Microsoft Surface Pro review roundup: Is a Windows 8 tablet worth $1000?

The Microsoft Surface Pro is a tablet with the guts of a laptop. It runs Windows 8, features the same Intel Core i5-3317U processor found in many recent ultrabooks, and has a high resolution display.

But it’s not a laptop. Instead it’s a slate with a 10.6 inch, 1920 x 1080 pixel display, a capacitive touch panel, and an active digitizer that lets you use a digital pen to writer, draw, or hover a mouse cursor over the screen.

The Surface Pro is Microsoft’s attempt to show what Windows 8 can do when you put it on a powerful tablet. Unfortunately it appears to suffer from poor battery life, a mismatch between the operating system and the screen resolution, and a design that makes the Surface Pro difficult to use as a laptop replacement… which makes the $1000 starting price for the tablet plus a keyboard cover a bit tough to justify.

Microsoft Surface Pro

Microsoft’s newest tablet goes on sale February 9th, but the first reviews are already in. There seems to be general consensus on a few points:

  • The Surface Pro is about as speedy and powerful as an ultrabook with a Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor.
  • The battery life stinks, topping out at around 4 hours of run time. You’ll get closer to 3 hours if you’re watching video.
  • Unlike the Surface RT tablet, the Surface Pro gets warm to the touch and generates a bit of fan noise thanks to the more powerful 17W processor (the Surface RT has a 3W NVIDIA Tegra 3 CPU).
  • Even with the built-in kickstand and a Touch or Type Cover, there’s no comfortable way to use this tablet on your lap — unless you’re only using touch input.
  • The high resolution display is a mixed blessing. Images and text look crisp and clear in Metro mode, and in desktop mode Microsoft sets the default DPI settings to 150 percent. But many apps, menus, and other items don’t look right at that setting. So you have to choose between inconsistent text and graphics or making everything look too tiny on the 10.6 inch screen.
  • It’s also tough to use the touchscreen to tap icons when they’re tiny. The digital pen helps, and it’s also great for writing or drawing, thanks to handwriting recognition and 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity. But there’s no getting around the fact that desktop apps are really designed for a keyboard and mouse.

In other words, the Surface Pro isn’t ready to replace a similarly priced (or cheaper) Windows 8 ultrabook for day to day use. While it can run all the same apps as an ultrabook, it gets awful battery life and it’s tougher to use on your lap (or even on a desk, since the kickstand isn’t adjustable — the desk has to be the perfect height).

It may also not be able to replace a much cheaper Android or iOS tablet if you’re primarily looking for a device for surfing the web from a couch. It’s bigger and heavier than most of those tablets, won’t last as long on a charge, and doesn’t offer as many tablet optimized apps… at least not yet.

While it’s impressive that you can now buy a slate that looks a lot like an iPad but can do much of what a laptop does, it’d be even more impressive if the Surface Pro offered the best of both worlds. Instead, it seems like a jack-of-all-trades master-of-none type device. And even though the hardware’s probably more than worth the $1000 asking price, it’s kind of hard to justify dropping that kind of money on a device that does a lot of things… but doesn’t necessarily do them very well.

Here are some of the first reviews of the Microsoft Surface Pro:

The Surface Pro is good enough that most reviewers agree that if you really want a Surface tablet, this is the one to get… not the cheaper Surface RT. But they seem to be searching for reasons you might want to buy it at all.

  • Joe

    If I were getting a tablet, I’d go for a Clover Trail based one running Windows 8 for now. Android or iOS tablets aren’t in the running when I already have a mobile OS based smartphone already.

    • A. Jones

      Me too. Right now, I see a tablet as something more portable than a laptop but I want to be able to run all my software even at slower speeds when occasionally needed. Since it’s portable, I’d like very long battery life too.

      The Surface is nice but it doesn’t have good battery life for a mobile oriented device. The non-dockable via keyboard dock design doesn’t make it that great for sitting down and getting things done. So it’s not a good as a tablet and not good as a notebook replacement either.

      Maybe when Haswell comes out with support for Connected Standby, we’ll get much better battery life for non-dockable Windows 8 tablets.

