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Microsoft Surface Pro refuses to compromise

Months after a splashy, surprise introduction in June, Microsoft officially became a tablet vendor with the launch of the Surface on October 26. The $500 tablet has an ARM CPU and runs the Windows RT operating system — in other words, it does not run on an Intel x86 processor, and it doesn’t run the full version of Windows 8. That means existing Surface users are stuck with the notable limitations of Windows RT.

So far the device has received mixed reviews (including from GadgetNuz), but it has also done brisk business. All three variants of Surface RT are currently on back-order. If it hasn’t put out a critical home run, Microsoft has at least generated significant interest around its new tablet.

And in January 2013, it’s releasing another Surface tablet, the Surface with Windows 8 Pro.

If the Surface RT tablet represents a direct assault by Microsoft on the “computer-light” tablets like Apple’s iPad and its various Android-based competitors, the forthcoming Surface Pro seems like a more significant attempt to reinvent laptop computing. Its design is very close to that of the Surface RT tablet — 10.6-inch touch-screen display, magnet-connected keyboard cover — but the Surface Pro also ships with a full-fledged, third-generation Intel Core i5 processor.

With that chip comes the full version of Windows 8, as well as the ability to run traditional desktop PC software programs.

Surface with Windows 8 Pro Surface with Windows RT
Starting price TBD $499
Screen size and resolution 10.6 inches, 1,920×1,080 10.6 inches, 1,366×768
Dimensions (HWD) 10.81 x 6.81 x 0.53 inches 10.81 x 6.77 x 0.37 inches
Weight 2 pounds 1.5 pounds
CPU Intel Core i5 Nvidia Tegra 3
Memory 4GB 2GB
Storage capacity 64GB (128GB option) 32GB (64GB option)
Ports USB 3.0, microSDXC, headphone, DisplayPort video out USB 2.0, microSDXC, headphone, HD video out

The two tablets have other hardware differences. The Pro version weighs a little more, has a larger solid-state hard drive, and has a higher resolution screen, among others. But because it can run full-blown Windows 8, the Surface Pro is as much a laptop, ready for serious productivity and entertainment duty, as it is a traditional tablet.

We still don’t know the price of the Surface Pro. The Samsung Ativ Smart PC Pro 700T, a Windows 8 tablet that will also have a Core i5 CPU option, is currently listed for $1,199. If Microsoft’s Surface Pro lands in that price range as well, it sits firmly in laptop territory, and will find itself in competition with a broad array of other Windows 8 devices.

Whether the Surface Pro is the best product in its price range will be determined. We’ve already seen a number of hybrid and convertible laptop/tablet designs from Microsoft’s usual hardware partners, including the 11- and 13-inch Lenovo Yoga, the Dell XPS 12, and the Acer Iconia W700.

The Surface Pro will compete with those devices and others. One advantage for Microsoft’s design might be the snap-on keyboard cover (in either the soft Touch or mechanical Type variation), that seems an effective blend of tablet portability with a full typing surface. Many of the other hybrid or convertible designs out there look cumbersome or flimsy in comparison.

(Credit: Microsoft)

Whether you should opt for the Surface Pro or the Surface RT tablet is a bigger question. Pitting the two against one another means you’ve not only ruled out all of the other Windows 8 and Windows RT tablets and hybrids, it also presumes you’ve eliminated Android, iOS, and OS X devices.

In that narrow head-to-head, the Surface Pro seems the most fully realized device. Because it uses an ARM-based CPU, the Surface RT can only run software sold via the Microsoft’s Windows RT app store. As we found in our review, the RT app selection is rather barren at the moment. Microsoft also requires Web sites that run Flash to pass an approval system in order to run on Windows RT’s Web browser, Internet Explorer 10.

Between those two factors, it’s not unlikely that you will find some program or a Web-based tool that the Surface RT cannot run. That hurts the Surface RT’s suitability as a productivity tool. Because the Surface Pro uses the full version of Windows 8, you have less risk of meeting a software roadblock.

Of course, the Surface RT only costs $499. Expect the Surface Pro to be more than that, likely closer to $1,000 if similar devices can provide any guidance. The higher price tag might be worth it if the Surface Pro really can work as a laptop and a tablet. Whether it can meet that broad range of demands will depend largely on its performance and its battery life. We will find out about both when Microsoft ships the Surface with Windows 8 Pro early in 2013.

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