Microsoft Surface Pro £719
27th Sep 2013 | 14:31
The full-fat Windows 8 tablet - now at a lower price
NOTE: This is a review of the 2012 Surface Pro - the 2013 Surface Pro 2 has just been announced and we've got a Hands on: Surface Pro 2 review here. You can also read what we think about Windows 8.1 as well as about the new Windows 8.1 RT-powered, Nvidia Tegra 4-based Surface 2.
The Surface Pro is now on sale in two versions, a somewhat lean 64GB version and a more usable 128GB variant.
We've been waiting quite a while for a tablet like this - and not just since it was announced last year. If you ever saw a Windows tablet PC and wanted one that was done properly, you've been waiting years for Surface Pro with full Windows 8.
What's more, it's now a steal - discounted prices that went into effect in early August are here for good, at least in the U.S., with the Surface Pro, Touch Cover and Surface RT all seeing some slices. What's more, there appear to be price cuts going into effect globally, with the Microsoft UK and Australia websites showing discounted pricing for Surface and accessories.
In the US, for example, a $100 Surface Pro price drop is in effect, meaning a 64GB Windows 8 machine starts at $799. Touch Covers are now $40 off, giving them a new starting point of $79, and a Limited Edition Touch Cover will cost $89.
Surface Pro looks like Surface RT, with the same distinctive look and the same full-size USB port - but it tweaks the iconic kickstand and the clever magnetic connectors for power and the two tear-off keyboards (Type Cover and Touch Cover both work interchangeably with Surface Pro and RT).
It improves on the 10.6-inch touchscreen of the Surface RT with higher resolution and a digital pen you can use to scribble notes on the screen (and snap into the power port for carrying around), but it still has some of the darkest blacks you'll find on any screen.
It's a PC, but it's still a tablet. Do you want it? Depends on what you really want.
If you've seen the Surface RT in the flesh, the Surface Pro looks utterly familiar. The same VaporMg coating over the same sturdy but sleek metal body, the same gently curved corners and wide black bezel, the same subtle Windows logo on the front.
But pick it up and you'll notice the difference straight away. The Surface Pro is thicker - although 13.5mm (0.53 inches) rather than 9.3mm (0.37 inches) isn't exactly bulky - and it's heavier, at 907g (2lbs) rather than 680g (1.5lbs). But the weight is evenly distributed and well balanced so it doesn't feel a lot heavier unless you pick them up side by side.
And inside the case of the Surface Pro, everything is different from the Surface RT, starting with the Intel Core i5-3317U CPU and integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000, which make it a real, powerful PC. Then it adds 4GB of RAM and 64GB or 128GB of storage.
Windows 8 takes up space on the SSD, cutting the available storage down to just 29GB and 89GB, respectively. You can get more space by archiving the recovery partition onto a USB stick and adding a 64GB microSD card (the largest on the market today).
But to put things in proportion, with Windows 8, the default Windows Store apps and Office 365 Home and Business downloaded and installed, and before archiving the recovery partition, we had 28.6GB of space free on our Surface Pro's SSD.
There are only a handful of ports and sockets on the Surface Pro, but again they're different fro Surface RT; on the left is a full-size USB 3 port, the volume switch and the headphone jack.
Windows 8 review
On the right are the microSD card slot (more convenient than hiding it under the kickstand), the magnetic power port (which we'll come back to later) and the mini DisplayPort connector. That's there because Microsoft expects business users to want to connect to monitors and projectors, but you can get cables that connect to your HDMI TV as well.
The other big difference is the screen. Turn it off and it's so black that it's almost impossible to tell where the bezel ends and the screen starts; it's even blacker than the Surface RT screen.
That's important, because the screen is never going to be blacker than when it's off - and most LCDs are more of a dark grey than a true black when they're off. Because there is no air gap between the layers of the screen - even with both touch and pen layers in there - the Surface Pro screen has true blacks. And very little glare.
Turn it on and you get rich, vivid, accurate and not over-saturated colours, and crisp, bright white. Other screens look slightly grey, yellow or pink next to the Surface Pro's gorgeous screen. The 1920 x 1080 resolution is higher than the Surface RT and shines when you're watching videos or looking at photos.
It also makes Windows applications and web pages look utterly tiny, so the default settings crank the DPI up to 150% (oddly, setting the Surface Pro to UK settings knocked that down to 125%).
