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Microsoft's Surface with Windows 8 Pro is here, and it's a curious beast. Both multitouch tablet and full-fledged Windows 8 laptop, the Surface Pro screamed NO COMPROMISES. But as with most hybrid devices, there are compromises aplenty.
Unlike its ARM-based sibling, Surface with Windows RT, Surface Pro runs legacy Windows programs -- the same office and home apps that work with pre-Windows 8 versions of the OS (with some exceptions). The business-oriented Surface Pro also runs Windows Store apps written for Microsoft's new tile-packed Modern UI.
The Surface Pro is hard to categorize. Is it a laptop, tablet or both? Does it offer the best of both worlds, or is it a wishy-washy compromise that's bound to disappoint?
Early reviews have been tepid at best. Critics have dinged the Surface Pro's less-than-stellar battery life and other shortcomings, such as the viewing-angle limitations of its integrated kickstand. On the plus side, reviewers have praised the Surface Pro's solid build and its crisp high-definition display.
A recurring question is whether the Surface Pro, which costs over $1,000 (fully equipped with keyboard/cover), is too expensive. One factor working in its favor is that the device is targeted at business users, who are less price-sensitive than consumers. Microsoft has positioned the Surface RT ($499 and up) to duke it out in the end user market with bruising competitors such as the Apple iPad, Google Nexus 10 and Amazon Kindle Fire 8.9.
Initial sales of the Surface RT have been lackluster. UBS AG analyst Paul Thill last month estimated that Microsoft sold 1 million Surface RT tablets in the holiday quarter of 2012, a 50% reduction from Thill's original estimate of 2 million. And research firm IDC estimated that Microsoft shipped just under 900,000 Surface RT slates in Q4 2012.
Why the lackluster sales? Price, again, may be to blame.
"In the long run, consumers may grow to believe that high-end computing tablets with desktop operating systems are worth a higher premium than other tablets, but until then [average selling prices] on Windows 8 and Windows RT devices need to come down to drive higher volumes," said IDC mobile device analyst Ryan Reith, in a statement.
This doesn't mean the Surface Pro will receive the same lukewarm response from customers, although its high price is reason for concern. Here are 10 ways to know if the Microsoft Surface with Windows 8 Pro is right for you.
Ever find yourself packing three mobile devices for business trips? Surface's Pro's hybrid design eliminates the need to tote a tablet and a laptop, which should reduce your device count from three to two. (Sorry, you'll still need a smartphone.) The Surface Pro's lovely 10.6-inch full HD display (1920 x 1080 pixels) is large enough to run Windows 7 apps without too many compromises. And since the snap-on Type Cover or Touch Cover keyboards are easily detachable, the Surface Pro slips into tablet mode with ease.
Initial reviews of the Surface Pro have pointed out that, battery-wise, Microsoft's hybrid device has a lot in common with a conventional laptop. And that's a bad thing. Users can expect a less-than-impressive 4 to 5 hours of untethered computing -- not too surprising, actually, as a laptop-oriented Intel Core i5 Processor powers the Surface Pro. Unfortunately, that's roughly half the battery time of the Surface RT (up to 8 hours), the iPad and other tablets, and even some Ultrabooks too.
The Surface Pro features a USB 3.0 port, while the Surface RT has an older USB 2.0 connector. The primary advantage of USB 3.0 is that it transfers data up to 10 times faster (up to 4.8 Gbps) as USB 2.0 (up to 480 Mbps). If you plan to connect external USB 3.0 storage devices (e.g. a hard drive) to a Surface Pro, speedy data transfer rates are a big plus. USB 3.0 also offers better power management, supports full-duplex data transfers, and is backwards compatible with USB 2.0. Bottom line: USB 3.0 makes sense on full-fledged Windows business laptops, including hybrids such as the Surface Pro.
One of the cool perks of Surface RT is that it comes with a copy of Microsoft Office Home & Student 2013, which includes tablet-optimized versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. Surface Pro? Sorry, you'll have to bring your own productivity suite. That's not a problem, however, for enterprises with volume licenses for more advanced versions of Office (such as Professional Plus), or those already running competing suites such as Google Apps. Besides, many business users probably wouldn't want Office Home & Student 2013 RT, which can't run macros, add-ins and other custom programs from users or third parties.
Surface Pro comes with a pressure-sensitive stylus that's handy for drawing and diagramming, as well as for navigating the Windows 7-style desktop, which is optimized for mouse and keyboard input, not touch. The pen snaps onto the tablet's magnetic power port when not in use. By comparison, Surface RT doesn't have a stylus, although it does work with aftermarket capacitive pens. Here's a nice pen perk: Both Surface tablets have a feature called palm rejection -- rest your hand on the display, and the impact won't draw unwanted pen markings on the screen.
With mobile devices, lighter is always better. Unfortunately, the Surface Pro weighs in at a hefty 2 pounds. Light for a laptop, yes, but tubby for a tablet. By comparison, the Surface RT and the fourth-generation iPad both weight about 1.5 pounds (the iPad is a little lighter). If you carry a mobile device around all day -- say, in a hospital or on a factory floor -- the Surface Pro may get heavy in a hurry. Hopefully Microsoft will trim the fat from future Surface Pro models while retaining (or boosting) its processing power. Oh, yes, a longer battery life would be nice too. That's not too much to ask, is it?
Both the Surface Pro and Surface RT have a built-in kickstand made of the same sturdy VaporMg material that encases the tablet. It's great for desktop use, but awkward and unstable on your lap. By comparison, a conventional laptop with a hinged screen balances much better on your lap or knees.
Another limitation of the kickstand: viewing angles. A laptop display can be positioned at myriad angles for optimum viewability. The Surface tablets are far more limited in that regard -- a shortcoming that limits their laptop-replacement appeal.
Surface Pro is a full-fledged Windows PC, of course, and can run most Windows 7 apps. But it's also a multitouch tablet that's optimized for apps downloaded from Microsoft's Windows Store. According to MetroStore Scanner, a third-party site that lets you search the Windows Store from the Web, there were nearly 42,000 applications in the Store as of February 8.
The number of Windows 8 apps is rising steadily, but it's still a far cry from the iPad's 300,000-plus selections. Since backwards compatibility is one of the Surface Pro's greatest strengths -- at least to longtime enterprise users running critical Windows legacy apps -- the relatively thinly stocked Windows Store probably isn't a huge shortcoming.
With its built-in kickstand and optional detachable keyboards, the Surface Pro is arguably the most laptop-like tablet on the market -- or perhaps the most tablet-like laptop. (Take your pick.) The Pro works in both landscape and portrait modes, of course, but its kickstand is oriented more toward a landscape way of doing things. The high-resolution screen is lovely, and its 16:9 aspect ratio is great for watching movies and reading text, but the display's tall and narrow dimensions may seem a bit unwieldy to users familiar with the iPad's 4:3 aspect ratio.
The Surface Pro starts at $899 for the 64-GB model. The detachable keyboard/screen cover runs $120 for the Touch Cover or $130 for the Type Cover. The total price for a Surface Pro -- which isn't a fully functional laptop without a physical keyboard -- is north of $1,000. Since the device can (theoretically) replace both a tablet and laptop, its price tag may seem reasonable. But do consider the Surface Pro's shortcomings -- particularly its battery life and weight -- before you buy one. Indeed, you may be happier with a separate tablet and laptop instead.