[IMGCAP(1)]You’ve probably read quite a bit already about Microsoft’s efforts to compete against Apple and Android in the tablet market and the Surface Pro is the latest weapon in that war, but is it right for your firm's use?

Microsoft launched the Surface Pro in February 2013 -- essentially a much more powerful version of the Surface RT which runs native Windows applications.  The Surface Pro is available in two storage configurations – 64 GB and 128 GB. Our review unit shipped with 128 GB, which currently sells for $899 and after loading Microsoft Office 365 there is just over 74 GB available for other applications.

The Microsoft Surface devices are fully touch-enabled. As you use applications requiring text input an on-screen keyboard appears from which you can type. There is also a $129 optional Surface Type Cover and a $119 (now $79) Touch Cover. The primary difference between the two is that the Type Cover features clicking keys while the Touch Cover is flat and has less feedback as you press on the keys. Although these keyboards are sold as options you’ll want to order one of them (I recommend the Type Cover which is closer to using a real keyboard than the touch).

Microsoft Surface Pro also includes a plastic stylus which can be attached for safekeeping to the device’s charging port when not in use. I didn’t test the stylus as I find that in most cases I lose them almost immediately and haven’t found that taking handwritten notes is any faster than using a keyboard (though your mileage may vary on this).

Initial Impressions - Hardware

I’m a Google Apps user who only grudgingly uses Microsoft Office when people send documents that Google Apps cannot cleanly convert (which is way too often). One of my first tasks was to load Microsoft Office to the Surface Pro.

I purchased a $99 Office 365 Home Premium subscription from the local office supply store and the setup only required that I enter a key-code, each Office 365 Home Premium allows for use on up to five computers which is very handy when moving between different devices including smartphones.

I love that Microsoft have finally cleaned up their licensing options for Office. The $99 per year for up to five user licenses for Office 365 is great deal and I plan to continue renewing yearly and making use of Office on my Windows based computers.

Once Office 365 was automatically configured I was up and running. My documents were saved offline to Microsoft’s online storage space called Skydrive. By the way, Office 365 Home Premium adds 20GB of storage to your account. This let me access the same document from multiple locations without having to save the document to a network disk or portable drive.

Battery life is one shortcoming of the Surface Pro. Although comparable ultra portable notebooks may clock in at 7-8 hours of usage, the Surface Pro only allowed for in the neighborhood of 4-5 hours.

There’s also a reliance on WiFi to connect to just about everything save for one USB 3 port through which you must connect to any peripherals. An Ethernet port is not provided which might cause issues for those hoping to connect directly to an office network.

Is this lack of ports a huge problem? In my view it’s not because the Surface Pro is not designed to be a desktop computer replacement. The Surface Pro is the compact computer you take with you as you travel or work remotely.

Boot time for the Surface Pro is remarkably fast, so if you’re annoyed by lengthy boot times on your office Windows computer or laptop then you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Total time to turn on the Surface Pro and call up my document in Microsoft Office was in the area of 15-20 seconds.

The Type Cover is not backlit so typing in dimly lit areas was a challenge. Also using the Surface Pro on your lap requires a balancing act that not many are going to feel comfortable performing. The covers are connected by a magnetic hinge which allows both the main body of the device and the keyboard to move quite independently. In short don’t expect to do much typing with the Surface Pro balanced on your lap.

Overall, I enjoyed using the Surface Pro more with the keyboard disconnected. While sitting in front of the couch watching TV I was also able to quickly connect to Websites and do some light word processing using the on-screen keyboard.  One problem I found is that not all the apps I regularly use responded the same way to touch. For example, Internet Explorer was touch friendly and I could resize screens easily. Google Chrome however was not. This disparity is certainly not Microsoft’s fault, but it also prevented me from feeling as if I was having a full tablet experience.

Ultimately, the Surface Pro is probably not going to replace your laptop. Will it replace your tablet? That depends mostly on what you use the tablet for. Certainly if you have a need to run Windows applications on a tablet form factor the answer is a resounding yes. If you travel extensively where computer space (think airline tray table) is a premium or you primarily want to check your email and browse the Web while watching TV using a touch interface – then the answer is an even bigger Yes.

Initial Impressions – Windows 8 on the Surface Pro

Prior to testing the Windows Surface Pro I had some experience with Windows 8 on my office and home computers. Unlike in the past when I’d waited to upgrade to a new version of Windows until my computer needed replacing I chose to upgrade both my computers to Windows 8 and the process was one of the smoothest Microsoft operating system upgrades I’ve ever done.

The introduction of Windows 8 has upset quite a few people who weren’t ready for the amount of change that introducing a touch based operating system might require. However in my daily use Windows 8 has been smooth and trouble free. Larger corporations however clearly have more to think about before rolling out such a radically new looking operating system for hundreds or even thousands of desktops. Smaller companies (or individuals) should have less hesitation about Windows 8 since in my experience the learning curve was short.

Overall Impressions

During testing I found Windows Surface Pro to be a solid device. I missed the backlit keyboard of my laptop but generally found that I could adjust rather quickly. The biggest annoyance was that using the Surface Pro on a lap (for example while watching TV) was difficult unless you balanced the device just the right way.

The viewing angle of the screen when combined with a keyboard is also fixed. While sitting at a table and typing the screen displays at what I consider to be an ideal angle. However I didn’t get a chance to test the viewing angle on a more compact area such as an airline tray table where you could find that you want more latitude in the viewing angle as the passenger in front reclines forcing you to shift the location of the screen.

The included power supply has an extra USB port which is handy for charging peripherals such as smartphones. If you’re familiar with Apple’s power connectors you’ll recognize that Microsoft seems to have copied the design though connecting and disconnecting the adapter from the Surface Pro requires considerably more work.

Big Pluses

  • Sturdy build quality
  • Runs virtually all Windows apps
  • Fast boot time
  • Easily connect/disconnect keyboard

What it needs

  • Longer battery life
  • Keyboard with backlit keys
  • A docking station should be available for wired connections when in the office
  • Final Thoughts

As I said at the beginning of this review I’m pretty firmly in the Google Apps camp in terms of word processor and spreadsheet use. If I were more heavily reliant on Microsoft Office – and especially if I travelled more – I’d definitely consider purchasing a Surface Pro though probably only a 128 GB. Microsoft is set to announce an update to the Surface line shortly. They’re also offering various trade-in promotions where you can take your iPad to a Microsoft store and receive $200 toward a new Surface.
Wayne Schulz is the founder of Schulz Consulting. He began his career working for two professional service organizations and managing their consulting divisions. He has been active not only with the implementation of Sage 100 ERP software(formerly MAS 90 and MAS 200), but often is engaged to help clients design or evaluate their current accounting procedures.

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