We continue to marvel at Microsoft's superior engineering in the Surface Pro, despite it being the fifth iteration to date. That such a powerful machine, with such impressive battery life, is as thin and light as the Surface Pro is remarkable. Just be prepared to pay for this terrific computer.
What we love
- Awesome screen
- Great battery life
- Incredibly thin and light
- Type Cover delivers a great typing experience
What could be improved
- Doesn't include keyboard or pen
- Lack of ports
- Comparably expensive
- Type Cover is a bit stinky
If you're a WhistleOut regular, you'll know that we stick to our knitting, reviewing the latest smartphones, tablets and, at times, a mobile broadband modem or two. Our motto tends to be that if you can stick a SIM card in it, then we'll review it.
Microsoft's Surface hybrid laptop/tablet may not seem to fit this description, but it will soon. A variant of this machine with 4G LTE capabilities is set to launch in a few months, which is great news. It'll be another killer feature to add to this killer computer.
What is it?
Surface Pro is the fifth hybrid tablet/laptop in the now-popular Microsoft Surface family. The range now includes traditional laptop-style machines, with the Surface Book and Surface Laptop, but it was the Surface tablets which started the craze.
Microsoft sell the Surface Pro in six build variants, mixing Intel Core m3, i5 and i7 processors with memory options between 4GB and 16GB RAM, and SSD drives from 128GB up to 1TB. In Australia, prices range from $1,199 to $3,999.
All models ship with a 12.3-inch screen, packing in 2736 x 1824 pixels, which in other terms means a very sharp, clear looking display. All variants are all basically the same size and weight, have a single USB port, an SD card reader, a headphone jack and a Mini DisplayPort connector.
What's it good at?
The Surface Pro range is an engineering marvel. As soon as you clap eyes on the machine, it is clearly an superbly refined computer. The tablet is only 8.5mm thick, which is just a millimetre thicker than most smartphones, and it only weighs half as much as the Macbook Pro I usually work on. The fact that Microsoft can pack such a powerful computer into a device that is so slim and lightweight is, still, remarkable.
The screen is a real treat. 12.3-inches might be a bit small for some people, but the quality of the display is a stand-out feature of the Surface Pro. Colours pop thanks to deep, rich blacks, and text is crisp and sharp. It is a touchscreen also, as you'd expect from a tablet, and while I don't use it often, it does give me extra options that I'm not familiar with on the touch-less Macbook.
Bright, pixel-rich displays tend to be power hogs, but Microsoft has figured out a way of delivering really solid battery life. Microsoft claim that the Surface Pro is capable of 13.5 hours between charges, which I can only guess would be possible with all networking switched off, like when watching movies on a plane.
In my daily use I found I would get between 8 and 9 hours on the battery, which is more than enough for a day in the office, and is nearly twice as much as I get with my, admittedly ageing, Mac.
Microsoft loaned us the Surface for this review, and as you might expect, they sent over the top-of-the-line model: with a Core i7 processor and 16GB RAM. Needless to say, this machine runs really well, but it also means that I haven't had a chance to test the cheaper Core m3 variant, with it's much more appealing $1,199 price tag.
In the bag with the Surface, Microsoft included the new 'Signature Type Cover' keyboard case. It's pretty expensive at $250, but I'm surprised at how much I like typing on it. The keys have excellent travel, and the size of the keyboard is great. The Alcantara fabric cover is a nice touch, and if you're concerned about spilling coffee on the fabric, it's surprisingly easy to clean. Not that I planned to test this, but I did drop a bit of chocolate on the case, and then smeared it. Thankfully it came straight up.
The only thing about the Type Cover that jumps out is the smell. It's like new car smell, with a chemical twist. Like new car smell, we've been hoping it would dissipate with time, but after a couple of weeks it is as pungent as ever.
What's not so great
As a comparison service, we're obsessed with value-for-money at WhistleOut, and this is where we and Microsoft clearly part ways. The Surface is an excellent machine, but it is also a pricey one.
With such wide variation in the price of the six models of Surface Pro it is essential that you figure out just how much computer you need. For example, do you need an enormous 1TB hard drive, or can you make use of cloud storage services instead? This decision alone will save you at least $700.
Worse is what is included in the box. Or, more accurately, what's not in the box. For $4000 you might expect to get a Surface Pro with the new Surface Pen and a Signature Type Cover -- a Rolls Royce bundle for the Rolls Royce price tag. But you don't. You open the box and inside is the tablet and a power supply.
We're not expert enough to comment on the economics behind this price, but we think it looks bad. It's the sort of bullish stinginess we expect from the masters of accessory upselling at Apple, and an opportunity for Microsoft to stand apart and put the customer before the bottom line. By all means, have a basic, low-cost option without the keyboard, but when your customer pays top dollar, offer a top-of-the-line customer experience.
The other thing a Surface user needs is, well, a surface. In our minds, the Surface Pro is a laptop first, but the lightweight Type Cover isn't a sufficient counterweight to balance the laptop on uneven surfaces, like your lap, and really works best when there is a table or desk underneath it. If you love browsing the web in front of the TV, or in bed before you sleep at night, take a look at the Surface Book or Surface Laptop instead.
Who's it for?
Microsoft has done a great job in making a laptop for everyone in the Surface Pro, but its price means that it won't meet everyone's budget. If you were thinking about buying a Macbook, the Surface Pro is better. In fact, it might be time for me to ask my boss for an upgrade.
Just make sure you have a few hundred dollars extra to pony up for the keyboard, which though called an optional extra, is actually an essential ingredient.