5 Years Later: My Original Surface Pro Review, Annotated

Posted on February 11, 2018 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft Surface with 30 Comments

5 Years Later: My Original Surface Pro Review, Annotated

Five years ago this week, I published the ultimate review of Microsoft’s first Surface Pro PC. Here it is, edited, updated, and annotated, and with new photos.

Microsoft Surface with Windows 8 Pro Review

Note the name. Many forget this, but the original names of the first generation Surface PCs actually include the name of the version of Windows which they ran. Microsoft quickly dropped this naming scheme.

For the past two weeks I’ve been using Microsoft’s Surface with Windows 8 Pro as my only computer, both while sitting at the desk and attached to a bevy of peripherals, and on the go. Hampered only somewhat by its reliance on a current-generation Intel Core i5 chipset and the resultant less-than-stellar battery life, Surface Pro nonetheless makes the strongest case yet for Microsoft’s vision of the future of the computing.

Funny that Surface would be dealing with issues with Intel Core processors for years to come.

This transition to Surface Pro didn’t come without some work, some griping, and some second-guessing. Its one thing to declare that highly mobile, highly connected computing devices are the future of computing, but another thing entirely to decommission the perfectly usable (and, let’s face it, comfortable) computers I had been using and switch entirely to Surface Pro.

For this review, I’ll focus the discussion on Microsoft’s promises for Surface Pro and whether they bear fruit in the final, shipping hardware. And I’ll compare and contrast this new device with the previously-released Surface with Windows RT. Now that its big brother is available too, we can compare these devices in context, and see where each shines—or fails—in relation to each other. The results may surprise you.

Surface with Windows RT later became known as Surface RT, of course.

At the initial Surface announcement last June, Microsoft presented the Surface products as the hardware accompaniment to the software reimagining it was then plotting with Windows 8, devices that would best “surface” the new capabilities and scenarios in the new OS. That Surface was a brand Microsoft had previously used on a line of poorly-selling and not-well-understood table-top computers was, perhaps, just coincidental: The Surface brand is fantastic, and was correctly repurposed for this far more profound hardware effort. Microsoft, for the first time, would make its own Windows-based PCs and devices.

Few now remember that Surface used to be a “big ass table” computer.

No compromise?

Windows 8 and Surface were both designed in a “forward-looking way,” as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer put it at the Surface announcement. Now and going forward, most PCs are mobile, and not desk-bound like desktop PCs and towers. Customers expect to consume and create content from anywhere and at any time. And they want to do so “without compromise,” which is perhaps the recent Microsoft buzz phrase of which I’m the leeriest. But Ballmer’s Surface address added a new wrinkle to this over-used phrase. He said it meant that customers wanted to take advantage of all of the traditional strengths of the PC—its amazing desktop software library, hardware compatibility, and so on—while also accessing the new, mobile capabilities of Windows 8.

In this view, only Surface Pro meets the promise of “no compromise.” Where Surface RT serves up amazing battery life of 9-10 hours and a very thin and light form factor, it also compromises by offering compatibility with only Metro apps and the handful of desktop-based Office 2013 applications with which it ships. Surface Pro, meanwhile, works as expected with both legacy desktop software (and hardware) and Metro apps. But it, too, “compromises,” strictly speaking, because it offers only half the battery life of Surface RT—4 and a half to 5 and a half hours in real-world use, in my experience—and it requires a slightly thicker and heavier form factor in which, yes, you really can hear the two fans kick in from time to time. More on that below.

Surface RT (top) vs. Surface Pro (bottom)

But let’s not be pedantic. Any choice is by nature a compromise: You compromise on Windows software and hardware compatibility when you purchase an iPad, for example. The question is whether the Surface Pro compromise—choice, really—makes sense for you.

Microsoft as a device company

When Microsoft announced Surface last year it had yet to also announce its restructuring as a “devices and services” company. So while the firm can make an interesting case for decades of hardware making, from its mice, keyboards, and Xbox and Kinect, its decision to enter the PC space was, of course, controversial. Still is. Windows may be the most versatile software product ever created, but Microsoft has consistently gone to market with hardware partners—mostly PC makers in the past, but PC and device makers these days—and established itself as the dominant force in the PC industry.

By staking a claim in the hardware market so forcibly with Surface, Microsoft is signaling that the world has changed, and that it must change with it, as must Windows itself. And it’s correct to say that in this endeavor, Microsoft is copying the Apple model. Ballmer, in the Surface announcement I keep referencing, channeled Apple when he said that “we believe that any intersection between human and machine can be made better when all aspects of the experience—hardware and software—are considered and working together.” And while Microsoft has always engineered hardware and software together in fairly limited scenarios—Windows and the mouse, or the Xbox and Kinect—making the entire widget, if you will, with Surface is unprecedented.

