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As posted on Microsoft polishes the Surface Pro to near perfection

I run my finger along the edge and feel a gentle curve. It’s the only way I can tell I’m running the new Surface Pro and not my stalwart Surface Pro 4, the tablet/laptop hybrid I know and love.

Microsoft’s update to the popular and admittedly excellent Surface Pro 4 is called, simply, the Surface Pro. There is no Pro 5. There may never be one, but the Surface Pro is in no way divergent from the path set forth by the Surface Pro 3 and 4 before it.

It’s so similar that I rely primarily on touch to tell the difference. There’s the slight curve along the previously flat, magnesium shell’s outer edge, the slightly narrowed ventilation channel and there’s the place where my palms rest, on the new Alcantera Type Cover Surface. It feels warm and comfortable, like the surface of a thin sweater, and offers just the tinniest bit of cushion without any added friction as my hands slide over it.

In addition to the USB and Mini DisplayPort connectors, you'll notice a little curve on the edge of the Surface Pro. Subtlety, thy name is Microsoft.

In addition to the USB and Mini DisplayPort connectors, you’ll notice a little curve on the edge of the Surface Pro. Subtlety, thy name is Microsoft.

Image: lili sams/mashable

This new Alcantera covering feels quite nice under your palms.

This new Alcantera covering feels quite nice under your palms.

Image: lili sams/mashable

Finally, there are they Type Cover keys themselves. They look the same as the previous keys, but the typing action is noticeably improved. It is a pleasure to type on them.

My point is, the Surface Pro is not a redesign. It’s a polish, and a pretty good one, at that.

Signature change

If you’re unfamiliar with Microsoft’s Surface Pro I reviewed, you need to understand that it’s a product in parts. There’s the 12.3-inch, 2,736 x 1,824 pixel, 1.73-pound tablet. Inside is the latest Intel Core i7 (seventh-generation Core i or “Kaby Lake”) processor with integrated graphics, an accelerometer, gyroscope, 8-megapixel camera on the back and a 5MP camera on the front. That is the actual Surface Pro.

The Type Cover has an updated keyboard and trackpad. They are a pleasure to use and use and use.

The Type Cover has an updated keyboard and trackpad. They are a pleasure to use and use and use.

Image: lili sams/mashable

It attaches with a satisfying magnetic snap to the Type Cover, an ultra-thin full-sized keyboard and screen cover that also includes an expansive touchpad and backlit keys. Technically you don’t have to buy the keyboard — it’s a $129.99 option sold separately from the $799 base system — but I wouldn’t recommend it. To have the full Surface Pro experience and to gain the benefit of ultra-light portable with laptop power, Windows 10 productivity and all-day battery life, you want the keyboard. I’ve never used my Surface Pro without it and I have no plans of using this Surface Pro without the Type Cover.

The third component — also not included — is the Surface Pen. Microsoft originally built the Surface as a Windows 8 touch device. The multi-touch soul remains, but, over the years, it’s been augmented by Bluetooth pen and digital ink input.

This is one of the reasons people love the Surface Pro: You get a full PC in this thin and light package.

This is one of the reasons people love the Surface Pro: You get a full PC in this thin and light package.

Image: lili sams/mashable

Recent Windows 10 updates have put Ink, Microsoft’s digital writing and drawing platform, at the center. For the new Surface Pro, Microsoft updated the Pen to recognize tilt (the angle at which it touches the screen) and to address up to 4,096 levels of pressure (it was previously 1,024). It also added pen-specific hardware to the tablet screen to communicate directly with the Surface Pen, cutting latency down to 20 milliseconds (which happens to be the same as the Apple Pencil on the iPad Pro 10.5).

Microsoft really wants you to use these three pieces of Surface hardware together, even if they do sell them all separately. Going forward, every comment I make about the Surface Pro will be in the context of a bundle that still doesn’t exist (yet).

Component Choices

The Surface Pro starts at $799 with an Intel Core m3 processor and Intel HD 615 integrated graphics. It maintains a fanless design up through the Core i5 model, surprisingly. Sadly, I got the more powerful Core i7 (with Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640), so I did not get to experience a truly fanless design. Even with a fan, which is so quiet I didn’t hear it, the i7 and the back of the Surface Pro can get a little hot.

System startup is fast and the Surface Pro also includes Windows Hello so you can log in with your face. This biometric authentication uses both an infrared sensor and the front-facing camera to identify your face. It works instantly and I think it should be standard on all computers.

Geekbench CPU results for the Surface Pro

Geekbench CPU results for the Surface Pro

Benchmarks on my system were impressive. The Surface Pro has always been a full-blown Windows 10 PC that can handle everything from Microsoft Word to Edge or Chrome web browsers, and Adobe Photoshop. Except for the high-end game Forza 6, it never stuttered or stalled. I’m not disappointed about the game. Without discrete graphics, there are always going to be limits to the kinds of games the Surface Pro can handle. If you must have that kind of graphics power, you probably want a Microsoft Surface Book with a discrete Nvidia GPU.

