Microsoft isn’t ready to talk about the exact launch date for the Surface Windows 8 Pro, as the Windows 8 version of Surface is going to be called, but we have had a chance to use the Surface Pro and to try out the new pen.
Microsoft also wouldn’t let us take any images of the new device during our preview here at CES 2013 and it isn’t giving any additional details about price, battery life or the internal components beyond what we already know: $899 for the 64GB model and $999 for the 128GB model, both with 4GB of RAM and neither with a keyboard included.
Unlike the already-released Surface RT, the Surface Windows 8 Pro is a full-power PC that you use like a notebook, or a tablet, or both. It runs Windows 8 Pro and all the desktop Windows applications you want, but it’s still a touch-friendly tablet that you can rip the keyboard off of when you don’t need it.
Surface Pro has the same styling as Surface RT, with the same premium feel and the same 22-degree angle on the edges to put it at a good viewing angle with a keyboard.
Yes, it’s a little heavier than Surface RT, at two pounds rather than 1.5, but it’s balanced which means it doesn’t feel significantly heavier in your hands. Lighter devices use plastic cases rather than the magnesium alloy that makes Surface so robust; like Surface RT, Surface Pro feels solid and sturdy.
And when we say balanced, we had the Surface Pro on the side of one hand and it didn’t tip sideways or slide off, so it’s certainly not going to tip backwards while you’re holding it single-handedly. It’s also just as stable propped up on the kickstand. As promised, the existing Type and Touch covers from Surface RT are compatible with Surface Pro and they click in and out in exactly the same way.
Performance to go
With an Intel Core i5 processor inside, the Surface Pro has more heat to deal with than the Surface RT. Microsoft still isn’t being more precise than saying it’s a "third generation" chip with Intel HD graphics 4000, so essentially they’re not saying whether it’s the updated low-power 7W processors Intel announced here at CES.
In action, what Microsoft calls the peripheral venting – a ventilation strip that runs all around the beveled edge of the Surface Pro – works well to dissipate heat without hotspots building up. Even with demanding desktop programs running we didn’t feel any parts of Surface Pro getting hot and it doesn’t feel like a warm air blower the way many laptop fans do.
We couldn’t hear any fan noise either. Surface Pro certainly doesn’t feel like a laptop crammed into the body of a tablet – although it gives you the power of one.
Even with the vent, Microsoft has found room to move the microSD slot from underneath the kickstand (where it’s hard to find) to the right side of the case next to the video connector where you can easily swap it in and out.
With Windows 8, it’s more likely that you’ll swap cards – and unlike Windows RT, you can make a microSD card part of a library so any media files show up in the Music and Videos apps properly.
There’s a Mini DisplayPort output plus and a VGA adaptor
There’s VGA support rather than HDMI because there are still so many VGA screens and projectors in businesses. The angle of the case edges means you’ll still need Microsoft’s own cable to connect with to make sure it plugs in correctly.
Also different from Surface RT is the USB port, which is USB 3.0. Transferring large files, like the 30-megabyte files a DSLR camera produces, takes just a few seconds. USB 3 isn’t as sexy as Apple’s Thunderbolt connector, but you’re getting similar speeds – and there are plenty of fast USB 3 drives out now.
The screen is the same 10.6-inch size and it still looks beautiful, with true deep blacks and vivid, saturated colours, but the resolution is higher; 1,920 by 1,080 makes this a true HD display. It’s still a touchscreen, but it can detect ten fingers at once rather than just five (so you get even more control with music apps, for example).
The new pen
But Surface Pro also has its own active pen so you can tap as precisely as with a mouse, or draw and write smoothly on screen. Surface Pro doesn’t come with Office but we tested the pen in OneNote 2013 as well as in FreshPaint and you can write quickly without the pen tip skidding over the surface of the screen.
When the pen is near the screen, finger touch is blocked so your hand doesn’t interfere with what you’re writing or drawing. It’s a pressure-sensitive pen (although it’s not the Wacom pen we’ve seen on most PC tablets), so the harder you press the thicker the line you draw.
The pen itself is a good size; not the tiny stylus Asus is including with its pen systems or the over-large pen that comes with the HP EliteBook Revolve.
It’s light, comfortable and very well balanced in your hand. Turn it round to use the end as an eraser; this is a large eraser button with quite a lot of travel which makes rubbing out ink feel very smooth and natural.
There’s a large button on the side with a very positive click for when you need the right-mouse button. This is also a magnet that fits into the power charging port on the side so you can clip the pen in place.
The magnet holds the pen on very securely; we couldn’t quite dangle the Surface Pro by the pen the way you can hold the Surface RT by the keyboard, but when we picked up the pen, it didn’t pull off at once and it isn’t going to twist off in your bag or fall off at the first knock.
Like the keyboard, the magnets hold the pen in sideways as well, so it takes a firm and deliberate pull to get it off. Yes, we’d prefer to have the pen dock inside the body of the tablet, but we wouldn’t want to make Surface Pro larger or thicker to make room so this is an elegant alternative.
Using the pen button as the holder means that the usual pocket clip on the pen is offset by 90 degrees so it doesn’t get in the way when it’s connected (and it doesn’t stick out further to be knocked off more easily). That’s also more comfortable in your hand, because the clip isn’t catching against your hand.
That’s the same kind of attention to detail that makes the Surface RT stand out, but this time you’re getting a full Windows 8 PC that can run all your software.
We didn’t have enough time to test battery life but Windows Store apps feels just as responsive as on Surface RT, and desktop programs feel as responsive as you’d expect from a Core i5. Microsoft’s first real PC is shaping up to be really great and really portable.