Microsoft is, of course, still dealing with the ramifications of this decision. And despite owning just a tiny slice of the PC market, it has irreparably damaged its relationships with some PC makers, leading to them embracing rival platforms like Chrome OS.

So while Microsoft’s traditional hardware partners will deliver more PC models than ever before in history in 2013, owing in part to the strange hybrid design of Windows 8 and a lack of clarity around which types of machines that people will really want, it seems to me that we’ve moved very quickly into a world where you must first choose whether you want Microsoft’s integrated product—Surface—or something else.

Today, Microsoft only makes two Surface devices. Aside from price, I can’t imagine why anyone would purchase a Windows RT device from any other company than Microsoft. And when it comes to highly mobile, tablet-based hybrid PCs running Windows 8 Pro, the choice really does come down to whether you want Surface Pro and, if not, then you can take it down the list of other alternatives. (The choices are of course different in markets in which Surface doesn’t currently compete, such as 7-inch-ish media tablets, desktop PCs, and so on.)

Personally, I’m betting on Microsoft. This company cares more about the Windows experience than any of its hardware partners, as evidenced by the continued bundling of crapware on new PCs, and the refusal of virtually all of these partners—save new entries, like Vizio—to ship crapware-free Signature PCs that provide a clean and trouble-free Microsoft experience. Microsoft’s entry into this market changes everything. Period. The only question is how long it will take to erase perceptions about the poor quality of Windows-based PCs, perceptions that are almost entirely the fault of PC makers.

2016’s reliability issues aside, I think we can give this to Microsoft: It has helped change consumer opinions about the overall quality of PCs by making beautiful, premium Surface PCs.

Now, I was mixed on Surface with Windows RT when it first shipped in October 2012. This vision of the future of computing was, perhaps, a bit too forward leaning, with its stripped-down hardware and lack of compatibility with familiar desktop software, browser plug-ins, and hardware devices. But if you’re like me, a traditional PC guy, Surface Pro corrects those defects while offering a compelling mobile computing experience wrapped in one the most well-made consumer electronics products on earth. It’s not perfect, partially because of its reliance on traditional PC innards. But as you’ll see, there are some amazing innovations here too.

A better hybrid

Like the OS it runs, Surface Pro is a hybrid, in this case, a device for both work and play, for content creation and consumption. It’s mostly successful in this admittedly tough goal, but it’s also fair to say that where Surface RT is mostly consumption/play-oriented with a bit of creation/work on the side, Surface Pro is the reverse: Mostly creation/work-oriented with a bit of consumption/play on the side.

But Surface Pro is better equipped to succeed in its market niche than is Surface RT. That’s because Surface Pro’s biggest strengths when compared to Surface RT—the Windows desktop with its software, browser plug-in, and device compatibility—are already well-established and work from the get-go. Surface RT, meanwhile, is overly-reliant on Metro-style apps that either aren’t ready (Xbox Music and Video, Mail) or just don’t exist yet, and maybe never will (iTunes, Photoshop, many more).

Odd side-note here. Both iTunes and Photoshop (Elements) are now available in the Microsoft Store, or soon will be. But the apps gap has continued unabated and is still the Achilles Heel.

In this sense, Surface Pro is better poised as a transitional device as well. Metro apps will come, of course, but that doesn’t help Surface RT today. Meanwhile, you can continue running traditional desktop applications on Surface Pro until the Metro variants arrive to replace them. And you can do so “on your couch, on your desk, or on the go.”

Well, pretty much.

Nearly identical at first blush

Both Surface devices share a number of components and look quite similar. The differences crop up immediately, however, when you pick them up: Surface Pro’s thicker body—.53 inches vs. .37 inches for Surface RT—doesn’t seem like a big difference on paper, and neither does its slightly heavier weight of 2 pounds vs. the 1.5 pounds for Surface RT. But the device seems, well, denser for lack of a better term. You can really feel the difference.

That said, it’s neither thick nor heavy, and Surface Pro, of course, shares the same wonderful magnesium-based “VaporMg” casing as its RT sibling, which says “high quality” in a decidedly understated way. If Apple made a “Pro” line of iPads, they might look like this, and Surface Pro makes all other tablets—save Surface RT, of course—look like children’s toys by comparison.

The original Surface Pro was indeed both thick and, given its size, heavy. It’s unclear how I arrived at that determination. Also, Microsoft was, at the time, calling the body “VaporMg,” which just means “magnesium that has been painted black.” This did not hold up well over time.

