1080p Touch Screen with Wacom Pen
Surface Pro has a ClearType 10.6" display with wide viewing angles and 10 points of multi-touch. Colors are natural if a tiny bit less vivid than the Sony Vaio Duo 11 and glare is bearable thanks to the bonded glass that reduces reflections. At almost 400 nits of brightness, it's plenty bright enough for well lit indoor environments, though you may want to disable Windows 8's auto-brightness setting in Windows 8's General settings to see full brightness indoors. That said, Windows 8's auto-brightness feature works better on Surface Pro than other Core i5 Windows machines where it's much too draconian and dim.
Thanks to the 1920 x 1080 resolution on the relatively small 10.6" display, we have 208 ppi pixel density and that means sharp text that's easier on the eyes and you can watch 1080p video without scaling on the internal panel. Yes, it looks very sharp and clear, and once you get used to it, you won't want to go back to 1366 x 768 displays on lower resolution Windows tablets. Likewise, if you're accustomed to Retina iPads, this will look perfectly lovely. The tablet has a mini DisplayPort that can drive higher than 1080p monitors (that's a good thing), and you can get mini DisplayPort to HDMI or VGA adapters as well. Microsoft sells these for Surface Pro for $40 apiece, though you can find other brands for less at Fry's and Microcenter since Apple laptops use the same mini DisplayPort. Speaking of Apple, we didn't have luck with Apple's Cinema Display or their ThunderBolt display, though Dell's high resolution monitors with a DisplayPort did work.
The display is clad in Gorilla Glass 2 and has a Wacom active digitizer with digital pen. The pen is a good size and is nearly identical to the one included with the Samsung Series 7 Slate. It has an eraser (flat-topped rather than the usual rounded top that we prefer) and a side button. The button is actually magnetic so it can clip onto the magnetic charging port on the tablet's side. No, the pen doesn't require charging, it's just a way of securing the pen to the tablet since there's no silo or garage. Artists take note: the included pen's opening is just a teeny bit smaller than other Wacom pens, and that means my collection of Wacom nibs were too fat to fit in the Surface pen. The Surface nib looks to be the same diameter, but apparently the opening for the nib isn't quite as large.
Inking works fluidly and responsively, and we had great results with Microsoft Journal and OneNote 2013. Graphics apps that support the more modern Windows pen API offer up to 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity and the eraser works as an eraser. This includes Autodesk Sketchbook Pro 6, ArtRage 3.5 and Fresh Paint. But those of you who require pressure sensitivity in apps that use the older WinTab driver architecture like Photoshop and Corel Painter 12 are out of luck for now. As is almost always the case (unfortunately) the tablet doesn't ship with WinTab drivers pre-installed. Worse yet, at this point Wacom doesn't have an updated driver on their site for download. Microsoft has stated that they're working with Wacom and Adobe to get WinTab drivers out for the Surface Pro, but we don't have an ETA.
Horsepower and Performance
Though Surface Pro looks like a mobile OS tablet and is the same approximate size as the Surface RT, iPad and Nexus 10 Android tablet, it's every bit a full Windows 8 64 bit computer running Windows 8 Pro. Anything an Ultrabook can do, Surface Pro can do, which is quite an engineering feat given its small size and limited real estate for cooling. The tablet's back is always warm (think of a warm roll that came out of the oven not long ago) but not burning hot. Even when doing demanding tasks like HD video editing or playing 3D games, it doesn't get burning hot and the casing stays below body temperature. The display actually gets a bit warm, which you'll notice since it's a touch screen. When doing productivity tasks and playing video the fans are nearly silent. But stress it with Skyrim and Civ V and you'll hear it blowing like any laptop doing the same task.
The Microsoft Surface Pro is still an Ultrabook with Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics: it's not a gaming rig. That said, we played Civ V at 1080 resolution with low settings and the DirectX 9 Touch UI enabled and it played fine. Skyrim was good at 1366 x 768 with low settings for better than 30 fps, but native 1080p resolution was weak at 20 fps. Older games should play fine as will Windows 8 Metro games, but not Crysis 2 or the latest Call of Duty.
The 64 gig Surface ships with 30 gigs of available storage and the 128 gig has 90 gigs free (we have both models and checked available storage in Windows Explorer). That's in line with other Windows laptops equipped with the same capacity SSD drives as well as the MacBook Air. Repeat after me: this is not an iPad. Windows 8 Pro, bundled Microsoft apps like Windows Journal, Windows Media Player and Calculator take up space. So does the recovery partition at 8 gigs. You can make a recovery USB drive via Windows settings and remove the recovery partition; just don't lose that USB flash drive or overwrite it! We do recommend you get the 128 gig since you can install all sorts of huge Windows 7 programs on Surface Pro. For around 10 percent additional cost, you double your storage and that's a good deal. You can of course use SDXC microSD cards to expand storage, but remember Windows doesn't let you install programs to SD cards, but you can put everything else there.
The Surface pro has 4 gigs of DDR3 dual channel RAM, which isn't upgradable. The SSD is made by Micron and uses the standard mSATA interface, but it's a horrendous chore to open up the Surface. First you'll need a heat gun to soften the heaps of glue that secure the display to the unibody tablet casing. Then you'll have to pry off the display to get at the largely not-upgradable internals. Should the battery wear out, you'll want to send it to Microsoft for replacement rather than trying it at home.
