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Surface Pro is finally available. Surface RT and Windows 8-based Ultrabooks have been around for months, but the former can't run legacy apps and the latter have largely failed to maximize Microsoft's new operating system. Pro, in contrast, is the most thoroughly focused attempt yet to optimize cutting-edge hardware for arguably the most radical Windows refresh ever. The device is intended to set the standard for laptop-tablet hybrids, and to many Microsoft devotees, it has been the option worth waiting for.
Does Surface Pro live up to the hype? It depends. So far, the consensus is that your mileage will vary depending on your priorities; though both a laptop and a tablet, the Surface Pro is also an exercise in calculated compromise.
The same was true for the iPad, of course, and if the Pro's combination of tablet mobility and laptop power is liberating enough, users could grow to forgive its mediocre battery life and limited storage space. Surface GM Panos Panay explained during an "Ask Me Anything" session on Reddit that though engineering considerations necessitated many compromises, the device can surmount most challenges via accessories.
[ Are PC sales up or down? Learn why that's not such an easy question to answer; see PC Shipment Numbers: A Tale Of Two Spins. ]
Is the tablet's user experience compelling enough to justify jumping through these extra hoops? Here are seven questions to help you decide if Surface Pro is the Windows tablet you've been waiting for.
1. What Are Your Storage Needs?
Surface Pro's storage capacity came under fire when it was revealed that Windows 8 eats up around 45 GB of the device's SSD. Given that Pro comes in only 64-GB and 128-GB varieties, this could be a problem for laptop users accustomed to filling up bigger drives.
That said, the 128-GB MacBook Air isn't much better, offering only 92 GB of useable space. Angry mobs haven't formed in Cupertino, Calif., so though the Surface Pro's capacity might look meager on paper, the MacBook Air's success suggests it might not matter in practice. Plus, Surface Pro users can free up additional space by copying the recovery partition to a USB drive and then deleting it from the SSD.
Speaking of USB, the Surface Pro offers two USB 3.0 ports, one on the device itself and one on the power cord. It also has a microSDXC card slot. If it sounds like a hassle to use these avenues to boost storage capacity, Surface Pro might not be the tablet for you. If they sound like a minor trifle compared to the device's benefits, you probably won't have a problem.
There's also the cloud to consider. If you're already a SkyDrive user or plan to use it heavily after upgrading to Office 365, you'll probably be able to manage the Surface Pro's resources.
2. Do You Need All-Day Battery Life?
Reviews suggest Surface Pro's battery life normally tops out around 4.5 hours -- not bad for a laptop, but not great if you're used to tablets that run all day. The device can be plugged in, of course, and it's novel and useful that the cord includes a USB jack. Still, many users will resent having to seek out a power outlet at least once per day.
If you like the Surface Pro but are worried about battery life, the concern might be fleeting: Panay slyly hinted during his Reddit chat that an external power option is forthcoming.
3. Are You Aware Of Hidden Costs?
Surface Pro distinguishes itself from the iPad, Android devices and even Surface RT by offering a true laptop experience: legacy application support, an i5 Intel processer, etc. To get that experience, though, a Type Cover keyboard is non-negotiable. Plan to add $130 to the cost of the tablet, which is $900 for the 64-GB version and $1,000 for the 128-GB option. Microsoft's thinner Touch Cover is an option as well, though it's less suited to heavy typing.
For many, Microsoft Office will be another expense; while Surface RT included a somewhat diluted version of Office pre-installed, Surface Pro makes users buy the software.
4. How Will You Use The Display?
At 208 ppi, the Surface Pro's 1080 x 1920-pixel HD screen is vibrant and beautiful. No, the resolution isn't quite as dense as the iPad's 264 ppi Retina offering, but few users will perceive a difference at normal viewing distances. It's also much better than the Surface RT's 1366 x 768-pixel offering.
In its tablet role, Surface Pro will no doubt make good use of this screen, which should be great for Web surfing, viewing photos, watching movies, reading reports and other consumption-oriented activities. Tradeoffs emerge when the device is in its laptop mode, however; the 10.6-inch screen is certainly big enough for document creation, spreadsheets and the like, but users accustomed to 15-inch and even 13-inch laptops might find the display real estate a little cramped. Relying on the screen for intense applications such as video editing, meanwhile, is probably going to be tough for all but the most eagle-eyed of users.
Even so, the device can output to a bigger monitor at up to 2550 x 1440-pixel resolution. The capability exemplifies the workarounds Panay described to his Reddit audience, and for many the solution will be perfectly acceptable. Others, though, might see the fix as basically stripping a mobile device of its mobility.
Gaming is another consideration. The device will run most video games without trouble, but if you're a fan of demanding titles that tax graphics cards, Surface Pro might disappoint you.
5. What Are Your Ergonomic And Size Preferences?
Like Surface RT, the Surface Pro includes a kickstand to prop up the screen. To some, this feature enhances media viewing and makes it simple to convert the tablet to its laptop configuration. For others, it's an aggravating design choice that doesn't allow the screen to be tilted. Even worse, the Pro is difficult to balance on one's lap, making it impractical to type on anything but a flat surface.
To connoisseurs of all things svelte, the Pro's dimensions might also be a deterrent, though fans of robust build quality will probably have the opposite reaction. At 13.5-mm thick and two pounds in weight, it's ultraportable but still noticeably thicker and heavier than either an iPad or Surface RT.
6. Are You Prone to Tech Envy?
Surface Pro might claim best-in-class status at the moment, but it will soon have to contend with a slew of new Windows 8 devices. Indeed, Tami Reller, CFO of Microsoft's Windows division, has been actively promoting them, even hinting that additional Surface models might materialize. If you're on the fence about Pro and can afford to delay a purchase, forthcoming models might be a better fit for your needs.
Buyer's remorse is always a risk with technology, of course, but with Intel's Haswell chips due later this year, would-be Surface-owners might have additional incentive to wait. The new processers are expected to offer better performance while consuming less energy, improvements that should encourage OEMs to pursue even thinner and more innovative designs. With this flexibility, the compromises that Panay said were necessary today might be easily avoided in six or eight months.
7. Will You Have Wi-Fi Access When You Need It?
Surface Pro can only connect to Wi-Fi networks. For laptop users, this limitation is par for the course. To tablet power users with 4G data plans, however, such shackles are anathema. That Microsoft is encouraging cloud usage only complicates this question, as a mobile user who can't find a trustworthy network won't be able to access his or her SkyDrive repository. If you're going to use Surface Pro primarily in your home or office, Wi-Fi access probably won't dictate your experience. If you like to set up shop wherever you roam, you might need to take your tablet search elsewhere.
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