This makes documents and web pages readable but makes window titles and scrollbars look a little oversized by comparison, so you may want to experiment with tweaking this to a custom DPI setting. Normally we'd say "that's a Windows problem" but given that Microsoft developed Windows 8 and Surface Pro side by side, it would be nice to have seen this look less strange on the showcase Windows 8 device.
It's the only drawback on one of the most beautiful screens we've seen on a PC this year, though.
The top of the case has nothing but the power button. The design here is slightly different from the Surface RT and may account for the fact that Surface Pro doesn't have the same phenomenal Wi-Fi detection. It found only 10 of the 13 wireless access points the Surface RT found in exactly the same position in the office.
There's no 3G or LTE option, but you can use your phone, a mini hotspot such as a MiFi or plug in a USB broadband dongle to get online if you need to. After all (we're going to keep saying this), it's a PC.
Even though this is an Intel Core i5 PC with vents and fans, it's not hot or noisy thanks to the efficient cooling. After running all day the case is barely warm to the touch and we could seldom hear the fan over other office noise, even with demanding games running.
The line of vents runs around the edge of the top half of the tablet, lining up beautifully with the kickstand (the vents stop where the kickstand starts). The line of the vent also makes it easier to feel where the kickstand is so you can open it without looking (there's still a small groove on the left to use if you have no fingernails, and the kickstand still opens and snaps shut with a satisfying expensive-car-door sound).
As on the Surface RT, the Surface Pro's kickstand puts the screen at a great angle for watching movies when you put it down on a table, or for typing or doing a video chat - the angle puts the camera at eye level with your face in view so you don't have to keep looking up.
What about for using Surface Pro as a laptop? Because the Surface Pro is thicker than the original Surface RT, the sides are bevelled at a different angle and the kickstand sits at a slightly different angle as well. It also has two tiny projecting feet at the bottom of the kickstand (each 2 inches wide) and we found the combination made the Surface Pro a little more stable when perched on a knee or lap.
How stable it is depends on how you sit and how long your legs are; if you can get your legs flat and they're long enough for the kickstand to perch on your knee, the Surface Pro is perfectly stable and you can type and tap the screen firmly without it over-balancing. If you prop your feet up, or you're tall, there's no problem.
If you're short and the keyboard and kickstand don't fit on your lap or the chair is the wrong height so your knees aren't at the correct ergonomic angle that keeps them level, you have to sit at an odd angle or risk the Surface Pro tipping backwards or forwards from time to time.
The extra weight of the Surface Pro may also help here; it's very well balanced and doesn't tip as easily as the Surface RT (in particular it's less prone to tipping forward when you move your legs).
A normal notebook wouldn't have that problem - but then you wouldn't be able to rip the keyboard off a normal notebook to turn it into a tablet.
The thicker, sturdier keyboard on a convertible such as the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro or the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix means these balance on your knee like a laptop - but they're also thicker and heavier than a Type or Touch Cover.
Pen, touch controls and interface
Pen and touchscreen
Being able to tear off the cover and use the Surface Pro as a true tablet (albeit a slightly heavier one than most) is what makes it a Surface. This is where the way the weight of the Surface Pro is distributed matters; the battery isn't off to one side like the original Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1, which swung over to one side in your hands.
You can hold the Surface Pro in one hand or two and have it stay at the angle you want, so you can grip it in both hands and type on the on-screen split keyboard with both thumbs or hold it in one hand for web browsing - or taking notes.
Although Microsoft originally told us that the Surface Pro would have a pen that didn't come from either Wacom or Ntrig, what you get with Surface Pro is indeed a Wacom pen, and a top-notch one at that. Unlike the tiny pen hidden in the back of the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro, this is the size of a normal ink pen, with an eraser button on one end and a large button placed comfortably on the side. Click it and you have a right-mouse button with a beautifully positive action.
Some Wacom pens have shallow, flimsy buttons that make it hard to tell when you've pressed them, but there are no such problems here. Turn it over and you can wipe out what you just wrote or drew.
And while the handwriting recognition isn't perfect, it's accurate enough to make notes searchable or to let you write in a URL. The pressure sensitivity makes the pen a joy for working in Photoshop or in natural media painting tools such as ArtRage or Fresh Paint.
If you're using a watercolour brush or a pastel crayon on a textured surface, drawing with your finger gives you a single, solid weight - more like a felt-tip pen or a bucket fill. With the Surface Pro pen, you can stroke lightly to get a thin light, light wash or gentle crayon stroke, or scribble fast and hard to get thicker, heavier lines.
