By Ed Baig
It was hardly flawless, but I found much to admire in the Surface RT tablet computer that Microsoft started selling in October. The very first personal computer that Microsoft produced itself, it was light, sturdy and, as I wrote at the time, an impressive piece of engineering. It was Microsoft's premier showpiece for its radical new tile-based touch-friendly Windows 8 operating system, a machine that could possibly bridge the narrowing divide between tablet computers and traditional laptops.
Except that wasn't entirely the case. Surface RT actually runs a Windows 8 variant known as Windows RT, which means it was incompatible with all of the Windows PC software that came before it. Sure, Surface RT was preloaded with complete versions of Microsoft Office programs Word, Excel, OneNote and PowerPoint (but not Outlook). And other apps were available through an online Windows Store.
But for the many people (including me) who might consider Surface as a Windows notebook substitute, the inability to run old programs was for RT a probable deal-breaker. It meant waiting instead for the Surface Pro tablet that goes on sale Saturday, which does make nice with older software.
The time is near. I've been testing Surface Pro and like it very much, though it, too, is by no means perfect. On the, um, surface, Surface Pro and Surface RT are not identical twins, though you can't help but notice the strong family resemblance. Both have (not overly loud) stereo speakers and front and rear high-definition (720p) video cameras. Both are solidly built tablets encased in a magnesium alloy, with convenient kickstands that enable you to prop them on a desk. Alas, the lack of a hinge attached to the Surface display means you cannot adjust the angle of the screen when it is propped up.
Surface Pro and RT can accommodate clever Microsoft-branded keyboard/cover accessories that add versatility if you want to go into work mode. There's something reassuring about the clicking sound - and which Microsoft highlights in TV spots - when you snap on these keyboards. They come in different colors and there are two main versions: a thin Touch Cover ($119.99) that lets you touch-type passably but without any give on the keys and a somewhat thicker (but still pretty thin) Type Cover ($129.99) that I used to write this column in Word. You'll find the Type Cover experience reasonably close - if not quite as good - as typing on a decent regular laptop keyboard. And you will have difficulty typing with it on your lap.
Of course, Windows 8 lets you summon an onscreen touch keyboard. And the touch environment is what makes the new operating system, and Surface itself, feel fresh and modern. But the very schizophrenic nature of Windows 8 means you're likely to spend a fair amount of time going back and forth between handling the screen with your fingers and reverting to the more traditional mouse/trackpad and keyboard worlds in which you've comfortably lived for years. I adapted quickly but expect it will drive some of people crazy. (I tried Microsoft's optional pocket-size $69.95 Wedge Touch Mouse Surface Edition during my review.)
Surface Pro, unlike RT, also comes with a pen that you can use to draw or write, such as when jotting things down in OneNote. You can magnetically adhere the pen to the tablet by connecting it to the same port where you connect the power charger. I figure it's only a matter of time before the pen goes AWOL. Surface is smart enough to pick up whatever you're writing with the pen while ignoring the movements of your finger that may be simultaneously touching the screen.
The tablet is just over a half-inch thick, compared with a little over one-third of an inch on RT. And at 2 pounds, Pro is heavier than its 1.5-pound sibling but not to the point where it bothered me. Where you do feel the extra weight is in your wallet. Pro versions start at $899, compared with a $499 starting price for Surface RT.
The entry-level Pro unit comes with a mere 64 gigabytes of storage, a sum that is far stingier after you factor in the operating system and other built-in software. Microsoft says tests on final production units show about 30 GB of storage are left for installing your own software and files. (Published reports said the available storage was even lower, but Microsoft claims that was for pre-production models.) The push nowadays may be toward cloud storage - in this case through Microsoft's SkyDrive - but I still like having a decent amount of on-board storage. For $999, you can buy Surface Pro with 128 GB, though, again, the available storage - roughly 90 GB - is considerably less. You can bolster storage through a microSD expansion.
Surface Pro also comes up short on battery life. In my harsh test with the brightness cranked to the max and a movie streaming over Wi-Fi, I got just 3½ hours of juice. That's extremely skimpy for a tablet and not great for a laptop either. In a similar test, Surface RT got six hours. (Neither comes close to the battery life on an iPad.) Expect somewhat better battery performance under less-trying conditions.
So why then do I like Surface Pro so much? For starters, this machine packs a punch. It's got an Intel Core i5 processor inside, compared with an Nvidia Tegra 3 in RT, and it smokes. You appreciate the difference in speed when you run the same apps side by side.
The 10.6-inch full-high-definition display (resolution 1920x1080 pixels) is terrific, with wide viewing angles. I didn't mind the same-size but otherwise lower-resolution display on Surface RT, but it doesn't hold a candle to Surface Pro.
Surface doesn't have a built-in DVD/CD drive, so to install older software that resided on disks, I had to borrow such a drive from a friend. I connected it to Surface via the tablet's lone built-in USB port; a second USB port is on the power connector, letting you, say, charge a cellphone while you're plugged in working. Incidentally, Surface Pro uses a faster version of USB than Surface RT.
I successfully loaded older versions of Family Tree Maker software, Adobe Premiere Elements and Quicken, some dating back to the Windows XP era. Of course, I imagine most folks will load more of the recent stuff they may have on a Windows 7 PC. I downloaded Firefox, iTunes and Office, and they worked fine, though depending on the software, you may not be able to exploit the machine's full touch capabilities. In iTunes, for example, I could tap the screen to make things happen but couldn't always flick to scroll.
Microsoft won't say exactly how many apps are available in the Windows Store. On Surface Pro, Microsoft includes its own apps for Internet Explorer, Bing, Xbox Music and more. It does say that the number has quadrupled since the grand opening back on Oct. 26 and that there have been 100 million app downloads overall. Suffice to say the thousands that are available are a small fraction compared with the tablet apps available for the iPad, still the envy of the tablet universe.
Pardon the pun, though, but Surface vs. the iPad doesn't exactly represent an apples-to-apples comparison. Especially if you factor in the accessory touch cover keyboards, Surface has as much in common with regular laptops as it does with tablets. The ability to run Office alone suggests it is very likely to show up in the workplace.
At the time of my review of Surface RT I indicated that I'd consider it more of a hotshot if it could run older Windows software. Well, Surface Pro obviously can do that, so I'll stick to my word and call it a hotshot. It's blistering fast. The screen is beautiful. It's a solid hybrid between tablet and laptop. But you still have to take to the radically different Windows 8 operating system. And I wish it were cheaper, had more available apps and storage and longer battery life.
E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @edbaig on Twitter.
The bottom line:
$899 on up; www.microsoft.com/Surface
Pro. Fast. Light and handsome. Compatible with older Windows software. Beautiful touch-friendly screen. Clever keyboard cover accessories.
Con. Mediocre battery life and limited storage. Screen can't be propped at different angles. Limited number of new apps. Pricey.