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Microsoft Surface Pro: With More Power Comes More Everything Else

Microsoft has been quiet on the Surface Tablet Pro, a souped-up version of the Surface RT tablet that raises the bar on specs to an Intel Core i5 processor, a 1920 x 1080-pixel full HD touch screen, an included active-stylus and a more robust offering of ports than its current forebear. Here at CES 2013, that changed.

Today we got a firsthand look at the Surface Tablet Pro in all of its more muscular glory, and we enjoyed the device’s quick-footed navigation, support for Windows apps and capable collection of new bonus features--especially considering it costs $400 more than the $499 Surface RT.

True to previous details, the Surface Pro is running with a current-gen Intel Core i5 x86 processor assisted by integrated 4000 graphics, not the Surface RT’s Nvidia Tegra 3 ARM-based chip. As expected, the new chip translated to a bump in performance, especially while gaming and using graphics intensive software on a display that ups the density from 1366 x 768 to 1920 x 1080 pixels.

In our Surface RT review  we noted app stalls and loading delays. We didn’t put the Surface Pro through such stringent paces today, but the interface certainly looked smoother on the familiar 10.6-inch ClearType display.

With Intel Core i5 inside, the Surface Pro can support the long, long history of existing Windows apps in the tablet’s desktop mode, making it a better tool for hardcore Windows users who need access to the OS’s full history of software, none of which (save Office) is supported on the ARM-powered Surface RT.

The Pro’s ports include a USB 3.0 (up from a USB 2.0 on the Surface RT) and a Mini DisplayPort jack for connection to monitors with up to 2560 x 1440-pixel resolution. During a quick run of killshots in the first-person Xbox shooter "BulletStorm," the screen fragged through the level with ease and was as responsive to gaming controls as any PC. The device also transferred a few 36-MP RAW and JPEG photos from a Nikon D800 camera in about two seconds, though we noticed it took about five seconds for the Surface Pro to read the camera’s SD Card and populate the full shot library.

The coolest part of the Sufrace Pro demo involved connecting the upcoming slate to a monitor with a max resolution of 2560 x 1600 pixels. The device first mirrored its desktop to the LCD in the same 1080p resolution, then cloned the desktop to its maximum pixel output of 2660 x 1440. In that mode, Microsoft reps executed a couple neat tricks: some "BulletStorm" action, moving around a cube in a 3D-rendering app and playing around in a drawing app--all totally smooth, seamless and stutter-free.

The Surface Pro includes an active stylus with pressure sensitivity, a right-click button and palm-lock capability so thorough even the Surface’s home button is deactivated when the pen’s tip hovers near the display. Just like the Surface’s charger, the stylus is magnetized to the slate’s power port, which means if you’re charging the tablet, the pen can’t be docked.

While the Surface Pro was connected to that 2560 x 1600-pixel monitor in clone mode, Microsoft actually used the tablet like a Wacom device. That is, the rep touched the stylus to the Surface’s touch screen and navigated Windows 8 on the monitor. Even though the tablet’s max res is 1080p, the system automatically adjusted the scale of touch navigation to match the larger 1440p output on the LCD. We should also note that the richer resolution made the detail of the natural-looking paper texture in the Fresh Paint app look pretty boss. 

The caveats of the Surface Pro are fairly obvious. Sure, it starts at $899, but that might not be too bad considering the Intel performance boost, improved resolution, support for legacy Windows apps, included stylus, USB 3.0 and better A/V output.

The big ding comes in the form of something we can’t measure until we fully review the Surface Pro, and that’s battery life. Although Microsoft worked in a 42.5 watt-hour battery, the slate will offer only about half the life of the Surface RT, which lasted close to 8 hours on the LAPTOP Battery Test (continuous surfing over Wi-Fi).

The inclusion of a Core i5 CPU and larger battery makes the Surface Pro heavier and thicker than the RT. All of the new goodies thicken the tablet from 0.4 to 0.6 inches, and pushes the weight to a noticeably heavier 2 pounds (up from 1.4 on the RT). What's more, Microsoft added two fans and a ventilation system that runs along the device’s edge. Fortunately, the fans hummed quietly even after a few minutes of shoot-em-up gaming. 

The Surface Pro certainly lives up to its name in terms of features, including beefier performance, legacy app support, pen input and USB 3.0. We’ll have to determine whether this sharp and fast Windows 8 slate offers the right balance of endurance and versatility for your $899 once we've run all of our tests and try to use it as our everyday tablet and PC.