Microsoft Surface Pro review
It's been almost a week since the Microsoft Surface Pro landed in the Lint's UK offices, during which time it's seen non-stop use. We've been eager to see if Microsoft - the very creator of the Windows 8 Pro operating system - can set the bar to new heights in the hybrid space. Is the Surface Pro, which has carried with it as much hype and anticipation as recent Apple launches, the go-to Windows 8 portable after a string of so-so third party hybrid laptop-tablet launches or is it all hot air with a big name brand behind it?
What is Surface?
You may have seen an advert on the telly involving attractive people in various guises clipping a keyboard into a tablet in a synchronised, to-the-beat arrangement. It wasn't an insurance advert; you may have swooned "ooh, aah," at its contemporary pitch or you might have been left wondering, "What the heck was that even advertising?" The answer is Surface. Or more accurately at the original air date, the Surface RT - a touchscreen tablet with attachable, magnetised keyboard that runs the lower-spec Windows RT operating system and, within that, apps from Windows Marketplace only.
READ: What is Windows RT?
Surface Pro is a similar prospect yet it's entirely different. You'll just have to eat up that oxymoron. Pro is aimed higher up the laptop food chain as it comes complete with the full version of Windows 8 Pro. That means there aren't the kinds of limitations to applications that can be installed - Marketplace is here, as is a more desktop experience where anything from full Photoshop to Office can be installed. It's a lot like a tablet meets a laptop, or what we tend to term a "tablet PC": something powerful enough to replace plenty of current laptop offerings, but in a smaller and lighter tablet format. Attach the optional keyboard, pop up the rear kickstand and the Surface Pro isn't a million miles away from a portable PC concept.
READ: Windows 8 Pro review
Surface, as a whole, is a big deal. Not because it's a Windows 8 hybrid device - there are stacks of other options out there, such as the Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11S, HP Envy x2, among plenty of others - but because it represents Microsoft's first stab at hardware. That's right, the software giant hasn't dipped its oar into PC hardware in its long history, so Surface is one serious release.
What it gets right
Surface Pro is hip. Right from its box design through to the device itself, everything's been thought out and is well made. That counts for a whole lot in today's world - this is Microsoft, to some extent, looking to take a bite out of Apple's apple. Style, finish, build quality - it's all here.
The solid slab of design has smooth, rounded edges and has gone down the minimalist design route. There's not unwanted branding plastered everywhere across the product - just a subtle Windows symbol to the bottom centre on the front, echoed by a larger faint grey version to the rear kickstand. Flip this out and all the more boring details, product number and so forth are tucked away to the rear, while the support it provides means the device can freestand in an upright position.
Buttons, which are cold-metal to the touch, are sparse: a slender power and plus/minus volume control are all that adorn the Surface's side, but we wouldn't want anything more to get in the way. Ports are equally sparse, with a USB 3.0 port, 3.5mm headphone jack and mini DisplayPort to cater for the ins and outs. When it's time to charge up the Pro the magnetised 5-pin charger pops into place without the need to fiddle it into position. This we like.
The 10.6-inch screen has a 1920 x 1080 resolution touchscreen that's bright, covers a considerable vewing angle and is responsive to the touch. Pixel for pixel it can exhibit crisp full HD content in its relatively small size and the surrounding bezel - which measures around 18mm - frames everything without being obtrusive or to excess. The bezel is a necessity for a touchscreen Windows 8 device, as edge-swipe commands are essential to navigate through the Windows 8 system.
With Windows 8 Pro on board. That's the same as you'd find in a full-on current desktop machine and, as far as operating systems go, this is as contemporary as it gets. A navigable tile screen instead of a start menu to dive into apps, or a traditional desktop space which lives "behind" this navigation, it's a full experience at your fingertips.
If not fingertips, then the included stylus pen can be used to write directly into applications via the screen. It's comfortable to hold, clips into the 5-pin magnet port for storage and feels much like a pen in use. The stylus' tip takes command when near to the Surface's screen so that hand movements don't disrupt flow, while 1,024 pressure levels mean the deft of hand can illustrate with a decent level of control right onto the surface. Adobe Illustrator fans take note.
What it gets wrong
But as much as the full Windows 8 experience has its benefits, it can also be confusing. There are two elements to this: the RT/Pro purchase decision isn't an immediately consumer prospect from the off; while using the Pro has seen us ducking and diving in and out of screens to excess. When it comes to flicking between apps we've found quick key combinations such as Alt+Tab far quicker than messing around with the touchscreen and dirtying it up with fingerprints.
This is, of course, if you happen to have a keyboard. Because the Surface Pro doesn't include one in the box, which we think is a big mistake. You can fork out an extra £99 for the touch keypad or £109 for the type keyboard with fully depressible keys. Add that to the £799 128GB model that's reviewed here and the £908 price point is undeniably high. If you already have a Surface RT then the keyboards are interchangeable, but we don't imagine that many will have both products.