The pen is also very accurate for selecting small icons in a complex interface such as Photoshop (much easier than the small trackpad on the Touch and Type Covers, or your finger on the screen), or for drawing a selection on an image.
The combination of pen and touch makes Surface Pro extraordinarily versatile for drawing, sketching, painting, image editing and note taking.
When you're not using the pen, the side button snaps into the magnetic power port. This holds the pen firmly; we tried carrying it in a backpack (without a slipcase) and running it through an airport scanner (twice, thanks to a cancelled flight) as well as carrying it around throughout the day, and the pen didn't get knocked off.
In an ideal world, we'd prefer to have a permanent place to keep the pen, such as a well in the back of the screen where it would lock in place, because it's too easy to put the pen down when you have to disconnect it to charge the Surface Pro (although the magnet on the keyboard connector is strong enough to grab onto the pen if you don't have a keyboard attached).
It's certainly heavier than an iPad or Surface RT, but the Pro is lighter, better balanced and more comfortable to hold than other Core i5 tablets such as the Ativ Smart PC Pro and the Samsung Series 7. If you've ever wanted a lightweight tablet PC for taking handwritten notes and sketching on, the Surface Pro is what you've been looking for.
Windows 8, like Surface Pro, is something of a hybrid, with the the desktop and the Windows Store apps, touch and keyboard, the control panel and the finger-friendly PC Settings app.
On the Surface Pro, as long as you're comfortable with gestures such as swiping to open the charms bar, switching apps and closing an app you don't want, the two fit together almost seamlessly.
You can swipe across the Start screen fluidly, pinch for semantic zoom, swipe up to get rid of tiles you don't want, snap two apps (including the desktop) side by side - that's great for chatting on Facebook or Skype while you work in two or three desktop apps.
All of this works on any Windows 8 PC with high enough screen resolution, but it works very smoothly on Surface Pro - as you'd expect.
Browser and media
Plus you get the touch-optimised full-screen Windows 8 version of IE 10, which runs only Flash and then only for white-listed sites.
Both share searchable browser history and bookmarks that are automatically synced to any other Windows 8 or Windows RT system where you log in with the same Microsoft account, and you can pin sites to the Start menu or the desktop task bar.
In short, this is Windows 8, and that means you can run Chrome or Firefox or Opera as your browser if you prefer.
You can have multiple browsers installed; the only limitation is that you can only use one full-screen Windows 8 style browser at once; if you make Chrome or Firefox your default browser, you can't run the full-screen version of IE 10.
The Core i5, speedy SSD and fast Wi-Fi mean IE 10 performs well; in fact the browser benchmarks we ran were faster than on the similar Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro.
The 1920 x 1080 screen means you'll want to view most websites at the default 150% to keep the text from being too tiny to read, but the vibrant, accurate colours, dark black and bright white make every web page a pleasure to read.
Turn the screen sideways to see websites in portrait - like a magazine - and swipe with your fingers to get smooth, responsive scrolling.
Multimedia on Windows 8 means the Xbox music and video stores and the Xbox music and video apps.
Or Spotify, Last.fm, Windows Media Player, iTunes, Vimeo, YouTube, BBC iPlayer, 4OD or whatever Windows Store app or favourite entertainment is, because again, this is Windows 8. If you want Windows Media Center, you can buy it online for US$9.99/£6.99/AU$9.99.
Xbox music includes free streaming for a year when you're online (eventually this will include ads) and it has a good catalogue of music, even compared to services such as Spotify.
Pay for the Xbox Music Pass and you can download music, sync it to a Windows Phone (and, in time, iOS and Android phones) or get your own music matched on other PCs you use.
The Xbox Music app remains a little primitive, but the Smart DJ feature is a great way of getting the kind of music you like - and possibly new music in your favourite style.
If you do use Xbox music, the volume buttons on the side of the Surface Pro don't just turn the sound up or down; as soon as you press them a mini player pops up where you can pause or change tracks without going back to the app. These are about a third of the way down the side of the case, and are easy to find with your fingers but don't get in the way when you're holding the Surface Pro in both hands.
Whatever music you listen to, the sound from the speakers on the side is far better than you'd expect from something this thin.
There's not much bass, full volume on unusually quiet tracks can still be a little low and you'll notice a little distortion on louder tracks at full blast. But you can hear your music from across the room or enjoy a movie soundtrack at decent quality.
