For the last three years, there have been questions about what the spectacular rise of the iPad and other tablet computers means for the traditional desktop PC. Are tablet sales cannibalizing PC sales (the “post-PC” worldview), or is this simply a new category that people are buying alongside traditional computers? Will the tablet remain a third device, between a smartphone and a PC, or will it gradually take over the role that’s currently played by laptop and desktop computers? With the release of the Surface Pro, Microsoft isn’t making these questions any easier to answer.
The Surface Pro looks like a tablet, but using one feels suspiciously like using a laptop computer. Up until now, tablets have been characterized by their inability to run powerful desktop software like Photoshop and Microsoft Office, but that distinction is gone on the Surface Pro—a tablet that can run any Windows software. A tablet but also a general-purpose computer, the Surface Pro is blurring all the lines.
Are devices like the Surface Pro eventually going to render the PC obsolete? We decided to find out, by using one to do every kind of computing task we could think of—from surfing the web to designing a website. We broke our findings down by the different kinds of PC users that are out there, so find the page that describes you, and discover if your next PC could be a tablet.
Just the basics
First off, we’re going to look at what we consider the baseline for a casual PC user. These are the functions that any tablet, laptop, or desktop computer needs to be able to perform, and flawlessly. Because of this, we’re going to be a little stricter with these programs in the screen and input categories—if we have to plug in a mouse to check our email, something’s gone woefully wrong.
Fortunately, the Surface Pro starts out our casual test on the right note—browsing the web on the Surface is a great experience. Internet Explorer 10 on the Modern UI comes with a sharp custom interface that makes it easy to surf, search, and switch tabs using only the Surface’s touchscreen. When the Type Cover isn’t plugged in, the virtual keyboard pops up whenever you need it, and when you’re not using the address bar or tab switcher, they slide out of the way, letting the site take up all of the Surface’s screen space.
Surfing in desktop mode is less thrilling. Even with the default 150 percent magnification, interface elements are a little difficult to hit reliably using the touchscreen, and to get the virtual keyboard on screen you have to hit a small icon in the system tray, then you have to manually close it (again, with a too-small button) to get it out of your way when you’re done. All this makes trying to use the desktop version of IE with touch a huge pain—we recommend sticking with the Modern version.
There’s just one problem with that, though. While the latest version of Internet Explorer is actually very fast and quite nice to use, we still prefer Chrome a bit more. Unfortunately, if you set any browser other than Internet Explorer to be your default browser in the desktop mode, you cannot use the tablet-optimized version of IE, crippling the Surface’s ability to surf the web on the go. Pretty scummy.
The tablet version of IE10 is much more touch-friendly than the desktop version.
Microsoft’s email app looks nice, but has a small fraction of the power of Outlook.
The state of messaging on the Surface Pro is a little more disappointing. The built-in email app looks nice, but feels a little half-baked. Threaded message navigation is a bit difficult, and there’s no way to search through messages that haven’t been loaded onto your device. It does the job fine, but you’ll probably find that you like using a Gmail or Hotmail account in the tablet-optimized browser better. If you’re using a non-webmail account, and want greater-than-webmail functionality, your only choice is good-ol’ Outlook, which works just fine, and is even reasonably touch-friendly on the Surface.
If you’re still on the IM bandwagon, you’ll be pleased to know that the Surface Pro has a great messaging client in the form of IM+, available in free and paid ($5) versions on the Microsoft Store. The desktop Digsby and Pidgin apps work, as well, though once again you might find yourself struggling to use their interfaces with the touchscreen.
As a platform for consuming media, the Surface Pro is as good as it gets. The built-in Xbox media apps are pretty bogus, but you are of course free to download iTunes or VLC or any other media players or managers that run on Windows. Video content looks absolutely gorgeous on the 1080p screen, and unlike with the iPad’s crazy “Retina” display, you can actually find plenty of content that takes full advantage of it.
The Surface Pro’s got more than enough power for any casual computing need, and as long as you stick to tablet-optimized apps, the experience is excellent. Still, if this is all you’re doing, a cheaper, lighter tablet might be better suited for you.
You never have to leave the office behind
Now, we’ll start to get into what sets the Surface Pro apart from other tablets. Though others offer some minor-league productivity software, none of them give you access to the full ecosystem of Windows office applications. This is where we expect the Surface to shine.
We’ll start, of course, with the cornerstone of the Windows productivity world—Microsoft Office. Although it’s not fully integrated with the tablet interface, Microsoft has clearly spent some effort getting the programs ready for tablet use, with a number of touch-centric features.