Oh, and when we say 128GB you'll want to be made aware of how little of that space is truly accessible. From start-up the installation of Windows 8 and its associated files eats into many, many gigabytes of space. Before we installed anything - and, take note, this is a loan, review-ready machine where Microsoft's PR team has set up the machine in advance, not a first-use shelf sample - there was less than 85GB of available space. That's 43GB or a full third of the quoted drive space eaten up by apparently nothing. The 64GB device isn't worth buying on this basis alone as there's just not enough storage space for what we would consider ample PC-replacement use. The microSD port will become your new best friend - an optional 64GB card is a must in our view, though that will come in at an extra £45 to the price tag.
We're certainly not pining for a cheap, plasticky load of nonsense though - and Surface Pro can hold its head up high in the build quality stakes. But for the same price point as a similar, if not more powerful, Ultrabook? That's a considerable ask, particularly with the storage limitations.
But the Surface Pro isn't an Ultrabook laptop. Or not quite. It rides the wave between tablet and portable desktop, without ever quite acquiring the full benefits or drawbacks of either. It's a bit on the fence really: the Pro is thicker and heavier than a similar, albeit less powerful tablet competitor, yet as slim and lighter as plenty of Ultrabook competitors. That will work perfectly for some, but others won't want such a chunk in their bags.
We've been using the Surface for a week. It's lived in our carry-around bags for that period of time where it's joined us on short haul flights, outside in the park, at the desk, on the kitchen counter and pretty much everywhere in-between. As a replacement to a 15-inch Macbook Pro the downsizing is significant. We wouldn't therefore accuse the Surface Pro of being heavy by any means, it's just weighty in context to tablets that some may see as similar competitors.
We wondered if the stylus would come into more use, but for our workload it's not often been reached for. We accept it will be ideal for some, but we'd like a couple of things tidied up: first, the plasticky finish isn't great and doesn't match that of the Surface Pro's high-end exterior; second the 5-pin port is the charging port, so there's no way to stow the pen when powering up; third a couple of accidental knocks saw the stylus fly from its magnetised port during transport so it could easily be lost.
Over the period of use we have also confirmed what we thought would be the case with the Pro's battery life: it's okay, but not great. Combinations of screen dimming, power-out energy saving and so forth can help push the longevity of a charge, but use the Pro for a mixture of applications, including more powerful ones, and it'll last out for around 4-hours. Not awful, not great, just somewhere in the middle - but not surprising given the scale and the fact that there's a full Intel Core i5 1.7Ghz processor under the hood of this baby which requires fan cooling.
Finally there's the camera. It's been optimised since the Surface RT was released, but it's still not all that. In many respects we don't care because tablets certainly aren't cameras, but from a face-to-face webcam point of view we'd like to see considerable improvements in quality. It may well be better than the RT, but the Pro's camera still isn't quite good enough.
Surface Pro becomes more than a list of pros and cons after a proper period of use, as much as we've been toing and froing between the highs and lows a week of use has brought with it. Despite its sizeable list of downsides, you know what, we've still enjoyed using Surface Pro as much as, if not more than, similar tablet devices.
Yes it's expensive and it's fatter than a tablet, but then it's a different prospect from the latter. We're not over the fact that a keyboard isn't included in the price, but for a powerful tablet PC it's got a whole lot on offer. Specs aren't something we've got weighed down in throughout this review, simply because the 4GB of RAM and 1.7Ghz Intel Core i5 processor aren't things that can be changed.
Indeed Surface is a locked-down bit of kit. Perhaps too much so, but then that's just how it is. When that comes to reflecting its "Pro" name it goes two ways: while it might well kick an iPad's ass on the power front, it's still less powerful than similar-price Ultrabooks and there's no GPU grunt to speak of. It's not quite at that all-round cater-for-all point just yet.
This is not a five-star product, but it's gunning to be one. We've got qualms aplenty, but there are key points that save the Surface Pro: its excellent build quality and gorgeous screen. As a completed bit of kit - ie, with the optional keyboard attached, it's up there with the best Windows 8 hybrids. But we'd have hoped so, given that Microsoft is the creator of said operating system.
Does the Surface Pro redefine what Windows 8 hybrid devices are all about? It's a bit late for that - we've already seen stacks of products to market from all the major manufacturers, each with their own shortcomings. What Microsoft has managed to do is produce a product that focuses as much on build quality and design as it does core power and usability. That means it'll click just as heartily as its rattling audio-heavy advert does with some users, while others will find it's a little late to the party and instead drift off down the more traditional - and affordable - routes.