Windows Experience Index (scale of 1.0 - 9.9):
Desktop Graphics: 5.6
Gaming Graphics: 6.4
Primary Hard Disk: 8.1
Benchmark Comparison Table, Windows 8 ULV Notebooks and Tablets:
WiFi and Bluetooth
Though we wish Microsoft had used Intel WiFi since that supports Intel's WiDi wireless display, we don't have any other complaints about the Marvell dual band WiFi 802.11b/g/n module in Surface Pro. It managed good download and upload speeds, even when it fell one bar short of our bigger laptops with Intel wireless (-6 db signal difference). Even better, since it's dual band WiFi, we could take advantage of the 5GHz band, unlike Lenovo IdeaPad tablets and Ultrabooks, to avoid interference with Bluetooth on the 2.4GHz band. That's important if you're using Bluetooth headphones or speakers when streaming video from Netflix, YouTube or Hulu.
Camera, Front and Rear
This will be a short section: the front 720p camera is adequate for Skype video chat and it's largely the same stuff you'll find on other tablets and smartphones. The rear 720p is sad. Clearly Microsoft intended this for video chat use and not much else. While other tablet makers are rolling with 5 to 8 megapixel rear cameras, some with LED flashes; the Surface Pro takes photos and video as well as a 2007 camera phone.
No, this isn't a mobile OS tablet like Android or the iPad. This is a power hungry Intel Core i5 laptop in a tablet disguise and it guzzles. We averaged 5 hours of use in a mix of productivity tasks (MS Office 2013, drawing with ArtRage, social networking, music playback and 45 minutes of streaming video) with brightness set to a very adequate 50% and WiFi on. We managed 2.4 hours of Civ V unplugged and 4 hours of MPEG4 video playback. That's obviously comparable to a Windows 8 laptop rather than a mobile OS tablet like the Nexus 10. But then, this isn't a mobile OS tablet, is it? Standby times were better than average and the tablet goes into a deep sleep state to conserve power (it takes ~ 8 seconds to wake from deep sleep). I honestly hate having to turn my tablets on and off several times each day, and have been happy with Surface Pro's very efficient sleep mode.
The included 48 watt compact brick style charger has a USB port to charge your smartphone or tablet. The 42 W-h battery is sealed inside the tablet.
The Core i5 Competition
When Microsoft announced Surface RT and Surface Pro in the fall of 2012, there was virtually no competition in the Windows 8 tablet and convertible space. Now we have the upcoming $1,500 Lenovo ThinkPad Helix with a Core i5 and two-piece design, the Samsung ATIV 700T transformer, and the Acer Iconia W700 tablet. And in the heavier but sometimes more laptop-like space we have convertibles like the Sony Vaio Duo 11, Toshiba Satellite U925t, Asus Taichi, Lenovo ThinkPad Twist and Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13. It's great to have choices and there are distinct use cases for transformers, convertibles, Ultrabooks and the Surface Pro which doesn't quite fit into any of these camps.
If you want something that can act and feel like a small laptop, convertibles are your best bet, along with the HP Envy x2 if you're willing to consider an Intel Atom transformer tablet. These have better keyboards, more ports and feel more like your main machine rather than a mobile companion.
If you want something that can function as a pure slate, then consider your portability needs. Surface Pro is the most portable, with the Samsung ATIV 700T coming in second. If you can make do with an Atom CPU, the HP Envy x2 also works very well as a slate, as does the Samsung ATIV 500T.
Do you need a digital pen? If so, then the Surface Pro, Samsung ATIV 700T and 500T, Sony Vaio Duo 11 and Asus Taichi 21 are your machines for now (the ThinkPad Helix will also have a Wacom digital pen, but it's not out yet as of this writing).
Do you not need the power of an Intel Core i5 or are your needs lightweight (productivity, MS Office, web, email, video playback and social networking) but your desire for long battery life paramount? Consider Intel Atom Windows 8 tablets and transformers like the HP Envy x2, Samsung ATIV 500T, Acer Iconia W510 or Asus VivoTab TF810C.
Lastly, for those of you who need a Core i5 and extreme portability but not necesarily a tablet, the 2.3 lb. Acer Aspire S7 11.6" Ultrabook with a 1080p touchscreen is worth a look. It lacks the digital pen though, and battery life is even worse unless you clip on the S7's secondary battery.
The Microsoft Surface Pro isn't just novel, though that certainly is part of its appeal along with the sexy design and high quality look and feel. It's a landmark marriage of computing power and portability. The question is: do you need a miraculously portable tablet with the computing power of a Core i5 laptop inside? That's for you to answer, and I know many of you do crave extreme portability on the road. And for digital pen folks, be you handwriting types or artists, the Surface Pro is one of the easiest to hold for long sessions. The Surface Pro is a head-turner, wildly easy to take with you and usable as a laptop with the Type Cover, even if it's not as easy to use in a variety of laptop positions. It's fast, it runs a clean install of Windows 8 Pro 64 bit with none of the manufacturer bloatware that bogs down most Windows machines and battery life is acceptable for a laptop, though not laudable.
Price: $899 for 64 gig and $999 for 128 gig. Touch Cover: $119, Type Cover: $129
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