The redesigned ribbon, with its flat aesthetic, is well-suited for touch use. The menu buttons are spaced far enough apart, and the programs can tell when you press one with your finger rather than a mouse. When you do, a separate version of the ribbon is displayed, which is slightly larger and spaces the buttons farther apart for easier touch. The applications also allow you to swipe to pan around your documents, and feature pinch-to-zoom. All the gesture recognition is highly responsive and smooth.
Additionally, all the software works with the stylus. Simply bring the stylus anywhere near the screen and a previously hidden Pen menu appears, which allows you draw or highlight anywhere on your document. This feature works essentially identically across Word, Excel, and PowerPoint—your scribblings occupy a layer of their own, unrelated to whatever document is beneath them, but it’s pretty handy for making quick notes on a shared document.
OneNote has always been a black sheep in the Office family, but the note-taking application really comes into its own on the Surface Pro. The stylus is great for drawing quick diagrams or taking handwritten notes, and the program’s infinitely scrolling notepad conceit is greatly enhanced by the ability to pan and zoom with your fingers. Though Evernote has long been our note-taking application of choice, OneNote really seems like the better pick on the Surface Pro.
Neither the tablet version of Evernote (pictured) nor the desktop version is a perfect fit for the Surface Pro.
OneNote’s never been as useful as it is on the Surface.
The Office UIs look perfectly crisp under the standard 150 percent magnification, and respond well when the screen changes orientations. A lot of programs end up improperly maximized when you switch from landscape to portrait mode and back, but Office works great—handy when you want to type a document using the Type Cover, then detach it and do some quick editing with the stylus.
Performance-wise, Office gets a pass. We opened large documents in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint at the same time, without putting a dent in the Surface Pro’s performance.
File-syncing apps are no problem, of course—the Surface Pro comes with some free SkyDrive space, but we didn’t have any issues using Dropbox, SugarSync, and Google Drive. The Pro’s limited hard drive space (just under 90GB is usable on the 128GB model) means packrats will have to think twice about syncing their whole Dropbox.
There are two ways to use Evernote on the Surface Pro. There’s a tablet version of the program in the Microsoft Store, which is pretty watered-down, features-wise but has a nice interface, and there’s the normal desktop client. The desktop client’s interface is a little hard to use without a mouse or the stylus, but the “Ink Notes” feature works very well for pressure-sensitive sketching.
If you’re looking for a tablet that can give you access to high-quality productivity tools, the Surface Pro is probably the best choice for you. Other tablets like the iPad offer some decent document-creating power, but they can’t compete with the feature set of the real-deal Office suite.
Coders have a lot to love in the Surface Pro
One of Microsoft’s most loyal contingencies has always been developers. That hasn’t stopped them from writing programs for other platforms (see the underpopulated Windows Store for evidence of that), but Windows has always been the platform with the best tools for software creation. We decided to try out Visual Studio on the Surface Pro, along with the popular game design engine Unity 3D.
Microsoft’s Visual Studio is an incredibly sophisticated development environment, with a robust feature set. If any IDE is going to give the Surface performance trouble, it would be Visual Studio. In our testing, the Surface Pro is more than up to the challenge. Admittedly, that wasn’t a huge surprise for us—plenty of people code on laptops with worse specs than the Surface Pro. The real question is whether the form factor works well for development.
Only a masochist would try and write code with an onscreen keyboard, so the Type Cover is a must for would-be Surface developers. Even then, the Surface Pro isn’t quite ideal; the touch keyboard’s trackpad occasionally picks up your thumbs when you don’t want it to, and deposits the cursor at some arbitrary point in your code. With a Bluetooth keyboard, we had no problems with the Surface Pro, and had a great time coding with it at a nearby Starbucks.
The Unity game engine has contributed to the recent boom in indie game development, with a capable, efficient development environment and a college-student-friendly pricing structure. Does it play nice with the Surface Pro?
Game development on a tablet is more than possible with Unity 3D and the Surface Pro.
Sure it does! We had no difficulty opening and editing large game projects, installing editor add-ons, or test-running games on the Surface Pro. The only drawback we found is that Unity is not yet able to handle the Windows 8 touch events, meaning you cannot code and test a game on the same machine—yet. The Unity team has promised support for Windows 8 touch in an upcoming version of the engine.
The Surface Pro is an excellent machine for developers, but think about picking up a Bluetooth or USB keyboard.
Putting the stylus to the test
Stylus input is hardly a new concept in computing, but since the iPhone, it’s been out of favor in mobile devices. And although multitouch is great for basic navigation, for art, you might as well be finger painting. We decided to find out if the Surface lives up to its potential.
