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Surface Pro review: It's clunky, it's chunky but it's Microsoft's best hope


Microsoft's Surface with Windows 8 Pro will go on sale Feb. 9 starting at $899. The $130 Type Cover is sold separately.Wilson Rothman / NBC News

Microsoft's Surface proposition sounded at first a little like a car that could rip out tree stumps and still get 50 miles to the gallon. But when you got to the dealership, the salesman would show you the car that could rip out tree stumps and the car that got 50 miles to the gallon. In other words, it's not one car, but two.

We knew this about Surface early on, though. We knew there would be a tablet that ran a lightweight version of Windows called RT, and another that ran full-blown Windows. It was assumed, correctly, that the former would have long battery life and compete in price with the iPad, and that the latter would be more competitive with PCs — and have similarly shorter battery lifespan because of the added horsepower.

When I tried out the Surface RT, which launched last fall, I appreciated its form and its battery life, but I had profound problems with the software: Every time I got comfortable in the loud, colorful Windows 8 environ, I would fall into a rabbit hole of classic Windows. To make things worse, once in classic Windows (aka "Desktop"), you couldn't install your favorite classic Windows software, and fully customize it the way you'd expect on a PC. The Surface RT fell woefully short of the initial proposition, that it would be a device that could double as both an iPad and a real live PC.

The proving ground for us on the Surface Pro was the gaming. NBC News games editor Todd Kenreck and I loaded it up with real PC games, including "League of Legends" and "Star Wars: The Old Republic." We even used the Mini DisplayPort jack to connect the 10.6-in. device to my 23-inch Dell monitor, and got 1080p resolution on the bigger screen.

The Surface Pro (bottom) may be heftier than the RT, but it does a lot more.Wilson Rothman / NBC News

I am happy to report that the Surface Pro goes a lot further to living up to the claim. Its battery life is not "all day" like the RT, but it won't die on you if you forget to plug it in overnight. I have read books in bed, played realtime strategy games, streamed video and music, and even installed our publishing software. This single device is a true multi-modal Swiss Army kind of a tablet that does a more reasonable impression of both a laptop and a tablet than anything else I've played with to date.

The Surface Pro makes you think of tablets in a whole different way. Because of the high-resolution monitor connection and the USB 3.0 interface, you can plug in your stuff and use it like a desktop. And with the included Wacom-powered smart pen, you can even use the tablet as a drawing and navigation surface — using a real full-blown version of Photoshop. (If you don't want to spend that kind of money, there are a handful of lesser drawing and photo apps, including the neat — totally free — FreshPaint.)

Though we saw some lag during a space battle in "Star Wars," and though the accelerometer controls weren't engaged in the jet-ski racer "Riptide," we were impressed with what we saw, especially in a small tablet package. Todd felt that a smart gamer could figure out how to take his or her favorite games on the go, without having to wait for developers to release some adapted version. Yes, the idea of covertly MMOing while at work did cross our minds, and put smiles on our faces.

The Surface RT is no match for an iPad at this time, but the Surface Pro is the first time I've seen anything that could technically be a match for both an iPad and a MacBook Air (or PC ultrabook). That said, I am not going to tell you to rush out and buy it. This is Version 1.0, and it could benefit from a little evolution, in both hardware and software.

Microsoft's Surface Pro (bottom) is much thicker than its little sibling, the Surface RT tablet.Wilson Rothman / NBC News

Battery life is not a huge concern, because if you buy this, you're comparing it to Windows PCs, not lighter, cheaper tablets. (That said, the iPad and the Surface RT deliver about twice the battery life.) But the bigger battery and laptop-like guts of the Surface Pro means that it's far from lithe, and at nearly 2 pounds, the Surface Pro weighs down on your chest when you read or watch video in bed.

And while this chunkier Surface retains its elegant built-in kickstand, there's still no way to truly go "lap top" on this thing. Typing with the keyboard cover in bed can be a pain, and the Surface Pro is just too big to hold up while typing with thumbs.

Cost is another concern: Because the Surface Pro comes with about 35 gigabytes of software already built in, you'd be foolish NOT to select only the $999 128GB version (which had roughly 90GB remaining when I opened it), not the $899 64GB version, which only gives you around 30GB. (An earlier report made it sound even worse; it was not inaccurate, but Microsoft improved the storage situation for product launch.)

In addition, to experience it fully, you need to buy the $130 Type Cover keyboard add-on (or, if you prefer, one of the not-as-effective $120 Touch Covers), and maybe a Bluetooth mouse like Microsoft's neat $70 Wedge Touch Mouse. Total bill for all that? About $1,200 before sales tax.

For that kind of money, you are, in the end, committing to a compromise, albeit the best one we've seen to date.

Surface Windows 8 Pro, as Microsoft calls it, will go on sale Feb. 9 in the United States and Canada at all Microsoft retail stores, microsoftstore.com, Staples and Best Buy in the U.S., as well as from a number of locations in Canada. You can find out more information at surface.com.

Wilson Rothman is the Technology & Science editor at NBC News Digital. Catch up with him on Twitter at @wjrothman, and join our conversation on Facebook.