There's clearly interest in a device that converges the tablet and notebook. ASUS saw some of the earliest success in this department with its Transformer line of Android tablets. Once the first Windows RT/8 designs started appearing, it became clear that everyone was aiming to deliver something that delivered the best of both worlds. Even listening to Intel's description of Haswell you can get a good idea for where part of the industry is headed: everyone is working towards delivering a platform/device that has the battery life and portability of a tablet, but with the performance and flexibility of a notebook PC. Apple has remained curiously quiet on this front, but I suspect that too will change in good time.

Last year Microsoft unexpectedly threw its hat into the ring with quite possibly the best branding decision since the Xbox. Under the Surface brand, Microsoft would produce two tablets of its own. These Surface devices would be built from the ground up to address this converged tablet/notebook space. The lesser of the two, Surface for Windows RT, would use ARM hardware and serve as a launch vehicle for Windows RT. The big brother in the family, Surface for Windows 8 Pro, would use traditional x86 hardware and come around 3 months later.

Surface RT launched less than four months ago to mixed reviews. I saw potential in the device, but it needed faster hardware and honestly Windows RT needed some sanding around the edges. Today we have the official introduction of Surface Pro. With a higher price, thicker/heavier chassis and lower battery life, could Surface Pro possibly fare any better than Surface RT did last year?

In my opinion? Surprisingly, yes. Let's get to it.

Surface Pro: Heart and Soul

The heart and soul of Microsoft’s Surface Pro is a 17W Intel Core i5-3317U (Ivy Bridge) processor. This is a two core/four thread part with Intel’s HD 4000 graphics and a 3MB L3 cache. Microsoft told me that it simply used the best hardware available when designing Surface Pro, which likely means that it didn’t get early access to any of the 7W SDP Ivy Bridge SKUs (the Intel/Microsoft relationship has seen better days, Intel isn’t super happy about the whole Windows RT thing).

The i5-3317U finds its way into Surface Pro unimpeded. In power saver mode without being plugged into the wall it’ll run both cores at 800MHz just like any other Windows notebook, but in balanced mode you’ll find the cores will start doing work at a 1.7GHz base clock and turbo all the way up to 2.6GHz (and beyond, for short periods of time). This is the same level of CPU performance you can get in most Ultrabooks, and the exact same hardware that’s used in Apple’s 11-inch MacBook Air by default. I won’t spoil the fun, but it’s considerably faster than what you’ll get in any ARM based tablet. That includes Google’s Nexus 10, Apple’s iPad 4, and of course Microsoft’s own Surface RT.

The performance advantage doesn’t stop at the CPU either. Microsoft integrated 4GB of DDR3-1600 memory (dual-channel, soldered on-board) and a full 64GB or 128GB SATA based SSD into Surface Pro. While Surface RT used a single chip eMMC solution, Surface Pro uses a 6Gbps SSD similar to what you’d find in an Ultrabook, MacBook Air or even some desktops. I’ll get to the deltas later in the review, but we’re talking a completely different league of performance here.

The usual tablet bells and whistles are all still here: WiFi, Bluetooth 4.0, ambient light sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, front and rear facing cameras. The only missing checkbox is the lack of any cellular connectivity. Both of Microsoft’s tablets remain WiFi-only at this point.

Microsoft Surface Comparison
  Surface RT Surface Pro Apple iPad 4
Dimensions 10.81 x 6.77 x 0.37" 10.81 x 6.81 x 0.53" 9.50 x 7.31 x 0.37"
Display 10.6-inch 1366 x 768 PLS 10.6-inch 1920 x 1080 PLS 9.7-inch 2048 x 1536 IPS
Weight 1.5 lbs 2.0 lbs 1.44 lbs
Processor NVIDIA Tegra 3

Core i5-3317U with HD4000 Graphics (17W Ivy Bridge)

Apple A6X

Connectivity WiFi WiFi WiFi , Optional 4G LTE
Memory 2GB 4GB 1GB
Storage 32GB or 64GB 64GB or 128GB 16GB—128GB
Battery 31.5 Wh 42.0 Wh 42.5Wh
Starting Price $499 $899 or $999 $499

Surface Pro comes with a 10.6-inch capacitive touch screen and it runs Windows 8 Pro, meaning it not only runs everything that Surface RT can run, but it also runs all of your legacy Windows applications. Look around the edge of Surface Pro and you’ll find a miniDP output and a USB port. Has the lightbulb gone off yet? Surface Pro has the same underlying hardware as a notebook PC and it has the basic connectivity you need - this is the first tablet that can truly replace your tablet, notebook and desktop if you want. No compromises, no new apps, and no waiting for Flash to die and HTML5 to take over. Surface RT was Microsoft’s first attempt at a convergence device, but Surface Pro really is the first tablet that truly attempts to replace a PC and not just augment it.

