Hands On With Microsoft's Impressive Surface Pro Tablet

For several months now, Microsoft's Surface RT has stood as an example of Microsoft's commitment to the concept of a Windows tablet.

But in the next few weeks, Microsoft will begin shipping the full-fledged Windows 8 version of the device (officially known as Surface with Windows 8 Pro, and priced at $899) offering improved performance as well as full-fledged Windows 8 compatibility and functionality. ReadWrite received a behind-the-scenes look at the new tablet at the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

(Unfortunately, in a blunder within Microsoft's public relations department, the company told some publications that writing about the hands-on time was embargoed until later this month, and that photos and video were forbidden. Other publications were given free rein - not because of the publications themselves, but from "inconsistencies...as to what was communicated," according to Microsoft officials. The bottom line: I don't have my own photos to back up my comments.)

This Is One Big Tablet

Microsoft began its presentation by holding up both the Windows RT and Windows 8 versions of each tablets, and letting the media compare them. I've called the Surface RT "bulky" before; that tablet measures 10.81 x 6.77 x 0.37 inches, and 1.5 pounds. The Pro version is slightly bigger and thicker (10.81 x 6.81 x 0.53 inches), and officially weighs in at 2.0 pounds; if you want a lightweight, thin tablet, look elsewhere. (Microsoft has published a full list of the Windows 8 Surface's specs here.) 

Microsoft justifies the extra space by including a full-fledged Intel Core i5 processor, essentially making it, in Microsoft's words, an ultrabook with tablet functionality. I wouldn't go quite that far, but the extra performance justifies the slightly heavier weight, in my view. In addition, although both Surface tablets use a 10.6-inch scrteen, the Surface Pro offers a full 1080p display with 1920 x 1080-pixel resolution. Images appeared crisp and clear, and should tempt many away from the 1366 x 768 displays used by other ultrabooks and the Surface RT.

Truly Impressive Screen

While the Surface Pro doesn't come with an external HDMI connection, it does include a miniature DisplayPort adapter, which Microsoft connected to an external 27-inch (or so) monitor. The bright, crisp, colorful elements of Microsoft's Windows 8 user interace popped nicely when blown up large.

For someone who works with text for a living, the digital ink capabilities Microsoft included within the Surface Pro were impressive, with the digitizer reflecting different levels of pressure with lines of varying thickness. The Fresh Paint app, which Microsoft bundles with the tablet, is revelatory: mixing two colors of "paint" together within a digital palette, then painting across a textured canvas, should amaze adults and children alike.

Which Surface To Choose?

In many ways, those are the fundamental differences potential customers will notice when trying to decide between the two Surface tablets. There's a lot to be said for the app compatibility that Windows 8 offers, not only for legacy Windows apps, but also business and corporate applications. Microsoft insists that the majority of Windows 8 apps are being ported to the ARM environment used by Windows RT; color me unconvinced. However, if a corporation is wants to supply employees with a Windows business tablet, I still think that the Surface Pro should be the leading candidate.

On the non business side, many potential buyers may  wonder how the tablet fares with games; Microsoft fired up an over-the-top shooter known as Bulletstorm that looked great. Granted, this was Microsoft's own demonstration room, so that doesn't mean the Surface Pro to run the latest, graphically intensive Crysis games at optimal frame rates. (As an aside, I can't help but wonder if Microsoft might eventually take its SmartGlass technology, combine it with the sort of local processing Nvidia is talking about with its Project Shield demonstration, and let the Xbox 360 or Xbox 720 supplement the tablet's own graphics.) 

I originally worried about how hot the Surface Pro might get under load. After a few minutes of playing with Bulletstorm, the tablet grew warm, but not uncomfortably so. A pair of fans push heat nearly silently out of vents that surround the tablet's outside edge.

Trade-offs Still Part Of The Equation

Unlike Google, whose Nexus line offers everything that's great about the Android platform, Microsoft's Surface strategy still forces trade-offs. Do you want a free, bundled version of Office and a free Xbox Music subscription? Surface RT is for you. Does processor performance, Windows app compatibility and an improved display matter more? Then you'll want to invest in Surface Pro. It's a frustrating dichotomy of choices, especially with the alternatives offered by the other tablet makers and Microsoft's own hardware partners.

Two years ago, I would have found it difficult to believe that I could work professionally without a loud, buzzing PC minitower squatting on the floor next to my desk. I still find myself longing for the comfort of a discrete graphics processor that some vendors include in higher-end notebooks. But the truth of the matter is that the Surface Pro is becoming a viable alternative. It just remains to be seen whether consumers and businesses will want to pay $900 - and up - for it.

Image source: Microsoft.