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Microsoft Makes Real PC That’s No IPad: Rich Jaroslovsky

Microsoft Makes a Real PC, and It’s No IPad
The Microsoft Corp. Surface Tablet and keyboard is displayed for a photograph in San Francisco. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Someday, the Surface Pro will deserve a spot in a technology museum. Nearly four decades after Microsoft was founded, it has finally delivered its first full-fledged, honest-to-God personal computer.

And it’s all right, with an innovative if occasionally impractical design, solid construction and a bright, beautiful screen that fulfills the company’s stated goal of providing a showcase for its Windows 8 operating system.

It’s just that the Surface Pro, which goes on sale Feb. 9, wants to be more. With its tablet form factor, detachable keyboard and touch screen, it wants to be an iPad too. And it just isn’t.

Sure, it has flash memory, like an iPad, and a store where you can choose and download applications, like an iPad.

But it’s heavier, slower -- it takes about three seconds to wake from sleep -- and doesn’t have nearly the battery life. Even its mini-brick power adapter screams “PC.”

Both in design and use, the Pro resembles the Surface RT computer Microsoft released late last year: same size screen (10.6 inches) and same kickstand design so you can prop it up on a desktop or airline tray (but not your lap).

The screen, though, is almost twice the resolution of the RT’s. It’s also ever so slightly thicker, and weighs about 2 pounds to the RT’s 1.5 pounds.

Price, Storage

The biggest differences are price and the amount of software available for it.

The Pro starts at $899 for a model with four gigabytes of memory and 64 gigabytes of storage. That’s $400 more than the cheapest 32-gigabyte RT and $200 more than a 64 GB iPad.

The RT, which uses the kind of microprocessor found in mobile devices, can’t run any of the millions of programs written for previous versions of Windows. No Microsoft Outlook, no Adobe Photoshop, no Intuit TurboTax.

The Pro, by contrast, is built around an Intel Core i5 “Ivy Bridge” chip, the same sort found in more traditional PCs (and Apple’s Macs, for that matter). I installed fully-featured versions of the Microsoft Office productivity suite, including Outlook and the Access database, as well as the Verizon Wireless software needed to run a Pantech 4G LTE wireless modem.

PC Performance

All performed exactly as they would on any other PC, as did the modem itself when plugged into the Surface Pro’s single USB 3.0 port. (A second USB port, thoughtfully included on the power adapter, allows for recharging mobile devices.)

The biggest drawback is the limited amount of space available for your programs and data, especially when you subtract the amount used by Windows 8 itself. A more usable 128-gigabyte model costs $999, $200 more than Apple’s just-introduced 128 GB iPad.

As with little-brother RT, you’ll almost certainly need one of Microsoft’s combination cover-keyboards. They’re sold separately and aren’t cheap: $120 for the Touch Cover, which has pressure-sensitive keys, and $130 for the Type Cover, with physical keys that actually move.

With a little practice, I could type faster on the Touch Cover than I could straight onto the glass. But I vastly preferred the Type Cover, where I could pound away at much the same speed as on a standard laptop.

Still, the keyboard is cramped, and there isn’t a clear enough demarcation between the halves of the track pad, which meant I was often left-clicking when I meant to right-click.

Jumpy Cursor

I noticed other quirks as well. Using the Type Cover, I found that the cursor would sometimes inexplicably jump to another spot. And the screen was often slow to reorient itself from portrait to landscape mode, even though I had snapped on the keyboard and was ready to begin working.

Microsoft says I may have caused the jumpiness by inadvertently brushing the track pad, though I don’t think I did, and that the orientation problem is a known Windows 8 issue.

As part of its I’m-a-tablet-too effort, the Surface Pro includes a pen, as do Samsung’s Galaxy Note products. But unlike Samsung, Microsoft doesn’t give you a dedicated place to store it. When the Surface isn’t charging, the pen magnetically snaps into place where the power connector normally attaches. But when you need to recharge the Surface, you’ll have to find somewhere else. (It does have a pocket clip; nerd pack not included.)

Microsoft says it has improved the magnetic connector from the RT, but I still found myself frequently fumbling with it. And the battery life isn’t great. I was sometimes able to coax as much as six hours on a charge -- long enough to survive a cross-country flight, but far short of the iPad’s nine-to-10-hour life.

If there’s any Apple product the Surface Pro could take on, perhaps it’s the $999 MacBook Air. But an iPad? No way. At best, the Surface Pro is a second Windows PC in an era where having two PCs is less and less common.

(Rich Jaroslovsky is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on dining and Katya Kazakina on art.

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