Microsoft started sending out review units of its new Surface with Windows 8 Pro tablet (better known as the Surface Pro) several weeks ago, but reviewers were all under a gag order until last night at 6 p.m. Redmond time. That's when the reviews -- and, with a few exceptions, a lot of other stuff -- hit the fan.
In many cases, the reviewers explained -- and made excuses for -- the shortcomings in Windows 8: A Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde interface, inferior-quality built-in apps, flatlined desktop glass, the amazing disappearing Start menu, relentlessly unmanageable and inflexible tiles. You've heard the litany before.
That part didn't surprise me. Windows 8's shortcomings need to be explained thoroughly to the uninitiated consumer. What surprised me in many reviews was the critical, sometimes bitter tone about the Surface Pro itself. Here's a brief recap:
- All Things D's Walt Mossberg took a swipe at the Surface Pro's lofty price, then said, "It's too hefty and costly and power-hungry to best the leading tablet, Apple's full-size iPad. It is also too difficult to use in your lap." His informal real-world battery test pegged the Surface Pro at "just under four hours between charges." The verdict: "Just as the Pro is compromised as a tablet, it's compromised as a laptop... Some users may not mind the price or bulk of the Surface Pro if it frees them from carrying a tablet for some uses and a laptop for others. But like many products that try to be two things at once, the new Surface Windows 8 Pro does neither as well as those designed for one function." Similar sentiments echoed through many reviews.
- Anand Shimpi at AnandTech gave a thorough overview of the hardware, as you would expect from AnandTech, and a big thumbs-up on most components, with special laurels for the Wacom digital pen. "This is the first tablet that can truly replace your tablet, notebook and desktop if you want. No compromises, no new apps, and no waiting for Flash to die and HTML5 to take over." He also heaped kudos on the Win8 design: "The beauty of Surface was in its flexibility. The ability to quickly switch between tablet and notebook usage modes, between content consumption and production. Surface Pro really takes that to the next level."
- Zach Epstein at BGR had many good things to say about "one of the most intriguing pieces of Windows hardware ever created." Epstein found the Surface Pro hardware much more responsive than the Surface RT's. He lamented the tiny screen size, particularly for touch on the old-fashioned desktop (see the Engadget review below). "Apps open quickly and operation is smooth in lightweight apps and heavy-duty apps alike." He concluded, "On an island, the Surface Pro is a fantastic premium computer that is portable, versatile, and capable. It is priced fairly and it offers novel features that provide clear advantages over rival devices. But in a market where interest in personal computers is declining and Windows 8 is struggling to gain traction, I fear the Surface Pro might not be the right product right now."
- Business Insider's Steve Kovach liked the hardware in general, but tore Microsoft a new orifice on the app side: "When you have a tablet-friendly operating system like Windows 8, you need tablet-friendly apps to go with it. Unfortunately, Windows 8 can't offer that. Microsoft wouldn't tell me how many Windows 8 apps are available now, but the number doesn't matter. What matters is I couldn't find many of the apps I wanted." His denouement: "Microsoft created a very strange product category with the Surface Pro, one that will likely only appeal to a slim number of people who want to try a funky form factor but still work in a classic desktop environment when they need to."
- Dan Ackerman at Cnet started with, "By some standards, the Microsoft Surface Pro is the best-ever hybrid of tablet and laptop, combining a full Windows 8 OS with an Intel Core i5 CPU, and a best-in-class detachable keyboard cover." The rest of the review is "but ..." followed by comparisons with many competitors, from Win8 Ultrabooks (also expensive) to generic Win8/Atom tablets (much cheaper but sluggish) to Windows RT tablets (if you can find any) to iPads and Android tablets (guess which one takes the cake). The Cnet video review ended by saying, "we're holding out for a future, more polished generation of the device."