Surface Pro First Impressions

Got my 128 GB Surface Pro today, and after almost 3 years of using iPads, I can say that there is not a fair comparison to be made between these two tablets. One is a fully-functioning computer in a tablet form factor, the other is a very large iPod Touch. A more fair comparison to an Apple product would be to the MacBook Air 11″ 128 GB that retails for just $50 less than the 128 GB Pro with Type cover. The specs are nearly identical, but with the Pro, you get the digitizer pen and a touch interface completely absent from the Air.

Windows 8 was *made* for this device, it runs ridiculously smoothly, even better than the desk/laptop experience because of the touch interface and digitizer pen. For those of you who weren’t crazy about the latest version of Windows, this thing will clear up the confusion you may have about what they were thinking when they released it. The one complaint I have about the pen (the utterly amazing pen, wow) isn’t so much about the pen itself as much as the way they decided to magnetically mount it on the power input, rather than following Lenovo and Samsung’s lead and making an internal holster for the thing. It feels like the pen is almost certainly going to get lost somewhere in my house or car because of this, and it’s just annoying that I have to take it off whenever I want to charge my tablet.

Which brings us to battery life. Not a surprise at all, battery life is not a strong point on the Pro’s side. Tough to hand down too strong an opinion one way or another on this, given that I’ve only had it since about 2 this afternoon, and the UPS guy left it between the inside and outside doors of my house’s furnace room for several hours, but getting my programs and apps loaded and installed burned through most of my battery in about 4 hours with 2 left on the meter. If 6 hours is even a rough estimate at the battery life under real-life conditions, that’s way short of the 9-10 hours I routinely get out of my iPad 2 and 3. Thing is, this is the price you pay for having an Intel 3rd gen i5 processor instead of the mobile chips running my iPads, so it’s a trade-off I made with my eyes open.

One thing that really does stand out on the Surface compared to the laptop experience is how well IE10 works. On my laptop (a 3-year-old HP running W8 Pro), I still use Chrome for most things, nearly everything I do online in fact. On the Surface though, IE10 is incredibly smooth, while Chrome is a little clunky in a side by side comparison. It could be that Google hasn’t worked out all the kinks of porting their browser to the W8Pro touch environment, but pinch zooming, text selection, everything just runs so much smoother in IE that it’s going to be a while before I fire up Chrome on my tablet again, even though it is my hands down browser of choice on my iPads, laptop and work desktop.

The other app that really blew me away was OneNote, especially the way it works with the pen. I haven’t taken enough time to really give this a proper review, but first impressions have been outstanding. The handwriting recognition is nearly flawless, especially given my astonishingly bad handwriting; while playing around, I turned the pen around to see what happened, and literally laughed out loud when I saw that I’d stumbled on the eraser function just by monkeying around (manuals are for suckers, right?). This app is going to get a lot of use from me, especially since it integrates with my phone (WP7 HTC Radar), so whenever I write myself a note on my tablet, it automatically synchs up with the app on my phone, greatly reducing the chances that the grocery list my wife sent me to the store with will be forgotten. On first impressions, this combination of pen and OneNote should be to the Surface what Halo was to the Xbox, the killer app that sold more units than any other feature on the thing.

In recent reviews, much has been made of the fact that while the Surface specs say that they offer 64 or 128GB of storage, the real amount of storage available for user files is significantly less (around 90GB on my 128GB unit), it strikes me that these reviewers have picked a very odd nit to pick. Have none of these reviewers ever used a computer or tablet without an operating system and its related files? Oh, and if you’re having storage issues? Yeah, the Surface has both a microSD slot and a full sized USB 3.0 port you can plug an unlimited amount of storage into, unlike my iPads, which I can’t plug into anything.

Speaking of plugging things into things, I was also able to wirelessly plug into the network printers in my classroom just the way I would on my desktop, and any other peripheral with a USB plug can do the same. This thing is everything that the iPad was supposed to be, but without having ever to download and install iTunes. It is the grown-up, productive machine that does everything your laptop does, rather than a purely consumption-geared device best suited for marathon rounds of Angry Birds and my 3-year-old’s alphabet games.