Hands-on with Surface Pro, Microsoft’s three-in-one PC

If Microsoft’s goal with Windows 8 is to blend desktop, notebook and tablet, then the device I’m using to type these words is the perfect embodiment of the strategy. Well, maybe perfect isn’t the right word. But it is a relatively smooth combination of those otherwise distinct forms of computing.

This is the Surface with Windows 8 Pro, better known as the Surface Pro, the new version of Microsoft’s tablet, and the first full-fledged computer made by the Redmond company.

Unlike the Surface RT, the ARM-based tablet released by Microsoft three months ago, this is a real Windows 8 machine, with an Intel processor, the ability to run legacy Windows applications, and a noticeably thicker and heavier body.

Surface RT (left) next to the noticeably thicker Surface Pro.

It’s easily the most versatile computer I’ve ever used, shifting quickly from tablet to pseudo-notebook (using one of the snap-in Surface keyboards) and then desktop machine by connecting to an external monitor using the built-in Mini DisplayPort. I’ve been using this review machine on loan for the past several days, and overall I’m pleased with the experience.

There are quirks that Microsoft needs to resolve (see below), but overall not a lot of compromises.

Microsoft’s hope is that Windows users will use the Surface Pro to lighten their load — carrying one device rather than stuffing both a notebook and tablet into a bag. No need to buy a MacBook Air and iPad, as Windows exec Tami Reller says. After using the Surface Pro as part of my daily routine, I believe that scenario will be valid for a fair number of Windows users.

People who have used the Surface RT will notice that the Surface Pro runs hotter, but the system is also noticeably zippier and more responsive, from basic navigation to opening apps and everything in between, thanks to its Core i5 processor. The extra weight of the Surface Pro (2 pounds compared to 1.5 pounds for the RT) is a small trade-off to make for the better performance and ability to run legacy Windows apps.

Surface RT (left) standing next to the Surface Pro.

That said, I ran into some problems, starting with the experience of using the Surface as secondary display in conjunction with an external monitor. The picture at the top of this post demonstrates how I would like to use the Surface Pro — running the traditional desktop (extended from the Surface) on the big screen and using the Surface screen as a secondary display to keep an eye on news, sports, email, etc.

But the Surface screen has this annoying habit of switching away from the Modern UI interface to the traditional desktop whenever I click on the browser or the desktop on the large screen. It depends on the app I’m using on the Surface screen, and it doesn’t happen all the time, but it’s enough to make the experience completely frustrating. I’ve double-checked all my settings and gotten help from Microsoft to make sure I’m doing everything correctly. No luck yet, and most users probably won’t have much patience with this.

A simpler desktop arrangement is the single-screen route — either using the Surface alone or opting for “second screen only” mode in Windows 8 where the Surface is powering the external monitor, with the Surface display inactive. The latter arrangement is not ideal because you’re giving up the touch display on the tablet.

In either case, you’ll want to get a standard keyboard and mouse for desktop use. The TouchCover and TypeCover keyboard covers are fine for limited mobile computing, but in my experience they’re not ideal for extended periods of typing at the desk.

The Surface Pro comes with a digitizer pen that works well for scribbling notes and even better for painting in the Fresh Paint app. Microsoft had the neat idea of allowing the pen to snap into the power port on the side of the tablet, since the machine is generally not plugged in when transporting. Unfortunately, the magnets aren’t very strong, and more often than not I found myself fishing for the pen in my bag or the couch cushions.

Microsoft has tried to make the magnets in the power connection stronger, but unfortunately this remains one of the worst parts of the Surface experience — it’s very difficult to seat the power connector in the port.

On the other hand, one useful addition is a USB port built into the Surface power brick, for charging other devices. This is a nice touch, in line with Microsoft’s goal of reducing the equipment users need to carry around, because it means they can leave other power adapters at home.

Keyboards covers are interchangeable with those for the Surface RT, and they snap in just as well to the Surface Pro.

One of the biggest red flags about the Surface is the reported battery life — about four hours compared with eight for the Surface RT. In my experience, the Surface Pro has actually done better than four hours of battery life during normal usage, although I haven’t conducted exhaustive tests.

Those are highlights from my early impressions. I’ll continue to use the Surface Pro as long as I’m able and publish additional details in future posts.

Surface Pro goes on sale this Saturday, starting at $899 for a 64 GB version without a keyboard cover.

  • victor

    Your review is actually more positive than most of the others I read tonight. And those were coming from people predisposed to MS. Will they get a third chance if Pro doesn’t sell any better than RT did?

  • http://www.facebook.com/SethThomas98 Seth Thomas

    I have a reservation ticket, however after returning my Surface RT I was cautious on the Pro model. After being able to hold the device, experience it’s speed, and view that gorgeous display I’ll be in line early on Saturday. Nice device.

  • Dustin

    can you use the device with keyboard on your lap? Like a laptop? or do you always need to have a desk to set the device on when mobile?

    • http://www.facebook.com/SethThomas98 Seth Thomas

      The type cover works well on a lap. The touch cover is useless.

    • SilverSee

      You can also use it on your lap as you would an iPad–Windows 8 has an excellent on-screen keyboard.

  • http://www.christopherbudd.com Christopher Budd

    Before the usual suspects pile on to accuse you of being a Microsoft shill and anti-Microsoft, I just wanted to say this is the most balanced and useful review I’ve seen. Thank you for that.

    • guest

      Yeah, only on the internet can one person be accused of being a MS shill and anti-MS simultaneously!

  • peterpulmonary

    “A simpler desktop arrangement is the single-screen route — either using the Surface alone or opting for “second screen only” mode in Windows 8 where the Surface is powering the external monitor, with the Surface display inactive. The latter arrangement is not ideal because you’re giving up the touch display on the tablet.”

    or obviously you can use a touchscreen monitor as the second screen only monitor, and use touch on a bigger screen, using the surface type pad when at the desk. when mobile, detach the surface and carry.