Microsoft Surface Pro 128GB Review

Background

I am not the typical computer and tablet user.  I need my devices to be versatile and powerful.  Here are a few examples of things I do regularly on my devices:

  • Run various heavy-duty applications
    • AutoCAD
    • SolidWorks
    • Mathematica
    • VisualStudio
    • Photoshop/GIMP
  • Run virtual machines
  • Programming & Web Design
    • Run various IDEs and code editors
    • Run a variety of compilers
    • Be able to test code on multiple platforms in multiple scenarios
  • Photo and Video Editing
  • Note taking and management
  • Gaming

Over the years, I have tried out a variety of setups and workflow patterns, and have boiled down my minimum needs to the following:

  • A desktop with multiple monitors, enough power to run high-end video games, and the ability to run numerous operating systems.
  • A portable device capable of running heavy-duty applications and multiple operating systems.
  • A method of taking and electronically managing notes.
  • Regular internet access.

Up until last week, here is the best combination of devices I have used:

  • A custom built desktop with some of the latest hardware connected to two 22″ monitors and one 17″ monitor running Windows 8 Pro and Linux Mint Debian in a dual-boot configuration.  Also has multiple virtual machines running previous Windows versions, a few distros of Linux, and OSX.
  • A mid to high-end laptop running Windows 7 Home Premium and Linux Mint Debian in a dual-boot configuration.
  • An Android Asus TF300T tablet with Adonit Jot Pro stylus.
  • An Android Droid Razr Maxx smartphone with unlimited data plan, and PDANet+ WiFi tether app.

This setup has some inherent problems.  The primary one being the two portable devices (excluding the phone) when one should do.  The laptop is too heavy and bulky to carry some places, and is next to useless for taking serious notes in meetings and classes (heavy math and science classes with lots of odd notations).  The tablet is little more than a toy for occasional surfing of the Internet and playing Angry Birds.  It can be used for note taking, but styluses barely work, and serious typing is out of the question, even when paired with a hardware keyboard.

Enter the Microsoft Surface Pro

 

On paper, Microsoft’s Surface Pro seems to fit my needs well.  It has all the power of a high-end laptop, and roughly the same portability as the Android Asus TF300T tablet.  It’s oft-criticized lower battery life and surplus weight are not issues for me.  I am not so far from the outlet that several hours of battery life won’t work, and 2 pounds is still easily held in one hand.  As such, on the day of release, I sat down to order the 128GB model and the type cover keyboard.  However, due to severe supply issues, they were sold out, and I didn’t get mine until March 1st.

After using it for a few days, it is fantastic.  I have sold my laptop, and will sell my Asus TF300T shortly.  The Microsoft Surface Pro takes the best elements from both of them and packs it into one well engineered design.  My complaints are very few and far between.

 

 Operating System

It is a full-blown computer.  If Windows 8 doesn’t suit you, install a previous version of Windows or Linux.  However, I encourage you to leave on Windows 8.  Even if you are a fan of Apple OSX and iOS, a Linux power user, or are turned off by the new stuff in Windows 8…  give it a few weeks before wiping.  I upgraded my desktop to Windows 8 several months ago, so I had already gotten used to new Start menu, the charms bar, and the whole app paradigm.  I hated it at first, and although getting used to it ended the hate, I still don’t care much for it on a traditional keyboard and mouse setup (don’t break what isn’t broken).  But it is wonderful for a touch operated device.  You get all of the power of a full-blown Windows installation with the easy touch manipulation that can be found on iPads, Kindles, and other tablets.  The user interface is smooth, responsive, and fairly intuitive.

But even better than the great design of the touch operating system is the fact that it is actually, truly Windows.  Anything that the previous Windows 7 does can be done on this tablet.  This means that I can run virtual machines, an apache server, compilers, photoshop, et cetera.  And it has the underlying horsepower to drive all of them smoothly.

 

Apps

As reviewer upon reviewer has pounded to death…  the Windows Store is still light in the apps department.  Most of the fundamentals are there, but it pales in size next to its chief competitors.  However, unlike most of those reviewers, I couldn’t care less.  First of all, if you install BlueStacks, most Android apps will work right there on your tablet.  Meaning that not only do you have the Windows Store, but also the Google Play Store, the Amazon App Store, and any other sources for Android apps at your fingertips.  Second, regardless of the device, most apps suck.  The truly well-designed, fully functional apps are the exception, not the rule.  Most offer a watered down version of something you could find on the Internet (such as Facebook apps and email), or in a full desktop application (such as Internet browsers and office suites).  With the Surface Pro, you have access to all major web browsers (Firefox, Chrome, IE, Opera, Safari, et cetera), and, they’ll behave like real, computer web browsers, not like phone web browsers.  So they don’t serve up crippled mobile sites, and they benefit from the fact that most web designers actually test their sites in those browsers, so they display correctly and work.  You also have access to all Windows desktop programs in all their glory.

