Surface Pro is the world's best Windows tablet, but still can't close the deal
Surface RT was a broken promise. When it launched in October, it showed the world a vision of a revolutionary tablet-laptop hybrid, but it couldn't close the deal. But now we have Surface with Windows 8 Pro, part two of Microsoft's always fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking Surface saga. This is the hardware everyone has been waiting for. Surface RT was the warm-up act, the proof-of-concept, but the good money has always been on Surface Pro, the Surface sibling with PC-caliber specs and a fully functioning desktop.
The good news: Surface Pro is a marked improvement over Surface RT. It has a vastly better display and Ultrabook-caliber components. And thanks to Windows 8 Pro, it can run all the legacy desktop applications that we need for serious productivity. Surface Pro comes much closer than Microsoft's ARM-based RT offering to fulfilling that elusive promise of uniting a tablet and a PC in a single, uncompromised package.
The bad news: Surface Pro doesn't run away with the Windows 8 hybrid crown. And based on your needs, it might not be the best Windows 8 portable you can buy in the neighborhood of $1000. This is a problem because Surface Pro needs to stand out as a kick-ass reference design, and not be just another interesting-but-imperfect hardware option for anyone taking the Windows 8 plunge.
Microsoft is Microsoft, damn it! It owns Windows. Its war chest is huge. If it can't conceive, manufacture, and market the hands-down best Windows 8 hybrid in the world, it's got unfinished business.
Thicker chassis, better display
Relative to Surface RT and the latest 9.7-inch iPad, Surface Pro is thick, chunky, and heavy with palpable mass. Both the new iPad and Surface RT weigh 1.5 pounds and are 9.4mm thick, while Surface Pro weighs 2 pounds and measures 13.5mm thick. The tablet's heft and girth aren't deal-breakers, but I'm disappointed that the engineers in Redmond weren't able to dazzle the world with a truly svelte design. A technological breakthrough along those lines would have made headlines and buoyed the flagging Surface brand.
Still, if you want a handheld tablet and an Ultrabook-caliber PC in the very same molded magnesium case, you'll have to accept some compromises (at least until technology catches up to ergonomics).
Releasing Surface Pro with a Retina-caliber display would have given Microsoft an impressive talking point, but that didn't happen. Nonetheless, the new tablet's 1920-by-1080-pixel, 10.6-inch screen delivers 208 pixels per inch for a level of visual clarity that's practically indistinguishable from that of the latest iPads (whose pixel pitch is 264 ppi). In comparing Surface Pro to my third-generation iPad, I really had to search for visible pixels and differences in display quality, and any deficits exhibited by Surface Pro melted away when the tablet was farther away from my face, and propped on a desk.
Bottom line: A The Surface Pro display is a serious upgrade over Surface RT's 1366-by-768-pixel, 148-ppi screen.
Basic visual quality aside, the Surface family's 10.6-inch screens don't offer enough real estate for complex desktop productivity tasks like image editing. Nor can you comfortably run multiple open chat windows on such a puny display. For these reasons, it's nice that the Pro comes with a Mini DisplayPort, which can drive not only HDMI connections (a trick Surface RT also offers via its "HD video out" port) but any device with a VGA input. The upshot is that you can take your Surface Pro on the road, and connect it to any antiquated monitor or projector you may encounter--a boon if you need to present a PowerPoint deck to a bunch of insurance underwriters in Tulsa.
The Surface Pro didn't have any trouble driving a 24-inch Dell monitor at a resolution of 1920 by 1080, mirroring the two screens at the same resolution. And when I added Microsoft's Wedge Touch Mouse to the mix, the setup handily delivered a desktop experience--save for the lack of a comfortable keyboard, which I discuss below.
Because Surface Pro is a PC-class device running an Ultrabook-caliber Core i5 processor, it faces all the heat dissipation issues that confront a true laptop. As a result, unlike Surface RT with its sealed exterior, Surface Pro has an open grille that runs halfway around the perimeter of the chassis. Inside the tablet, two nearly silent fans dissipate heat through this venting.
During my testing, Surface Pro never felt unusually hot. In fact, I've felt more heat coming from the back of my third-generation iPad at times. As for fan noise, I could hear the blowers only when I put the tablet against the side of my head. It's like raising a shell to your ear in order to "hear the sound of the sea"--inoffensive and ultimately inconsequential.
Ultrabook-caliber specs and performance
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