Microsoft Surface Pro - Showcasing the Vision

Launch SRP: S$1328

Microsoft Surface Pro: Introduction

 

Update (June 3, 2013): Updated local retail pricing and launch details here, following today's availability in stores.

Showcasing the Vision

The Microsoft Surface tablet probably needs no lengthy introduction from us. Announced in June last year, Microsoft’s very own tablet lineup consists of two models: Surface with Windows RT and Surface with Windows 8 Pro. (Microsoft has since called them Surface RT and Surface Pro, and this is how we'll refer to them henceforth.) The former runs the Windows RT operating system, the latter Windows 8 Pro. This distinction isn’t a mere software choice, but the result of a hardware choice on Microsoft’s part. You see, Windows RT is designed for devices using ARM processors, and Surface RT happens to be running on one NVIDIA Tegra 3 (T30) SoC that packs a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 CPU. On the other hand, Surface Pro features a 3rd-generation, dual-core Intel Core i5 ‘Ivy Bridge’ processor (an i5-3317U part that has a maximum TDP of 17W, to be exact) that’s prevalent in many of today’s Ultrabooks, including Apple’s 11-inch MacBook Air.

Due to the difference in OS, it’s no hyperbole to say that a comparison between Surface RT and Surface Pro is in more ways than one a comparison between Windows RT and Windows 8 Pro. As we’ve highlighted in our Surface RT review, the main limitation of Windows RT is that it doesn’t allow you to run traditional, third-party desktop apps. In addition to the built-in apps, and a few select Microsoft desktop apps, the only other apps that it runs are those from the Windows Store. That means no Adobe Photoshop, no Intuit Quicken, no Apple iTunes, and no World of Warcraft. Now, pause for moment, and think how this affects you.

Being an x86-based tablet that runs Windows 8 Pro, the Surface Pro has no such limitation - you’re free to run whatever your heart desires. Of course, there are tradeoffs. In exchange for the faster processing speed and better software compatibility, you get a thicker and heavier tablet. Also, Surface Pro doesn’t come with Microsoft Office Home & Student 2013 RT, a specially compiled Office suite for devices running Windows RT. As such, you'll have to purchase your own Office 2013 suite or subscribe to Office 365 to get hold of the most used applications. However, beyond this point, it’s all advantage Surface Pro. More and faster storage, more memory, a higher-res screen, USB 3.0 and electromagnetic pen support - on paper at least, the pros seem to overwhelm the cons.

So just like the Surface RT that we personally purchased to review prior its local availability, we did the same for Surface Pro which won't be available until much later. Stay tuned for updates in the near future when Microsoft is ready to sell its flagship Surface product here, but in the meantime, we give you a detailed verdict of what to expect from the Surface Pro from our usage. To start off, here’s a table showing how the Surface Pro stacks up against the Surface RT, specs-wise:

Microsoft Surface Pro vs. Surface RT
 

Surface Pro

Surface RT

OS
  • Windows 8 Pro
  • Windows RT
CPU
  • 3rd-gen Intel Core i5-3317U (Dual-core, 1.7GHz); Intel HM77 chipset
  • NVIDIA Tegra 3 T30 (Quad-core ARM Cortex-A9, 1.3GHz)
Graphics
  • Intel HD Graphics 4000
  • ULP GeForce
RAM
  • 4GB dual-channel DDR3-1600
  • 2GB single-channel DDR3L-1500
Internal Storage
  • 64GB / 128GB SSD (29GB / 89GB available storage)
  • 32GB / 64GB eMMC (16GB / 45GB available storage)
Display
  • 10.6-inch, 1,920 x 1,080 pixels (208ppi)
  • 10-point multi-touch
  • Active digitizer screen
  • 10.6-inch, 1,366 x 768 pixels (148ppi)
  • 5-point multi-touch
Pen Input
  • Digitizer pen (included)
  • Capacitive pen (not included)
Networking & Wireless
  • Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n (2x2 MIMO)
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n (2x2 MIMO)
  • Bluetooth 4.0
Cameras & A/V
  • Front & rear-facing cameras (720p)
  • Microphone
  • Stereo speakers
  • Front & rear-facing cameras (720p)
  • Two microphones
  • Stereo speakers
Ports
  • USB 3.0
  • Mini DisplayPort
  • microSDXC card slot
  • Headphones jack
  • Cover docking port
  • USB 2.0
  • Micro HDMI
  • microSDXC card slot
  • Headphones jack
  • Cover docking port
Sensors
  • Ambient light sensor
  • Accelerometer
  • Gyroscope
  • Compass
  • Ambient light sensor
  • Accelerometer
  • Gyroscope
  • Compass
Battery
  • 42Wh
  • 31.5Wh
Power Supply
  • 48W (with 5W USB port for accessory charging)
  • 24W
Dimensions
  • 27.46 x 17.30 x 1.35cm
  • 27.46 x 17.20 x 0.94cm
Weight
  • 910g
  • 640g

