Confession: when the new Surface Pro was announced back in May I was distinctly underwhelmed.
I'd fully expected a new Surface Pro 5 to land with a planet-splitting, subsonic boom; my fevered little imagination had equipped it with a 5K screen, a Type Cover hewn from alien hide, and an all-new Intel processor that was eight times the speed of any previously known chip. All for the low, low price of £199 (S$355), keyboard included.
So to find that the Pro 5 was, in fact, simply the Surface Pro, and that it was basically a vigorous refresh of the existing model accompanied by a price hike, was a bit disappointing. But then, as the news sank in, I came to realise that my hunger for seismic change may have been ill considered.
Sure, the original Surface Pro was obviously undercooked when it launched back in February of 2013, suffering as it did from soul-destroying bugs that took months (and what seemed like countless hour-long firmware updates) to eradicate. But let’s give Microsoft credit for its patience and faith: the Surface Pro format has carefully evolved into something that tons of other manufacturers shamelessly emulate (take a bow, HP, Lenovo, Acer and Asus).
And as the Surface’s problems have evaporated with the fixes, so the sales have steadily increased. So I kind of understand Microsoft’s reluctance to risk wrecking a winning formula with all-new features or out-of-kilter hardware changes. The Pro’s hybrid format clearly has a place in the world, which means that the job is to tweak everything until it shuffles a little closer to perfection.
If you accept that as true (and that’s a big ‘if’, I know), the question then becomes… do the latest Pro’s refinements represent actual improvements, and do they warrant the price hike?
The 12.3in display: why change perfection?
The Surface Pro 4's PixelSense screen was stunning - so stunning that Microsoft has sensibly carried it straight over to the Surface Pro.
It's a 3:2 ratio, 12.3in screen set to a native 2736 x 1824 resolution, offering 267 pixels per inch. As impressive as those numbers (still) are, they cannot hope to tell the story of how good this screen is in everyday use.
It's calibrated beautifully; colours pop without suffering from the glaring vibrancy that afflicts some rivals (hello, Samsung); you can look at the Surface Pro's screen for hours without tiring your eyes; and text is beautifully crisp, almost regardless of how much you enlarge it. It’ll go bright enough for outdoor use on the sunniest of days, and dark enough to not wake the neighbourhood if you’re using it in bed at night.
The touchscreen is incredibly responsive, too, and my review sample suffered none of the light bleed that I’d experienced in a Surface Pro 4 a year or so back.
The display resolution itself is a little unusual, a factor that at one time proved a problem for software vendors, who struggled to get their apps to render prettily. Happily, those days are long behind us: just about everything you install will look good by scaling correctly straight out of the box. However, you'll still have a decision to make in how you want to scale text and iconography, set by default to a recommended 200%. As with the Surface Pro 4, I reset the scaling in Settings to 175%, creating more room on the display for content.
If I have one small niggle, it’s with the software more than it is the screen. The auto brightness in Windows 10 adjusts at quite brutal gradients that distract from the experience, so much so that I normally disable it. Quite why Microsoft hasn’t smoothed this out by now is beyond me - I can only hope it’s put to rest with the big upcoming autumn update. But that’s a niggle, and one you can fix yourself in seconds.
If you decide on a Surface Pro tomorrow, you can be confident that while rivals may come along in the near future with higher-resolution screens or a myriad of other head-turning claims, they’ll struggle to better the Surface’s combination of quality, usability and battery life (now a claimed 13.5 hours).
Performance: more than powerful enough for day-to-day use
If you're new to the whole Surface Pro concept, don’t let its compact tablet-hybrid form factor fool you. As with its predecessor, the ‘new’ Pro packs the punch of a full desktop machine, pretty much regardless of which of the processor options you go for. You have a choice between three Intel chips: the base m3 (starting at £799 (RM4355) without the keyboard), the midrange i5 (at £979, S$1730, for the 128GB / 4GB, and £1249, S$2205 for the 256GB / 8GB), and the top-of-the-line i7 (topping out at a giddy £2699 (RM4765) for the 1TB / 16GB model).