    • kanish

      When it comes to tablet use, I care most about a robust browser (no need for apps) and battery life. With Windows 8, it’s nice to run Windows desktop software every now and then.

      When it comes to the browser, does the Modern/Metro IE perform well and support as many standards as the desktop version? For example, would you do online banking and shopping on it? Do streaming sites work well? I guess the same question for Android and iOS tablets.

      • Mike

        Ya, the main thing I care about in a tablet is how well it supports the web with its browser. The majority of apps I use on my phone are the result of the browser’s lack of full support of some websites or the phone’s small screen.

        Also, with a Windows 8 tablet, now I can use one of the many great Amazon S3 clients. I don’t use things like Dropbox since I like direct access to the storage provider.

        I’m considering either the Thinkpad Tablet 2 or the Dell Latitude 10. I could wait until Haswell tablets come out which supposedly should have significantly longer battery life than the Surface Pro and supports Connected Standby.

      • dizi

        At least, for those sites that don’t work properly (form inputs get me the most on my phone’s browser among other things), you can fire up your favorite desktop browser of choice.

        I’m also not a fan of often relying on apps when a fully functional browser should work.

    • hoodoo__operator

      This is what I did and I’m pretty happy. I have a Samsung Ativ, which I chose because of the battery life, digitizer, and the ability to run all the programs I need for work and school. The clover trail atom is slightly under powered, but way ahead of the old atom chips.

      I’ve seen several people say that tablets are just toys, or that they’re just for consumption and not for creation, but that’s just not true anymore. With windows 8, the only difference between a tablet and a laptop is that with a laptop, you can’t remove the screen.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnantMalik2 Anant Malik

    A tablet with an actually productive OS compared to mobile OSes.

  • http://twitter.com/stratoknight Paul Son
  • John

    The battery power or lack thereof is a negative for me. I am using the Lenovo Thinkpad 2 with Atom processor and Wacom digitizer too, and was thinking about the Surface Pro because it had a faster processor, better screen, but I’ve decided to stick with the Lenovo because it is lighter, thinner, and a better battery life (up to 8-10 hours). For what I need (no graphics design or gaming), I’d sacrifice the speed and screen resolution for all the positives of the Thinkpad 2.

    • Mike

      I’m looking at the TPT2 or the Dell Latitude 10. I’ve read that the TPT2’s USB port can’t power devices other than a flash drive. Are you having the same problem with USB devices that are supposed to get all its power from the USB port?

      • John

        Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to support USB devices that require power. So far I haven’t needed to use any external DVD drive or HD. I haven’t had any need to use it, considering I have an microSD card for extra storage. I did try a WD Passport portable HD to see, and indeed it does not work.

        I’ve used USB flash keys and a USB dongle for a mouse, with no problems of course.

      • Mike

        Thanks. I’ll go with the Latitude 10. Too bad it doesn’t have silo for the pen.

  • gadgety

    Excellent summary. Thanks for that. ATM I’m looking at the Lenovo Helix which attempts to meet most of these drawbacks of the Surface Pro.

  • http://soltesza.wordpress.com/ sola

    The 3-4 hour battery life is an absolute deal breaker for a tablet no matter what it is capable of otherwise.

    This should be minimally 6-7 hours for simple tasks such as video, browsing and trading pdfs.

    • strider_mt2k

      Frankly I’m surprised that MS is still allowing embarrassing power specs like that to hit the street.

      • CyberGusa

        It’s not like it’s really avoidable, battery capacity density hasn’t really improved much in over a decade. Leaving only two ways to increase run time… either increase the size of the battery, which means more weight, more space used up, and higher costs… or reduce performance to use less power.

        Reducing FAB size and improving architecture can help but until next gen hardware comes out we’re stuck with last gen limitations.

        Mind a tablet’s ideal size and weight limitations, along with price range pretty much limits their options…

    • Matt

      AnandTech’s review shows 6 hours web browsing and 5.28 hours of 720p H.264 video playback.