 

 

Design

Design-wise, all the good things we’ve said about the Surface RT still stand. The Surface Pro is very well put together, and it no doubt feels good in the hands. For the latter, the biggest contributing factor is the VaporMg magnesium alloy that Microsoft is using for the chassis. As far as we can tell, the majority of the case is indeed made of magnesium (the darker black stripe across the top seems to be plastic). And the vapor deposition process results in a crusty layer (if you look at the Surface under a microscope) being formed on the surface of the Surface (pun fully intended). What all these mean is that the Surface tablets should be able to withstand the usual scuffs and scratches from everyday use. At the very least, it should be more scratch resistant than an anodized surface. Of course, scratch resistant doesn’t equate to scratch proof. In fact, after using the Surface Pro for a couple of weeks, we began to notice light scratches on the back.  We encountered the same with the Surface RT too. They aren’t of a big concern (for us, at least) and we probably wouldn’t have noticed them if not for the casing’s dark color.

Protip: You can use a screen protector designed for the Surface RT on the Surface Pro. However, if it has a cut out for the ambient light sensor, it'd now be on the wrong side on the Surface Pro. For the Surface Pro, this sensor is located to the right of the camera and camera privacy light, instead of to the left as in the case of the Surface RT.

 

Same Old Question Revisited: Touch or Type Cover?

Like its much maligned Windows RT-running sibling, the Surface Pro has an ‘accessory spine’ for use with peripherals. At the moment, there are only two such accessories, the Touch Cover and the Type Cover. Our verdict of the covers remains the same as what we’ve written in our earlier Surface RT review: if you type a lot, the Type Cover provides a much flatter learning curve compared to the Touch Cover thanks to its mechanical keys with real key travel. Also, despite its name, your fingers simply can’t fly off the keys on the Touch Cover like how they would on a touchscreen. That’s because with the exception of the trackpad, the Touch Cover’s keys are pressure-sensing (instead of capacitive-sensing) keys. As such, you do need to ensure enough pressure is given to each key press, thus slowing you down quite a bit from your natural typing experience.

The above being said, there’s a perfectly understandable reason for going with the Touch Cover; and that’s if you wish to minimize the thickness of the tablet/cover combo. You see, the Type Cover is about double the thickness of the Touch Cover (6mm vs. 3.25mm). Yes, 6mm is very thin for a tactile keyboard, but with the Surface Pro, you’re looking at a total thickness of about 2cm, and that’s substantial. Having said that, if you would like our opinion, go with the Type Cover. The main reason for getting this accessory is to type and you might as well purchase the better option while you're at it - the cost difference between them isn't much.

Protip: If you don't like the feel of your fingers touching the Type Cover's keys when you flip it over to the back of the Surface, you can detach the cover and attach it the other way round. This way, when you're holding the tablet, your fingers will be touching the back of the cover.

Protip: Want to turn off or on tap gestures or scrolling for the Touch or Type Covers' trackpad? Or want to disable the trackpad entirely? Fire up the Windows Store and download the official Trackpad Settings app.

 

The Built-in Kickstand: A Love-hate Relationship

And then of course, there’s the built-in kickstand, which by now has become a trademark of sorts of the Surface tablets (here's a video link if you haven't yet seen the iconic Surface Movement commercial). The kickstand on the Surface Pro is a hair thicker than the one on the Surface RT to accommodate the heavier weight of the former. And while both kickstands flip out and slam shut assuringly, there’s a difference in their acoustics. Yes, just like how some DSLR enthusiasts can differentiate one camera from the other based on their shutter release sounds, we can separate the Surface Pro from the Surface RT just by hearing the kickstand. In short, compared to the Surface RT, the Surface Pro’s kickstand gives a more dampened 'tick' sound when you close it.

