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Hands-on: Microsoft Surface Pro lives up to hype

Forget laptops? If the Surface Pro has any say, tablets may the future of PCs after all.

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LAS VEGAS--While it first might have seemed like laptops and PCs took the year off at CES 2013, there have been a number of notable products that caught our eye. One of them wasn't even on the show floor, or at CES at all.

The Microsoft Surface Pro, alongside last year's Windows RT Microsoft Surface, are Microsoft's self-made Windows 8 tablets, designed to attempt to reinvent computing and provide hero products for Windows 8. The Surface Pro was supposed to launch within 90 days of the Surface, which came out on October 26. We're approaching the end of that window now, and I got my first chance to see the Surface Pro for myself this week. Despite my skepticism, you can color me impressed.

Whereas the Surface cost $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, while Surface Pro has an Intel Core i5 or i7 processor and runs full Windows 8, just like any laptop.M

The original Surface 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 the dream of 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. 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.

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Of course, Windows tablets aren't new. Their limiting factors have been many: inferior touch screens and touch software on older Windows 7 devices, poor battery life, and limited peripheral connectivity have relegated many Windows tablets to being afterthoughts. Even recent full Windows 8 tablets from Lenovo and others have opted for Atom-based CPUs which theoretically add battery life, but limit processing power.

However, in my time with the Surface, it all worked exactly as advertised, and with a extremely elegant, bordering on beautiful, sense of design. The industrial magnesium chassis of the Surface Pro feels solid but not too heavy to hold in one hand. One notable difference between it and the slightly thinner RT version of the Surface is a hairline wraparound vent on the rear that works with internal fans to keep the more powerful CPU running smoothly. The Surface Pro felt slightly warm as I used it, but no more so than a third-gen iPad.

The 1080p IPS 10.6-inch display is one of the best I've ever seen on a small Windows computer. Even better, capacitive multitouch felt buttery-smooth. That's the magic that made the iPhone and iPad so fun to use, and the Surface Pro, in painting programs and a few other apps I tried, felt comfortable to navigate.

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The Surface Pro supports pressure-sensitive styli, and Microsoft has its own Surface Pen Pro that magnetically attaches to the power connector to hold it in place on the go. Writing and sketching felt natural, and palm-rejection technology activates the moment the Surface Pro senses the stylus approaching the screen.

For a spec comparison between the Surface and Surface Pro, see below.

Surface with Windows 8 Pro Surface with Windows RT
Starting price $899 $499
Screen size and resolution 10.6 inches, 1,920x1,080 10.6 inches, 1,366x768
Dimensions (HWD) 10.81 x 6.81 x 0.53 inches 10.81 x 6.77 x 0.37 inches
Weight 2 pounds 1.5 pounds
CPU Intel Core i5 Nvidia Tegra 3
Memory 4GB 2GB
Storage capacity 64GB (128GB option) 32GB (64GB option)
Ports USB 3.0, microSDXC, headphone, DisplayPort video out  USB 2.0, microSDXC, headphone, HD video out 

The Surface Pro starts at $899 for 64GB of storage, or $999 for a 128GB configuration. That's expensive for a tablet, but just a small premium over many Windows 8 touch-enabled ultrabooks this small.

Josh Lowensohn/CNET

Whether the Surface Pro is the best product in its price range will be determined. 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 ThinkPad Helix, not to mention more experimental gaming-centric devices like the Razer Edge. And, with Intel's newer processors coming out 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. To me, 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.

Can a tablet comfortably be your full PC? So far, when it comes to my limited time with Surface Pro, the answer seems to be yes. And that could, in the long run, be the most impactful development in PCs in years.

We'll find out definitively once we have a chance to test the Surface Pro when it ships -- hopefully, soon.

Where to Buy

Microsoft Surface with Windows 8 Pro (64GB)

Visit manufacturer site for details.

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