(In what you may find to be a troubling comparison, the Surface’s industrial design reminds me somewhat of that of the Zune HD, Microsoft’s doomed but well-made MP3 player. Zune is often used as the butt of jokes these days, but I can assure you this comparison is nothing but a compliment. Surface Pro is incredibly well-made and well-designed.)

Microsoft’s decision to limit Surface RT to a single USB 2.0 port is defensible given its content consumption aims, but with Surface Pro, things are a lot more nuanced, especially since there’s no desktop dock in sight. This device should have at least two onboard USB 3.0 ports in addition to the extra port that’s found on the device’s power brick, which is used only for portable device charging.

This complaint has been a constant with Surface PCs. There are never enough USB ports. That said, the power brick-based charging port was a nice touch. Still is.

Also problematic, while Microsoft has moved the microSD card slot to a more accessible outer edge—it is hidden behind the kickstand on Surface RT—this device should really have a full-sized SD card slot or, better still, a small multi-card slot. Or both.

This is, perhaps, a rare time when Microsoft was actually forwarding-leaning with Surface. As it turns out, microSD was the right choice here.

Less controversially, while some of the ports have moved positions compared to Surface RT—which, no, doesn’t matter in the slightest since few people will use both—the port lineup is otherwise solid. It includes miniDisplayPort, instead of HDMI as on Surface RT, enabling support for 2560 x 1440 external displays. (Microsoft sells MDP adapters for HDMI and VGA as well.) It has a headphone jack but no dedicated microphone port.

What? No mention of dongles? This is before we got overly-sensitive to reality

You’ll be interested to discover that two design changes in Surface Pro were triggered by customer experience with Surface RT. First and most notably, the power connector I complained about with Surface RT has been fixed because so many people had trouble making the connection with the previous device. In Surface Pro, the connector on the device has been bored out more to better fit the power plug, and additional magnets were added to strengthen the connection.

Microsoft’s use of magnetic power connectors was meant to mimic what Apple had done with MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. But it was horribly designed, and even the more modern Surface PCs are too easy to mis-connect; the power port magnetically attaches to the outside of the device but doesn’t charge it. Oops. People are worried about a move to USB-C for charging because it’s not as good as magnetic. But I think this is overdue. I’d rather have a reliable charging experience.

Less noticeably, the tilt of the Surface Pro has been adjusted somewhat subtly compared to Surface RT when the kickstand is engaged. This makes the device more correctly line up with a typical user’s eyes when used at a desk, I was told.

Multi-position tilt came with Surface Pro 2. A smooth range of tilt angles arrived two years later with Surface Pro 3.

And the power cable is different. Where Surface RT comes with a 24-watt power supply with the brick inconveniently located right at the plug, making it a tough fit on power strips, Surface Pro utilizes a more conventional, PC-like power cable with an in-line (but very small) brick that includes the aforementioned peripheral-charging USB port. It’s also 48-watts, so it charges the device more quickly. (And yes, you can use it with Surface RT; it will charge that device more quickly too.) The dual video cameras appear unchanged from Surface RT, though I assume the rear camera was adjusted somewhat to work correctly with the new kickstand angle. Both are 720p Microsoft LifeCam units and are just about as lousy as any other built-in PC cameras.

This feature was lost in future Surface Pros: With just a single tilt angle, Microsoft could tilt the camera to be at the correct angle. But once you allow for multiple angles, this feature is impossible to implement.

Also unchanged is Surface Pro’s support for the keyboard peripherals that shipped with Surface RT: It utilizes the exact same Type and Touch Covers, and you can mix and match between Surface RT and Pro if you’d like.

Microsoft is also delivering some additional Surface peripherals alongside Surface Pro, but I’ll write about those separately. There’s nothing dramatic to report here, and certainly no desktop dock as I’d hoped.

Microsoft did, of course, eventually make a Surface Dock.

Unique to Surface Pro is the addition of an electromagnetic pen, which many will lose quickly since there’s no way to “dock” it inside the device as was the case with most previous Tablet PCs. This peripheral garnered considerable applause at the Surface announcement last year, and that you can temporarily attach it to the device’s power connector is cool, sort of. But I don’t see this addition as a huge advantage. It’s just too niche, and if this kind of pen was such a big deal, Windows-based Tablet PCs would have sold much better than they did. Still, it’s clear that the pen is going to be a big selling point for some, and I’ll be writing more about this peripheral in the near future as well.


After years of trying to force pen usage on customers, Microsoft finally made Surface Pen optional in 2017. I suspect very few customers ever both to spend the extra $100.