The 64-bit system also starts with 4GB and a 128GB SSD, though mine was packed with 16GB and a 1TB hard drive. It’s also the rare Windows PC with expandable storage via a micro SD card slot, which is hidden under the kickstand.

Other ports include a 3.5mm headphone jack, Mini DisplayPort, the proprietary data and power Surface Connect port and one USB 3.0 port. I know some will be disappointed that the Surface Pro didn’t start Microsoft down the USB-C port path. I’m not one of those people. I have tons of peripherals and storage drives that require a full-size USB port. I need it and, so far, have just a few USB-C devices. But if USB-C is totally your thing, Microsoft will be selling an adapter for the Surface Pro this Fall.

There is one other significant hardware update. The iconic kickstand, the one that makes it possible for me to balance the Surface Pro on my lap in virtually any situation, is now even more versatile. It smoothly bends almost fully back into what’s called Studio Mode. This folds the kickstand almost completely onto the back of the Surface Pro tablet, raising the screen up just enough that it becomes a near-perfect drawing surface. It’s also strong enough that I could lean on it while I was drawing. 

Pen and drawing

The work Microsoft put into its update Surface Pen and the Pixel Sense display pays off in an excellent digital writing and drawing experience. In Windows Native Sketchpad the digital ink appeared to flow directly out of the pen. No matter how fast I drew, the ink stayed with the tip. At least to the naked eye — capturing the act in ultra-slow-motion 240fps video showed the ink racing to catch up.

I could tilt the pen at extreme angles and see a shading effect onscreen and pressure sensitivity was more precise than ever. Microsoft said the pen only needs 12 milligrams of pressure to start drawing. I don’t have the tools to measure pressure on screen, but the new sensitivity did let me draw some very faint lines.

The pen responsiveness carried through the Sketchable App from Silicon Blenders, but my experience wasn’t as good with ArtRage 5 from Digital Art Software. That app didn’t appear to be tuned for the new silicon. The digital ink visibly lagged behind the physical pen tip.

Microsoft’s Surface Pen also works outside drawing apps for signatures, note-taking and marking up Word Documents. I love that I can simply start writing in a Word doc without selecting a drawing menu option.

Inside this Surface Pen are changes that enable more pressure sensitivity and tilt sensing.

Inside this Surface Pen are changes that enable more pressure sensitivity and tilt sensing.

Image: lili sams/mashable

One of the reasons the Surface Pen feels so good on the screen in the soft tip.

One of the reasons the Surface Pen feels so good on the screen in the soft tip.

Image: lili sams/mashable

Both cameras are unchanged from the Surface Pro 4. There’s an 8-megapixel camera on the back and a 5MP camera on the front, each are capable of 1080p video, as well. It is a little surprising that Microsoft hasn’t even added 4K support to the rear-facing camera.

Most of my time with the Surface Pro is spent getting things done, but it is a solid content consumption and entertainment device. There are tons of fun and useful apps in the Windows Store including Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Groove Music, movies to buy and rent and a wide-selection of games.  

Everything looks great on the tablet’s HD screen and now its backed by a speaker that is a noticeably louder (20% louder, according to Microsoft).

The 8MP camera on the back of the Surface Pro is unchanged from the previous model. It's good, but unremarkable.

The 8MP camera on the back of the Surface Pro is unchanged from the previous model. It’s good, but unremarkable.

Image: lili sams/mashable

Battery life is supposed to be 13.5 hours (for video), but I think that may be a rating for the less intense Intel Core m3 or Core i5 CPU. Using the Core i7 with real-world tasks, I found battery life was more like 7-10 hours. As always, your mileage will likely vary depending on your activity.

Did Microsoft deliver an exciting new Surface product? No. The Surface Pro is an incremental update to an already excellent productivity device. Every change is a welcome one and some are more exciting than others. The Pen is more powerful and useful than ever. The kickstand is a mechanical wonder that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. The Type Cover is a model for ultra-thin input devices, and the Surface Pro PixelSense is a perfect blend of high-resolution, clarity and responsiveness.

The Surface Pro is, ultimately, the Surface ideal fully realized: It’s the best tablet/ultraportable hybrid on the market and I will use it every day. If I have one nit, and it’s a big one, it’s that Microsoft is still not selling a bundle. I don’t expect to get the tablet, pen and keyboard for $799, but a bundle of the three that costs $888 wouldn’t be unreasonable.

Microsoft Surface Pro

The Good

Lightweight Full PC power Excellent design Great pen

The Bad

Battery life in real world not as good as promised Microsoft needs to sell a bundle

The Bottom Line

This is utterly familiar Microsoft Surface Pro is still the best of its genre.

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