Photoshop is the flagship of Adobe’s sprawling Creative Suite, and probably the most widely used professional creative software in the world. It’s also not exactly lightweight, as far as far as system requirements, so we were excited to see how well it runs on the Surface Pro.
Photoshop’s miniscule buttons are hard to hit, even with the stylus.
Quite well, as it turns out. Like most Adobe software, Photoshop doesn’t rely heavily on the GPU, and the Surface Pro’s Core i5 CPU provides enough horsepower to handle whatever Photoshop threw at it. Even when opening huge raw files and applying all the most intensive filters in CS6, we couldn’t get the Surface Pro to so much as stutter. The system’s 4GB of memory isn’t puny, exactly, but it would be very possible to use it up opening a bunch of large files at once.
Sketchbook Pro’s interface features radial menus and can be quickly navigated with stylus swipes.
So for photographers, the Surface Pro could be an invaluable piece of gear. No matter where you are, you can plug your camera into the Surface Pro’s USB port, transfer over some photos, tweak and edit them, and upload or save them until you get home. Plugged into an external monitor (at the tablet’s native 1920x1080 resolution), you could even use the Surface Pro as a capable desktop workstation.
For digital painters and other graphic artists, it’s a little more of a mixed bag. Photoshop performance is still fairly good, but brush lag started to show up with brush sizes larger than 25 pixels or so. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, most high-end digital painting software, including Photoshop and Corel Painter, doesn’t support the Surface Pro’s pressure-sensitive stylus driver. You can still use the stylus as a mouse-surrogate, but the eraser doesn’t work, and pressure sensitivity—an important feature for natural-looking drawing—doesn’t register. Additionally, we encountered some persistent issues with line smoothness across multiple art programs. The problem wasn’t present when we plugged a Wacom Intuos 5 into the Surface, leading us to believe that it, too, is related to the driver problems. For its part, a Surface representative told us, “Microsoft is working with the necessary partners to make advanced features of the Surface pen available across a number of applications in the near future.”
One of the main problems with running Photoshop on the Surface Pro (and this holds true for almost every program in this section) is that you lose access to time-saving keyboard shortcuts. Combined with too-small interfaces, your workflow can really be slowed down. Fortunately, enterprising users have ported a popular Autohotkey script called Artdock to the Surface Pro (available at http://bit.ly/YCrgo0), which adds a context-sensitive tray of touch-size icons that make it easy to access common hotkeys in any popular art software.
Though the software doesn’t have the expansive feature set of more expensive art programs like Corel Painter, Autodesk’s Sketchbook Pro takes much better advantage of the Surface Pro’s hardware. It works perfectly with the Surface’s pressure-sensitive stylus, and all interface elements are designed to be accessible through nested radial menus, so you can quickly control the program without ever setting down the stylus. Our only beef with the program is that, unlike the simpler, app store Sketchbook, the Pro version doesn’t respond to multitouch gestures, making it unnecessarily difficult to pan and zoom.
For photographers, the Surface has a lot to offer. It’s the only way you’ll get good portable Photoshop performance in such a small form factor, and the stylus lets you do some basic photo editing without so much as a desk or a chair. For digital artists, a Surface loaded with Sketchbook Pro is a fun way to do some digital sketching wherever you are. However, for professional-quality work, you won’t want to sell your Wacom just yet—at least not until Microsoft sorts out the stylus driver issues currently hindering the Surface Pro.
While testing a whole heap of software on the Surface Pro, we’ve discovered a few common threads among programs that piss us off. Here are the three main things we look for when evaluating whether a program is Surface-friendly or not:
Performance Of course, we’re going to answer the most obvious question—will it run? Now, remember that the Surface Pro’s hardware is equivalent to that of a decent Ultrabook, not your average tablet. We expect programs to run and run well.
Resolution and Screen Size One thing that sets the Surface apart from your standard laptop is its screen. The Surface Pro has a high-resolution (1920x1080), 10-inch display with a narrow 19:9 aspect ratio. With so many pixels across a small expanse, normal Windows applications tend to look teeny-tiny, and text can be incredibly difficult to read. To compensate,
Microsoft has set the Surface Pro desktop mode to default to a magnification of 150 percent. This solves the readability problem, but screws up some applications. Worse still, in order to change between 150 percent and normal magnification, you have to go into a settings menu and make a change that logs you out of Windows, closing all your programs. If the program isn’t functional and readable on the Surface’s small screen, or requires that we turn off screen magnification, that’s a fail.
