Powered by an Intel Core i5 processor, the new Surface Pro tablet computer from Microsoft is perhaps the best indicator yet for where personal computing is heading. Pay attention for this heralds an era of versatile computing that we just shape around ourselves and a fight-back by a technology giant that won’t give up.
Before the arrival of the Apple iPad in 2010, Microsoft originally gave rise to the tablet computing model in 2002.
But the OEMs of the day in assimilating its tablet PC vision failed to realise that most people are not built like Olympic boxers and that an appetite for a more accessible, flexible and simpler digital lifestyle was fast emerging.
Apple stole a march with a smart, elegant and simple device and personal computers as we know them were transformed forever. To put it mildly, computing actually became much more personal.
The effect of this evolution has been extraordinary. It has shown the personal computer industry that consensus does not reign and that is being reflected in the dismal outlook for the PC industry this year.
As we wait for Apple to prove it hasn’t totally run out of steam, Microsoft to this writer’s eyes has appeared to embrace the lessons of what its detractors like to term the post-PC world and if anything is energised by the challenge.
To put it simply: this is anything but a post-PC world.
Learning the lesson, embracing change
Windows 8 has positioned Microsoft perfectly for a world defined by touch and display. It is a stable, elegant operating system that captures the essence of both touch computing but also traditional personal computing where desktop displays still matter to people who like to get things done.
But rather than let OEMs simply do the done thing of throwing a perfectly good OS into a confection of plastic and glass materials bought for the lowest prices, Microsoft has decided to show the industry how it should be done.
The result has been the Surface family of devices, the first personal computers that Microsoft itself has gone to the trouble of manufacturing primarily as a guide to other manufacturers as to how the new OS can be best presented and packaged. This began late last year with the Surface RT, a tablet device with the latest touch-optimised Windows 8 OS that also functions as a personal computer with the traditional Windows desktop there if you want it.
I have to say I was more impressed with the RT than I expected to be. While it came with the same ARM processors you would expect in competing tablet devices, it just felt like it could do more. The USB slot, the familiar Windows desktop along with the attachable Touch or Type Covers and Office 2013 software meant it was more than just a tablet for consuming information, I could, create and produce knowledge too.
There was very little that I didn’t like about the RT, albeit the Touch Cover wasn’t the easiest typing environment and after a while the ARM processor tended to judder in the middle of browsing sessions.
Before I had held a Surface device my mind already discriminated in favour of the Surface Pro with its Intel Core i5 processor and I felt this would deliver the vision of truly flexible, lightweight computing devices that would enable you to be productive anywhere, anytime.
In fairness, the Surface RT came closer to this vision than I had expected. In fact the Surface Pro exceeded it.
Microsoft Surface Pro specs
Looking at them head-on there is little to tell the difference from either device. But once you hold them side-by-side, it is clear the Surface Pro is the heftier of the two by far.
There is a reason for this. This is probably the most powerful tablet device on the market at present because it is also a pretty advanced notebook computer.
It weighs two pounds and measures 13.5 milimeters in thickness and can be attached to a Touch Cover or Type Cover. It also comes with a stylus that lets you write on the screen.
This is actually truer to Microsoft’s original vision of what tablet computing could have been in 2002, if the electronic capabilities, components and design savvy were around at the time.
The 64-bit device comes with either 64GB or 128GB of storage and it has a full-size USB 3.0 port and a microSDXC card slot for additional storage.
As well as the Intel Core i5 processor, it comes with 4GB of RAM, which makes it ideal for multi-tasking.
Because much of our experience of tablets so far has been app-based, insofar as we previously used tablet apps one at a time, the crucial thing about the Surface Pro that you have to bear in mind is that it isn’t a tablet – it’s a personal computer that can take on tablet form if that’s what you want.
A kickstand at the back holds the device at 22 degrees in tandem with the in-built camera at the front which is also mounted at 22 degrees guaranteeing a pretty level camera experience for video calls, whether by Skype or Lync.
Both front and rear cameras are 780p HD LifeCams with TrueColor technology.
In terms of connectivity it comes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.
Because it is also a tablet device it comes with all the sensors you’d expect including an ambient light sensor, an accelerometer and a compass.
