Review: Microsoft Surface Pro packs punch, steep price [Video]

<i>This post has been updated. See the note below for details.</i>

Windows 8 debuted last year, but it’ll truly arrive Saturday with the release of the Microsoft Surface with Windows 8 Pro tablet.

The Surface Pro is the first Microsoft-branded device capable of running a full version of the company’s Windows 8 Pro operating system. And although it comes in the shape of a tablet, the little device has the power of a full-size desktop.

[Update 2:00 p.m. Feb. 6: An earlier version of this post said the Surface Pro goes on sale Friday.]

The new Surface Pro looks essentially the same as its sibling, the Surface RT, but a few differences in the hardware and a number of new features in the software set the two apart.


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The Surface Pro has the same VaporMG dark metal shell used for the Surface RT, but it weighs half a pound more. At 2 pounds, the Surface Pro is among the heaviest tablets on the market.

The added weight comes from the tablet having a full Intel Core i5 processor. Unlike other tablets that use ARM processors, which are designed specifically for tablets and limit their capabilities, the Surface Pro can run the same type of software that you would use on a laptop or desktop.

Although the Surface RT can install apps only available in the Microsoft Store, the Surface Pro can install programs like Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Word or even a browser other than Internet Explorer, such as Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome. More importantly, the Surface Pro has little trouble running those programs.

We tested the Surface Pro’s capabilities by running the largest-size files we could find. We tried Adobe Illustrator, Microsoft Excel and Microsoft Access, and the Surface Pro opened them quickly and ran them just fine.

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With Surface Pro’s Mini DisplayPort along with either an HDMI or VGA cable and adapter, the tablet can connect to a larger monitor and be used as a desktop, especially if you also connect it to a full-size keyboard using its USB 3.0 port and a Bluetooth mouse. That’s how we used it on one of the days we spent reviewing the device, and it worked just as well if not better than our desktops.

One thing to note: Just like a desktop or laptop, the Surface Pro will heat up and start making noise. On the top side of the tablet, the Surface Pro has an indention used by two fans for ventilation. The device doesn’t get uncomfortably hot or loud, but those are conditions not normally associated with tablets.

Because the Surface Pro is essentially the same as any other computer that runs Windows 8, we thought we’d be able to install and run full-size computer video games. Our assumptions were wrong.

We tried downloading a couple of games, including “Minecraft” and “StarCraft II,” but we could only get “League of Legends” to actually work. The other games had trouble detecting the mouse connected to the tablet. We’re not sure why -- perhaps the games haven’t been optimized for the Surface Pro -- but considering that this product doesn’t come out until Friday, it’s not an issue we’d hold against the Microsoft tablet just yet.

Unlike the Surface RT, the Surface Pro comes with a black pen-sized stylus that easily snaps onto the tablet’s magnetic power connector. The stylus, which doesn’t run on battery, can be used to control the device much like a mouse.

For example, in the tablet’s Desktop mode, pressing and holding the stylus to the screen functions like a right click on a mouse.

The stylus seems to have been built with designers in mind, making it ideal for creating illustrations. Using the free apps “Fresh Paint” or “SketchBook Express,” which are found in the Microsoft Store, users can quickly get to drawing using the stylus.

The tool is also ideal for taking handwritten notes on Microsoft OneNote; the stylus has an eraser-like button that can be used to erase. One of our graphic artists used the stylus to create a pretty neat Batman cartoon.

Apps look great, but many important ones, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, are still missing. Those apps can be accessed using a Web browser, but a lot of other apps and games found on the Apple iPad or Google Nexus 10, including “Temple Run 2,” aren’t accessible.

On paper, the Surface Pro’s display is supposed to be much better than the Surface RT. The 10.6-inch size is the same, but the Surface Pro’s display has a higher, full HD 1,920 by 1,080 pixel resolution.

Video and images, in particular, look great, but in a screen of that size, the quality looks about the same as the Surface RT’s display, which only offers 720p HD.

Overall, we found three issues that could hamper Surface Pro sales.

The first is the same one found on the Surface RT: The lack of free storage that can be used to install apps, stash files, and to download movies and music.

Although the Surface Pro comes in 64-gigabyte and 128-GB models, a lot of that space is used for the Windows 8 operating system and pre-installed apps. In reality, the 64-GB Surface Pro only offers 23 GB of available space and the 128-GB model has just 83 GB of free storage.

Users can expand the tablet’s storage using the Surface Pro’s SkyDrive, which offers 7 GB of space in the cloud, connecting external and flash drives using the tablet’s USB port or memory cards that fit Surface Pro’s microSDXC card slot. Microsoft says users can also expand the storage by deleting the tablet’s recovery partition.

So it’s possible to expand the storage, but when buying something that says 64 GB or 128 GB it’s nice to be able to have something that’s somewhat close to what’s advertised.

Another problem that holds back the Surface Pro is its battery life. Many tablets are capable of achieving nine or 10 hours of battery life from one charge and most laptops can get as much as six hours. The best we could do with the Surface Pro was 3 hours and 35 minutes.

The final issue with the Surface Pro that could scare away potential buyers is its price.

The Surface Pro is not in the neighborhood of other tablets, but rather its price is comparable to that of many laptops. The 64-GB model costs $899 and the 128-GB version goes for $999 -- and that doesn’t include the $120 and $130 keyboard covers Microsoft shows in its commercials for the Surface RT.

And if you want to hook up the Surface Pro to a monitor, you’ll have to pay $40 for the right adapter. At that point, there’s several laptops that cost the same or less and are just as portable.

The Surface Pro is a great machine that wants to and can replace the tablet, laptop and desktop. But it’ll cost a pretty penny.


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