. 10-finger touch screen.
- Cons: Keyboard cover is an optional extra. Only one USB 3.0 port. VGA and HDMI require optional adapters.
Tablets with mobile operating systems like Android, iOS, or Windows RT are perfectly adequate if your tasks center on the Internet. But if you need compatibility with older x86 programs in a slate tablet form factor, then you need one running Windows 8. Of the handful introduced lately, the Microsoft Surface Windows 8 Pro is the one to beat.
Everything in the portable world is a tradeoff. You can get 10+ hours of battery life, but then you need to run a low-power processor that either runs a mobile OS (Windows RT, Android, iOS) or it runs Windows 8 slowly. You can permanently attach the keyboard for convenience and make the screen do acrobatics, but then the system will be heavier and only let you use the screen as a tablet part of the time. Then there are systems like the Surface Pro, which balance the price/performance/feature equation well. It's one of the faster ultrabook-class devices out there, it's much more portable than an ultrabook convertible, and it runs the Windows XP/Vista/7/8 programs your household or business needs to run.
Design and Features
From the front, the Surface Pro resembles the Microsoft Surface with Windows RT. It has the same height and width (7 by 11 inches), but it's just a bit over a quarter-inch thicker than the 0.37-inch thickness of the ARM-powered Surface RT. The screen size is an identical 10.6 inches, but the Surface Pro's screen has a resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 (true 1080p HD). The screen is bright, and Microsoft has done a good job tweaking the zoom scaling settings on the Surface Pro to make the Windows 8 UI (Start screen) and the desktop mode on the tablet both readable and usable with your fingertips.
The Surface Pro has the same all-metal VaporMg construction as the Surface RT, with the same black visage. The extra thickness of the screen is needed to house the higher-powered Intel Core i5-3317U processor, cooling fans, "perimeter vents," and extra battery capacity to power it all. Since the screen only measures 10.6 inches, it's a bit more manageable to hold than the larger 11.6-inch Acer Iconia W700-6465 or Sony VAIO Duo 11 (D11213CX). The Acer W700 and Surface Pro both weigh about two pounds, with the Sony Duo 11 tipping the scales about a pound heavier. Of the three, the Surface Pro feels the most comfortable in hand.
Like the Surface RT, the Surface Pro uses its signature kickstand to prop the tablet up when standing on a flat surface. While this works great compared with the Acer W700—which needs a detachable stand to stay upright—it also means that the kickstand will dig into your legs if you prefer to use the tablet on your lap (with or without one of the keyboard covers). Laying the Surface Pro on your lap flat and using the onscreen keyboard is more comfortable. On the whole, however, we like the design, as it lets you use the tablet as a PC, on an airline tray-top video player, or as a PC gaming station with a USB or wireless controller. The Surface Pro can use all the same Microsoft Touch Cover (for Surface) and Microsoft Type Covers that the Surface RT uses, with the same satisfying click and retention when the magnets attach the cover to the Surface Pro. The covers automatically switch the Surface Pro in and out of sleep mode. We also used the Surface-branded version of the Microsoft Wedge Touch Mouse on the Surface Pro without issue. Users with eagle eyes will notice that there is a set of contacts flanking the Touch/Type cover connector. These connectors aren't on the Surface RT. When asked about them, Microsoft had no comment on their function. The Surface Pro's two (front and back) 720p HD webcams work with both the built-in camera app and Skype.
The Surface Pro has a single full-size USB 3.0 port, which is an improvement over the USB 2.0 port in the Surface RT. There's also a MicroSDXC card reader, Mini-DisplayPort (HDMI and VGA require separate $49 adapters), and headset jack rounding out the exterior features. The Surface Pro's AC adapter has an auxiliary USB 5W power port, which you can use to charge your smartphone or 3G/4G hotspot. The power adapter port shares its design with the one on the Surface RT, but it's recessed deeper for two reasons: it's deeper to "hold on" to the higher capacity AC adapter included with the Surface Pro, plus it can be used to store the included digitizer pen when you're not charging the tablet.
While most Windows 8 tablets don't come with digitizer pens, their use is common on older systems like the Lenovo ThinkPad X230t, our Windows 7 convertible laptop Editors' Choice. The stylus and screen digitizer on the Surface Pro use Wacom technology, so you can use any Wacom digitizer stylus you have lying around. The stylus and screen support 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity. This means that you can sketch and draw on the Surface Pro's screen at up to an advanced student or prosumer level, and the stylus will work in any program that supports pen input. You can use the stylus to sign documents, perform fine control functions, and fill out online forms. When the screen detects the tip of the stylus, the system shuts off the capacitive touch input, so you're not moving the cursor around with your palm. You can manipulate the cursor like any mouse. The stylus supports mouse-over functions, and it also has right-click button and eraser functions. It all works pretty seamlessly and is a vast improvement over capacitive-only screens, especially in a corporate or small business setting.
The Surface Pro comes with Windows 8 Pro, which lets you use the millions of Windows programs already released, plus new programs coming from the Windows Store or elsewhere. The system also comes relatively bloatware-free. Aside from Windows 8's standard software build, you'll find a tile for Skype and one for Microsfot Office. Office is not preinstalled, so you can use your company's license if you wish. This leaves a lot of room free on the 128GB SSD, plus you can use Microsoft's SkyDrive or other online storage sites to supplement the onboard storage. The Surface Pro comes with a standard one-year warranty.
The Intel Core i5-3317U processor with Intel HD Graphics 4000, 4GB of memory, and the 128GB SSD work together to give the Surface Pro ultrabook-level performance. This is significant when you compare the system to Atom-powered hybrid tablets like the HP Envy X2 and Acer Iconia W510. The Acer Iconia Tab W510-1422 and HP Envy X2 (11-g012nr) manage scores under 1,500 points on the PCMark7 test, but ultrabook-class systems like the Surface Pro and Vizio 14-Inch Thin + Light (CT14-A4)
On our battery rundown test, the Surface Pro lasted 4 hours 58 minutes, neatly boxed out by the Acer W700-6465 (6:34), but that's because the latter has a bit more space for battery capacity. Both are hours ahead of the Sony Duo 11 (3:09). The Surface Pro's integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 were sub-par when playing the high-end game tests like Aliens vs. Predator and Heaven, but we were able to play older titles like Counter-Strike: Source smoothly on the Surface Pro, even at 1,920-by-1,080 resolution. With a little tweaking, other titles like Civilization V should work fine as well.
Now the big question: Is it worth it? If you need a very portable tablet that has full Windows 8 compatibility, powerful components, and a 1080p touch screen, the Microsoft Surface Windows 8 Pro is your tablet. The digitizing stylus is an added boon for those who would like to take notes, draw art, or fill out forms right on their tablet screen. The Surface Pro has business compatibility (i.e., it can join Windows domains and use corporate level software), a selection of keyboard covers, and is intelligently set up for touch and portable use. It also has better ergonomics than the Acer Iconia W700 and better behavior in desktop mode (where you run almost all your programs). True, the Acer W700 has better battery life, but the Surface Pro doesn't require as much tweaking to make it useful out of the box. While it's a little thing (pardon the pun), the fact that the Surface Pro is scaled better and more usable with fingertips in desktop mode will help save calls to IT or to your family IT person (probably you, if you're reading this). The Surface Pro is the Windows 8 slate tablet to beat when you need the performance and convenience of a real PC in a compact tablet form factor. It's the one to get if you need corporate or academic campus portability.
This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.