Microsoft Surface Pro review: Smart almost-laptop nearly gets it right

The "fun factor" is definitely present in the Surface Pro, but there isn't the incredible level of tablet-friendly app support that iOS and Android enjoy. You can run legacy Windows applications on the Surface to your heart's content, but those won't be nearly as touch-friendly.

Speakers, cameras
Audio, conveyed through built-in stereo speakers, sounds adequate but not spectacular. It's better than you'd expect out of a machine this small, however.

The Surface Pro has two cameras, front- and rear-facing, and they're both 720p. No high-megapixel camera is included. That's okay for front-facing Web chat, but for rear camera photos it's a bit of a letdown, even though I can't ever imagine holding a Surface Pro up to take a picture.

Software and security
Microsoft Office does not come preinstalled on the Surface Pro, though it will run the full version of Office as well as any similarly configured Core i5 laptop. You get a bare-bones set of basic software, and that's it. Microsoft does include BitLocker encryption to more safely protect the data on your solid-state drive (SSD), but that's not a feature we tested.

Microsoft Surface Pro Average for category [ultraportable]
Video Mini DisplayPort HDMI or DisplayPort
Audio Stereo speakers, headphone jack Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks
Data 1 USB 3.0, Micro SD 2 USB 3.0, SD card reader
Networking 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth Ethernet (via dongle), 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None None

Ports
I'm comparing the Surface Pro with an ultraportable PC instead of a tablet, because for its feature set and price, that's what you'll be comparing it with when shopping. I don't think many people will choose a Surface Pro over an iPad, but some people might indeed consider it over an ultrabook or 11-inch Windows 8 ultraportable.

Sarah Tew/CNET

And based on that comparison, one of the big drawbacks of the Surface Pro as your main PC is its limited set of ports. A single USB 3.0 port, microSDXC card slot, and Mini DisplayPort are all you get. Granted, having USB 3.0 is better than the USB 2 on Atom-powered Windows tablet-laptop hybrids, but at least those (like the HP Envy x2 ) have two USB ports, plus a normal SD card slot.

Sarah Tew/CNET

There's no Ethernet jack, and not even a packed-in USB dongle, which might be the most bothersome part of all. It means you'd better be ready to live off Wi-Fi. There's nothing technically stopping you from plugging in a USB-based Ethernet adapter, but I found doing so hard to set up. They're not all made alike.

The Surface Pro needs a dock, particularly one with Ethernet. Something small that it can preferably jack into via the same magnetic connector strip that the keyboard covers attach to on the bottom. If the Surface Pro is meant for pros, wouldn't a dock that adds a few USB ports, Ethernet, SD card slot, and HDMI make sense? I hope it happens soon. The Mini DisplayPort's bottom-right position is easy enough to plug a monitor into when the Surface is in kickstand mode, but I'd prefer something more elegant.

Consider that the Acer Iconia W700, another Windows 8 tablet, has its own dock with extra USB ports. I like the Surface Pro's design better, but I have a hard time accepting the lack of a dock.

Configurations
Configuration options are limited: you can either choose 64GB or 128GB of SSD storage, for $899 or $999, respectively. That's expensive for a tablet, but just a small premium over many Windows 8 touch-enabled ultrabooks this small.

The funny thing about the Surface Pro's available memory is that, according to Microsoft, only 23GB of the 64GB Surface Pro's hard drive can be used for user files. That's odd because we only found about 20GB of system files on the fresh-out-of-the-box Surface Pro, which would leave 44GB free on the 64GB version. If true, it would really hamper the use of the 64GB Surface Pro, and practically dictates that you pick the 128GB version instead.

The Surface Pro is a lot different from last year's Windows RT version of the Surface, despite similar branding and looks. The Surface RT had a Tegra 3 processor, less RAM, and a lower-resolution screen, and lacked improved stylus support. (The RT can use capacitive styli like the iPad, but it lacks the pressure sensitivity and palm-blocking technology of the Pro version.)

Sarah Tew/CNET

Performance
Whereas the Surface RT costs $500, the Surface Pro costs $899. But even though they look alike, they're very different beasts: the Surface runs off an ARM processor and uses Windows RT, whereas the Surface Pro has an Intel Core i5 processor and runs full Windows 8, just like a laptop.

The original Surface RT tablet received mixed reviews, largely because of its Windows RT operating system. The Surface Pro is the more significant product, because it makes no computing compromises: it's a strong case for a tablet as your PC, while the original Surface felt more like an iPad competitor. Not only can you use the tile-based Windows 8 interface on the Surface Pro, but you can visit a regular desktop and open older applications, run Steam, and do anything you'd do otherwise -- including Java, Flash, and legacy Windows apps. The Surface Pro connects to monitors and outputs at resolutions beyond 1080p, and you can add Bluetooth and USB 3 peripherals like mice, keyboards, and external hard drives.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The great part of having a tablet with a Core i5 processor and 4GB of RAM is that it's every bit as powerful as a regular ultrabook. On our benchmark tests, it more than held its own, and even matched some Core i7 ultrabooks. The integrated Intel HD 4000 graphics are good enough to run some games on Steam with settings dialed down a bit. They match what's on any current ultrabook without discrete Nvidia or AMD graphics.

