Troy Wolverton: Microsoft Surface Pro tablet a pricey disappointment
For those eager to embrace the tablet era but who need to keep a foot in the PC past, Microsoft's new Surface Windows 8 Pro would seem to be the perfect device.
It's a tablet that runs a full version of the latest Microsoft Windows operating system. It has a touch screen that takes advantage of Windows' new tile-based interface and can run the new touch-centric Windows applications. And it also has a version of the traditional Windows desktop interface and can run all your old Windows programs.
But instead of being the ideal computer for the post-PC era, the Surface Pro is a pricey, unsatisfactory gadget that's not well suited for any of its potential uses.
The Pro is Microsoft's second tablet. Released last fall, the original Surface device runs on an ARM-based chip and uses a simplified version of Microsoft's operating system called Windows RT.
By contrast, the Surface Pro uses the same kind of Intel chip that powers millions of Windows PCs. That chip allows the new gadget to run the full version of Windows 8, not Windows RT, and to run older Windows programs.
The best thing going for the Surface Pro is its versatility. You can use it not only as a tablet but also as a notebook, if you attach one of its optional covers that has a built-in keyboard and flip out its kickstand. And if you plug in a full keyboard and monitor, you can use it like a desktop computer.
I'm not a fan of Windows 8, but the Surface Pro demonstrates its potential. On the same device, you can switch easily between an interface designed for touch interaction and one designed for a traditional keyboard and pointing device. Depending on your needs or the programs you are running, you can go back and forth between those two interfaces.
Thanks to its Windows heritage, the Surface Pro offers features you can't get on Apple's rival iPad. Multiple users can share the device, each with a separate, password-protected work space. And the Surface Pro will run full versions of Microsoft's popular Office programs.
But the Surface Pro's capabilities and versatility come at a stiff price, both in dollars and in usability.
The device starts at $900, which is $400 more than what Microsoft charges for the original Surface or what you'd pay for the least expensive full-sized iPad. A second Surface Pro model with double the memory goes for $1,000, which would buy you a very nice Windows notebook with a larger touch-screen display.
The Windows operating system the Surface Pro runs gobbles up 35 to 40 gigabytes of the device's storage space, so you have considerably less room than you might think to store apps, documents or pictures. It also gives the Surface Pro far less usable space than other tablets with the same nominal storage capacity.
The Intel processor in the Surface Pro is less power-efficient than the ARM chips in the original Surface or the iPad. In my tests, the device lasted far less than a full day on a charge.
The chip also generates a lot more heat than ARM processors, requiring the Surface Pro to have a pair of fans to keep it cool. Despite that, it felt hot to the touch when I was using it. And the fans make for a heavier and bulkier machine than the typical tablet. The Surface Pro weighs in at about 2 pounds, which is more than a half-pound heavier than the full iPad. Compared to other tablets, the Surface Pro feels like a brick.
It's even less satisfying as a tablet because of a dearth of available apps. While you can find Netflix and Skype in the Windows app store, you won't find other popular iPad apps, such as Pandora or Flipboard. In fact, only one of the top 10 free or paid apps for the iPad were available in the Windows store, although you could find knockoffs for another two.
But the Surface Pro is also unsatisfying as a notebook. The covers with the built-in keyboards aren't sturdy enough to use on your lap, and the device's kickstand is inflexible, so unlike a typical laptop, you can't tilt the Surface Pro's screen to adjust your viewing angle. And at 10.6 inches, the Surface Pro's display is significantly smaller than your average laptop, giving you less real estate to work in.
So while the Surface Pro may sound like an ideal device, I found it to be much less than that.
MICROSOFT SURFACE WINDOWS 8 PRO TABLET:
-Likes: Versatile device can be used as a tablet, notebook or desktop computer; supports multiple user accounts; runs the full version of Office and other Windows programs; built-in kickstand supports device without need of separate cover.
-Dislikes: Pricey; heavy and bulky compared with other tablets; hot to the touch when running; offers much less usable storage capacity than comparable tablets; no version available with a built-in cellular radio; keyboard covers too flimsy to use on lap; kickstand angle can't be adjusted.
-Specs: 10.6-inch, 1920 x 1080 screen; Intel Core i5 processor; 720p front and rear cameras.
-Price: $900 for 64 gigabyte model; $1,000 for 128 GB version
ABOUT THE WRITER:
Troy Wolverton is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @troywolv.
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