What a lovely surface it is
Just before Gamescom this year we were faced with a problem – we didn’t have a laptop. Previously using our iPad to cover events, we’d found typing any longer articles to be a nightmare and needed something portable that wouldn’t take up too much space in our luggage. We also needed something that could play Starcraft 2, because who doesn’t need something that can play Starcraft 2?
While wandering around Shoreditch we discovered the Microsoft BoxPark store, a tiny little area set up by Game but exclusively selling Microsoft products. In here they had the Surface Pro, the first time we’d actually seen one out in the wild. It was much thinner than I’d expected, seeing as it fits in a full Windows 8 PC into its tiny little frame, but still has room for a USB more as well as a display port and MicroSD slot. It was a beautiful machine, but expensive coming in at £799.99 for the 128GB version (now £719 online) and £109.99 for the Type Keyboard cover, an essential for what we needed it for. £910 would get you a very nice laptop, but this was smaller, and more importantly an exciting new gadget. Sadly they didn’t have any in stock but once we tracked one down in Currys in the Stratford Westfield, we picked it up immediately.
Our model has the following specs:
OS Windows 8 Pro. Exterior 27.46 x 17.30 x 1.35 cm
Dark Titanium colour
Volume and Power buttons
Storage 128GB Display 10.6″ ClearType Full HD Display
Pen Input Pen input and Pen (included with purchase) CPU 3rd Gen 1Intel® CoreTM i5 Processor with Intel HD Graphics 4000
4GB RAM—Dual Channel Memory
Wireless Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n)
Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy technology
Battery 42 W-h Cameras and A/V Two 720p HD LifeCams, front- and rear-facing with True Colour
Ports Full-size USB 3.0
microSDXC card slot
Sensors Ambient light sensor
Power Supply 48W power supply (including 5W USB for accessory charging) Warranty 1-year limited hardware warranty Apps (included) Windows Mail and Messaging; SkyDrive; Internet Explorer 10; Bing; Xbox Music, Video and Games.
As you can see for a tablet that’s quite an impressive machine. The lack of a dedicated GPU is a shame but the i5 processor and 4GB RAM puts it more in the same league as laptops than any kind of tablet and the inclusion of a full version of Windows 8 means you can run whatever you want on it.
The screen is stunning, with the 1080p resolution looking incredibly sharp considering the screen is only 10″ across. This feels like a huge screen for a tablet, but it’s just small enough to fit in a backpack without any issue at all. It’s bright and copes well in direct light and fingerprint smudges don’t seem to show up once it’s switched on. It really is a joy to use, and films look incredible on it. The speakers aren’t quite up to the same quality, being fairly quiet even on the highest volume, but with a headphones port and a USB port any headset you’ve got is likely to work with it and the motherboard is more than capable of putting out some excellent audio. Around the edge of the machine there’s a magnetic little panel that connects to the charger (being magnetic if it gets pulled by a stray foot or cat it won’t break anything or pull the reasonably heavy Surface Pro off a desk) or can hold the pen that you get with the machine.
The battery could be a sticking point for many, with only around 5 hours of normal usage before it shuts down, dropping down to three or so if you’re doing something demanding like playing a game. On standby it will easily last much longer and despite being on the show floor at Gamescom for 11-12 hours each day and then attending events in the evening, we never once had to search for a power point because it had died.
In terms of heat and noise it only really gets noticable when you’re playing games, even then the fans are extremely quiet and with a ventilation slot running around the edge of the tablet there appears to be excellent cooling, never getting hot to the touch, even when you’re not using the stand.
Speaking of the stand, it’s a surprisingly incredible feature, a sturdy little panel of plastic that folds out from the back of the tablet with a satisfying click, it’ll hold the Surface Pro up at an ideal viewing angle even while on a soft surface such as a bed or carpet. It’s stable enough not to slip on a polished desk and at a push can even be used resting on your legs.