The Surface Pro has a 48W power supply as well as a 5W USB for accessory charging.
The computer is covered in the robust VaptorMg casing that Microsoft has selected for its Surface devices and comes in a dark titanium colour.
As well as a built-in microphone and stereo speakers, the Surface Pro comes with a Surface Pen that Microsoft says is pin-point accurate.
The display is a 10.6-inch ClearType full HD 1080p display with 16:9 dimensions.
First impressions of the Surface Pro
Having used the Surface RT for the best part of two months the first difference I noticed was definitely the heft and the thickness of the Surface Pro, but not enough to be an inconvenience or to make it any less attractive than the RT. That said, within an hour of unboxing the machine the unfamiliar weight of it in my hand nearly led to a collision between the Pro and my kitchen floor, and I think the kitchen floor would have won.
Switching on the device, one of the things that surprised me (pleasantly) was how once I’d registered my email identity on the machine it had smoothly copied my settings, email, social media, apps and photos from the RT to the Pro, so from the get-go I was able to continue working. That was somewhat revelatory and is an indicator of how deeply Microsoft has embraced cloud computing.
The next thing to note is the display on the machine. It is definitely brighter and more colourful than the RT because it is a full HD 1080p diplay, whereas the RT is 780p.
The Pro came with a Type Cover and I have to say I find this much better for typing than the Touch Cover. With the Type Cover I knew exactly where my fingers were on the keyboard and I prefer the response from the keyboard, whereas with the Touch Cover I never knew where my fingers were.
The Type Cover makes it feel like more of a laptop experience and it’s worth pointing out that it is also water resistant.
Because two decades of typing has pretty much killed my handwriting skills, I was a little leery of the Surface Pen. But because I’d heard that the handwriting technology on the Surface devices was developed by a team here in Ireland I thought I’d have to give it a go and I wasn’t disappointed.
As you hover the pen closer to the screen you can see a little cursor that reveals just how accurate it can be.
I have to say after playing with the pen app for the past few days my penmanship hasn’t improved much. But that doesn’t matter. When you activate the writing app within Word 2013 for example, the bottom half of the screen is taken over by two lines upon which you can write and as you write it transforms your words into type that you can insert into any document.
I was stunned by how intuitive it was and how it actually recognised my handwriting. If I wanted to delete a word I just scratched it out from right to left. Pretty amazing stuff.
The Office 2013 apps like Word, Outlook and Excel are pretty much an evolution of these products only they sport a much cleaner, less cluttered appearance that lets you get on with the work at hand. All the various buttons and effects are subtly hid behind the various command tabs and only appear once click over them and can be hidden again just as quickly.
The processor speed compared with the ARM-based RT is very obvious as you zip between apps. There is no judder when scrolling web pages and everything zips along nicely so that when you want it to function just like a PC it is easy to forget that it can also be used as a tablet.
Let’s be clear, this isn’t a companion device like most tablets to date are, it is very much a full-blown PC that allow you to run pretty much any Windows 7 or Windows 8 app either within the Windows 8 Metro interface or on the desktop, multi-tasking between Word, Twitter, Outlook and Explorer or anything else you care to run.
What’s revelatory here is finally someone has produced a tablet PC that can allow you to be entertained and be productive, all in a very flexible, durable form factor.
It is maybe ironic that 11 years after kicking off the tablet form factor it just might be Microsoft itself that has finally gotten it right.
In the past week I got to sit down with Intel CTO Justin Rattner and he pointed out how Microsoft may very well find itself in the ascendancy in the computer business once again as its bet on PC/tablet devices pays off.
Rattner said that with the forthcoming Intel processor code-named Haswell on the way, consumers will be faced with choices between stand-alone tablet devices like the iPad or Android machines or convertible ultra-mobile machines that consume very little power and can be either a tablet or a PC if you wish. He predicts that inevitably consumers may opt for the hybrid devices over standalone devices.
I can’t help but agree with Rattner and I think competition in the tablet computer world is about to be shaken up. And, I believe, in a very big way.
The Surface Pro will go on sale in Ireland and the UK on 30 May. Prices for the new computer start at €879 for the 64GB configuration and €979 for the 128GB configuration.