All of this of course comes at a price. The CPU from Intel alone retails for $225, that’s over half the price of a Nexus 10. Surface Pro has Ultrabook insides and it’s priced accordingly. The 64GB model retails for $899, while the 128GB model is $999. Compared to similar capacity iPads, you’re looking at a $200 premium. Although to really get full use out of Surface Pro you need either the $119 Touch Cover or $129 Type Cover, so adjust those prices accordingly.

Surface Pro Design
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  • Doominated - Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - link

    God forbid you have to play games just like

    oh my god

    every other device has to play games

    People that want to play battery killing games are obviously going to carry a secondary charger with them, as well as a halfway decent portable keyboard/mouse. This is a limitation EVERY "mobile gamer" would have to deal with, not just one who has a Surface Pro.
  • remain_insane - Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - link

    That is what I am talking about, not play touch based games, unless baldur's gate gets ported to windows 8. Or even carry an xbox controller with you when you are on the go! There are a lot of games that have seemless controller support(with other games that don't). You can even search steam for games with controller support. I am by no way implying that this is a gaming machine, but it will work quite nicely with the rise of a lot of indie games, and older games with controller support. A lot of games on steam backup save files to the cloud so you don't have to swap save files around from one machine to the other. This is just my 2 cents, sorry I was not as clear originally.
  • sweenish - Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - link

    So, thought I'd chime in and mention the fact that most games require you to just click on the screen, and maybe use some hotkeys. But plenty of games are purely mouse driven, and for those, touch translates beautifully.
  • Pfffman - Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - link

    Gaming benchmarks in general seem to have been missed, we could have some graphs and numbers.

    Still looking forward to the case where we can plug in a tablet a the end of the day to keyboard, monitor and mouse and just use it as a desktop. Almost could do it for this, just a bit cumbersome not to mention space management would be a pain.
  • PsychoPif - Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - link

    I agree. It's the only thing missing from an otherwise perfect review.

    I'm hoping that the Surface Pro get revisited as a portable gaming PC. I'm obviously not talking FPS, but League of Legend, FTL, and others would be games I'd like to play on the go.
  • Netscorer - Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - link

    If you want to understand a gaming performance, look at any ultrabook review. Surface is not going to be magically any different, except that you should not expect to go very far on battery alone and once you connect it to the charger, one of the biggest advantages of Surface (portability) vanishes.
    The Ivy Bridge CPUs come with Intel HD4000 GPU and it is OK for older games (2009 and earlier) and only on reduced resolutions and medium to low settings.
    My personal experience gaming on ultrabook:
    Skyrim - no go
    Fallout: New Vegas - on reduced resolution and minimum settings
    Bioshock - reduced resolution
    Medieval Total War - medium settings + reduced resolution
    Civ V - minimum settings, no need to reduce resolution (and it is touch friendly game, hurray!)
    Sorry, I don't play shooters or auto racers, so can not comment on these.
  • TheinsanegamerN - Thursday, August 8, 2013 - link

    Skyrim is playable on the surface pro on lowest settings at 720p. plays pretty well given the limitations.
  • oolzie - Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - link

    Baldurs Gate Enhanced works fantastically on these devices. Granted its' not "high end", but it definitely shows how cool a game like that can be on a touch enabled device. Give it time.
  • Doominated - Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - link

    This review is, far and away, the best review of the Surface Pro I've seen of the 15 or so I've read. The other reviews all mostly regurgitate the same exact information; It runs fast, it has Ultrabook specs, it has "poor" battery life, it can't sit on your lap easily, It's too thick/heavy to be a tablet, so on and so forth, all the stuff we've known for the past TWO MONTHS.

    The only thing I felt was lacking between all the graphs about color calibration and wifi range and whatnot was how altering system settings would change your expected battery life. For example, assuming the battery tests were being done @ 1920x1080 with ~65% brightness, how long would the battery last if you turned it down to 1600x900 @ 40% brightness? How does the battery do with WiFi turned off? Can we expect significantly better battery life if we stay away from a desktop internet browser?

    Obviously, making compromises isn't supposed to be what the device is about, but I wouldn't mind doing a little bit of power management if it means I can consistently get 7-8 hours of battery out of it.

    Outside of that though, fantastic review. The WiFi speed chart blew me away; I would have NEVER assumed there was going to be that large of a gap. Really unique info in this review that other reviewers would have never thought of to work out, a lot of which is lowkey important in how the device is going to be used on a day to day basis.
  • Cygni - Wednesday, February 6, 2013 - link

    This is a clear compromise product. Awkward to use as a laptop, awkward to use as a tablet. You know what happens to compromise products? Well, just ask Microsoft with the RT they just released.

    They fail.

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