As part of the Pro revamp, Microsoft has said goodbye to Intel’s 6th generation Skylake processors in favour of the latest, 7th generation Kaby Lake chips, a move that brings a small-but-worthwhile power hike and much greater power efficiency. Unfortunately, my review unit was the powerful i7, complete with a whopping 16GB of RAM and a massive, speedy 512GB SSD hard drive.
I say unfortunate, not because I disliked the i7 Pro’s performance, but because this spec is likely to represent a very small proportion of Surface Pro sales. I'd rather, given the choice, have spent time with either the basic m3, or the ‘new’ i5. The latter is particularly interesting; with the shift to Kaby Lake, Microsoft has decided that the i5 should join the m3 in no longer needing a fan… which means that you should enjoy silent operation without needing to worry about overheating.
Given our experience with Kaby Lake chips elsewhere, I'll happily predict that even the base Pro should have more than enough oomph for 95% of users slogging their way through the routine office, web browsing, watching videos and listening to tunes. It’s only once you start straying into more demanding jobs that you may need to think twice before spending the cash.
For the record, my review i7 predictably chomped through just about everything I could throw at it in my two days with the unit, from playing ReCore at healthy frame rates and high-ish settings with almost zero lag to retouching some fairly complex images in Photoshop (thanks to the i7’s Iris Plus graphics).
The Pro with this spec is a monster, launching and switching between applications at the speed of thought, and managing to remain fairly cool throughout. But then, you're paying a whopping £2149 (RM3795) for the benefit (a premium of £620, RM1095 over the equivalently-specced Pro 4 you can buy in PC World today). Frankly, at that price, it should fly.
Practicality: lighter, leaner, longer-lasting
If you’re tempted to buy a Surface Pro, you’ll do so for its marriage of full-on desktop PC power and tablet portability. Truth is, you can buy much better laptops and much better tablets (enter stage left, respectively, the Dell XPS 13 and 12.9in iPad Pro). But then you’ll struggle to find either a laptop or tablet that can replicate the Surface’s balance between office workhorse, creative powerhouse and pick-up-and-drop tablet.
As with the original Pro back in 2013, its party trick remains the detachable Type Cover keyboard, which snaps on and off in seconds with a simple pull and a click. Without the Cover, you have a fairly non-descript 12.3 inch tablet. With it, you have a compact laptop with a keyboard that forces none of the compromises you may expect from something that, on first acquaintance, looks so impractical and fragile.
In fact, the Type Cover’s a delight to use - although how much you love it may depend on your typing style. If you’ve cracked the subtle art of touch typing, you’ll find the keys and their 1.3mm of travel to be spot on. Those with a heavier, two fingered style (me included) will have no problem with the travel of the keys or their spacing, but may be irritated by the resonance of the Type Cover’s backing board (unavoidable, given the materials used in the Type Cover backing board and the gap between it and the surface you rest the, er, Surface on).
That small irritant aside, the Surface Pro’s folding arrangement works well in places where you’d expect it to fail miserably. For example, the fold-and-hinge arrangement looks as though it will render it useless on your lap. Yet once you’ve folded the rear hinge back to the right angle, the Pro’s is a delight to use. Yes, you’ll need to use both hands if you pickup the unfolded Surface from the floor or a work surface, but you soon get used to the minor inconvenience.
At 1.69lbs for the base model including keyboard, the Surface Pro is brilliantly unobtrusive to carry around during the day (in fact, as Microsoft rightly points out, most laptop bags are considerably heavier than the Surface). In truth, I reckon very few people could spot the difference between the new ‘Pro 5’ and its forebear, although the newer model has a more rounded, slightly lighter tablet casing.
Personally, I always enjoyed the slightly chunky cut to the Pro 4’s shell, and was relieved to find that Microsoft hadn’t robbed the updated model of its solidity in the name of shaving some weight.