As opposed to the dialed-down Atom-based performance on an HP Envy x2 or Acer Iconia W510 , you can open up windows and perform lots of simultaneous tasks with relative ease. The system fans kicks in after a while, and I found the bottom getting hot when using it on a bed, particularly since the wraparound thin vents are on the back of the Surface Pro.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Battery life
If only the Surface Pro had excellent battery life. It doesn't. In our video-playback battery drain test, the Surface Pro lasted 4 hours and 31 minutes, regardless of whether the Type Cover was connected or not. That's not far off from some other high-powered 11- and 10-inch ultraportables, but it's a big step down the 6-hour mark on many ultrabooks. The Acer Iconia W700 lasted more than 7 hours despite having a similar processor. Intel's newer processors coming later this year should result in a more battery-efficient Surface Pro at some point. As it currently stands, the Surface Pro can last you a good chunk of a day, but you'll need to monitor battery life and keep that sleek charger handy (which, incidentally, has its own extra USB charge port for accessories or phones). This qualifies as fair-enough battery life, but disappointing compared with other tablets -- though not totally surprising.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion: Where Windows 8 is taking us via the Surface
We've already seen a number of hybrid and convertible laptop/tablet designs from Microsoft's usual hardware partners, including the Lenovo Yoga 11S , the HP EliteBook Revolve , and the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix , not to mention more experimental gaming-centric devices like the Razer Edge . And, with Intel's newer processors on the horizon , you'd have to wonder whether the Surface Pro could be refreshed to benefit from even more tablet-ready CPUs.

The Surface Pro will compete with those devices and others. But, based on how good that Type Cover is and how good the Surface Pro's screen feels -- not to mention its small size -- the Surface Pro seems well-positioned to rise to the top of the pack. From the moment the Surface was announced, the real killer feature was the Type Cover. The success or failure of the Surface hinges on the ability of that cover to be comfortable and productive. And I think it is. It also draws power from the tablet, never needs recharging, and has a grip strong enough to hold the whole Surface tablet from the cover alone.

Microsoft and the Surface have proven the hardest point of all: that a tablet with a funky keyboard cover can replace a regular laptop, or even a desktop PC. The finer points of needing a dock, finding a better price that includes the Type Cover instead of making it a side purchase, and improving battery life -- and, maybe, slimming down a bit -- will hopefully come in the next iteration. Right now, the Surface Pro works. It's not the most price-logical Windows 8 PC in the world -- for $1,000, I might get an iPad Mini and a cheap Windows 8 laptop instead -- but I think a fair number of people are going to end up being Surface Pro fans.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Load test (average watts)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)

Find out more about how we test laptops.

System configurations:

Microsoft Surface Pro
Windows 8 Pro (64-bit); 1.7GHz IntelCore i5; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Sharedl) Intel HD 4000; 128GB Micron SSD

Acer Iconia W510P-1406
Windows 8 Pro (32-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760; 2GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,066MHz; 747MB (Total) Intel GMA; 64GB SEM64G SSD

Dell Latitude 10
Windows 8 (32-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760; 2GB DDR2 SDRAM 800MHz; 747MB (Total) Intel GMA; 64GB SSD

Acer Aspire S7-391-9886
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.9GHz Intel Core i7-3517U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,333MHz; 128MB (Shared) Intel HD 4000; 256GB Intel SSD

Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13
Windows 8 (64-bit); 1.7GHz Intel Core i5 3317U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 32MB (Dedicated) Intel HD 4000; 128GB Samsung SSD

HP Envy x2
Windows 8 (32-bit); 1.8GHz Intel Atom Z2760; 2GB DDR2 SDRAM 1,066MHz; 747MB (Total) Intel GMA; 64GB SSD

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Where to Buy See all prices

Microsoft Surface with Windows 8 Pro (64GB)

Part Number: CNET-Microsoft-Surface-Pro-64GB Released: Feb 9, 2013
MSRP: $899.00 Low Price: $349.99 See all prices

Quick Specifications See All

  • Release date Feb 9, 2013
  • Resolution 1920 x 1080 ( Full HD )
  • Installed Size 4 GB
  • Color dark titanium
  • Weight 903 g
  • Graphics Processor Intel HD Graphics 4000
  • CPU Intel Core i5 (3rd Gen) 3317U / 1.7 GHz
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