Review: Surface goes from amateur to Pro

Microsoft delivers an ultrabook in the sleek guise of a tablet

Last fall, Microsoft shook up the world with the introduction of its first branded Windows 8 device, the Surface with Windows RT. It was groundbreaking in many ways but also had some limitations, notably the fact that it ran Windows RT, a version of Windows that runs on ARM processors and offers only Microsoft's new Windows-style apps and no legacy application support (with the exception of a bundled version of Microsoft Office).

At the time, I found Surface both innovative and useful, but what I really was looking forward to was another version of Surface that Microsoft had announced for 2013. This version of Surface, called Surface Pro, runs on an Intel processor, uses a version of the operating system called Windows 8 Professional and supports not only the new Windows 8 apps but the rich catalog of existing Windows applications and services. It seemed that this might very well be the ideal machine for running Windows 8, combining the benefits of a tablet and laptop and even able to serve as a desktop replacement.

I've been a Surface Pro user for a few weeks now, and what I have found is that it is the best articulation of Microsoft's vision for Windows 8 and how the PC and tablet experiences can meld on one device. But when writing about Surface Pro, it's essential to decide what constitutes a fair comparison. Surface RT was often compared to the iPad, which I think is an imperfect but legitimate comparison. But it doesn't work at all for Surface Pro. It needs to be seen as an ultrabook first and a tablet second. That framework helps justify the price of the Surface Pro ($899 and up), but it also accommodates this device's overall capability. Still, the Surface Pro is not an ultrabook; it's a lot more versatile.

Consider that the Surface Pro is powered by a full Intel Core i5 processor. That's some impressive power. I had no problems running full-fledged versions of programs such as Photoshop and iTunes on it. Of course, all that power comes at a price. Unlike the ARM-powered Surface RT, which has around 10 hours of battery life, Surface Pro comes in at a much more ultrabook-like four to five hours. (Being more like a PC than a tablet has its drawbacks.)

Where Surface Pro really shines is in its versatility. If you spring for the same Touch or Type covers that are available for the Surface RT, it comes closest to ultrabook functionality, with its additional power setting it apart from Surface RT. But it also functions as a pretty good tablet thanks to the Windows 8 user interface. I had no problems running touch-enabled apps for both work and play, and while the app selection is still somewhat limited, it is growing on a daily basis.

The Surface Pro is a little heavier than the Surface RT and slightly thicker, but the care that went into the design makes for a well-balanced machine that seemed to me equally good in either horizontal or landscape mode. There's also a full USB 3.0 port and a display port for video out. Microsoft also includes a digital pen, which, coupled with the Surface's HD screen, makes for the smoothest pen computing experience I have ever seen. One Note has finally received the hardware it's long needed to make it shine. You can even connect the Surface Pro to an external display, turn off the Surface Pro display and use the pen to turn the Surface Pro into a traditional art tablet with full pressure sensitivity. It's a neat trick and will likely appeal to many folks who want that type of functionality.

Microsoft calls Surface Pro a "stage for Windows 8," and that's as good a way as any to describe what it has delivered. And what Microsoft says about Surface Pro is going to matter a lot, given that it has basically delivered a new device category. It's an open question whether Surface Pro will be a hit with consumers.

As it begins the task of selling this new device, Microsoft has expanded distribution from its own stores to retail outlets such as Staples and Best Buy, and it is mounting an impressive ad campaign. But marketing can only do so much. In a case like this, Microsoft will have to actively evangelize and teach the market just what Surface Pro and Windows 8 are all about.

Surface Pro is important, as it serves to raise the bar high for Windows 8 devices while also delivering a traditional, legacy PC experience that will be appreciated by many users. While it might not be the device for the masses, it is the device that points the way for Microsoft's future. It demonstrates the power of integrating hardware and software tightly while declaring that there is room for multiple visions of personal computing in a world increasingly driven by applications and services.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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