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Surface Pro Review: From Browsing To Gaming, This Is My Laptop Replacement
When I reviewed the Surface RT, I commended Microsoft on creating a tablet ecosystem that’s worth talking about. It had everything someone needed to have fun, browse, get work done, and edit said work. It’s a businessman’s tablet dream, really. When you look at the iPads and Droids of the world you think of what could be. When you look at RT you see the things you need but then wonder when a lot of the substance will show up like games, media, and other forms of entertainment.
It’s true that RT has a lot of ground to make up but for a relatively new ecosystem, it’s already done a lot of great and shown how useful it can be in a business setting or even at home.
So now enters the Surface Pro wielding a full Windows 8 Pro OS and specs you’d expect from a full laptop. Yet this thing keeps the portable form of the RT version and only sacrifices a bit more width and weight. To put it simply, what Microsoft has done here is pretty amazing.
In this review I’m going to go over the Design, Comparison to other devices, Hardware, Software, Performance, Gaming, and then give it an Overall grade from my experience with it. This is a huge device that has a lot of implications on the future of portable computing so let’s dive right into it.
Just like the RT, the Surface Pro is made with VaporMG and just like the other device it really shines. The casing is subtle and elegant and really wows people when they see and touch it. Nothing here was sacrificed going from RT to Pro. Aside from a bit more weight and thickness, it handles just like the RT in your hands. To be quiet honest with you, I found the RT a bit heavy anyways so using the Pro in my hands felt no different.
There are a few design choices that differ from the RT, though. For one, the MircoSD slot is not featured on the right side of the device and is no longer hidden under the kickstand. Because of this the USB port (now a 3.0 port) is on the left side. These two minor moves actually help the Pro out. Since the power port is still on the right side and given that the Pro can do just about everything your desktop can do, having the power cord and a USB device hooked up on one side could cause some issues. I don’t know about you but I hate tangled cords.
The kickstand actually feels a bit different, too. In spots it is a little thicker which helps its stability and it feels more durable than the kickstand on the RT version. There is also a weird smell that eminates from under the kickstand. That may just be my device but whenever I open and close the kickstand I can smell it for a moment. I have no idea how to describe the smell. It isn’t repulsive nor strong enough to deduct from points from but it’s there.
Aside from that you’ll a small gap going from halfway up on the sides and all along the top edge of the device. This is how the fan inside breathes. What’s really cool is that the Surface Pro senses where your hands are and will relegate the fans to blow out towards clearer space. You should never fear that your paws are boxing in the heat.
All-in-all, the Surface Pro brings what’s best from the RT version and switches some things up that are helpful and keep from clutter. I mentioned in my review for the RT that I enjoyed how subtle everything was on the device design-wise. I still enjoy it on the Pro and although it is a bit heavier and bulkier, when you think about how this device is basically a full computer, I couldn’t really complain about that.
Let’s be honest here. There are a ton of Windows 8 tablet hybrids and ultrabooks out there featuring the same or similar specs that the Surface Pro has. All of the price points are close to each and are between $899.99 and $1299.99. You have a great many of options in front of you if you wish to buy a device like this.
You could hit up the Taichi, Vaio 11 Touch, ATIV Smart PC Pro, ThinkPad, and many other devices. Where the Surface Pro shines is in portability, no vaporware installed, and the lower price of them all for the same kind of usage.
When coupled with a Type Cover, my charger, and a bluetooth mouse it takes me no more than 1 minute to set up shop with the Surface Pro. It takes me the same amount of time to pack up and go on my merry way. While the Taichi features two screens (inner and outer) with a laptop-like inside with a keyboard, the price is higher and the device just doesn’t respond as quick as the Surface Pro.
That’s really the point here. There is something that the Surface Pro does better than the rest of the competition. The Taichi’s screen are slow to respond and wake up. The share screen feature so people can see what you’re doing on the inside doesn’t work very well so the gimmick there fades off quickly. The ATIV Smart PC Pro is a nice alternative to the Surface Pro but the extra screen size and plastic build take away from its design and portability.
In my opinion, the Vaio 11 Touch is probably the best alternative right now to the Surface Pro. It’s a great looking device and the screen is just as fantastic as it is on Microsoft’s device. The Vaio 11 Touch is thicker, heavier, and the keyboard is pretty bad. The smaller keys really hamper productivity on the keyboard and take away from the device as a whole. The Vaio 11 Touch is a nice device but when put up against a Surface Pro with a Type Cover, there’s just no comparison.
For what the Surface Pro does, the form of it, the way the accessories blend in with the device, and how pick up and go friendly it is, it truly is the best Windows 8 hybrid out there for the price and experience.