  • http://twitter.com/Karuko Karuko

    For that price might as well get the ASUS Transformer Book, a great tablet/laptop hybrid design – only problem it is expensive as hell.

    I’m waiting for the second gen Surface RT to launch, I need good battery life and a little bit more power than the Tegra3, hopefully Tegra4!

  • dg

    Samsung really blew this one. All the press is hyping the Surface Pro while completely ignoring the Samsung ATIV SmartPC Pro. Sure it costs a little bit more but it comes with a real keyboard dock and decent battery life.

    I’ve been using one for 3 months now and couldn’t be happier.

    The screen resolution issues in desktop mode is mostly addressed by using the “make things 150% larger” option.

    Samsung blew it because they haven’t been able to keep it in stock.

    • John

      I was looking at the ATIV too when choosing between the Lenovo and Samsung, but I liked the Wacom digitizer better than the S-pen.

      Almost went for it, but it was a bit more expensive, and not in stock, as you said.

  • sesummers

    I don’t see the point. I think most people are excited about the surface pro because they think they’ll be able to run their favorite desktop apps on it. They’re going to be disappointed. I had a Windows 7 tablet for a while (ASUS EP121) with similar specs to
    the surface pro, but without Metro. So I can say from experience that
    Windows desktop apps don’t work well with touch, and picking up the pen when you would otherwise need to use a mouse is clumsy and awkward, especially when you’re trying to use it standing up. I typically resorted to a bluetooth mouse – but then all I had was a laptop in three pieces that doesn’t work well on your lap. For desktop apps, a Surface Pro is the same thing- a laptop that doesn’t work well on your lap, that needs you to hook up a mouse.

    But if you buy it to be a tablet, then you’re stuck with “Modern UI” apps. I’ve yet to find one (on my laptop) that compares favorably with similar apps on my Android tablet or iPad. And who is going to write better ones? Surface RT is failing, and Windows Phone has now captured a whole 2% of the smartphone market (compared to 38% each for iOS and Android). If the target audience is mostly conventional Desktops and Laptops, with a few touch-screen laptops and a tiny number of Windows 8 tablets, not many companies will bother to write software for this platform.

    • John

      You hit it on the knob about not having enough Metro UI apps. The desktop programs are useful in laptop mode, but don’t take full advantage of the hardware and touch interface.

  • http://rct.me.ht/ crashsuit

    It’s got some nice specs, but at that price they’re competing against models like Lenovo’s x230t. It’s a classic (swivel & fold) convertible laptop with a core i processor, touchscreen, and Wacom pen. The base model has similar CPU, GPU and RAM configurations as the Surface Pro, and can be had for around the same price with a 10%-off coupon. That said, I do like variety in the marketplace, and it’s nice to see slate PCs are still sticking around.

  • Abey

    You do not have to go for Surface that runs on Intel chip if price is an issue like me, recently bought Asus Vivo Tab Smart that costed me only $590, runs smoothly with no lag whatsoever even though it uses an Atom processor probably because it is a dual core one. For most everyday computing I find it more than adequate. Weighs just 580 grams also which is lighter than Surface pro I guess. If there is anything to complain, it is the built speakers that does not have much volume but I use a headphone that solved that issue.

  • MonkeyKing1969

    Now that the price dropped on the Surface Pro I bought one as a lark. The issues of battery and resolution are not fixed, but I mainly use a browser and Word on the PC side so a common zoom setting found in most programs of that type works great. I really wanted the ‘pen digitizer’ options and few of the other tablet/ultrabooks options were equal with features, price, and weight.

    That the issue if you tick of the features nothing else is teh same package as teh Surcae Pro. If you want a i5, if you want a pen digitizer, and if you want it under 2.5 lbs you are stuck unless you want to spend twice as much for a ultrabook. And, most of the ultra books I have been looking at are getting trashed in reviews.

    Its not perfect, but it actually is rather nice. Probably what I really want will come out in 2016…by some company or another…but until them my Surface Pro will get me along. Would I recommend it for my mom? Nope! But for someone who needs some key features combined in one product than the Surface Pro is rather nice.