A tale of two screens

And now we get to the Surface Pro feature that, curiously, has proven the most problematic for me. It’s going to surprise you, perhaps. It’s the screen.

You may know that Surface RT comes with a 1366 x 768 screen, a reasonable resolution for a 10.6-inch panel, ideal for the Metro environment and compatible with the (nearly-useless) “Snap” feature which lets you tile two Metro apps side-by-side in very limited ways on-screen. And you may know that Surface Pro comes with a “full HD,” or 1920 x 1080 screen. And given this information, you may assume that the higher-resolution Surface Pro is automatically “better” than that of the comparatively low-resolution Surface RT.

You would be incorrect. If anything, the full HD screen used by the Surface Pro is, in fact, this product’s biggest design flaw. And I wish Microsoft would consider releasing a version of Surface Pro that dispenses with this screen and uses the 1366 x 768 Surface RT screen instead.

Blasphemy, you say? Allow me to explain.

Both Surface RT and Surface Pro sport 10.6-inch ClearType displays with a 16:9 aspect ratio. Surface Pro’s screen has two attributes that I suppose are technically superior: 10 touch points vs. 5 on the Surface RT, and the separate touch and pen digitizer layers on the Pro unit that enable pen use and an admittedly cool palm block technology that lets you write on the screen without triggering touch events with your hand.

ClearType? This was years before PixelSense (and 3:2 aspect ratios) were a thing. Also, did anyone else even remember that Surface RT did not support the pen?

You’d think that the full HD display in the Surface Pro would offer one benefit in the Metro environment: That Text would be clearer, thanks to the ClearType sub-pixel rendering technologies that can take advantage of the extra detail. But that’s not the case at all. In numerous side-by-side comparisons, I couldn’t see a lick of difference in Metro apps. The text on both Surface RT and Surface Pro is identically clear and crisp. Literally identical.

Metro/Modern/UWP/Store apps have always been comically unsophisticated.

Beyond that, you get the exact same Start screen layout, too, with just three rows of tiles. That’s because Metro’s pseudo-resolution-independence takes screen size into account, not just the resolution. Looking at the Start screens on the Surface Pro and Surface RT side-by-side, you cannot tell the difference at all.

So 1080p offers no advantages in Metro. What about the desktop?

Sadly, the full HD display really falls apart on the Windows desktop, which is otherwise one of Surface Pro’s biggest strengths. Text, icons, and other on-screen elements are far too small to be useful at the default, 100 percent desktop scaling. It’s like viewing the desktop from space. So Microsoft actually ships Surface Pro with desktop scaling set to 150 percent. This skews some on-screen elements a bit, but the overall effect is that it makes the desktop seem like a 1366 x 768 display in that on-screen elements—icons, text, and so on—are now readable and even somewhat tappable with a finger. This seems like an OK idea, and it actually is, assuming you never need to dock the device or use it with an external display. (And in that case, why not just leave it at a native resolution of 1366 x 768?)

See, that’s where it all falls apart.

That 150 percent scaling is fine for the tiny 10.6-inch Surface Pro screen. But on a desktop display, like the 27-inch 1920 x 1080 Planar screen I use, the result is a Fisher Price disaster, with gigantic on-screen elements. And because the Windows desktop is so utterly useless at this sort of thing, there’s no way to set the scaling differently for each display. So you can choose between tiny on-screen elements on Surface or gigantic on-screen elements on the external display. There’s no happy middle ground—trust me, I’ve spent hours on this—and it is not easy or quick to change this setting if you move between your desk and a Surface-only mobile configuration.

Display scaling has continued to be a huge issue in Windows, though Microsoft has finally made progress in Windows 10. But with the rise of PixelSense and other high-DPI displays, it became an even bigger problem than what I saw with Surface Pro 1.

It gets worse. The desktop’s lack of technical smarts also means that all of the application windows you use will be resetting and resizing every single time you move between your desktop and that on-the-go configuration. Every single time. Every. Single. Time.

Did I mention this happens every single time? Allow me to repeat that because it is really annoying. Really. Annoying.

Now, maybe you intend to use Surface Pro without an external display. And that’s neat. But why would you ever need a 1080p resolution on such a tiny screen? It’s not ideal in that configuration at all.

Obviously, future devices (like iPads) with similar screen sizes look great at high DPIs. But that’s because they are sophisticated enough to handle that. Windows, at this time, was not.

But if you want to use Surface Pro with an external display be prepared for frustration. And get used to accessing the Display control panel—and moving and resizing your windows—again and again and again. Anyone who uses a laptop today with a desktop dock and an external display knows what I’m talking about. This is just a lackluster configuration, thanks to a legacy Windows feature that we all know will never be fixed.

