King of the Pads: Totally Worth It

Just over a week ago, I woke up at the ungodly hour of 4:45 a.m., rousted a buddy from his slumber, piled us both into an automobile, and drove to Santa Monica. Santa Monica, you see, is home to the Westfield Century City outdoor mall. Within the Century City outdoor mall is the only Microsoft corporate retail store in the area. This particular Microsoft store, moreover, was selling a product I’d been waiting for many years to get my hands on: the Microsoft Surface Pro. So, since I stood in line for four and a half hours in the freezing, pre-dawn hours to buy this beloved product, I may as well share my impressions of the Surface Pro with you, my dear readers.

Now … you may begin by questioning how I could’ve anticipated for “many years” a device that was only announced less than a year ago. The answer is all very simple: Ever since tablets began taking over our digital lives, I’ve been waiting for someone to do it right. I’ve been waiting for a tablet that bridges the gap between productivity and entertainment, portability and power, battery life and practical use. Just for the sake of getting it out of the way, I’ll say this right now: The Surface Pro is that tablet. Now, let me give you just a little history to show why this is such a big deal.

First, the concept of a “tablet” is not a new phenomenon. Although the layman’s tablet experience probably begins and ends with the iPad, the idea of using touch to interact with a computer-like device goes back perhaps to the Apple Newton (1993), perhaps to the PalmPilot (1996), or perhaps to the FrontPath ProGear (1998). I say “computer-like” device, because already we’re hitting one of the great snags in any tablet discussion: the question of “What should a tablet really be?” Should it be a full-on computer that you interact with simply by touch, à la ProGear, which came with Windows for Pen Computing 2.0? Should it be a simplified device that only performs certain PC functions while omitting others for space reasons, like the Newton and PalmPilot? Or should it be a hybrid that offers a nearly full PC feature set but then denies you the last few creature comforts seemingly just to spite you?

Microsoft took the first approach, a lot of failed devices took the second route, and Apple and Android tablets took the third. In each case, there were deal-breakers: The Microsoft-approved line of Tablet PCs in 2003 were heavy, power-hungry, and not at all touch-friendly. Apple and (to a lesser extent) Android tablets had issues as well: They restricted access to the file system, forcing you to get your content from a walled garden of oft-overpriced apps that still didn’t do exactly what you wanted.

With all this said and done, enter the Surface Pro—the device that bridges the definition gap of “What should a tablet be?” once and for all. Intriguingly, it’s another instance of the first strategy. The Surface Pro is undeniably a full-featured PC. Flash-based browsing, true content creation, and a full file manager are all present in the Surface Pro because … well … it’s running normal Windows 8. That’s the thing, though; it’s running Windows 8—not XP or Vista or 7. While the shiny new 8 may offer a less-than-brilliant experience on standard computers, it just works beautifully on this tablet. Want to watch Netflix or Hulu? Just open up Chrome and go to the normal site! Want to watch a weird video format? Just get VLC like you would on a normal PC. Swiping and multitouch gestures are responsive and even somewhat efficient, the icons are large enough (even on the traditional desktop) for finger-driven navigation to be practical, and the included stylus allows for more precision when you really need it.

Speaking of the stylus, it’s one of the best features of the whole package. One of the reasons I use tablets at all is that they (theoretically) offer a fast transition between typing and writing, which is useful for note-taking in, say, a math class. On an iPad or Android tablet, however, the only writing utensils available are fat, ugly, imprecise rubber-tipped nubs that tear and break and scratch everything. The Surface stylus, by contrast, uses the same technology found in professional artists’ drawing slates and is marvelously accurate as a result, right down to detecting how hard you’re pressing down on the pen. When you want to switch back to typing, the official “Type Cover” accessory is one of the best mini-keyboards I have ever used, making the keys feel both well-spaced and delightfully clicky.

I’d be deficient in my duties if I didn’t point out a few negative points, so here they are:

1. It’s heavy. We’re talking two pounds. Practically, it’s about as heavy as an iPad in a thick case. Not a killer, but certainly noticeable compared to the iPad.

2. Its battery life, again, isn’t as good as the iPad’s. I clocked six hours of reading, browsing, and some Netflix. Unfortunately, nightly charging will be required for this puppy.

3. It’s expensive. This is probably the dealbreaker for most people. Microsoft is contextualizing this device wrong; they think it’s an ultrabook competitor, when, in fact, it’s just what the tablet should have been from the very start. It should probably cost about $600/$700, but the whole package will run you about $1,200/$1,300.

So there you have it. The Surface Pro: an overpriced computer marketed incorrectly that happens to be the best tablet for sale. Take my opinion for what it’s worth, but I guarantee that only your wallet will be sorry if you pick one up.

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