Review: Living with Microsoft's new Surface Pro

Is it a tablet? Is it an Ultrabook? It's up to you

Accessorise, accessorise, accessorise

So that's what you get for the $999 our test unit cost – a very high-end x86 Windows tablet and a pen which amounts to something you could conceivably use as an office PC replacement, if you have the monitor as well as wireless and/or USB accessories.

To make it a functioning mobile Ultrabook you can use outside the office, you'll need to get some extra kit that will push the purchase cost over the one-grand price point, whichever model you buy. Your first port of call will be the keyboard.

The Surface Pro has with a choice of two types of keyboards; the Touch Cover for an extra $119.99 and the Type Cover for $129.99. Microsoft also touts three $129.99 Limited Edition Touch Covers for style-conscious individualists, laser-etched with patterns depicting either the Chinese Year of the Snake, a pattern of cartoon skulls, or some tastefully drawn flowers. El Reg would advise not using these in the office if you want to be taken seriously.

Surface keyboards

The serious and the silly choices (click to enlarge)

Since at this time there's no official third-party keyboard market, you're going to have to buy from Microsoft, and of the two types the Type Cover is the logical choice. It's slightly thicker than its cheaper counterpart, but our tests show it to be much more usable for anything other than casual use.

While comparing the Touch Cover to a Sinclair ZX81's keyboard is possibly a little harsh, it's still not a keyboard most people would want to use for serious amounts of typing. While there's some clever control software that makes the keyboard better than it looks, we manage around 60 words per minute on a standard keyboard, and could do barely half on the Touch Cover, even after a few days of practice.

Using the Type Cover, on the other hand, we quickly achieved near-normal typing speeds – it's as good as any low-profile keyboard on the market today. Its touchpad is surprisingly useful, and the whole unit is worth the extra $10 and two millimeters of thickness in order to get something usable.

Microsoft also sells a Wedge Touch Mouse Surface Edition for $69.95. It's a dainty little unit with a 2-by-2.375 inch footprint that has a touch-sensitive sloping top for clicking and scrolling, and that uses the same BlueTrack sensor as Microsoft's bendy Arc mouse, which works on most surfaces except glass.

Microsoft Surface Wedge mouse

A hand injury waiting to happen (click to enlarge)

While the mouse is stylish and easy to slip into a pocket, it's too small for long periods of operation. Most users's hands would be better served by a larger mouse or a trackball. Certainly extended sessions caused this hack's RSI to come back with a vengeance, but for the fashion victims out there it's a nifty little toy.

For those of you without a Mini DisplayPort monitor, Microsoft will sell you adapters for VGA or HD Digital AV connectors for $39.99 apiece, and there's also a smaller 24W Power Supply as a replacement or backup for the Surface Pro's boxed 48W unit.

Out in the field

So at the end of the day, does the entire package work in the real world? To find out we used the Surface as our main work machine for a week. With the Surface Pro costing as much as it does, this system really needs to justify itself as a primary PC, and it came through testing with some very strong points and a couple of niggles.

Firstly, in terms of build quality, this is one of the best tablets out there. Certainly it's heavier than most consumer fondleslabs, and using it one-handed quickly becomes tiring, but it feels solid and reliable, didn't throw a hissy fit at some rough handling, and the VaporMg case is very difficult to scratch. It's also very well balanced – Microsoft isn't releasing internal pictures, but assures us there's a large 42W battery in the dead center of the unit – and it feels like they are right

Microsoft is not releasing battery stats, but we got a reasonable score from the demanding PowerMark 1.2 test, three hours and 25 minutes. That compares to two hours 45 minutes for Lenovo's rival IdeaPad Yoga and three hours and five minutes for Dell's XPS 12 using the same testing suite

In standby mode it's likely you should get a full five days of power – we couldn't wait that long – and the unit powers up from dead in a couple of hours using the standard charger.

Overall it was helpful to keep the charge topped up, but getting more than a day's business use without the charger is perfectly possible if you're not silly about what you do and use power saving modes.

The display is very good indeed, and picture passwords on the touchscreen make life easier. Although the glass cover is fairly resistant to finger oils, it would be worth giving it an occasional scrub.

Screen resolution is excellent, colors are strong, and the Intel graphics can handle most business workloads without flinching, although it's not much good for hardcore gaming. In demos, Redmond showed off the speed with which it handled graphics work, but a workstation this isn't. Nevertheless it should run 90 per cent of the presentations out there – Michael Bay's not included.

The ambient light sensing is responsive and useful, and the Surface is readable in bright sunshine and has a wide viewing angle, which is handy for use with the kickstand. I'm not sure that everyone would use ten-point multitouch, but it's nice to have it, and if you like the Windows 8 user interface there may not be a better machine to have it on.

With regards to the operating system, there are some small changes such as integration of the handwriting recognition system and the software keyboard. Although this build of the OS didn't have it, Microsoft engineers showed us how it works, and it looks very handy, with a reasonably accurate handwriting-recognition capability.


Not bad at translating scrawl, but failed on the last word (click to enlarge)

In terms of processing grunt, the Surface Pro holds up well. There's none of the keyboard lag that some users found with the RT fondleslab, and it handles video well enough. There was some discussion at El Reg about whether using a Core i3 instead of the Surface's i5 would have been sufficient – and more power-friendly – but Microsoft wants this to be a powerful enough machine to handle big-boy workloads. It has succeeded, and the unit's cooling system appears to work well with the increased processing power.

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