And to be clear, Microsoft claims that Surface Pro is ideal for this dual-use scenario. “For the millions of professional desktop users out there, people who use their PC every day to design and to create things, this [Surface with Windows 8 Pro] is a great choice for you,” Microsoft’s Michael Angiulo said at the Surface announcement last June.

That’s debatable. But I have adapted to using it in this way, and as I noted up front, I’ve replaced both my desktop tower PC and my regular-use Ultrabook with this one device. It’s not ideal. But after a lot of futzing around with settings, and using just about every possible combination of desktop scale settings, I’ve settled on simply keeping the scale at 125 percent. On the desktop display, I put up with some almost silly-huge UI elements, especially in File Explorer and IE. And on the Surface Pro, I put up with small UI elements in applications like Chrome and Photoshop that couldn’t care less about desktop scaling. But I would caution any true Windows power users about this kind of set up. It’s very much a compromise.

Performance, heat, and fan noise

One of the coolest things about Surface Pro, literally in this case, is its unique cooling design, which Microsoft calls perimeter venting. This innovative and patented feature channels heat out of the device through a thin vent that runs along the entire back edge of the device, and does so intelligently: It won’t force air where you’ll hold it. So if you’re holding the device normally, in a landscape orientation, Surface Pro will force hot air out through the top and bottom. Change the position and the air flow adapts.

Microsoft touts some new version of this on every Surface PC. Has it ever really worked well?

It’s really neat, and it works. So even though Surface Pro has not one but two fans inside, they won’t ever kick in during normal use. The machine whispers along with a barely audible hum, and it is essentially silent in normal use. This is true whether you’re using it on the go or when it’s docked to a full complement of desktop accessories as I use it, via a USB 3.0 docking solution.

That said, the fans do kick in from time to time. When I’m encoding video, as I do when taking screenshots of the Xbox 360, playing video with the desktop-based VLC Media Player application, or playing modern 3D games, the fans come on and it sounds like any other portable computer. And that’s because it literally is any other portable computer: Beating in the heart of Surface Pro is a perfectly middling Intel Core i5-3317U processor, as I had exclusively revealed [previously]. This 1.7 GHz part, in combination with 4 GB of RAM (non-expandable), SSD storage, and integrated graphics, delivers a perfectly middle of the road Windows Experience Index (WEI) score of 5.6, with the low-point being the graphics. In a demo a few weeks back, Microsoft showed off Hyper-V with a Windows 7 virtual machine and a high-end CAD application as proof of its high-end PC chops, but I think the fair thing to say here is that Surface Pro is a PC. A middle of the road PC. It runs Windows desktop applications as expected.

But until the expected Haswell-based Surface Pro, ahem, surfaces in late 2013 (perhaps), Surface Pro is what we’ve got. And it’s certainly not horrible.

Surface Pro 2 arrived very quickly, as it turns out: Microsoft announced the device just six months later. But subsequent Surface Pro releases got ever more dragged out, of course.


The most controversial aspect to Surface Pro, perhaps, is battery life. And while I wish I could provide some secret bit of good news here, the truth is that battery life is what I’d call minimally acceptable for a device of this kind: 4.5 to 5.5 hours in real-world use. This is a far cry from the 9-10 hours you get with Surface RT. More to the point, it is well below the real world battery life you can get with virtually any modern Ultrabook: Laptop Magazine reports that average battery life for Ultrabooks today is 6:12.

Is this a problem?

You bet it is. And unlike any of the other Surface Pro negatives, this is the one where I think a potential customer could make the most reasonable case for waiting for the next version or choosing another device. And while there aren’t any truly comparable devices, the Samsung ATIV Smart PC Pro 700T comes pretty close: That gets 5-6 hours of battery life. Granted, it does so in a heavier, bulkier, and less elegant package too. It’s also more expensive, and doesn’t offer the normally silent performance as does Surface Pro.

I’ll be putting up with this and seeing how it goes. On the two miniature road trips I’ve made recently, both to Boston, battery life wasn’t an issue, but then these weren’t big trips at all. But there’s no way to sugarcoat this. The battery life is a step back.

The intangibles

Where Surface Pro, like Surface RT, is eminently successful is in the intangibles, those design-related wins that are hard to categorize but are likewise immediately obvious. You can tell looking at Surface Pro that this device is well-designed and well-made. And when you pick it up, that feeling is reinforced and then amplified. It’s something you’re happy to carry with you, that you almost sort of caress because it’s just so well made.

