First Impressions - Microsoft Surface Pro

Having been so impressed after my experience with the Surface RT, it was with great anticipation that I took to putting the higher-end Surface Pro under my detailed scrutiny. Microsoft's flagship slate takes a jab where no other slate has gone before, marrying a full Windows 8 touch-optimized x64 OS with today's most cutting-edge mobile PC hardware crammed inside an incredibly svelte form-factor.

Does it succeed when so other similar attempts in the past have failed? More importantly, can it truly replace a Windows 7 netbook/notebook? Hang on to your wallet, because it's going to be a bumpy ride!

PROS: Windows 8, class-leading performance, 1080p display, same great accessories as Surface RT, great handwriting capability with included stylus

CONS: Windows 8, battery life, price, connectivity, limited applications-of-use, storage, proprietary power connector, still does not match a netbook/notebook, fingerprint magnet

BACKGROUND:

I've always preferred netbooks over slates, not because of any bias, but simply because they offered a superior productivity experience. The full Windows OS, x86 software selection, hardware keyboard, wireless trackball support, fast SSD drives and decent (N570 Atom) performance meant I could work as effectively as I could on a much larger notebook. Indeed, the majority of slates sporting a clam-shell keyboard/case accessory could only mimic notebooks in functionality and performance, being little more useful than a glorified word-processor.

The status quo has always been that netbooks shared their ancestry with notebooks, while slates had their ties to smartphones, in both hardware and software. Microsoft's Surface Pro effectively turns that on it's head, with a full installation of the touch-optimized Windows 8 x64 operating system, ULV Ivy Bridge internals, and crams it all inside a thin 10" slate form-factor sporting an eye-popping super-high-resolution IPS display. This is far from smartphone material, beyond Atom performance and way ahead of what slates in the past have showcased.

DETAILS:

The Surface Pro comes in with a spec list that at first glace would be more akin to a modern ultrabook with it's Core i5 ULV Ivy Bridge processor and 4GB RAM. It handles the installed Windows 8 OS amazingly well, as to be expected, providing a user experience as best as you would expect for a device that ISN'T either a netbook or notebook. Of course, being that it is a slate, the Surface Pro still doesn't manage to overcome many of the issues netbooks and notebooks simply don't contend with, but I'll touch on those quirks later.

One very big sellling point is definitely the awesome display. The 10.6" 1920 x 1080 IPS screen has to be seen to be appreciated. While it ships with the text size scaled up at 150% as default, taking it back down to 100% presents a Windows desktop experience unlike any other. Images are crisp, text is detailed, and the real-estate easily allows for multiple windows/tabs to be open.

The actual PPI is in fact 207, the highest I've seen so far in a Windows device. It definitely does take time for the eyes to adjust to, but an easy fix for those who can't is to turn the resolution down a notch to 1600 x 900 for 173 PPI. That's still higher than all other 10-11" screens. An interesting side benefit is that it makes it impossible for other people more than 2 feet away to see what you're reading/typing, as at greater distances the screen text simply becomes illegible.

Connectivity is pretty much on par with the Surface RT - you get a single USB port and a microSD slot for expanding storage. I have the 64GB model, which after a few simple software add-ons and the installation of Steam/Civ V gives me around 20GB of free space. It's definitely wise to spring for the 128GB Surface Pro model, especially if you intend to install a comprehensive suite of x86/x64 software, and invest in a 32GB microSD card to store files locally if you aren't already in the cloud.

As with the Surface RT, the design is practically identical save for an additional thickness of maybe 6mm and a half pound additional weight (2lbs versus 1.5lbs). That's a given when you understand the notebook-class hardware under the hood providing the impressive performance, which also leads to some fan noise and heat. Used as a slate, the extra weight/thickness is noticeable somewhat, while in desktop mode it won't matter at all.