We picked up the Type Cover as being used to a mechanical keyboard the touch cover is a little too difficult to type quickly on for us and we’re glad we did. While it’s expensive at £110 it cannot be overestimated how useful it is to have a fully functional keyboard built into the cover. In queue lines and while waiting for meetings it took a second to unfold the cover, start the Surface up and get working, with the touchpad on the front of the keyboard surprisingly efficient as a mouse pointer. For any more serious work we generally plugged in a real mouse, which thanks to the USB port you can do, and then it functions just like it would on any other PC.
Windows 8’s metro UI was obviously designed for touch screens and for this it works very well. As long as you have the apps you need it’s a brilliant tablet and the on-screen keyboard is absolutely fine. Sadly the touch screen controls are much less useful when using the desktop view, which will be a large part of why many people pick up the Surface PRo. The joy of this model over the Surface RT is that you can install whatever you want on it, but due to the high resolution and smaller screen (although you can change the DPI settings to make everything appear bigger or smaller depending on preference) trying to touch tiny little buttons can be an exercise in frustration. The standard touch-screen interface controls such as pinching to zoom out or in don’t work in the desktop view and really would have been helpful when trying to use the machine on the move or while standing.
For writing up articles and doing some light web editing the Surface Pro was absolutely ideal. It has an SSD so starts up and shuts down in less than 10 seconds ( usually less than 5) and as it goes into sleep mode (which works well on Windows 8) automatically once the cover is closed, it’s easy to do little bits of work while you’re moving around doing other things. Also of note is that if the cover is folded back behind the machine when you’re using it as a tablet, the keyboard is deactivated meaning it doesn’t matter that you press keys on it while holding. This is a tiny touch but avoids a massive headache and means you can leave the cover attached at all times. Thankfully it goes on with a magnetic click so is easy enough to put on or take off should you ever need to. The keyboard works absolutely fine and setting it up as a laptop in the evenings it functioned just as you’d expect from a reasonable larger device, it was easy to type up thousand word articles in an evening or browse the internet and listen to music or watch some films.
One of the hidden delights of the Surface Pro is the Pen that you get with it. Normally attaching to the device via the charging dock when not in use, it can be annoying that if you leave the device charging you have to leave the pen somewhere else, so make sure you don’t lose it because it’s an incredible little gadget. Working like a stylus from a graphics tablet, it measures pressure to a high degree of sensitivity, coupled with the fact that you’re actually drawing onto the picture, rather than using a blank graphics tablet, you have something incredibly well suited to digital art and visual editing. At Penny Arcade they’ve been using one to draw many of their comics lately, which is a testament to how excellent and versatile it is.
Sadly for gaming the machine is less impressive. Relying on the CPU for graphics processing it really struggles to keep up with many games. DOTA2 and LOL are almost unplayable even on low settings with the framerate averaging out at about 20fps. Starcraft 2 is much more playable on low settings, but it looks incredibly ugly like this and frequent has little framerate dips that could be a big deal if you’re playing ladder matches. It definitely works and is playable, but it’s not really the gaming experience that you want. On other games that use 3D effects results are variable with some hitting 30fps on surprisingly high settings (hello Tomb Raider) while others refuse to run at all (so long Crysis 3). This is probably to be expected from what is in essence a tablet, but it’s a shame Microsoft couldn’t find room to put a dedicated GPU to boost the capabilities of the Surface Pro. If you have a large library of low-fi indie games you’re in for a treat, especially as you can plug in an Xbox 360 controller and use that with the excellent screen for what is essentially desktop gaming on the go, but anything more demanding will be frustrating more than fun. Some stand outs include Civilisation 5 which is optimised for a touch pad and Spartan Assault from the Microsoft store that looks and plays spectacularly on the Surface Pro, evidently being optimised for the device.
As it stands we’re happy with our purchase, it was expensive but it’s worth paying the price for something so versatile, portable and beautiful. If there’s ever a version with a dedicated GPU we’ll be all over it and never need another tablet again, but for now we’re still on the lookout for a dedicated gaming laptop for our portable gaming needs. If you’re after a device for anything other than high-end gaming and you don’t need a battery that will last more than five hours look no further, the Surface Pro outstrips its competitors in every other way imaginable and having a full version of Windows 8 means there’s very little you can’t do.