The Surface Pro and the Surface RT are hardware manifestations of Microsoft’s (or rather, Windows 8’s) idea of ‘no compromise’ computing. To achieve that, Microsoft essentially mixed two interfaces into one OS: the Modern environment (based on the ‘Microsoft design language’) and the traditional desktop mode. As the former is designed for touch, and you get Modern-style apps through the Windows Store, many have come to think of it as being a ‘tablet mode’ in what’s still a desktop OS. And it’s precisely because of this path that Microsoft has chosen for Windows 8 that we now see boatloads of Windows 8 devices with all sorts of form factors, all trying to be a tablet and a notebook rolled into one. The form factor of the two Surface tablets (that is, starting off in a tablet form with the option of attaching a keyboard) is just one of the many ways of doing it.
If you must have a Surface tablet, and are deciding between the Surface RT and the Surface Pro, the conclusion should be easy to reach: it depends on what you need it for. The best way to describe the Surface RT is that it’s a media consumption device that’s capable of getting some serious work done - that is if your work revolves around Microsoft Office. But it stops short of being a full-fledged PC due to its inability to run traditional desktop apps. As such, its usefulness is heavily pegged to what’s available in the Windows Store.
On the other hand, the Surface Pro is best described as an ‘Ultrabook’ that aspires to be a tablet. It’s thicker, heavier, and runs hotter and noisier (when the fans come on) than the passively cooled Surface RT (or any ARM-based tablets, for that matter), but it’s also way more powerful (Intel Core i5 processor, 6Gbps SSD, USB 3.0) and feature packed (1080p screen, digital pen input). More importantly, it runs Windows 8, which means all your favorite desktop apps should work just fine. You see, whichever Surface tablet you chose, there’s going to be some degree of compromise.
If you’re attracted to the Surface Pro for its hybrid form factor, the closest alternative is the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro. It sports very similar hardware specs as the Microsoft tablet, such as the Core i5 CPU, Intel HD 4000 graphics, 128GB SSD, and full HD screen (albeit slightly bigger at 11.6 inches). Unlike the Surface Pro though, it’s bundled with a keyboard dock (actually, the price is already factored in its S$2,199 price tag) that features additional USB 2.0 ports. The dock’s hinge also allows a bit of tilt for the screen; compared this to the integrated kickstand on the Surface Pro which only lets you prop up the device at one angle. Of course, we can also argue that with the optional Touch and Type Covers, the Surface Pro gives its user more options.
It also has to be said that while the Smart PC Pro is a bit lighter than the Surface Pro (890g vs. 910g), it’s quite the opposite when both have their respective keyboard attached. With the keyboard dock, the Samsung tablet becomes an notebook-like device, tipping the scale at 1.6kg, a weight not far off from most typical 11 to 13-inch Ultrabooks. For the Surface Pro, even with the heavier Type Cover, it comes in at a very good 1.2kg. That’s because Microsoft never meant for either cover to act as a base or dock; they’re just screen protection covers with a built-in keyboard and trackpad.
That said, there are a couple more areas that the Smart PC Pro has done better than the Surface Pro, especially for on the road use. One of which is the presence of a SIM card slot for fast cellular data connectivity. This is great for mobile warriors who don’t have easy access to a Wi-Fi connection. And let’s not forget that Smart PC Pro’s battery lasts so much longer than the Surface Pro’s, though that seems to be achieved with a bit of performance sacrifice. For those without easy access to a wall power socket, the Surface Pro’s subpar battery performance is easily the deal-breaker here.
Of course, there are a few things we prefer on the higher-end Surface tablet. For one, the build quality is exemplary. We’ve nothing against Samsung’s use of plastic for the Smart PC Pro’s casing, but it’s no exaggeration to say that if someone were to pick up the Smart PC Pro after the Surface Pro, he would have thought that the former is the cheaper, lower-end product. Also, the Surface Pen is about the size of a regular pen, and this makes it more comfortable to use than the Smart PC Pro’s tinier S Pen (maybe because it’s designed to fit in a silo). For the record, both tablets use Wacom’s digitizer tech, and both their pens support 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity. Unfortunately, the Surface Pro doesn’t come with Wintab drivers by default (the Smart PC Pro does), so advanced features like pressure isn’t supported in many pro drawing apps that rely on the Wintab API out of the box. At the moment of this writing, the workaround is to download and install a newly released Windows 8 driver from Wacom's website; we hope to see it appear on Windows Update soon. Similarly, for the desktop scaling issue (a common problem for devices with a small size but high resolution screen, including the Smart PC Pro) that we've detailed earlier, a software fix will come - it's only a matter of when.
What if you like the hybrid form factor and Windows 8’s ability to run desktop apps, but wanted something lighter and thinner than the Surface Pro, and with better battery life? Then, your answer could be tablets based on the Intel Atom Z2760 ‘CloverTrail’ SoC, like the Acer Iconia W510, ASUS VivoTab/VivoTab Smart, HP ElitePad 900, Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2, and Samsung Ativ Smart PC (the non-Pro version). If it sounds too good to be true, it is. Besides being much slower than the Intel Core i5 CPU, these devices run 32-bit Windows 8, use slower eMMC storage tech, doesn’t support USB 3.0, and usually come with only 2GB RAM and a 1,366 x 768-pixel screen.
At the moment, it’s not possible to build a truly no compromise device, but Microsoft has made the first step with the Surface Pro - and what a good first attempt it is. The next-generation Surface Pro using Intel’s Haswell platform will bring us closer to that vision.
(The Surface Pro is currently available in the U.S. for US$899 (64GB) and US$999 (128GB). It will launch in Singapore before the end of June.)
Update (June 3, 2013): For those unaware, the Surface Pro will go sale today June 3 at 20 major Challenger retail stores around the Singapore island. In addition, it will also be retailing at several Harvey Norman and Newstead stores. The 64GB edition is priced at S$1,198; the 128GB edition at S$1,328. Pricing of the accessories and launch promotion details can be found in the news article linked to above.