This is an uncomfortable area of discussion for a pragmatic PC guy like myself, something that is more common and accepted in the Apple-oriented parts of the tech world. But don’t get squeamish: This kind of connection with hardware will sell a lot of these devices, when customers begin thinking a bit more with their hearts than with their heads. It’s not common in the PC world, not yet. But Surface could help reorient this discussion in a way no Microsoft product has ever done. It’s not just talk.

For example, in the past week, there was a pointless “debate” about the amount of free storage space customers will find on Surface Pro. Those who professed outrage and surprise at the supposed lack of free space on a Surface Pro are old-school tech-elite PC users and a too-vocal minority. The people you won’t hear from are those who walk into a Microsoft Store, see a Surface Pro, and simply have to have it. They’re not super concerned about specs—yeah, yeah, it runs PC software, great—but are very concerned with the quality of the device and that intangible gotta-have-it quality.

Oh, but it is a PC. So it satisfies the pragmatic too. That’s the point of these hybrid devices, ultimately. Creative and productive. Be beautiful but get work done. No compromises.

But is it successful?

OK, I’ve written a lot here. The big questions, of course, are whether Surface with Windows 8 Pro is successful, and whether you should get one.

Looking back one last time to that original Surface announcement, Mr. Ballmer noted that “the Surface is a PC, the Surface is a tablet, and the Surface is something new that we think people will absolutely love,” with the emphasis on its dual-use, hybrid design. Where Surface RT was a table first/PC second, of course, Surface Pro is … well, a bit more nuanced. It’s a tablet PC, a hybrid PC. It’s the most portable Ultrabook in the world, in some ways, but then that assumes you overlook the battery life issue.

On Twitter the other day, one of the many trolls I seem to deal with a regular basis rhetorically asked why anyone would purchase a $1000 Ultrabook that didn’t even include a keyboard. That, of course, is the wrong way to approach Surface Pro. Instead, Surface Pro is a $1000 Ultrabook where you get to choose which keyboard you use, and you can then change that choice at any time. This is the “something new” that Ballmer was alluding to at the announcement. And it’s something—arguably not a small something—that continues to set Surface apart from the competition.

I still like this defense: That you can choose your keyboard is indeed a strength, not a weakness.

Overall, Surface Pro is, like its RT-based predecessor, a compromise of sorts. I argued earlier that the word “compromise” has been contorted to mean something very negative, in the same way that people use terms like “bias” somewhat incorrectly to cast a negative light on opinions they wish to undermine. I can tell you that based on decades of experience testing computing hardware—or what others would incorrectly call “bias”—that Surface Pro is an absolutely wonderful device, one that reaches a nice mix the pragmatic (PC compatibility) and the emotional.

Surface Pro is also not for everyone. And while I and others will endlessly compare this device to Surface RT, given their shared heritage, that comparison is ultimately unfair, since Surface RT isn’t a real computer. No, Surface Pro needs to be compared to the touch-capable Ultrabooks and other Windows 8-based hybrid PCs that are now hitting the market.

On paper, it appears to fall short. You can’t expand the RAM or the internal storage (beyond adding microSD storage), and the battery life is middling at best. The screen will be too small for many, and when you factor in its 1080p resolution, it’s even worse in some cases. There’s only one USB port on the device, and no desktop dock expansion. It’s pretty expensive, about $1130 for a reasonable configuration with a 128 GB of storage and a Type Cover. (Surface Pro starts at $900 for the 64 GB version.)

Obviously, Microsoft fixed some of these issues in future Surface PCs. But non-expandable RAM in portable PCs (and Macs) is the standard today. We seem to have gotten over this.

But Surface Pro is also the nicest Windows 8 device I’ve used, and by far. It’s better made than virtually any Windows 8 device in the market, with the Lenovo ThinkPad Carbon X1 Touch being its only possible equal. And there’s just something compelling about this form factor, where Microsoft appears to have gotten the top-heavy, guts-are-in-the-top bit “right” in ways that other device makers have not.

Ultimately, I must, of course, leave it to you to decide whether the trade-offs presented by this device constitute an acceptable compromise. For me, the Surface Pro is a far better solution than its predecessor, and while I’m not happy with the battery life or screen/resolution issues, I intend to continue using this as my only PC for the foreseeable future. And as I’ve noted in the past, that isn’t just the ultimate compliment I can bestow on a product. It’s also the ultimate endorsement.

Microsoft Surface with Windows 8 Pro is recommended, but do your homework first. And if possible, try to get some hands-on time at a Microsoft Store or other retailer.


