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.
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.
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.
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.
Next page: And the verdict is ...
Poor cognitive skills..
"Not bad at translating scrawl, but failed on the last word."
Perhaps it doesn't have hardwitny in its dictionary
But if you're stacking the Surface Pro up against other Ultrabooks, then the system's cost is within the bounds of sanity.
You're using the absurd cost of Ultrabooks compared to other laptop/tablet solutions as a yardstick of spending >$1000 being sane?
How about "The cost of the Surface Pro is just as insane as that of any other Ultrabook around" as a better tranlation? Nice kit, but at that price it's executive toy territory, or those with more cash than sense.
Comparisons with the iPad are wholly fair even if not an Apples for Apples comparison, because this device is at the very root of it's conception a response to the iPad. To avoid making the comparison is to let Microsoft off the hook and avoid the most obvious measure of success, will this device show the way to reverse the trend in fortune of the Windows PC platform.
The answer is a rapidly emerging and increasingly resolute "no." Not because it isn't an interesting device or well made. Not because it doesn't have strong points. It just isn't a thoroughbred addressing a clear market / use case. IT history is littered with quality devices that, if quality were the only measure, deserved better. The batton of "more than worthy also ran" has passed the hands of Archmedies, Psion series 3 and Revo, Palm and now to Microsoft Surface.
It's worth for a moment considering the circumstances of the genesis of the two devices: iPad and Surface. The iPad emerged after much experimentation and under no real market pressure to release. It was the product of a process if trying and rejecting many different approaches and choosing the one that felt right. For those that know their IT history, though the iPhone came out first, the project it came out from was actually the iPad project with the iPad held back until large touchscreen display prices made it feasible.
The Surface on the other hand, though also built with a laudable degree if commitment to quality and engineering design, is the product, if not in actuality, in spirit, of a bullet point list from a presentation titled something along the lines of "how we respond to the tablet threat." In other words the parameters for it's design for both time to market and political reasons, were cast in stone, long before the many claimed prototypes were produced. This notional presentation would have had to be one that could obtain Steve Ballmer's approval. 'Nuff said.
MS kills netbook market
Then wants to charge you four times the price for something that does exactly the same job and that has a worse keyboard. It's just too expensive.
Blah blah full blown office, god I'm sick of that argument from MS apologists. Only a masochist would torture themselves using Office on a 9.2 inch screen.
Why on earth did MS just not scale up WP8 to a tablet ?
...not sure about the cat picture on page 1...either the camera is crap in low light, or that cat is wearing the latest in stealth ninja fur technology. It just looks like a blob of fur.