Xbox video is similarly convenient; you can subscribe to a TV series or rent a movie for 24 hours. And if you have an Xbox, you can send video straight to the Xbox screen to watch.
Alternatively, stump up for a DisplayPort adaptor.
Video is where the 1080p Surface Pro screen really shines.
The truly black blacks and vivid colours give it excellent contrast, even in the darkest areas of a picture, and HD video plays back smoothly and fluidly with superb, crisp detail.
Want to read e-books? Use the Kindle app, or the Nook app, or Kobo or Freda or Blio or any of the other e-reader apps in the Windows Store, where you can also find several good comic readers as well as Audible and other audio book players.
Avoid the books in the Windows Store though; they're mostly either expensive copes of books you could get free from Gutenberg or badly OCRed pirated copies of books we're surprised Microsoft allows in the store at all.
Apps and games
In terms of apps, again, since this is Windows 8, you can install and run any desktop software or game that runs on Windows - or Windows RT.
The Windows Store and the Xbox Games app enable you to explore the categories of apps and games that run on the Surface Pro.
The Games app also enables you to see Xbox Live achievements and friends, or start a game you already have on your Xbox. This uses the SmartGlass app, which turns your Surface Pro into a way to control your Xbox. This is great for browsing the web on a screen everyone can see without struggling to use an Xbox controller to run the browser.
Virtually every app that's available on the for the Surface RT is available on Surface Pro, and they all run faster too.
The CPU is fast enough for decent gaming - and of course you can connect your favourite gaming keyboard or controller - but the integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 Mobile is the limiting factor.
Even so, you can play Portal 2, Diablo III, League of Legends, Civilization V, World of Warcraft and other current PC games at high quality, full 1920 x 1080 resolution and close to maximum detail settings; at worst you'll see the occasional dropped frame.
And casual gaming - including the more demanding games in the Windows Store that can struggle on Windows RT systems - are smooth and fluid.
Taking a photo with a tablet is an act of desperation; it says 'I forgot to bring a real camera but I want this shot so badly, I don't mind how silly I look'.
In keeping with that principle, both the front and rear-facing cameras on the Surface Pro are 1.2MP cameras with poor low light performance.
They take the kind of disposable snaps we expected of camera phones five years ago, rather than the acceptable images you can get by looking silly and using the iPad 4 as a camera.
However they're much better as webcams than for still images, recording at 720p. The extra wide angle of the front-facing camera is great for video chat in Skype, and the colour balance from the Microsoft True Color system and autofocus do better than all but the very best built-in webcams in other notebooks.
The rear camera is good enough to show the person you're chatting with a quick video view from your window.
Battery life and performance
Compared to an ARM processor, the battery life of a PC with a Core i5 in is always going to be disappointing. Initially Microsoft said its Surface Pro would have half the battery life of the Surface RT, around five hours instead of 10.
As usual, whether that's accurate depends what you're doing. On our rundown tests, which keep the screen on and the CPU and GPU running continually, with Wi-Fi and background tasks running, we could run the battery down in a little less than three hours.
But our test is designed to hammer battery life, and you're rarely going to run anything that demanding in real life for as long as it takes to run out of battery.
With the screen at a comfortable brightness for working next to a large window, running multiple desktop programs and Windows Store apps at the same time, with Wi-Fi on and the USB port in use, browsing the web and receiving and sending email, we were routinely able to work for over eight hours.
Adding in the times when we walked away to get a cup of tea or made a phone call and allowed the Surface Pro to go to sleep, on one occasion it was almost 10 hours from unplugging the power to seeing the warning that the battery was so low the system was about to hibernate.
Depending on what you do, this is going to vary the way it does on any other notebook; play movies or browse web pages that use the GPU more, and you'll get shorter battery life. Turn off Wi-Fi and turn the brightness down and unplug USB devices and you'll get longer battery life.
And as you do different things, the predicted battery life will go up and down, just as on any other Windows systems.
So 10 minutes of running demanding browser rendering benchmarks with 55% charge left Windows predicting under an hour of battery life if we kept on running the test. Closing the browser test put predicted battery life back up over two hours, and we were able to carry on working for longer than that in the end.
Think of the Surface Pro as an Ultrabook that just happens to look like a tablet (rather than a heavy iPad that runs desktop applications, say) and it has better than usual battery life.
When you do need to plug it in, the charger for the Surface Pro is a bit bigger than the Surface RT charger, although it's the same neat shape, just with a short, flat power cable.