Input The final major consideration is how software handles the Surface Pro’s unique set of input hardware. If software works well with the touchscreen, that’s a big plus. If the pressure-sensitive stylus is useful, that’s also a plus. If you can at least use the program efficiently with only the Type Cover—well, we’ll take that. But if the software requires a separate mouse and keyboard, that’s a fail.
Put away those MacBooks
You might tend to associate the trendy graphic and web design crowd with Mac computers, but they have a lot to gain with the Surface Pro. Like art applications, design software works best with a stylus, but absolute, pixel-perfect fidelity isn’t quite as crucial, and elements can be easily adjusted after they’re first placed. Here are our impressions after trying a large variety of design software on the Surface Pro.
Using Adobe’s vector-drawing application Illustrator on the Surface Pro is, in a lot of ways, similar to using Photoshop. The two programs have similarly laid-out interfaces, with tightly packed trays of small buttons. With the stylus it’s not too hard to select the tools you need, but the stylus’s accuracy drops off as you near the edges and corners of the screen, making it quite hard to hit the menu bar at the top of the program.
Flash’s interface is even more packed, with the important timeline requiring some extra-precise stylus work to use. We’d recommend a separate mouse for anyone doing animation work on the Surface Pro.
Like all the Adobe products, neither Illustrator nor Flash currently offers pressure sensitivity with the Surface Pro’s stylus. Fortunately, for creative work, pen pressure is a lot less critical in vector-based programs than in Photoshop, as most linework is done with the control-point-driven Pen tool, rather than freehand.
We opened several very large Illustrator and Flash files, and neither ever showed any signs of slowing.
3D modeling is the sort of high-precision, involved work that isn’t likely to migrate off the workstation and onto a tablet anytime soon. But Sketchup (formally owned by Google, now Trimble) offers a more design-centric take on 3D, letting you build up low-poly 3D models with minimal mousework—an excellent candidate for the Surface Pro.
Sketchup is a blast to use on the tablet, even if the stylus slows you down.
Adobe illustrator’s pen tool makes it easy to draw without pressure sensitivity.
The program runs perfectly smoothly, and building 3D objects by extruding and morphing basic shapes using the touchscreen is very satisfying. For any sort of precision, you’ll need the stylus, which is a natural fit for drawing lines and shapes on the screen, then extruding those into 3D. The major drawback is that the stylus lacks scroll-wheel and center-click functionality, which makes zooming and rotating the scene a chore.
Dreamweaver suffers from some of the same interface issues as the other Adobe software, but on the whole there’s very little drawback to using it on the tablet. The stylus is enough precision for most tasks in Dreamweaver, and the Type Cover is convenient when you need to quickly drop into HTML view. The only thing we’d like to see in a future version of the Surface Pro is 3G, for mobile publishing.
The Surface Pro is an excellent platform for designers who can pry themselves away from the Mac ecosystem. Full-featured design programs like Illustrator work like a charm on the Surface Pro, and the stylus issues that gave us grief in art programs are much less of an issue here. If you’re looking for a way to do high-quality design work during boring meetings or while sitting on the couch, you won’t do better than the Surface Pro.
Don’t sell your workstations yet
If you’re a digital musician looking for a capable, portable tool for music creation, you’ve probably given a lot of thought to the iPad, which offers a number of excellent—if limited—digital instruments and music apps. As a competitor, the Surface Pro is a mixed bag. To start with, the app support just isn’t there yet. The Microsoft Store is a little barren, and its minimal design and low number of user reviews makes it difficult to find the best picks. On the positive side, many apps in the store offer a trial option before you buy, which can be a big help in choosing the music tools that are right for your purposes. Additionally, we found the Surface’s widescreen aspect ratio better suited than the iPad’s for simulating keyboards and a variety of virtual instruments.
The Surface’s real advantage comes from its ability to use the full desktop version of your favorite Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) on the go. We tried out Cakewalk Sonar X-2 and FL Studio on the Surface Pro, to see how it fared for mobile music production.
On one hand, it’s sort of unbelievable to have the sort of powerful production tools like Sonar in your lap on a small(ish) tablet. On the other hand, the Surface’s hardware just isn’t quite right for the software—DAWs are notorious for having cluttered, tightly packed interfaces, and we found it very hard to use them without a mouse. Even with the stylus, which normally serves as a decent mouse-replacement, navigating both programs’ interfaces was hard on the wrist and eyes.
Digital audio workstation FL Studio is just a little too dense for the small Surface Pro screen.
Of course, you could plug a mouse and external monitor into the Surface, but at that point you’d be better off with a workstation, or at least a laptop. The Surface Pro’s 4GB of RAM will start to hold you back in these programs, too, especially if you’re working on a project with multiple sampled instruments.
