Walt Mossberg

Surface Pro: Hefty Tablet Is a Laptop Lightweight

Microsoft is introducing its second-ever personal computer. As with the first, it’s a multi-touch 10.6-inch tablet that has some of the attributes of a laptop, such as a USB port and snap-on keyboards. But unlike the first, this new tablet is capable of running full-featured Windows 8, though at a price — in dollars, bulk and battery life.

Both machines are called Surface and at first glance, they look similar. But there are big differences. The original Surface, launched in October, uses a limited version of Windows 8 called RT and runs on the type of processor common in rival tablets and smartphones. As a result, while it can fully handle Windows 8’s new Start Screen tabletlike interface and apps, it can only run four standard Windows desktop programs — Microsoft’s Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote. You can’t install other desktop software.

The new Surface, called Surface Windows 8 Pro, is powered by an Intel processor typically found on laptops and uses the high-end Pro version of Windows 8. So it can run a vast array of standard Windows 7 desktop software. That means you could theoretically use the new tablet as a full replacement for a Windows laptop — if you used one of Microsoft’s thin keyboard covers.

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The Surface Pro looks like the Surface RT, but it has a much higher screen resolution. The Pro also comes with a pen that makes navigating on the desktop much easier and allows for jotting notes or annotating documents.

Microsoft views the Pro as a new kind of PC, a sort of hybrid of a tablet and a laptop that spares users the hassle of carrying two devices. It goes on sale Saturday.

The Surface Pro starts at $899 — $400 more than the base model of the biggest, newest iPad or the base Surface RT. To be fair, this entry-level Surface Pro has 64 gigabytes of storage, four times what the base iPad offers. But an iPad with the same 64 GB is $699. A higher-end Surface Pro model with twice the storage costs $999, but an iPad with the same amount of storage is $200 less.

Not only that, but the keyboard covers cost extra — $130 for the one with movable keys, which brings the price to over $1,000.

As with the original Surface, the Pro is solidly built, with the same innovative metal kickstand that keeps it upright on a desk or table. It ran all the software I threw at it — both the new type and the old desktop type — speedily and well. I was able to install and run the full Windows 7 desktop versions of such popular programs as Microsoft Outlook, Google Chrome, Apple iTunes, Adobe Reader and Twitter’s TweetDeck.

The Pro has a much higher screen resolution than the RT. It comes with a handy pen, not included or usable on the RT, that makes navigating on the desktop interface much easier and allows for jotting notes or annotating documents. And it has corporate-friendly security features not found on the RT.

But the Pro has some significant downsides, especially as a tablet.

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The Pro is thicker and heavier than the RT, which makes it clumsier to use as a tablet and on your lap as a laptop with the snap-on keyboard.
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The Surface RT

I like the original Surface and see it as a tablet with the extra benefit of some Microsoft Office programs. However, I am less enamored with the Surface Pro. It’s too hefty and costly and power-hungry to best the leading tablet, Apple’s full-size iPad. It is also too difficult to use in your lap. It’s something of a tweener — a compromised tablet and a compromised laptop.

The Pro weighs 2 pounds, which is light for a laptop but anvil-like for a tablet. That is almost 40 percent heavier than the weightiest iPad and over 40 percent thicker. I found this bulk made the Surface Pro even clumsier than the RT is to use on my lap with the keyboard cover, even with the kickstand, which works far better on a desk than on one’s knees.

In my tough battery tests, where I set the screen to 75 percent brightness, turn off power-saving features, leave the Wi-Fi on and play locally stored videos until the machine dies, the Surface Pro did pathetically. It lasted just under four hours between charges — less than half the stamina of the iPad on the same test and three hours less than the Surface RT. In normal use, you might stretch that to five or 5½ hours, still poor for a tablet.

Also, as on the RT model, the Windows 8 system files take up a huge chunk of available storage. Of the 64GB of solid-state storage on the entry-level $899 model, only 30GB of that is free for the user, according to Microsoft. On the $999 model, 90GB of the 128GB total is available for the user. Microsoft notes you can add more storage via a flash memory slot.

And unlike the RT, the Pro doesn’t come out of the box with Microsoft Office. That costs extra, just as on most laptops. Unlike the iPad and some Android tablets, neither Surface can be ordered with built-in cellular connectivity, though the Pro can accept extra-cost plug-in cellular modems and, like competing tablets, it can be wirelessly tethered to a cellphone or stand-alone cellular modem.

When used on a desk, table, or airplane seat tray, with the kickstand holding the screen upright and the keyboard cover with movable keys, the Pro is a serviceable laptop, especially since, unlike on an iPad or Android tablet, you can use full-fledged PC programs.

But just as the Pro is compromised as a tablet, it’s compromised as a laptop. You get fewer ports and less storage than on many laptops and a keyboard that can’t compare with those on many laptops.

Some users may not mind the price or bulk of the Surface Pro if it frees them from carrying a tablet for some uses and a laptop for others. But like many products that try to be two things at once, the new Surface Windows 8 Pro does neither as well as those designed for one function.

Find all of Walt Mossberg’s columns and videos at the All Things Digital website, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.


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