PERFORMANCE:

Impressive for a slate by far
This is my first experience with Windows 8, and I wasn't sure if my suite of benchmarking software would work along with my regular productivity tools. My review of the HP Elitebook 2170p already gave me a solid indication of the performance the ULV Ivy Bridge architecture provides along with HD4000 graphics. Save for the newer OS and maybe the higher display resolution, the only variable to affect any changes in my results would be the battery.

Great for productivity and serious work
Multitasking certainly won't be an issue with the wide 1920 display allowing you to open multiple tabs and windows easily. I was unable to take a photo with my camera forcing me to take a screen snipped shown here, basically because the high PPI was more than what my camera's sensor could reproduce without blurring the text! That's actually a good thing, because image quality is extremely sharp and detailed.

Important add-ons you will want
The next thing you will want to do after turning the text size scaling back down to 100% is to get your Windows start menu back and install decent DVD playback software. I did exactly that with Start8 and WinDVD 11. Start8 in particular brings back the familiar Windows 7 start menu allowing you to easily access all the standard Windows tools such as notepad, paint and calculator alongside track all the software you install yourself. With WinDVD, you regain the ability to play VOB files, either via a DVD drive attached over USB or wirelessly if you have your media library stored on a NAS like I do. Neither of these options come free, but they do work very well, and will make using the Surface Pro in desktop mode far more pleasant.

Being that I only have a very limited time to test the unit, I'm going to omit the usual array of benchmark results this time around. I will say that there was definitely no issues installing and running software such as WMEx64 and ArcSoft's Media Encoder 8. Unfortunately, the latter isn't able to harness Quick Sync on the HD4000, likely because MS has chosen to disable it on the system board.

One of my most-used software tools - CEP
Even older software such as Cool Edit Pro runs great on Windows 8 and the Surface Pro. Used in tandem with the Z305 speaker bar attached to the top of the display, it makes for an awesome audio editing and production solution. Add a USB sound card, and you can gain line-in functionality as well for recording from an external source. Of course, there's a critical drawback to deal with as well, but I'll get to that later.

Installing and working with Office is child's-play, and unlike the Surface RT, you get access to Outlook, Publisher and all the other Office and MS software that's been available. Your only stumbling block may be the limited storage, and why I advise picking up the 128GB Surface Pro model and a 32GB microSD card.

One thing that I am extremely impressed with is the functionality of the included stylus. It works great in desktop mode selecting icons, buttons and other smaller things you would need to move the arrow with a mouse/trackball with. Using Windows Journal allows effortless handwritten notes to be taken, which can later be converted to text. While I didn't install OneNote to test with on the Surface Pro, the ability to perform handwriting recognition and work as a paper notepad makes for a very strong usage case. Unfortunately, palm rejection is still lacking, meaning you still need to be careful not to leave marks with your hand as you write. Also, while you can attach the stylus magnetically to the power connector, a silo would make a better storage option as it's easily knocked off from the side.

HEAT AND NOISE:

As for heat and noise, the two fans inside will ramp up whenever a serious load is present. They aren't too obnoxious, but can be heard in an otherwise silent room. My usual testing involves loading up the F@H SMP client, which runs comfortably on the ULV Core i5-3317U. Temperatures peaked at 76C measured at an ambient of 21C. More typical use lowers the CPU to approximately 60C and puts the quiet on the fans.

But that's for desktop use sitting on a desk. Used in your hands in slate mode, don't be surprised if the temps actually rise due to body heat from your hands transferring to the unit, especially when you rest your entire hand on the back.  The casing does act as part of the heatsink being magnesium, so I wouldn't be too surprised if at higher room temperatures, battery charging and being held in the hand for longer periods the unit displays the red thermometer screen and shuts off - I have seen it happen with my unit once already.

Charging the battery also puts off extra heat, and running a full CPU load I've seen will cut off battery charging at around 86% capacity. The way to ensure a 100% charge is to exit any CPU heavy software until the unit fully charges.