Now, while we love the idea of an integrated kickstand, our gripe with it is the same as many others, and that’s it only allows the Surface Pro’s screen to be tilted away from the vertical axis at a 26-degree angle. This tilt is a bit more than the Surface RT’s 22 degrees, but the ergonomic problem remains the same. Because the angle is fixed, to have a comfortable and good look at the screen, it’s very likely that you’ve to either adjust the height of your table (usually impossible), the height of your chair (slightly more possible for office chairs), shift the viewing distance, or any combination of the above. Compare that to a typical notebook, where all you need to do is to, you know, tilt the screen. Furthermore, even though the front-facing camera points upwards so that your face is in the frame during a video chat, at times, the person on the other end may be staring squarely at your chest. By the way, the Surface Pro's twin 720p 'LifeCam' cameras are best suited for video chats; don't expect very good quality photos. We fully expect third-party case solutions for this issue, but then that will render the kickstand useless, which in and of itself is one big reason that makes the Surface tablets attractive in the first place. Fingers crossed that Microsoft can find an elegant way to make the second-generation Surface prop up at multiple angles.

Also, it’s perhaps fair to say the Surface Pro (and the Surface RT) isn’t as easy to balance on the lap as compared to the traditional notebook form factor where most of the components (and hence the weight) are at the base, underneath the keyboard. Don’t get us wrong: it can most certainly be done as it all depends on how you sit. For us however, the fear of inadvertently closing the kickstand and causing the top-heavy screen to topple over is constantly at the back of our mind. If you’re using the Surface Pro with the keyboard cover on your lap, our recommendation is to close the kickstand and lay everything flat. Of course, if you’re on your feet and you need to type, it’s simpler to just hold the tablet with both hands and use the on-screen split keyboard. That said, at over 900 grams, you probably won't be able to hold it comfortably for a long time.

For all these reasons, the slider form-factor UItrabooks are actually very comfortable and versatile to suit various usage positions and scenarios if this is of high priority. These of course have keyboards integrated within the design and thus weigh a more than the Surface Pro without its keyboard accessory. Among the most versatile of these slider form-factor notebooks is the MSI Slidebook S20 that we recently reviewed. The more famous option would be the Sony Vaio Duo 11, but it's screen only slides out for a fixed angle of use.

 

Versus the Surface RT

As you can see from the images above, even if you were to place the Surface Pro and Surface RT side by side, it’s hard to differentiate the two from the front. But the distinctions are immediately obvious when you look at them from the sides and back. With regards to terminal layout, the Surface Pro has, in our opinion, done a better job than its thinner sibling. For one, the microSDXC card slot is no longer hidden under the kickstand, as in the case for the Surface RT. On the Surface Pro, it’s found on the right side, closer to the top; this naturally makes card insertion and removal much easier.

Secondly, instead of placing the mini-DisplayPort terminal next to the microSDXC slot, the Surface Pro has it all the way at the bottom, below the magnetic power port. This makes cable management in a docked scenario simpler. However, there are some people who are concerned about this placement, and for good reason. Because it’s so near to the power port, it has to fight for space with the cable that’s running down from the power connector. So far, that hasn’t posed any problem for us. If you’re worried about the strain relief on the charger’s power tip, one workaround is to connect it upside down, so that the cable runs out from the top instead. Don’t worry, it still charges and powers the Surface Pro just fine; the only caveat is that you now can’t see the LED power indicator on the connector.

And speaking of power, unlike the Surface RT that comes with a wall wart-type AC adapter, the Surface Pro requires an external power brick. But this brick has a built-in 5W USB port meant for charging your USB devices, which is a nice touch. Interestingly, the Surface RT’s lighter and cheaper 24W power adapter is able to maintain the charge of an in-use Surface Pro, and this is good news for Surface Pro users who are thinking of buying another charger for travel use.

Another thing worth pointing out is that this magnetic power port is also where you store the bundled digital pen when you aren't using it (what were you expecting - a storage hole?). While the magnets are fairly strong, there's always a risk of it dropping off when it brushes against something. Also, this means that you've no choice but to detach it from the port when you want to charge the Surface Pro. And oh, you definitely have to remove the pen when you want to connect to an external display, because it obstructs the mini DisplayPort.

Protip: When using the power adapter, check that the LED indicator comes on. We've had a couple of instances where the power connector snapped onto the power port but the light didn't come on, which means it wasn't charging.

Since a picture speaks a thousand words, here are some images to help illustrate our points above:

8.5
Design
8.5
Features
8.5
Performance
8
Value
8
Mobility
8
The Good
Extremely good build quality
Good performance (fast CPU, SSD, USB 3.0)
Supports digital pen input
Option to choose between two keyboards
Acts as the reference hybrid Win 8 device for other brands to measure against
The Bad
Subpar battery performance
Clunky to use as a tablet
Lack of Wintab drivers for digital pen
Couple of software issues still present (Wi-Fi bug, desktop scaling issue)
Not as easy to use on the lap