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Comments (30)

30 responses to “5 Years Later: My Original Surface Pro Review, Annotated”

  1. MikeGalos

    Nice review. It's fascinating to see what has and hasn't succeeded in five years, what has and hasn't mattered, how industry reviews have changed and how Surface Pro evolved from "the nicest Windows 8 device I’ve used, and by far" to a defining product in the industry that kicked off a host of clones and competitors.

    One factual correction, VaporMg is no more "magnesium that has been painted black" than the anodized aluminum cookware is "painted black". VaporMg is a physical vapor deposition process where the coating is molecularly bonded with the magnesium. It's no more paint than the antireflection coating on a high-end camera lens.

  2. dsamuilov

    I also had to have it... it worked as my desktop/lapdesk (remember those?) replacement. It was great way to get into the Microsoft’s Surface Pro line, which I purchased every time a new one was released. With a family of 4, the Surface Pro original has now trickled down to my youngest. Who enjoys it as his homework, desktop, and kiddo-entertainment powerhouse (he is only 7). While the biggest jump in popularity was the Surface Pro 3, I enjoyed at the time having this convertible, when everyone else around me was using “meh laptops” and ultramobiles.

  3. pwrof3

    I remember reading this review when it first dropped. I was fully ensconced in the Windows world and fully bought in to Windows 8. I learned all the new shortcuts, Charms, touch screen gestures, etc. I bought your Windows 8 book and religiously watched every episode of Windows Weekly to get a glimpse of your Surface Pro and hear your thoughts.

    It was a beautiful time to be a Microsoft fan.

    If only we could see a mere 5 years into the future!

  4. lwetzel

    Mine just died this week. I have been using it in the Docking Station for a good while to test the Insider Previews. Worked great all this time but it is now just trying to boot but doesn't. I has swelled in the middle. Have read some comments about the battery swelling. Now I am considering trying to take it apart to salvage the hard drive. I have a SP4 I've had for about a year and a half. Really love it.

  5. jgraebner

    The original Surface Pro is easily the most I've been tempted by a device without actually buying it. It was something that was very clearly moving in the direction of the type of truly portable, full-featured device that I had wanted for a very long time, but it had enough shortcomings that I just couldn't quite get on board with it. In particular, the specs were too under-powered compared to what I already had at the time and I was also pretty iffy on the first-generation version of the type cover. The single-position kickstand also seemed too limiting to me.

    The Surface Pro 2 came closer, but still didn't quite seem to be there. Around the time that it came out, I ended up buying one of the low-priced Asus Transformer Windows 8 convertibles, just to play with the tablet mode and see whether I liked it. It was a seriously under-powered system that wasn't really good as much more than a toy, but it also only cost around $200. Particularly after using it as a consumption and light-productivity device while traveling, I found that this kind of thing could really work for me.

    When the Surface Pro 3 announcement arrived, my immediate reaction was that it seemed to address pretty much all of my major reservations about the two previous models. I wrestled with the decision a bit as I had just upgraded to a new Ultrabook about a year and half before, but I eventually talked myself in to it and found myself at the store to buy one on the release day. I loved the SP3, but I kind of regretted that I hadn't waited for the i7 model and also found that I really needed more than the 8GB memory. I managed to resist the Pro 4 for a few months (fortunately, long enough to get past most of the launch bugs), but ended up upgrading to the i7/16GB Surface Pro 4.

    I still use the SP4 as my primary personal computer today and my teenage son uses the SP3. I've had a lot of computers over the years (my first experience was on my Dad's TRS-80 Model III and the first computer I owned was a VIC-20), but I've never been as happy with one as I have been with the Surface Pro. It certainly isn't without its flaws, but it definitely hits all the right notes for me.

  6. wbtmid

    I enjoy remembering classic hardware and software that I may have used or coveted in the past. However, no thanks for the memories on this one!

    I still have the $800 highly useless and abandoned SurfaceRT (plus more $$$ for a type cover with semi-real keys to replace the flat piece of crap originally shipped with the device). Useless then and useless now! Then there was Windows 8! The only thing keeping me from heaving my then desktop PC through an actual window was Stardock's "Start8" and "Modern Mix" programs to work around the worst of Windows 8! The sales hype for the SurfaceRT made sense at the time but in actual use at the time, left a lot to be desired!

    Maybe the RT and Windows 8, soured my taste for the Surface Pro. I know they've made improvements to the product and the stand. When I am at Best Buy I'll occasionally look at the Surface Pro and try to type on it. I do like the screen, but for me, a laptop, with a real keyboard and attached screen, is the only choice!

  7. matsan

    Sigh... reminds me of my worst tech-purchase of this decade. Got the Pro 1st gen when it became available in Sweden (June 2013). My 128GB that I ordered was DOA and at launch date it was no 128GB devices available so I had to swap it for a 64GB (and buy an 64GB SD-card). Add the keyboard and the device was $1950 in today's money.

