The device is built around an Intel i5 processor that gives it plenty of power to run intensive CAD-CAM applications, but it also has the capability and portability to perform as a tablet and notebook. At 2 pounds, it's light enough to carry around all day for workers whose jobs demand mobility. (Watch a slideshow of Surface's features.)
TEST YOURSELF: The Windows 8 quiz ]
Plus the device runs Windows 8, giving it the inherent security advantages the operating system has over Windows 7. And for those who don't like Windows 8, the 128GB version of the device has enough SSD space to run Windows 7 in its own partition.
There has been a good deal of complaining about the characterization of SSD storage capacity in Surface Pro. The models come with 64GB or 128GB drives, but significant chunks of those drives are unavailable as user space. Microsoft says only 23GB is available with the 64GB SSD and the 128GB version has only 83GB available. (The 128GB test loaner we had said 84.5GB was available.)
Microsoft says various external USB drives, cloud services (including Microsoft SkyDrive that comes with the device) and use of the microSDXC slot all represent options for expanding storage space for those who need it.
Battery life for the device is somewhere between 4.5 and 5 hours, Microsoft says, but it can be worse depending on what tasks it's performing. That's less than desirable for busy road warriors. The battery can't be popped out and replaced with one that's freshly charged as is the case with most laptops.
The keyboard -- which is sold separately -- can be flipped under or removed for the device to be used as a tablet or notebook. A stylus using Wacom Passive Pen technology comes standard supporting an eraser and right mouse-click.
The keyboards' performances are significantly different. Touch has a flat surface with the keyboard image embossed on it. The "keys" don't depress, but they do respond to finger-tap pressure. The Type has mechanical keys that do depress.
The best trial time our test subject turned in during a typing test using Type keyboard was 97 words per minute with 99.5% accuracy. With Touch it was 83 wpm with 97.2% accuracy. (The test subject says tactile feedback is important to a good score, and Touch gives less than Type. Also there's a tendency initially to type harder with Touch than is necessary, which reduces speed.)
The keyboards attach to the computer via magnetic strips strong enough to dangle the 2-pound tablet from the keyboard without fear of its falling off. When the keyboard is folded under to use the device as a tablet or notebook, a switch in the hinge turns off keyboard input so it doesn't fire off random keystrokes.
Surface Pro comes in two models: 64GB SSD for $899; 128GB SSD for $999. That doesn't include either Touch ($120) or Type ($130), so the unit with keyboard could cost as much as $1130.
That's a lot of money for a tablet, but if it's for a worker who uses both a tablet and a full desktop, it becomes more reasonable by eliminating the need for two devices. Plus Surface Pro runs any application that runs on Windows 7, so it supports whatever standard corporate application image is currently in use.
Also by virtue of running Windows 8, Surface Pro has better security than Windows 7 in a range of areas, including secure boot and two options for restoring machines to earlier versions if they get corrupted.
Windows 8 also supports Windows To Go, a full manageable image of a Windows 8 machine on a memory stick that can boot up the image on any Windows 8 or Windows 7 host. This means workers can carry their desktop in their pocket and work on it using borrowed devices.
Getting back to Surface Pro itself, a prop that Microsoft calls a kickstand pops out the back to hold the screen upright when Surface Pro is being used as a laptop. That increases the tabletop footprint of the device from 10.81 x 6.81 inches to 10.81 x 10 inches. A conventional laptop with a screen whose hinges hold it up could sit in the smaller space.
The device has front- and rear-facing 720p cameras for still and video photography and to support video calls like Skype. Because of the fixed angle of the screen where the front-facing camera is positioned, Microsoft has angled the lens to properly frame the user. But depending on how tall the user is, the height of the chair and the height of the desk, the user's image can be cropped.
The 1.7GHz Intel processor generates significant heat so Surface Pro is equipped with two fans that are vented through a thin slot that runs along all four sides of the edge. Microsoft says it has patented fan technology that taps into the device's accelerometer, which supplies information about what angle it's being held at and automatically optimizes the spinning of the fans to cool most effectively.
The fans are virtually inaudible in an office building whose HVAC system is running, but they can be heard. Despite the fans, when put under load the processor makes the whole unit noticeably warm anyway but not hot.
Tim Greene covers Microsoft for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @Tim_Greene.
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