BATTERY LIFE:

The supplied 42WH 5676mAh battery is a monster for a slate. Yet even ULV Ivy Bridge, as efficient as it is, still ends up being a power hog. That's just one of the sacrifices (and why I don't get the appeal of) going with a "thin" device - you end up losing vital real-estate for both more substantial battery capacity along with a more effective fan/heatsink.

Since Windows 8 lacks default DVD support, I resorted to installing Corel's WinDVD 11 trial to test VOB playback after moving a DVD folder onto the C:\ drive. With max battery settings and all wireless off, that came in at 3 hours 57 minutes. Turning wifi on in exchange saw 3 hours 13 minutes running Hulu. Those figures are substantially lower than what you'll find on a comparably equipped ULV Ivy Bridge-based notebook. Note that both these tests were run with the keyboard cover detached from the Surface Pro.

For those looking to get real work done, the Surface Pro managed to do just 4 hours 52 minutes surfing the web. When you consider that a netbook of similar size/weight outfitted with a proper SSD can get over 8 hours doing the same job (and cost over $500 less), it leaves me scratching my head as to why certain people keep insisting I should ditch my 210 Mini.

Civilization V runs smooth at 1920x1080
Gaming turned out to be a very pleasant surprise. I was able to run Civ V in 1920x1080 with default graphics settings in DX10 mode for exactly 1 hour 55 minutes with all wireless off on max battery settings. Razer's Edge may have a discreet GPU, but you're stuck at a dull 1366x768 - you just cannot compare the two screens for eye candy (again, excuse my camera for the poor capture). I'm continually impressed by the HD4000 capabilities, yet I think with a more substantial battery and move to Haswell/GT3, we have yet to see the true potential of slate PC gaming.

THE BAD:

Windows 8 itself brings it's own laundry list of issues Windows 7 users have filled the internet with, so I won't really go into those too much. Third party solutions such as Start8/Classic shell and WinDVD/VLC will help to a degree, but I just don't see why such functionality needed to be removed in the first place at the expense of gaining touch UI. For notebooks in particular, I'd be demanding the former in place of the latter, as notebooks have no need for any of the touch UI enhancements whatsoever.

But because the Surface Pro is a slate (that can also work as a full notebook) Windows 8 becomes a mandatory part of the hardware, and how well hardware/software play well together impacts heavily on the end user experience.

One of my biggest complaints in that area is the functionality of the software keyboard. When in Metro UI land it works the same as the Surface RT, popping up whenever you tap in a text field and disappearing when you hit enter. With the desktop mode on the Surface Pro that transition is not as smooth, making you manually bring the keyboard up when you need to input something and x out to make the keyboard disappear.

The headache gets worse with full-screen applications such as 3D games - the on-screen keyboard will refuse to appear at all. I first became aware of this when trying to rename one of my cities in Civ V - the only way to do it was to have the hardware keyboard attached. Considering the bulk of PC games involve some level of keyboard interaction (even titles such as Civ V that have touch UI awareness available) MS really needs to do a better job of making the software keyboard work when running full-screen programs/games. I shouldn't need to have a $100+ hardware keyboard on me because of that.

Eventually you can get it to work
While Cool Edit Pro runs fine, there's a major problem when it comes to your recording options on the Surface Pro. MS have removed the stereo mix feature from the sound driver, meaning you won't, for example, be ripping tunes from the internet (usual workarounds for making stereo mix appear under recording devices don't work). Downloading and installing the Realtek driver followed by a reboot restores the stereo mix option, except that MS will purge the Realtek driver every time it runs Windows Update, making you go back and manually install it every month. That's a huge deal-breaker for me, and I really wish MS weren't so stingy when it comes to providing sound options considering even the cheapest notebooks can do stereo mix as standard. Truth be told, I've never seen this problem running Windows 7 on any of the notebooks I've had in my hands to date, primarily because CEP remains a staple in my software suite that I make sure to install and fully test.