Now that’s gone over the competition and how the Surface Pro impresses, we’ll touch on what makes the thing run and what’s inside.
The Surface Pro is a complex device. There’s a lot inside and probably nothing tells us that better than iFixit’s repair score of 1 out of 10. This thing is not meant to be opened nor messed with. Dealing with insane adhesive and 90 screws just to get to the hard drive is insane. Microsoft built this thing to last and obviously didn’t want anyone meddling with it.
While that can be bad news for some hardcore users, for most people this won’t even be thought of. It is nice to see that Microsoft kept the included SSD removable but getting to the damn thing is nigh impossible if you plan on putting it all back together for use.
What this means is that we’ll most likely be stuck with the 64GB and 128GB SSD drives unless someone comes up with a sure fire way of opening the Surface Pro, getting to the SSD, replacing it, and putting all back together without shearing a cord. Until someone or some company with a good success rate comes a-knockin’, I suggest you keep this thing closed.
The Surface Pro’s specs are widely known but just for reference you’re looking at:
- Display: 10.6 inch 1080p ClearType HD screen with 208 ppi (1920×1080 native resolution) with a pen digitizer featuring 10-point touch.
- Internal Storage: Either a 64GB (about 30GB free) or 128GB (about 90GB free) Micron C400 mSATA SSD drive
- External Storage: MicroSD slot using either a MicroSD, MicroSDHC, or MicroSDXC card up to 64GB
- CPU: A dual core Intel i5-3317U rated at 1.7GHz (boost to 2.6GHz)
- GPU: An Intel HD 4000 GPU
- RAM: 4GB dual-channel DDR3-1600
- Ports: (1) USB 3.0, 3.5mm headphone jack, Mini DisplayPort
- Connectivity: Bluetooh 4.0, WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n,
- Camera: 1.2mp 720 HD (both front and rear)
What I wrote on the specs should say it all: this display is beautiful. The ClearType HD screen shows everything so vibrantly and although the screen itself is only 10.6 inches you won’t have to worry about being stuck with a small resolution. Not only is the native resolution at 1920×1080 but you can also bring the magnification of what’s display on the desktop down.
After testing out other tablets, hybrids, and ultrabooks the Surface Pro’s display stands out above most of them. Only the retina iPads and Samsung’s ATIV Smart PC line can rival it.
The digitizer on the screen is extremely responsive, too. The included stylus allows for right clicking and erasing but unfortunately only in apps that have been made to use it. Thankfully Microsoft has confirmed that they are working with Wacom to bring over the correct API. I expect we’ll be seeing a lot more Windows 8 apps and even some legacy ones updated to utilize the digitizer better. I enjoy the touch interface with Civilization 5 but if they can someway update it even further to utilize the stylus, that would be amazing. The same goes for other programs like Torchlight 2, Photoshop, and Visual Studio.
Still, having a stylus like this begs you to download things like Sketchbook Express and OneNote. Using the fine tipped stylus on a screen like this is an amazing thing. Think of it like a Galaxy Note tablet done right.
This is easily the worst aspect of the Surface Pro. You can buy the device with either a 64GB or 128GB SSD. The issue here is that you only get 30GB and 90GB to play with and that’s only after you move the recovery partition and do some other magic.
For a device that can be laptop replacement or, in some extreme cases, a dekstop replacement the amount of storage we get here is way too low. 90GB (128GB) should have been the lower tier model and the higher tier utilizing a 256GB SSD to give us around 220GB. I’m sure people would have easily paid an extra $50 or $100 on top of the $999 price tag for that. Instead we are stuck with these low amounts of storage and have to delegate what we put on it and get used to uninstalling things temporarily to use something else. What is this? The PlayStation 1 era where I’m switching saves between Memory Cards in order to keep all of my progress?
CPU and GPU
The Surface Pro comes equipped with a ton of Intel hardware. You’re getting a dual core i5-3317U which is rated at 1.7GHz and be boosted up to 2.6. On the graphics front you’ll be using the Intel HD 4000.
Now, at first glance you’d be thinking “dual core?!” “integrated GPU!?”. However, the performance you get out of these two are most likely above your expectations. While I’m sure we’d all love to see an i7 and an Nvidia card in there somehow, what you’re given does a great job.
The CPU is speedy and I have experienced zero slowdown on any apps on this device. Both desktop and Metro run smoothly. Opening apps and switching between them are flawless.
The GPU plays games pretty well. I have a section coming up for games so I won’t get into that right now but the HD 4000 is no slouch.