Using big-boy music production software on a tablet is novel, but it’s just not a great fit.
Up to the task, if you are
Going into our testing, the area where we most expected the Surface Pro to run into performance problems was in video editing. Rendering and encoding HD video are two of the most hardware-intensive computing tasks normal users do, and the Surface Pro’s hardware is good, but hardly cutting-edge.
We were surprised to find that the Surface holds its own quite well in Premiere Pro. HD video rendering wasn’t lightning-fast, but it was well within what we’d consider the acceptable range for home use. In our x264 encoding tests, the Surface Pro clocked in at around 6 frames per second—a decent score that we’d expect from a low-powered desktop PC.
The only real issue we had with video rendering or encoding was that the Surface Pro—which has a tendency to run hot and loud—runs at its absolute hottest and loudest while performing these demanding tasks. It’s not a deal breaker, but the Surface gets hot enough that it’s uncomfortable to hold for extended periods of time, or hold directly on your lap. In addition, we saw battery life drop precipitously while working with video.
Premier Pro running on a tablet? We never thought we’d see the day.
The Premiere Pro interface is hardly touch-friendly, of course, and the software’s interface is a little too dense. On the plus side, HD video looks so good on the Surface Pro’s top-notch screen that you might not miss your larger monitor.
The Surface is a surprisingly capable video editor, and is a valid choice for putting together vacation video in a hotel room, or other low-level jobs. For professional or hardcore hobbyists, the Surface Pro’s limited hardware will send you scrambling for your workstation.
Does Microsoft have a mobile gaming platform in the Surface Pro?
One of the best-kept secrets about the Surface Pro is that it’s actually a surprisingly capable gaming platform. No, you’re not going to be able to play the latest Crysis or Far Cry, but you’re also not stuck playing the same kind of watered-down games you get on other tablets. As long as you know which games work best on the Surface Pro, you can play the kind of deep, engaging, and original games that you just can’t play on any other handheld device. Here are a few of our favorites.
As the only triple-A PC game that currently offers touchscreen-optimized play, Civ 5 is the perfect game to show off the Surface Pro’s gaming prowess. Performance isn’t flawless (with default settings, frame rate sometimes drops into the low double digits), but the turn-based nature of the game makes it a lot more forgiving of lag. The gesture-based controls make it easy to control even a sprawling empire with the touchscreen, and you’ll never find yourself reaching for the Type Cover.
XCOM is a great Surface Pro game for basically the same reasons as Civilization V is—it’s a high-quality, deep title that doesn’t demand split-second reaction times of players. It doesn’t feature touch-optimized gesture controls, but the touchscreen works well enough for any game that can be played entirely with the mouse. If you find yourself wanting a little more precision, try playing with the stylus.
Tales of Maj’Eyal (TOME, to most) is a roguelike—the genre of punishingly difficult dungeon crawlers that practically defines the sort of game you can only find on the PC. The low system requirements of roguelikes makes them great for playing on the Surface Pro, but the best are graphical games that can be controlled with the mouse, like TOME. Many of the ASCII games are very keyboard-centric (e.g., Dwarf Fortress), making them a poor choice for play if you don’t have the Type Cover or a USB or Bluetooth keyboard.
Finally, we’ll point out that there are a ton of amazing games, like Diablo III, Portal 2, World of Warcraft, and Minecraft, that the Surface Pro is capable of playing. We hesitate to call these tablet-friendly games, though, because they still require mouse-and-keyboard input. The Type Cover’s WASD keys work well enough, but the arrow keys are oddly arranged, and God help anyone who tries to use the Type Cover’s trackpad for mouselook. So, though it’s great that you can play a wide variety of games on the Surface, the need for a mouse and keyboard will put some limits on your mobility.
One of the weakest links in the Surface Pro gaming ecosystem is Steam, which is resolutely un-touch-friendly. Many games don’t work when the Surface Pro’s magnification is turned on, but without it Steam’s tiny scroll bars and menus are incredibly difficult to hit. Big Picture mode seems like it would be better for tablet use, with enlarged interface elements, but the controller-centric design is even harder to navigate with the touchscreen alone. You’re better off pinning each game you regularly play to the Windows 8 Start screen.
The Surface Pro isn’t likely to take over as your primary gaming machine, but it’s more of a contender than you might think. For fans of strategy games and independent releases, the Surface Pro could be the perfect portable gaming platform. For action-oriented gamers, you’re better off with an Ultrabook or dedicated gaming laptop.