Microsoft Surface Pro Impressions

Microsoft’s long-awaited Surface Pro has made the rounds among reviewers… and the reactions are surprisingly subdued. While everyone agrees that the Pro is miles better than the immature Surface RT, the new device still falls shorts of hopes and expectations.

Let’s start with some positive aspects. Penny Arcade’s Gabe is an artist by profession and was quite impressed with the Surface Pro’s Wacom digitizer stylus – definitely read his article if you’re interested in that feature. He also loved the new touch-controlled version of Civilization V and had good success with several other desktop games. So did Jason Evangelho who wonders why Microsoft doesn’t push this aspect in its advertising. (Answer: Microsoft would rather sell Windows Store and Xbox games where it gets a cut…)

On the technical side, the ever-reliable Anand Lal Shimpi provides all the specifications and benchmarks you could wish for. The Surface Pro performs just like you’d expect from its Intel ultrabook hardware, on about the same level as a MacBook Air and far better than any ARM tablet. Unfortunately, that same ultrabook hardware is also the reason why the Surface Pro ends up less than satisfactory in the eyes of most reviewers. For the record, here are the other reviews I’ve consulted: Ed Bott (“brilliant, quirky, flawed”); Mary Jo Foley (“just OK”); David Pierce (“who is this for?”); John Biggs (the most positive – by a Mac user); and Peter Bright (the most negative – by a Windows user).

The Problem Parade

First, there’s the issue of disk space. A full Windows 8 installation takes up just as much space on the Surface Pro as on any other regular computer, leaving the user with much less free space than an equivalent iOS or Android tablet. Granted, the situation is not quite as bad as early reports indicated. After moving the 8 GiB recovery partition to a USB stick, the 128 GiB model’s free space of 97.5 GiB nearly equals the MacBook Air’s. Still, that leaves the 64 GiB model with only 35 GiB available, so you should definitely prefer the bigger version. (See Microsoft’s breakdown in decimal gigabytes – I’ve used GiB here to clarify that my numbers signify binary gigabytes, or gibibytes.)

Then there’s the problem of power draw with its three manifestations: battery life, heat output, and fan noise. The latter two are generally considered unproblematic, with just a few reviewers complaining about excessive heat or audible noise. That leaves the battery life of only 4-5 hours, which is a big problem indeed for a portable device – hardly enough to last an evening, let alone an entire work day! Until Intel’s new low-power Haswell chips arrive later this year, an Intel computer simply cannot live far from a power outlet.

The Surface Pro’s can run Windows desktop applications, unlike the RT, but that ability is itself problematic in this form factor. Microsoft evidently doesn’t quite trust its users to embrace the Wacom stylus for mouse input. The company made a new Wedge Touch Mouse (sold separately for US$70) that several reviewers took a liking to. I certainly hope this is merely an option for mouse addicts and not a necessity for desktop applications, or the Surface Pro’s usefulness as a portable device would be largely destroyed.

Disturbingly, everyone agrees on the difficulty of using the keyboard cover on one’s lap, as with any normal ultrabook. The attachment is too wobbly to hold the heavy device in place unless your legs are perfectly level, and it doesn’t permit changing the screen angle. I have yet to try this mechanism for myself, but if the criticism is accurate it would be enough to turn me off the device entirely. Having a permanently attached keyboard for lap use is the single biggest advantage I see in convertibles over regular tablets.

Another point related to desktop applications is display scaling. The Surface Pro features a small high-resolution screen (10.6″ at 1080p) so naturally Windows comes preconfigured for 150% display scaling. And just as naturally, that causes blurry or misplaced UI elements in the myriad of existing applications that don’t properly support Windows display scaling. Quite a few reviewers were evidently unaware of that feature, introduced by Windows XP in 2001, and thus shocked and appalled when software didn’t look as nice and crisp as on their old 96 DPI monitors. Apple’s “retina” screens cheat by simply doubling the resolution in each dimension which avoids scaling artifacts, but Microsoft never had that luxury since Windows must accommodate any possible screen resolution.

Outlook & Alternatives

Finally, there’s my own dislike for the new “Metro” or “Modern” interface that’s supposed to accommodate touchscreens, both for its own limitations and for its poor integration with the desktop. Although I still like the idea of Windows on a tablet/laptop hybrid with high-quality hardware, I don’t care much for the present implementation. Meanwhile, the new Windows Store ecosystem is largely nonexistent; Tim Anderson calls the few available apps mostly trivial and/or poor and/or repetitive and/or uninteresting, which is apparently in no small part due to the immaturity of the WinRT platform. The Surface RT was supposed to kickstart Windows Store development, but instead bombed with sales of only about 700k and high return rates. The few other Windows RT devices fared even worse.

Microsoft and its OEMs are blaming each other for customers who keep buying cheap laptops rather than expensive touchscreen convertibles. Those customers are quite correct, though: the present touchscreen offerings are simply not very attractive, all things considered. It’s virtually inevitable that we’ll see much improved systems by late 2013, with lower prices, longer battery life, and some badly needed Windows patches. I’d love to play Civ5 on a tablet, but maybe it’s really smarter to just wait for a year.

That said, I wanted to point out one interesting alternative that’s competitive with the Surface Pro while avoiding some of its shortcomings: the Sony Vaio Duo 11. As far as I’m aware, it’s the only other Windows 8 touchscreen convertible that comes with a digitizer pen, though N-Trig rather than Wacom. Its keyboard has a stable attachment so you can actually type on your lap, the 1080p screen is 1″ larger, and you can get an Intel Core i7 with up to 8 GB RAM and 512 GB SSD. Lastly, an optional clip-on battery pack should last throughout the day. I tried a showroom unit briefly and quite liked the keyboard, small though it was. The downside? With all options but a 256 GB SSD and no extra software, the device costs $1750… ouch! And despite the impressive feature list, the few reviews I found (by Bob Dormon and Sarah Silbert) were once again negative.

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