Review of Surface Pro

Mar 12th, 2013

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Review of Surface Pro

I just got my Surface Pro a few days ago – albeit I had to import it from US with the help of a friend over there.  I’ve not had it for long so these are initial impressions I will add to later, but so far I am very pleased with it and think it is going to greatly appeal to businesses over here when it is released in UK (I hope Microsoft are reading this….).

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, I have been using Windows 8 on touch devices since it came out, first on an Iconia W500 tablet I upgraded from Win 7 myself, then RT on the Surface since Sept 2012 – so this is really a comparison between the Surface Pro and what has gone before.

Hardware

The first thing you notice when you are an RT user and take the Pro out of the box is that it is a fair bit heavier and thicker than the earlier device.  I suspect, however, that you would not realize this if you hadn’t been a heavy user of the other one.  It weighs in at 900 grams which is just enough more than the 680 grams of the Surface RT (or the 662g of the IPad3) to make you feel the difference.  So as a tablet it is on the heavy side, but by no manner of means unusably so, and I suspect that after a while I won’t notice the difference very much.  It is 1.3cm thick compared to 0.94 for the IPad3 and the Surface RT – but I don’t really find that much of a downside.

Because it has an Intel Core i5 CPU rather than the relatively low powered ARM processor in other tablet devices, it runs relatively hot and has to have internal fans.  In the time I have been using it I have yet to hear the fans come on and it is effectively completely silent.  The vent for the fans is a slim line along the top of the tablet which I would never have noticed if I hadn’t been actively looking for them (this is most of the reason for the extra thickness of the device).  The Pro also feels very slightly warm on the back of the case which the RT does not (although it is my understanding that the iPad 3 gets warm as well).  This is in comparison with the Iconia I had until last year where the fans were on almost constantly and you could use the case as a hot water bottle (I’m not knocking the Iconia btw – it was a nice machine for its time – but shows how quickly technology advances).

The general build of the tablet is very nice indeed and shows the same attention to detail as on the RT model, with the kickstand being a particularly important and well-designed feature considering that this is a productivity machine that is going to be used in laptop mode a lot.  The screen on the RT was nice enough, but the one on the Pro is absolutely lovely – very high resolution and fantastic colour depth.  It has great port specifications for a tablet with a full sized USB 3 port (as against the USB 2 on the RT), a micro SD slot and a mini DisplayPort which can be used to plug it in to a VGA or HDMI device.  For anyone sad enough to have both tablets – the two expensive video cables I bought for the RT are not compatible with the Pro, although it is compatible with any standard mini DisplayPort adapter (although apparently with some of them you have to pare a bit of plastic off the cable to allow for the bevel on the Surface’s port).  I now have it running a 24” monitor and a Mimo USB mini monitor and very nice it looks with them.

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As far as disk space is concerned, there has been a lot of MS bashing around the Surface and inadequate disk space.  I think this is nonsense as far as the 128GB model is concerned.  Out of the box I had 84G free before I installed anything else, and I could have increased this by moving the recovery partition to a USB stick.  Considering that the 128G model is only marginally more expensive that the 64G, I am not sure I would recommend the latter, and this has been borne out by sales of both models, where the 128 has been regularly out of stock.

The stylus/pen that comes with the Pro is brilliant.  Night and day between that and trying to write on the handwriting recognition keyboard with your finger or a standard stylus.

Battery was another issue that came up before the Surface Pro was released and I think this time MS were a little too eager to be honest in their announcements to the extent of under-rating the device.  I reckon that yesterday I had about five and a half hours moderate use (web browsing, Office, music, a few videos) etc out of it.  At that point it was not completely exhausted (but I was) so I put it on charge before it ran out.  I think it might get six hours if you pushed it, and that could be rated as poor compared with premium tablets, but good for an Ultrabook.    It does not have the ‘always on’ feature of ARM tablets where the screen is immediately available when you pull the keyboard back.  Instead it is more like a standard tablet ‘waking up’ where you touch the power button and it takes about five seconds to resume.

As I said in my review of the Surface RT, I am not very keen on the proprietal power adaptor which is not easy to connect to the tablet and seems a bit loose when it does connect.  I’m also not convinced that attaching the stylus to the power connector when not in use is a good idea because it then can’t be used while the device is charging.

So in case I sound negative about the Pro compared to the RT (which I didn’t mean to) here is the really big advantage it has, which to my mind is pretty much the deciding factor for professionals …

Software

I’ve worked with Windows RT including (tut tut) the jail-broken version for some time now and I really like it.  For MUI apps it runs brilliantly; it is fine for Office Home (which is included with the tablet).  As a general leisure device (browsing, music, books, video) and for occasional business use with Office and a web browser, it is absolutely great.   Additionally it can participate in homegroups with other Windows PCs and use Windows utilities like the snipping tool, explorer, task manager etc.  I am not a typical home user – but my 73 year old mother is – and for her it does everything her laptop did and more, in a much smaller form factor and with a much better battery life.  An iPad would just not have done the trick for her because she is a long time Windows user with a need for access to the file system, ability to access shares on file servers etc (without having to jump through hoops to do so).

Strangely, it was not until I jail broke mine and tried to use it in my professional capacity as a tester that I came across limitations with the RT version it which I hadn’t even thought about, but which make me realize how much I need and value the full version of Windows.

Availability of applications.  Professional people and power users need specific applications and these are not generally ones they can chose on the basis of what is available in a company store or select themselves.  They are predetermined by the company they work for, and let’s face it, unless the company is part of the small minority which use Linux or Macs – they are going to be Windows applications.  I think the respective stores for Microsoft, Apple and Google are getting there and may possibly replace desktop applications for many functions, but I don’t think the vast body of professional software which has been built up for Windows is going anywhere in a hurry.   In my professional capacity I have many applications I need which simply only run in the full version of Windows.

Performance.  The ARM processor in the RT Surface runs the applications designed for it very nicely.  It is only when you jail break it and try other stuff that you realize why MS did not allow it because a lot of them run pretty slowly and drain the battery badly.

The huge advantage of the Surface Pro is that it is a proper Windows 8 Pro PC which will run every Windows 7 or 8 compatible application out of the box – in practice most applications written for PCs in the last 10+ years.  I have a Windows experience index on the Pro of 5.61 which beats my 18 month old desktop by a decent distance.

Manageability

Probably most end users and standard geeks won’t care much about this – but having been involved in Corporate IT in a largely Microsoft environment for many years – I think I can say that many Sys Admins will.  The Surface Pro is a standard Windows PC which can be managed like any other through Active Directory and Group Policy.  It has all the security and granularity built up over the last twenty years; it can join a domain; it needs no special software installed on it and doesn’t require IT Teams to install special software on servers or jump through any hoops to get it working or make it comply with internal policy.   To my mind, this is the killer feature that will make IT departments want to run with this device rather than iPads or Androids.

In Conclusion

This week I will be trailing the Surface Pro out in earnest by running it as my primary PC for an external test.  So far it seems to be very fast and I have no real doubts that it can easily complete the task.

But actually – what is this device?  It is not quite a tablet because it is not as light as an IPad and doesn’t have the same battery stats.  It isn’t even really an Ultrabook because the form factor and display are not as good as some of the high end devices available from OEMs like Sony.  So maybe it needs to have a brand new name which would suit it and show it off to its best advantage. Perhaps an Ultratablet?  Not sure it could be sold this way but something along the lines of ‘Surface – 95% of the best tablet and 95% of the best laptop experience’

Anyway – I think both Surfaces are really great.  If I were asked which one you should get then ideally I would say ‘both’.  Here is a picture of mine sitting next to each.

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