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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.