Can a Surface Pro Replace a Tablet and a Laptop?

A promotional image of Microsoft's Surface Tablets.

Unlike most tablets, the Surface Pro is not running a stripped-down mobile operating system. It runs actual Windows on a laptop-class processor. This means that if you are a Windows user, the Surface Pro will run all the software you’ve grown accustomed to. The Surface Pro is a tablet in shape only. It’s Microsoft’s attempt to merge the best of both worlds. It doesn’t always succeed, but the attempt should be lauded.

A video version of this review, made in conjunction with Forward Compatible.

On the performance side, the Surface Pro does not disappoint. It’s fast enough for almost any standard computer use. Web browsing is flawless, HD video playback is smooth, and almost any software you want to run is going to. I wouldn’t use it for HD video editing or 3D modeling, but anyone who works in those fields would know better anyway. None of this should come as a surprise. The Surface Pro is an ultrabook laptop in a tablet’s clothing. Sporting a dual-core i5 processor and matching Intel integrated graphics, the Surface Pro really is a powerful piece of hardware. Android and iOS tablets can’t hope to match it in raw power.

That much power comes at a price: battery life. The Surface Pro runs somewhere between four and five hours with regular use. It’s not bad, but it’s nowhere near the ten-plus hours most tablets run for. When doing something processor-intensive, like playing a game or encoding video, that time drops considerably. The newer Surface Pro 2 has much better battery life, but it still noticeably shorter than an iPad or Android tablet.

Like it’s tablet siblings, the Surface Pro is pretty much impossible to upgrade. You can throw a Micro SD card in there to add some storage, and at some point Microsoft promises a keyboard cover with an expanded battery, but these aren’t so much upgrades as stopgap solutions. The Surface Pro you purchase is what you are stuck with until you buy something else.

The Surface's Touch Keyboard

While we’re on the subject of add-ons, the keyboard covers are not great. After testing both models in-store, I decided not to buy either one. The problem is simple: the Surface Pro is too small to have a full-size keyboard attached to it. Both the Touch and Type cover options feature cramped keyboards that will flummox experienced touch-typists. If you are a hunter-pecker, and don’t have the muscle memory to type without looking at the keys, this may not be an issue for you. As someone who hammers away at a keyboard all day, Microsoft’s Keyboard Covers are useless. I’d have to re-train myself to type, and I would be stuck using that smaller keyboard until I chose to retrain myself again. Instead, I chose to pair my Surface Pro to a bluetooth keyboard, which worked wonderfully.

One of the biggest things to draw me to the Surface Pro was the Wacom stylus. As convenient as a touchscreen is, sometimes I long for a more precise input method than my meaty fingers. I’ve played with styluses on the iPad, but because they have to conform to a capacitive touch screen, they aren’t nearly as flexible and useful as the Surface Pro’s pen.

Unfortunately, the pen has an unforgivable flaw: it loses calibration quite easily. I found myself having to adjust it every few hours. The tip of the pen seems to drift slowly away from the center, so over a few hours, where the pen points and where the sensor in the screen thinks it is are millimeters apart. This might not seem like a big deal, but it can become very frustrating when trying to hit the small targets on the Surface Pro’s screen.

Everything in the Windows interface is tiny, and even with the Surface Pro’s default 150% magnification they aren’t easy to tap with your finger. Your options are to constantly recalibrate or switch to using a mouse for standard Windows software. A frustrating side effect of the magnification is that many apps become a blurry mess. You can turn the magnification off (I did), but at standard size, icons and interface elements are too small to interact with via a fingertip.

This is probably where my love affair with the Surface Pro ended. By this point, I was using a mouse and keyboard for everything, and that defeats the purpose of a tablet. It really isn’t optional. If you can deal with the Type Cover, I suppose you’ll have both those things built-in, but I’m not going to make that transition. At this point, the Surface Pro is being used as a laptop, and laptops have better keyboards and trackpads. Windows’ built-in touchscreen keyboard is not bad, but some applications, like games, can’t make use of it. You need some form of external keyboard and mouse.

There also isn’t a lot of productivity software out there with touch support. There are some games, but not many. Media applications, like Netflix and Plex, are plentiful and work fantastically. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say I prefer watching video on the Surface Pro. Its 1080p widescreen display is the perfect resolution and aspect ratio for video, and the tablet’s stereo speakers are great. If all I did was watch videos, the Surface Pro would beat the iPad Air by a wide margin. As great as the display is, though, it simply doesn’t work well when oriented vertically. It’s too thin for reading, unless the text is perfectly formatted or scaled down to fit. The iPad has more useable space when held vertically, and it makes reading books, comics, and web pages much nicer.

For gaming, things get a little complicated. Although the Surface Pro is far more powerful than most tablets, it’s still not very powerful when compared to a PC built with any sort of gaming in mind. The integrated graphics are enough for some games, but graphically intensive ones will not be playable on it. I tested the device with Batman: Arkham City and Portal 2. Both played smoothly with graphical settings at their lowest, and the resolution lowered to 720p. If gaming is a primary concern, the Surface Pro is not the device for you. However, if you just want to play the occasional game on the go, and don’t mind making visual sacrifices, the Surface Pro paired with a controller is a decent enough machine to scratch that itch.

The same issue just keeps popping up: the Surface Pro always needs one more accessory to make it work. Whether it’s a mouse, a keyboard, a controller, or a combination of these things, the Pro is going to require more of its users than a tablet. If you’re going to carry all that stuff with you, why not just get a laptop? For the same price as a Surface Pro, you can get a decent laptop that won’t require the extra purchase of a keyboard and pointing device.

The final verdict? I really want to like the Surface Pro more than I do. There are a lot of great ideas built into it, and the execution, while not perfect, is just so close! Maybe in a few years, when more windows software is designed for touch screens, I won’t feel the need to have all these accessories. For now, though, the Surface Pro is a lot of potential just waiting to be refined.

Posted on February 7, 2014 and filed under Review.