My other beef has to do with the number of USB ports. This is a full Windows 8 device, yet while notebooks offer 3-4 USB ports the Surface Pro provides just one. That severely restricts the use of the Surface Pro in desktop mode. Attaching a small 4-port hub will get around the issue, but it doesn't make it a viable option when moving around, and again, this is an area where my netbook with it's 3 USB ports has the upper hand. The Surface Pro has the real-estate for more connectivity, so I don't see why adding a 2nd USB port along with a full-size SDXC card slot presents a technical challenge, other than that MS is reluctant to altogether break out of the tablet mold and create a true "pro" device that the serious user can appreciate.

A 2.5" SSD offers better write speeds
Taking that same argument, I feel the mSata SSD should be made user-replaceable for folks wanting more storage. Even if you can work around it, the fact that the supplied 64GB Crucial M4 has only average write speeds may want you lusting after something faster. Testing over wifi gave me transfer speeds copying a file from my NAS at a paltry 2MB/s (blame my odd wireless-G setup), while moving a MP4 from an attached USB thumb drive came in at roughly 30MB/s. Again, this wouldn't be a PITA if the chassis wasn't so uber-thin resulting in an impossible to disassemble design.

Sharing the same traits as the Surface RT, the Pro sports the same semi-gloss finish making it a terrible fingerprint magnet. Also, the same type of proprietary power connector makes use of external batteries a no-go, forcing you to carry the AC adapter with you and hunt for an outlet when the fun ends. Again, my netbook is the better solution since I can swap with a spare battery and continue my work.

CONCLUSION:

There's a lot to like about the Surface Pro, but whether you buy (and be happy with) one will depend on how well you can cope with the various negatives. Price aside, this is still a first-gen device, and as history has shown, the next one down the line will always be much better and far cheaper. For those who can wait or don't have a spare grand to burn right now, holding out for Haswell will reward you with improved battery life, performance, and a quieter/cooler chassis.

Taking handwritten notes is definitely a strong point when using the included stylus with Windows Journal and OneNote, yet there's still that nagging issue of palm-rejection MS hasn't addressed. Doing so would make the use case for the Surface RT and Pro grow exponentially.

Given that I'm still quite happy with my netbook purchase from 2011 I won't be keeping the Surface Pro. The $1100 price (128GB model + keyboard) is also a concern of mine, especially when $300 more nets me a high-end 15.6" notebook (HP dv6t) with 8 hours of battery life, quad-core i7, backlit keyboard, same 1080p IPS display, more storage space, Kepler graphics and Blu-ray burner... with Windows 7 installed!!! For a slate purchase, the Surface RT is decidedly the better value, and dare I say the better device, especially for battery life.

That said, if you ARE looking for a viable Windows netbook alternative under 11 inches, the Surface Pro is as good as it's going to get right now, high price and quirks be damned. The over 200 PPI display and CPU/GPU performance alone will win over more than a few buyers. But are these highlights worthy enough to win a recommendation?

It's hard for me to evaluate the Surface Pro as a slate alone, and while I may seem harsh making comparisons to notebooks, you cannot ignore the fact that BOTH the Surface RT and my HP 210 Mini come in cheaper, have longer battery life, and in the case of the netbook get around ALL of the negatives mentioned here. It just wouldn't be right saying that the Surface Pro can do everything that a netbook/notebook can, and then some.

I was really hoping to hand out my first performance slate award here, but there were just too many critical negatives for me to do so. Issues like the stereo mix functionality being ripped from the audio driver are simply unforgivable. If MS fixes these numerous Surface Pro problems I'm happy to give the product a second look. Windows 8 quirks aside, the other improvements needed to make the Surface Pro a truly "pro" device aren't that major, so much so that I'm already penning a future article where I go into detail about a potential spec list for the ultimate x86/x64 slate.

Until then, however, enjoying all the bells and whistles of a real notebook will still require you to have exactly that - a notebook.

NOT RECOMMENDED

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