Tablets with mobile operating systems like Android, iOS, or Windows RT are perfectly adequate if your tasks centre 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 trade-off. You can get 10 plus hours of battery life, but then you need to use 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 (175mm x 275mm), but at 13mm thick, it’s 4mm thicker than the ARM-powered Surface RT. The screen size is an identical 10.6in, but the Surface Pro's screen has a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 (true 1080p HD). The screen is bright, and Microsoft has done a good job of 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 unit is necessary 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 10.6in, it's a bit more manageable to hold than the larger 11.6in Acer Iconia W700 or Sony Vaio Duo 11. The Acer W700 and Surface Pro both weigh about 900 grams, with the Sony Duo 11 tipping the scales about 400 grams 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 to 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 Covers (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 any issues. Users with eagle eyes will notice that there is a set of contacts flanking the Touch/Type Cover connector – and 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 of the Surface RT. There's also a MicroSDXC card reader, Mini-DisplayPort (HDMI and VGA require separate adapters), and headset jack rounding off the exterior features.
The Surface Pro's power adapter has an auxiliary USB power port, which you can use to charge your smartphone or 3G 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 power adapter included with the Surface Pro, plus it can be used to store the included digitiser pen when you're not charging the tablet.
While most Windows 8 tablets don't come with digitiser pens, their use is common on some older systems. The stylus and screen digitiser on the Surface Pro use Wacom technology, so you can use any Wacom digitiser 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, which is good to see. Aside from Windows 8's standard software build, you'll find a tile for Skype and one for Microsoft Office. Office is not preinstalled, so you can use your company's license if you wish. This left a lot of room free on our 128GB SSD review model, plus users can avail themselves of Microsoft's SkyDrive or other online storage sites to supplement the on-board 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 Tab W510. The Iconia Tab W510 and Envy X2 recorded scores of under 1,500 points on the PCMark7 test, but Ultrabook-class systems like the Surface Pro come out with scores closer to 5,000 (the Surface Pro hit 4,786). Likewise, the Surface Pro motored through our multimedia tests with aplomb, coming in at 1 minute and 28 seconds on the Handbrake video test, and 6 minutes and 11 seconds on the Photoshop CS6 test; both top notch times.
On our battery rundown test, the Surface Pro lasted 4 hours and 58 minutes, neatly boxed out by the Acer W700’s 6 hours and 34 minutes, but that's because the latter has a bit more space for battery capacity. Both are considerably ahead of the Sony Duo 11’s 3 hours and 9 minutes.
The Surface Pro's integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 were sub-par when running 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 x 1,080 resolution. With a little tweaking, other titles like Civilization V should work fine as well.
While the Surface Pro is coming out in the US this weekend, its UK launch date is still unconfirmed, as is the price. Over in the US, the 128GB model reviewed here is $999 minus a Touch Cover, which translates directly to £640 (though the UK price tag will doubtless be more when it is finally announced).
So, let’s pose the big question: Is it worth this sort of money? If you need a very portable tablet that has full Windows 8 compatibility, powerful components, and a 1080p touchscreen, the Microsoft Surface Windows 8 Pro is your tablet. The digitising 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 behaviour in desktop mode (where you run almost all your programs). True, the Acer W700 has a 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 is more usable with fingertips in desktop mode will help save calls to IT support or to your family IT person (although that’s probably you, dear reader, of course). The Surface Pro is the Windows 8 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.
Manufacturer and Model
Microsoft Surface Windows 8 Pro
Windows 8 Pro
1920 x 1080 pixels
Dimensions and Weight
275 x 13 x 175mm (WxDxH), 900 grams
Intel Core i5-3317U
Storage Capacity (as Tested)