Hike! Hands-on with the NFL Surface Pro

SAN FRANCISCO — For a few minutes this week, I stood in Tom Brady's shoes. Oh, I may have lacked the matinée idol looks, the four Super Bowl rings and the ability to lace a perfect spiral 25 yards downfield into the hands of an open receiver, but I could at least hold one of the tools the New England Patriots quarterback uses to carve up opposing defenses — a tricked-out Microsoft Surface Pro tablet with customized software for reviewing NFL game action.

Typically, you'll only spot these modified Surface Pros on the sidelines of NFL games. But Microsoft was showing them off this week at the NFL Experience, a week-long fan event held as part of Super Bowl 50 festivities at San Francisco's Moscone Center. Microsoft, the NFL's sideline technology partner, went the extra yard to recreate the Surface Pro's gameday setting, from the astroturf on the showfloor to a replica NFL bench complete with helmet-warming posts.

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The star of the exhibit, though, was the Surface Pro, which had undergone a few changes from the tablets available to us mere mortals. For starters, the Surface Pro used by NFL players is waterproof so that it won't be sidelined by bad weather. Microsoft also added antiglare coating to keep the screen visible under stadium floodlights. In a particularly thoughtful touch, the back of the tablet features a strap that can fit the meaty paws of your typical football player. That way, the player can still hold the Surface even if he's wearing gloves or has a taped-up hand.

One thing these Surface Pros can't do is display video. That's an NFL directive made in the name of competitive balance. (At a panel on football and technology held this week, NFL officials indicated that video features could be approved for the tablets in future seasons.) Instead, teams use the tablets to review photos of plays. Players can look at multiple shots of the same play and zoom in on specific images. Drawing tools let coaches highlight parts of the photo, and there's even a whiteboard feature for drawing up plays.

Think of the Surface Pros on NFL sidelines as a high-tech approach to reviewing in-game photos to find which plays work and which ones need a tweak or two. As recently as a few seasons ago, those reviews involved hastily printed-out photos — usually in black-and-white — that players had to decipher. The tablets deliver those images more quickly with the ability to pan and zoom for a closer look.

The Surface Pros give Microsoft a very visible presence during NFL games, though the extra attention isn't always welcome. Take this year's AFC Championship game in which the Patriots found themselves momentarily unable to use their tablets. (Both Microsoft and the NFL said the problem was caused by a network connectivity issue and not the Surface Pros.) Even when the tablets work as advertised, Microsoft executives must have to take a deep breath when players like Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers or Cleveland's Johnny Manziel take out their game frustrations on an unsuspecting Surface Pro.

Still, the Surface Pros represent a distinct improvement over the old way of reviewing in-game photos and offer a handy illustration of just what Microsoft's tablets can do. Should the NFL OK video review capabilities for the tablet in coming seasons, look for the Surface Pro to play an even more prominent role on the sidelines.