Even in hefty programs like Photoshop everything runs smooth and keeps chugging along. You’ll occasionally hear the fan buzzing inside and the heat on the device rises but nothing get out of hand. The heat stays at acceptable levels and never once did I feel that I should stop what I’m doing and let the device chill out some.
4GBs of DDR3 is alright. It does its good and I haven’t had an issue yet. I like how the Vaio 11 Touch includes 6GBs but overall I’m fine with the 4 in the Surface Pro. It does it’s job and it does it well. That’s all you can ask out of memory, really.
Where the hell is the NFC? C’mon Microsoft, this is 2013 and your device doesn’t have NFC? I am strong believer that NFC is something that should be put into all devices and that that should have happened last year. I applaud Samsung for being a supporter of the technology but these tablets and hybrids should be taking full advantage of what NFC has to offer. The RT didn’t have NFC and I was really hoping the Pro would. Alas, I am dissapoint.
Aside from that you get standard fare here. You have your versatile WiFi, Bluetooth, Xbox Smartglass which is so fun and cool to use. On the Pro we also get a USB 3.0 port and a Mini DisplayPort which the RT did not get.
The inclusion of USB 3.0 is great to see as accessories for the format are becoming more and more common, especially with external storage drives.
This is an iffy section. The cameras on the Surface Pro are better than what you get with the RT but they are still nothing to write home about.
I spent some time taking example shots and comparing them to my RT shots and those I took with the Smart PC from Samsung. While Samsung’s device still takes the cake, what I shot looked better than what I got from the RT.
Both front and rear shooters are 1.2mp 720p HD and they both look the exact same. While it’s nice to see constant quality when going from front to back and vise versa, I wish it would have been at a better resolution.
I don’t use my tablets for my cameras but if you’re going to include them, at least put some type of good lens on there. The rear camera should have been at minimum a 5mp shooter.
Still, the front camera does a great work with Skype and other video chat experiences. As far as front-facing cameras go, the Surface Pro has a great one. I just don’t know why Microsoft would think that’s acceptable for a rear (and more important) camera.
The Surface Pro comes with a 42 W-h battery and a charger rated at 48W. Because of the high rating for the charger, you can charge the Surface Pro extremely fast. I went from 20% to 100% in less than 40 minutes.
The battery itself chugs along just like you’d expect a laptop to. I performed three different tests of the battery.
Gaming Battery Test: I was able to get a little more than 2 1/2 hours out of the device. I was playing Diablo 3 at medium settings (shadows off) at 1920×1080 resolution which also requires an always-on internet connection.
Media Battery Test: When I sat there watching movies at full screen I got just about 3 1/2 hours of it.
Casual Battery Test: When I used the Surface Pro to browse, write, send e-mails, listen to music, and all of the normal, casual things I was able to close to 4 1/2 hours out of the battery.
Basically you’re looking a normal laptop performance out of the battery here. It performs very nicely when doing normal computing activities. When you start to use the hardware some, the battery life climbs down.
Thankfully the rating of the charger means you can push the hell out of the device and the charge will still go up. I had a cellphone before where the charger wouldn’t keep charging if I was playing a game on it. That does not happen here.
Also, the Surface Pro will automatically go into hibernation after a set amount of time to conserve battery. Since the device boots back up in about 5 or so seconds, I’d say it works extremely well and I would not turn it off.
This all being said, I wouldn’t leave home with your charger unless you are 100% sure you won’t be gone for long and won’t be gaming on it. The charger fits in most coat pockets so unless you’re deep in the middle of Summer you should have a place to keep it. I’d bring it along just in case.
I have a confusing relationship with the speakers on my Surface Pro.
Most of the time they sound great, better than the RT’s speakers. Then some times they sound lower than they should be. This fluctuation can be annoying but Microsoft has said that an update for volume is on its way so I’m not too worried about it.
Overall the speakers do sound better than the RT version of the Surface.
Coming with Windows 8 Pro, you’d expect this device to be able to do whatever you want. Well, you can – to a point.
The Surface Pro is remarkable in that you can basically do whatever you do on a daily basis with your desktop or laptop. The only time you’re going to run into problems is if you’re trying to run a high-end game at high settings with native resolution. Besides that, I have yet to tax this to the point where I felt limited.
That’s the point I’m trying to make here. You aren’t limited by the Surface Pro if you try and use it as a primary machine. If you have someone in your house so likes to play some games, does some programming, or edits video or audio content and they need something portable, the Surface Pro is a prime choice.
