Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you’ve no doubt seen the ubiquitous advertisements for Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet computer. You know the commercials I’m talking about. The ones that feature a good looking group of young people dancing around the boardroom while snapping the device’s removable keyboard into place with a distinctive “click.” Those advertisements would lead you to believe that the Surface is a device capable of handling the full workload of a laptop while still offering the convenience and simplicity of a tablet — which if true would make it the Holy Grail of travel devices. I recently had the opportunity to put a Surface Pro model to the test on two very different road trips and I can tell you that it (mostly) lives up to its billing. The device really is unlike any other I’ve ever used and it has the potential to make many road warriors very happy.
Before I dive too far into the performance of the Surface Pro it is important to point out that Microsoft has released two versions of the tablet. In addition to the Pro model there is also the Surface RT, which runs a stripped down version of Windows 8, which comes with a few compromises. For instance, it can only run apps specifically made for Windows RT, while the Pro model can run any Windows software that you care to install. The RT also has a less powerful processor as well, but it makes up for it with longer battery life, a thinner and lighter design and a smaller price tag. Since I haven’t had the opportunity to use a Surface RT for any length of time, this review is based off the Surface Pro, which is a considerably more powerful device. In simplified terms the RT is a tablet with laptop aspirations while the Pro is a laptop wrapped in tablet form.The Surface Pro comes in two configurations, one with 64GB of storage and the other with 128GB. It features an Intel Core i5 processor and a beautiful 10.6″ full-HD, multi-touch screen capable of generating resolutions up to 1920×1080. It also has 4GB of on board RAM, front and rear-facing cameras and an array of ports including USB and a microSD card reader. A built-in kickstand allows you to prop the device up on any flat surface while a set of internal gyroscopes and accelerometers orient the screen from portrait and landscape modes. The entire system weighs in at about two pounds, which is a bit on the heavy side for a tablet, but fairly light for a laptop.
One of the things that struck me when I first took the Surface out of its box was just how solid and durable it felt. Its case is built from VaporMg, a special type of liquid metal that Microsoft created specifically for the device. The material is lightweight, rugged and looks great too. I recently took the Surface Pro on a backpacking trip to Australia and the device held up very well to the abuse of travel. In fact, I never once felt that the tablet was in danger and it returned home without so much of a scratch on it thanks in large part to its VaporMg casing. If you often find yourself carrying your laptop into some demanding and difficult environments, the Surface may be the alternative you are looking for. Chances are it is both tougher and lighter than what you travel with today.
In terms of performance, the Surface Pro is fast and smooth, running Windows 8 exceptionally well. In fact, it feels like the touch-focused OS was made specifically for the tablet incorporating gestures, swipes and taps to accomplish all kinds of different tasks. Windows 8 apps extend the functionality of the device even further but the real strength of the Surface is its ability to run any other piece of Windows software as well. While the iPad and Android tablets are restricted to running only the software available in their respective app stores, the Surface Pro is capable of running off the shelf software that you find anywhere, including a full version of Microsoft Office. This is a huge advantage over other similar devices and one that should not be ignored by those who need to be productive while on the road but still want to carry a compact device.
One of the distinguishing traits of the Surface tablet is its keyboard, of which there are two versions available, both of which also serve as protective covers. The Touch Cover is lightweight, flexible and features soft keys, while the Type Cover is a little thicker and heavier, but has keys that are much closer to what you’d find on a notebook. Both versions lock into place by connecting to a special magnetic port on the bottom of the tablet and when used in conjunction with the Surface’s kickstand, the transformation to a laptop is complete. Both keyboards take a bit of practice to get accustomed to, but after spending a little time with them, I was able to type surprisingly well. My personal preference leaned toward the Type keyboard, which was so easy to adapt to that I almost forgot that I was using a tablet and not a true notebook. Inexplicably, the less expensive Surface RT includes a Touch Cover out of the box but it is an additional purchase with the Surface Pro, raising the price by $120. The Type Cover will set you back $10 more but is well worth it if you intend to do any serious typing on the tablet.
The Surface Pro has a few more tricks up its sleeve to help separate it from both the RT model and the competition as well. For instance, it has a built-in Wacom digitizer that works with an included pressure sensitive stylus pen that allows the device to actually recognize the user’s handwriting and convert it to text. It takes a little practice to learn how to use this feature but it can be great for taking notes in meetings or classes. Handwriting recognition has been a part of Microsoft’s tablet operating systems for years and it shows. The feature is robust, mature and surprisingly useful once you actually become accustomed to using it.
My one complaint has to do with the hardware rather than the software. The Surface has a port along its right side that serves the dual purpose of both charging the tablet via the AC adapter and holding the pen in place when it is not being used. Unfortunately that means you can’t have the stylus there at the same time as the device is being charged. I also lost the pen at the bottom of my bag on more than one occasion when it became dislodged from its cradle as I put the Surface away. Fortunately, I haven’t lost the pen altogether, although it seems like it would be easy to do. I would have much preferred a dedicated slot for holding the pen that is more secure.
One of the key features of any decent tablet is great battery life. The iPad is capable of 10+ hours of use out of a single charge and many Android tablets are in the 8-10 hour category as well. The Surface Pro doesn’t come anywhere near that, averaging about 5.5 hours of use in my testing. That isn’t great when you view it simply as a tablet, but if you instead consider it a laptop with some tablet capabilities it puts it more in line with many ultrabooks that are currently on the market. Still, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed that the Surface didn’t perform better in real world battery use. Another 1.5-2 hours would have really made this a killer device on long distance flights. The Surface RT is rated for 8 hours of battery life although I can’t comment on whether or not it actually delivers on that promise.
So, is the Surface Pro the ultimate travel device? I’d say the answer to that is both yes and no. This is a device that straddles the line between being a laptop and a tablet and as such it needs to be evaluated a bit differently. For instance, it is heavier and thicker than an iPad, but smaller and more lightweight than most laptops. It doesn’t simply run apps either, but instead has access to the full Windows software library, which puts it in a category unlike any other. Add in handwriting recognition, the ability to connect all kinds of peripherals via the USB port and a rugged case that is designed to stand up to abuse and you end up with a product that has a lot to offer frequent travelers. On the other hand, the lack of a long battery life really limits its use when away from a power outlet and that is a shame. If there is one thing that Microsoft can do to improve this product with the next version it is to improve battery life.
The Surface Pro carries a price tag of $899 for the 64GB version and $999 for the 128GB model, although MS is currently offering a $100 discount on both. That’s actually a solid value for a device that is as versatile as this one, after all you’re actually getting both a full blown tablet and a laptop in a single package. If you’re in the market for a new travel computer and you want a system that is compact, yet powerful, that you can take with you anywhere, the Surface Pro is a great option. Just set your expectations for battery life appropriately and you’ll be quite happy with the experience.