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3/4/2013
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Microsoft Surface Pro: A First Look

The Microsoft Surface Pro is the most famous of the hybrid tablet/notebook systems running Windows 8. We know what the competition from Dell, Asus, Acer and HP offers, so does the Surface Pro hold up?

I'm the perfect customer for a Microsoft Surface Pro. I have a three-year-old Asus Eee PC Netbook that gets about four-plus hours of continuous use on its second battery. I also have a first generation iPad that Apple doesn't update anymore. I've been eying an iPad mini, but can't justify the price for essentially something I already have. And for the cost of an Ultrabook – which I've been also been considering – the Surface would be a replacement tablet and a netbook/Ultrabook.

Quick, which one is my three-year-old Asus Eee Netbook?

I spent the day with a freshly unboxed Microsoft Surface trying to talk myself into buying one. It came to me because an attorney at the law firm I work at had gotten it that day and wanted me to set it up. He wanted it for two reasons: to take hand written notes, and markup PDFs during his commute. He knew enough to wait for the Pro because he didn't want the limitations of RT.

When I was finished installing the apps and setting it up for remote access, the attorney was happy with his Surface. But was it right for me? I decided to take it for a test ride.

The TypeCover keyboard has a solid feel just by nature of its placement. It's just a few millimeters above the desk I'm typing on. Typically, when typing on netbooks or a laptop, I'm typing on a keyboard that sits above the computers' chassis, making the feel a bit mushy. Typing on the Surface Pro keyboard is rock solid.

The lack of a hinge on the Surface Pro created a problem that might be unique to me. I like to carry my netbook around, cradling it with one hand and typing and moving the mouse the other. Because this netbook is so small, it's sort of like having a tablet with a keyboard. With a touch screen and such a small form factor, I could type and swipe as needed. Because the surface has no spine to keep the screen in place I would lose the ability to roam with the keyboard attached. Most competitors, like Acer's Iconia W510 and Samsung's ATIV Smart PC, have their keyboards locked and variable hinges to adjust the angle so that wouldn't be a problem.

That also highlights another limitation of the Surface Pro. The kickstand allows for only one viewing angle. In rooms with florescent lights, you'll want the option to adjust the angle so it doesn't reflect the light.

One of the questions I had about the kickstand is how would it behave, literally, as a laptop. Would the kickstand work on my thighs as effectively as on a table? Well, it was adequate. It didn't fall over, but I had to keep my legs closer together than I would with a netbook.

It also got pretty hot. I had installed two apps from the – I'm still calling it – Metro interface, and did a bit of web surfing only to research an app I thought would be best for marking up PDFs. So I wasn't really stressing the processor, but about an inch below the camera, just above the center of the tablet, it got hot. It wasn't too hot to handle, but much hotter than my iPad 1 or 2 ever got. And it is in a place where the tips of your fingers are when holding the tablet alone.

The applications behaved differently with the physical keyboard attached and detached. One of the habits that iOS has spoiled for me is adding a period after hitting the space bar twice – never mind that it's not Associated Press (AP) style – that little feature forces me to remember to add the period when I'm typing on a keyboard. The Surface tablet – minus the keyboard – behaves like iOS, but when I attached the physical keyboard it acted like a conventional Windows app.

The Surface Pen
To mark up the PDFs and make those handwritten notes, the attorney bought the Surface Pen. It's magnetic and mounts with a click to the chassis exactly where the power supply also clicks in place. So you can't simultaneously charge it and mount the pen. [Update: An earlier version of this review indicated that the Surface Pen cost $30 extra. The pen is bundled with Surface Pro. Additional pens cost $29.99 each]

I enjoyed playing with the Microsoft Surface Pro and my day with it answered all my questions. It's not for me, but it is a smart form factor and it started me truly considering its competitors. The Acer Iconia W510, for example, has a whopping 18 hours of battery life with the keyboard attached compared to only four to five hours for the Surface Pro. At $749 it's also cheaper than the Pro by $150. So for the price of a cheap ultrabook Ultrabook, I would get a replacement tablet and a replacement netbook.

And Acer is not the only competitor. See this article where I compare the specs to all the hybrids. So it's back to the drawing board in my hunt for a new replacement tablet.

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