Not only are able to take full advantage everything that comes out on the new Windows Store but you also get the ability to use legacy apps on the desktop. Steam, Photoshop, Visual Studio, Fraps, and all the other major recording, playing, and editing software is going to work on here. Not only do they work but they work very well.
The hardware inside the Surface Pro allows all of these things to install, work, run smoothly, and you can even switch between them without any slowdown. In short, this everything you want a tablet to be able to do.
Since I write and edit images for the site I’ve tried a number of programs including OneNote, Photoshop, multi-person Skype video chat, Steam, Audacity, MovieMaker, Fraps, Camtasia, and Irfanview and all of them gave me zero issues. This is great news for anyone out there with a need for a portable PC that can let them get some work done.
One issue that is present is Internet Explorer being the best and only browser you should be using on the Surface Pro. Until Chrome and the others update for touch interfaces, they just don’t work very well. If you try to scroll down a website you may just wind up highlighting text and pictures while the page doesn’t even move. Stlyus input and mouse work fine but fingers are a bit tricky. Internet Explorer works perfectly no matter what input method you are using and honestly the new IE is pretty damn good anyways.
One of the biggest questions that everyone asked about before the Surface Pro came out was all related to gaming performance. Would the CPU and GPU be able to handle such and such game? Can I play MMOs on it? Can I play Skyrim? Can I play Diablo 3? Can I play Borderlands 2?
Gaming performance on the Surface Pro is actually pretty good. Obviously you won’t be play most games at high settings with some frills on and at native resolution. You’re going to have to get used to games running at lower res, maybe not full screen, at low to medium settings, no anti-aliasing, no V-Sync, and maybe shadows turned off. They aren’t going to look at pretty as on your desktop or high-powered laptop.
However, for the ultra portability you get with the Surface Pro, is it really asking that much to sacrifice some settings?
You’re getting a tablet with optional Type Cover and the ability to use any mouse you want (including the Naga or Logitech MMO mouse). You can play most games between 20-40 FPS if you mess with the settings and some of them still look really good. I run Civ5 and Torchlight 2 are low to med settings with the frills turned off and they still look gorgeous and run at great speeds. Diablo 3 can played with most settings at high or med, shadows off, and at native 1080p resolution and you’ll get anywhere between 20-50 FPS.
That’s really good!
I haven’t run into a game yet that I can’t play without messing with the settings. My next challenge is Dark Souls. However with the experiences I’ve had you can expect the Surface Pro to play most of your games pretty well. The only issue you’ll have is storage space. On the 64GB you most likely won’t be playing MMOs unless it’s just one and that will take up most of your storage space.
Looking at the points I’ve talked about in this review (Design, Comparison, Hardware, Software, and Gaming) you can see that I have fallen for the Surface Pro.
To be able to use this very portable device and do whatever I need to do without feeling limited is a crowning achievement for tablets.
It isn’t the only tablet out there now that can do this but it does do it the best. This is the best tablet out there. This is the best hybrid out there. It’s one of the best ultrabooks out there.
The Surface Pro can fit any of those needs provided you spend a little bit more and get a Type Cover and a mouse. In fact, I implore you to get a Type Cover. The device practically begs to have an attached keyboard and the Type Cover does such a wonderful job. For a mouse, I use the Micrsoft Arc Touch but if you want something that doesn’t have a USB dongle, then you can look at the Wedge or Sculpt Touch.
When I look at the Surface Pro, I think “jack of all trades”. That normally means you can also say “master of none” and while that’s correct, it doesn’t mean it can’t do what you need to do.
I’ve used the Surface Pro exclusively for over a week and I haven’t even looked at my laptop and the only thing my desktop is doing is playing music while I sleep (which the Surface Pro can do, as well). That’s a sign to me that I can use the Surface Pro as my primary computing device without worry. That’s exactly what I wanted out of this thing and it’s performed excellently.
Since this is only the first generation Surface Pro, you can only expect that future versions will be better which is insane to me. This one already broke my expectations and while I have something I wish were there I am very content with this device and I intend on using it every day. To be able to do so without worrying about limitation on something so portable is a win to me.
Great article, by far the most in-depth I've read. while I enjoy my RT and don't care about the applications compatibility, several months usage has made it painfully obvious there's just not enough horsepower there to do what I want.
This review has made me comfortable that the Surface Pro is what I envisioned from a speed and processor - as my goal is to use it not only as a tablet on the couch browsing IMDB, but also for my website design business to upload files, etc. A quick 1 minute in best buy had me almost convinced the Pro could replace the tablet and laptop I was planning on.
Looks like a great machine. Great review, too. Much better than the short ones I read at New York Times, CNET and other places.