The extra size is needed to pump out more power, and means that even though Surface Pro needs about 44W instead of the 24W that charges Surface RT, it still charges completely, from flat, in under two hours. In just an hour's charging we were back up to 85% battery life.
Handily, there's also a USB port on the charger, so you can plug your phone, camera and other USB-powered gadgets in to the same charger, which saves space when you're travelling.
If you already have a Surface RT, you can use its charger for the Surface Pro in a pinch. It doesn't charge as fast, but it still charges, which is handy for topping up at home if you keep your Pro charger at work, for instance, or if you don't want to go all the way downstairs to get the charger. The Surface Pro charger will charge the Surface RT as well, getting a full charge in well under two hours this way.
Trying this out shows the difference in the magnetic power port more clearly; the power connector that fits snugly and seamlessly into the Pro power port is just a fraction deeper than the port on the side of the Surface RT.
The combination of the longer connector and stronger magnets in the power port and the slightly different angle at the edge of the case make it easier to get the power connected every time - something that's just too fiddly on the Surface RT.
The magnet is also stronger on the keyboard connector - strong enough that you can attach the pen here, although not as neatly as in the power port. This doesn't just make it easier to snap the keyboard into place, it also means that new accessories using the extra power lines in the connector will attach firmly. We're hoping for a keyboard with an extra battery in, or a docking station.
As you'd expect from a Core i5 Ultrabook that just happens not to have a permanent keyboard, the Surface Pro is fast. It boots in about six seconds, and takes the same time to resume from hibernation once you add that to the power menu.
When running Photoshop and applying complex filters, editing 15GB raw images in Lightroom, rendering HD videos in Premiere Pro, watching 450 fish swimming at 60fps in the FishIE benchmark, the Core i5-3317U in the Surface Pro shows its speed and power.
You'll have no problem transcoding audio and video, running Visual Studio or using modelling and CAD software.
If you've used one of the very latest Core i5 processors, you know what sort of performance to expect from the Surface Pro. If you've used one of last year's Core i5 notebooks, the Surface Pro is definitely faster.
Hands on gallery
Making your mind up about the Surface Pro is less about what it is and what it does and more about what you want out of a tablet. As a hybrid PC it's an undeniable compromise - but that's no bad thing.
But it's a real PC that can run any applications you throw at it, from Flash to Firefox to Photoshop to first-person shooters. You can have all the browsers you want, play video with any codec you want, plug in all your peripherals - and you can do all that on a tablet that's thinner and lighter than just about any Ultrabook.
Plus you can write notes and draw with the precise, pressure-sensitive pen, you can hold the tablet in both hands and type with your thumbs, you can stream free music from Xbox Music and use all the designed-for-touch Windows Store apps.
That adds up to more than you can do on any other tablet - or most PCs - all wrapped up in a stylish package.
Windows 8 review
Windows 8 vs Windows 7: 8 ways it's different
50 Windows 8 tips, tricks and secrets
Windows 8 tablets: what you need to know
Making sense of the Windows 8 versions
All our Windows 8 content
To fit a PC in this form factor, compromises are made, and opinions vary on how much they matter.
The kickstand divides people neatly, and it depends on how long your legs are. If they're long enough for the Surface Pro to fit on your lap with the keyboard on and the kickstand out then you'll like using it on your lap. If you're short, you may have to sit in an odd position to keep it balanced, or you may find it tips over when you have it on your knees.
It's thicker and heavier than anything except another Core i5 tablet such as the Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro, and you wouldn't want to hold it in one hand for an hour while you read an e-book or browse the web.
More than one USB port would be nice too, and there's no permanent home for the pen - you have to take it out of the power port to charge.
And after the long battery life of the Surface RT, eight plus hours battery life - doing real work, with Wi-Fi on - is disappointing. Of course that's excellent battery life for an ultra-thin notebook, so it's all a question of expectations.
Expectations are the real issue with the Microsoft Surface Pro. If you were hoping for something with the power of a Core i5 laptop but the weight and battery life of Surface RT then you need to take another look at the laws of physics and the current capabilities of Intel processors.
It's a lightweight Windows 8 PC that runs all your applications and any browser you want, that you can use as a tablet with touchscreen controls and a fantastic pen, or as a notebook, by snapping on a keyboard.
You're getting a great machine at a reasonable price with the Surface Pro, and if you like the sound of it you'll be cursing the limited stock and the fact it's only on sale in North America at first.