Yes, the number of apps is limited.  But unlike other tablets and phones, apps are only a fraction of what you can do on this device.

 

Battery Life

This is one of the most disappointing aspects of the Surface Pro, and honestly, it’s not bad at all.  I have yet to use it in one marathon, battery draining session, so I don’t have an exact battery life metric.  Other users seem to get about 4 to 5 hours, and that seems about right to me.  This, when compared to the 1 to 3 days I got on my ASUS TF300T, is lackluster.  But honestly, there was only one time when I utilized the TF300T battery life and didn’t have reasonable access to a plug.  I took it on a trip, and used it as a road map to navigate across northern England, Wales, and a little bit of Scotland.  The Surface Pro’s battery would die an inglorious death long before reaching the desired destination, but the TF300T kept on ticking with battery to spare.  Overall, I don’t expect this to be too much of a problem.  It will require being more battery conscious than I had to be before, but easily and reasonably doable.

 

Storage Space

I opted for the 128GB model, and after the Windows installation and the recovery partition, there’s a bit more than 80GB left.  I expect this to be more than enough as I never used more than a few dozen gigabytes on my previous laptop and tablet.  If this does become a problem, a 64GB SD card could always be added.  I do recommend paying the extra $100 dollars for the 128GB model and not settling for the 64GB one.  With modern software, 64 GBs is easy to burn through.

 

Build Quality

In short, fantastic.  Rock solid construction with no cheap or weak feeling parts.  I have only a select few minor gripes.

  1. The pen/stylus attaches to the magnetic charging port.  The grip is not particularly strong.  It probably won’t fall out during general use, but it can be knocked off from time to time… particularly in bags.
  2. Also, the attachment to the charging port prevents having the pen attached and charging at the same time.
  3. Attaching the pen and charging cable are finicky to attach. They don’t just snap in, you have to align them just right.
  4. While the kickstand is surprisingly useful, it would be even more so if it would work at multiple angles.  Instead, it sits at one, and only one angle.
  5. It gets a little hot.  Not terrible, but definitely warm.

Again, these are very minor, and considering how much this device has to offer, it is amazing that this is the extent of it.

 

Pen / Stylus

This is a Wacom pen stylus with pressure sensitivity.  It works beautifully.  No noticeable lag, and extreme accuracy.  It’s very similar to writing with pen and paper.  Perfect for note taking when accompanied by the proper note taking software (like the free OneNote app in the Windows Store).

Below is a video I made which shows writing on a Microsoft Surface Pro.

 

Keyboard

First, the onscreen keyboard.  It’s good.  Personally, I prefer the Swiftkey keyboard I had on my Android tablet, but Microsoft’s keyboard works well.

Second, the type cover keyboard.  For an extra $120 or so dollars, you can get one of two keyboard “covers.”  The touch cover which is basically a flat touch sensitive pad.  And, the type cover keyboard which is a very thin traditional keyboard.  I opted for the type cover.  It is ever so slightly little thicker and heavier than the touch cover, but it is a normal keyboard, so I don’t have to get used to anything.

The type cover is excellent, and complements the Surface Pro well.  Attaching and removing the keyboard is a breeze, when folded out like a laptop’s would be, it works just as one would expect.  The tactile feedback is very good, and it is easy to type on, even with big hands like mine.  In fact, this whole post was written using the Surface Pro and the type cover.  When you want to treat the Surface Pro like a tablet, the keyboard will fold up behind the tablet and be disabled so that no buttons are accidentally pressed.  Windows handles this seamlessly… when the type cover is folded back and disabled, the onscreen keyboard will popup when appropriate, but when the type cover is out and enabled, the onscreen keyboard never shows up.  Very well though out, designed, engineered, and implemented.

 

Verdict

6 stars out of 5.  This is a great device.  Contrary to what many reviewers are doing, you should not compare this to a tablet like the iPad.  The iPad is closer to a smartphone than anything else.  The Surface Pro is a laptop computer, and leaves smartphone-esque tablets in the dust.  The closest comparison is to a very high-end ultrabook.  Bearing that in mind, the high price tag and moderately low battery life is actually just about right.    If an iPad doesn’t do enough, but the idea of a tablet is still appealing, you want this bad boy.

 


 

I have posted another review of this tablet, which benefits from more experience with the device, to supplement this one.  You can find it here.

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