    Went on a trip with it the week after I got it but the power adapter failed after three days so the device was unusable. Back home replaced the power adapter with a new that lasted a couple of months and then needed a replacement again. The device was discontinued in October 2013 but I had already stopped using it by that time due to stability issues in the OS.

    In last year's xmas cleaning and decluttering of the house it went to the recycling yard and I promised myself to never buy a hardware device from Microsoft again - a promise I have kept.

  8. pjs37

    My wife's college she works at had these and they gave her one eventually as they phased them out for the SP3's and SP4's. It still works really well. The only thing I think she would enjoy more is better battery life and additional angles. Both which can be had from an SP2. She actually likes the size the device because it fits so nicely on the increasingly tiny airplane tray tables and in the car.

  9. SvenJ

    Few now remember that Surface used to be a “big ass table” computer.

    Probably fewer still have seen one in the wild. Not demo'd at MS, but actually at a business. One of the downtown Seattle hotels we were in for MVP Summits back then actually had a half dozen or so in the lounge/lobby area with seats around them. They were the coctail tables. You could look up local attractions and such. They were interesting to play with, but didn't seem to attract as much interest as I might have imagined from anyone other than enthusiasts.

    • jgraebner

      In reply to SvenJ:

      I remember seeing one at one of the Las Vegas Strip hotels, although I can't remember which one. It was basically an electronic information kiosk.

      There were also several of them in the Innoventions attraction at Disneyland, which had a "home of the future" section that was sponsored by Microsoft. Admittedly, that was more of a demo environment, but I wouldn't be surprised if that was the location where the largest number of non-tech people encountered one.

  10. adamcorbally

    i got a surface pro 2 and loved it. moved to a surface 3 to pro 3 now I have 2017 model. surface is definitely flawed and not a good choice for most people but I love them. I would love to see them make more of tablet mode though.

  11. DocPaul

    Fun trip down memory lane! I still use my Surface RT somewhat regularly as a Hulu / Netflix device.

    I'd love to see Microsoft revive the non-pro Surface line.

  12. Igor Engelen

    I'm one of those people that simply had to have it. Didn't use it a lot though.

    Most of my time spent on it was playing Asphalt ? and that experience was nearly flawless. The device got awfully hot after a while but never unbearable.

    Now it's gathering dust, there's an issue with the connector to the power supply but never bothered to get it fixed.

  13. Paul Thurrott

    Personal attacks will simply be deleted. I'm not putting up with bullshit like "fanboy commentators." Especially when it comes from a fanboy commentator who's about to be booted from the site.

  14. curtisspendlove

    So...the question. Are the new (what, five) generations of improvements enough to make one of these a good multiyear investment? I would love to have one of these able to replace a standard "dockable laptop" workflow.

    I'm sure some of the negativity was overhyped. And they are surely more reliable nowadays. The higher cost and other "compromises" don't bother me. I just want it to be reliable for mobile coding and design, and dockable when I'm at my multi monitor desk. (I prefer two decent monitors in portrait when coding or one really nice ultra-wide when doing design or, really, anything other than coding/writing.)

    • jwpear

      In reply to curtisspendlove:

      FWIW, I've been using a SP4 professionally since mid-2016. It has worked nicely for development. I got the i7 with 16 GB RAM and 256 GB storage. It's a great device to carry around in the office for meetings (with pen and touch) and I love its light weight and size during travel--near perfect mobile workstation. I have a dock with two external monitors for desk work.

      I have a mere two complaints and both are tied to the dock. Windows still sucks at managing multiple displays, particularly multiple displays at different density levels. It almost never fails that when I dock, app windows randomly appear on different monitors or they display out of scale (e.g. fonts and other controls are off in clarity and size). Turning off the Surface screen when docked cleared up most of the scaling issues, but it'll pop up again if the Surface is ever restarted without being docked.

      The other issue is that I'm unable to get any mouse or keyboard dongle to work properly when plugged into the dock--it introduces some latency with mouse movement and key strokes. I now plug the keyboard dongle directly into the Surface and have switched to using a Bluetooth mouse.

    • Paul Thurrott

      In reply to curtisspendlove:

      The move to a thinner 3:2 form factor with SP3 was huge. The next two devices were just iterations on that. Today, I'd say a Surface Pro 4 or new Surface Pro has legs for the foreseeable future.

  15. pwrof3

    Paul, do you have an archive of all of your posts from the old Super Site? I noticed they removed all of your old content from there and every now and then I like to dig through past articles. Any way to make your archive available?