It was hardly flawless, but I found much to admire in the Surface RT tablet computer that Microsoft started selling in October. The very first personal computer that Microsoft produced itself was light, sturdy and an impressive piece of engineering. It was Microsoft's premier showpiece for its radical new tile-based touch-friendly Windows 8 operating system, a machine that could possibly bridge the divide between tablet computers and traditional laptops.
Except that wasn't entirely the case. Surface RT actually runs a Windows 8 variant known as Windows RT, which means it was incompatible with the Windows PC software that came before it. Sure, Surface RT was preloaded with Microsoft Office and other apps were available through an online Windows Store.
But for the many people who might consider Surface as a Windows notebook substitute, the inability to run old programs was a probable deal-breaker. It meant waiting instead for the Surface Pro tablet that goes on sale Saturday.
I've been testing Surface Pro and like it very much, though it, too, isn't perfect. You can't help but notice the strong family resemblance between Surface Pro and RT. Both have stereo speakers and front and rear high-definition (720p) video cameras. Both are solidly built tablets encased in a magnesium alloy, with kickstands that enable you to prop them on a desk. Alas, you cannot adjust the angle of the screen when it is propped.
Surface Pro and RT can accommodate clever Microsoft-branded keyboard/cover accessories that add versatility. There are two main versions: a thin Touch Cover ($119.99) that lets you touch-type and a somewhat thicker (but still pretty thin) Type Cover ($129.99) that delivers an experience reasonably close to typing on a regular laptop. You will have difficulty typing with it on your lap.
Of course, Windows 8 lets you summon an onscreen keyboard. But the schizophrenic nature of Windows 8 means you're likely to go back and forth between using your fingers on the screen and using the more traditional mouse/trackpad and keyboard. I expect it will drive some people crazy. Surface Pro, unlike RT, also comes with a pen that you can use to draw or write, such as when jotting things in OneNote.
Heavier but Not By Much
The tablet is just over a half-inch thick, compared with RT's a little over one-third of an inch. At 2 pounds, Pro is heavier than its 1.5-pound sibling but not to the point where it bothered me. Where you do feel the extra weight is in your wallet. Pro versions start at $899, compared with RT's $499 starting price.
The entry-level Pro unit comes with 64 gigabytes of storage, a sum that is far stingier after you factor in the operating system and other built-in software. Microsoft says tests on final production units show about 30 GB of storage are left for files and installing your own software. The push nowadays may be toward cloud storage -- in this case through Microsoft's SkyDrive -- but I still like having a decent amount of on-board storage. For $999, you can buy Surface Pro with 128 GB, though, again, the available storage -- roughly 90 GB -- is considerably less. A microSD expansion can bolster storage.
Surface Pro also comes up short on battery life. In my harsh test, with the brightness cranked to the max and a movie streaming over Wi-Fi, I got just 31/2 hours of juice, extremely skimpy for a tablet. In a similar test, Surface RT got six hours. Expect somewhat better battery performance under less-trying conditions.
So why then do I like Surface Pro so much? For starters, this machine has an Intel Core i5 processor inside, compared with an Nvidia Tegra 3 in RT, and it smokes.
The 10.6-inch full-high-definition display is terrific, with wide viewing angles. It's superior to Surface RT.
Surface doesn't have a built-in DVD/CD drive, so to install older software that resided on disks, I had to borrow such a drive from a friend. I connected it to Surface via the tablet's lone built-in USB port; a second USB port is on the power connector, letting you, say, charge a cellphone while you're plugged in working.
I successfully loaded older versions of Family Tree Maker software, Adobe Premiere Elements and Quicken, some dating to the Windows XP era. I imagine most folks will load more recent stuff. Firefox, iTunes and Office all worked fine, though depending on the software, you may not be able to exploit the machine's full touch capabilities.
Microsoft won't say exactly how many apps are available in the Windows Store. On Surface Pro, Microsoft includes its own apps for Internet Explorer, Bing, Xbox Music and more. It does say that the number has quadrupled since the grand opening on Oct. 26. Suffice to say the thousands that are available are a small fraction compared with the tablet apps available for the iPad, still the envy of the tablet universe.
Surface Pro is blistering fast. The screen is beautiful. It's a solid hybrid between tablet and laptop. But you still have to take to the radically different Windows 8 operating system. And I wish it were cheaper, had more available apps and storage, and longer battery life.
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