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Microsoft Surface Pro hands-on impressions

Jon Phillips | Jan. 11, 2013
Perhaps you remember Surface RT. It was Microsoft's bid to become a legitimate computer hardware manufacturer--a Windows-based tablet with a clever, snappy, magnetically attached keyboard cover. It looked great. It felt great. It had all the pluck and presence of Grade A industrial design.

About that pen

The Surface Pro's pen attaches to the tablet's magnetic power adapter port when it's not in use. The fit is snug enough, I guess, and it clamps down to the tablet chassis with all the grip of the power connector itself. But the storage system for the digitizer still worries me. I'm used to storing tablet styluses inside hardware, not having them hang off the side. How many weeks before these pens are lost en masse?

Regardless, the pen itself performed relatively well when drawing in digital ink. There was the slightest--slightest--bit of lag in drawing response, but while it was noticeable, it wasn't consequential. Microsoft couldn't tell me how many levels of pressure sensitivity are offered by the pen, but simply having a full-fledged Windows tablet that can get close to a Wacom pad is a nice bonus feature.

Performance: Smooth, like a PC should

The new Surface will ship with an Intel Core i5 processor, integrated Intel graphics, and 4GB of RAM. Microsoft isn't disclosing clock speeds. I only had a brief amount of time with the machine, and Microsoft didn't demo any desktop applications--but let's all take a moment to thank the more sensible architects in Redmond for letting us run full desktop applications in Microsoft's latest tablet.

(A quick refresher for Windows RT know-nots: The so-called desktop in Windows RT only runs Microsoft Office and basic file system functions. You cannot install traditional Windows desktop applications, and as a result, the RT "desktop" feels like a functionless, pointless, vestigial artifact. Its lack of utility is actually distracting. But the Surface Pro tablet runs a full version of Windows 8, so its desktop is open for business--literally, metaphorically, magnificently.)

Surface Pro did feel a wee bit faster in the modern, live-tiled Windows interface, and that actually says something for the performance of Intel silicon, given that Surface RT's ARM processor is more than capable of handling the new Windows U.I. Of course, the real test will come when we run full-fledged Windows apps and games in desktop mode. My expectation is that we'll find performance perfectly commensurate to i5 machines running the same specs.

During the demo, we did fire up the first-person shooter Bulletstorm, and its frame rate at 1920x1080 was smooth enough to play, but didn't look butter smooth in 60fps+ territory. Still, if nothing else, the game demo did prove that Surface Pro is a legitimate performer, and can deliver what one would expect from other Windows 8/Intel tablet combos running similar components.

Unlike the completely passively cooled Surface RT, the Surface Pro has two built-in fans. During the demo, the fans were perfectly quiet when I was using the Pro as a conventional tablet. I was warned the sound levels would increase during game play, but Bulletstorm was loud enough to drown out the fans (that is, if they were increasing in volume at all).


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