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Gear Closet: Microsoft Surface Pro Tablet

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

If there has been one piece of technology that has been released in the past year that offers intriguing possibilities for the expedition and outdoor adventure crowd, it is the Microsoft Surface Pro. It is a tablet with the full power of a laptop wrapped up in a lightweight, but very durable, package that offers more versatility than similar products from competitors. But does the Surface Pro live up to is potential or is it another tablet that is battling for attention in the rather large shadow of the iPad? The answer is probably somewhere in the middle.

Before we get too deep into my thoughts on the Surface Pro it is important to understand the difference between it and the Surface NT, it's smaller, cheaper and less powerful cousin. The NT is powered by a slimmed down version of Windows 8 that is only capable of running Windows apps. It doesn't provide access to the desktop nor will it run the entire library of Windows software, but it is thinner than the Pro model and offers battery life and performance on par with the iPad. In simple terms, the Surface NT is a tablet that aspires to be a laptop, while the Surface Pro is a laptop with tablet tendencies.

Unlike most other tablets, which are powered by mobile processors, the Surface Pro has an Intel Core i5 processor. That's on par with what you would find in an ultrabook computer and comes with enough power to run most Windows software short of high end games. That processor is what helps set the Pro apart from similar products as it is a fast and smooth experience both in the Win 8 app environment and when interacting with the classic Windows desktop. Essentially the Surface Pro is a powerful computer that you can hold in your hands, giving you the ability to blog, edit photos and video, make Skype calls and so much more. Best of all, the Surface Pro features true multitasking, running multiple programs at the same time. So while you're on a video conference call with your family back home you can still be working on that latest dispatch from the field.

The Surface Pro has a few other tricks up its sleeve that help it stand out from the increasingly crowded tablet market. The device has a built-in Wacom digitizer and comes with a touch sensitive stylus that opens up all kinds of opportunities. For instance, Windows 8 has integrated handwriting recognition which means you can scrawl notes on the touch screen and they'll automatically be turned into typed text. The system takes a bit of getting use to, but once you adjust to it, it is an excellent option that can come in handy in a variety of situations. The stylus also works great in drawing apps and other software too.


One of the distinct features of the Surface line is the Touch and Type Covers. These protective screen covers include an integrated keyboard that when opened up turns the tablet into a mini laptop. The Touch version is thin and light with soft keys, while the Type Cover is a bit thicker but has a keyboard that more closely resembles a laptop. If you've seen the numerous commercials for the Surface, you've no doubt seen these covers which click into place in a dedicated port on the bottom of the device. Microsoft includes one with the less expensive NT tablet but for some inexplicable reason it is an added expense for the more costly Surface Pro model. Anyone who buys the Pro model will want one of the keyboards however and I'd recommend spending the extra dough to get the Type model.

The Surface Pro is much closer to a true laptop than any other tablet on the market and as such it has some nice touches that you don't find on competing models. For instance, it has a full sized USB port that allows you to attach external hard drives, printers, or USB memory sticks. A miniSD card reader is great for added storage capacity while front and rear facing cameras open up all kinds of possibilities. Bluetooth 4.0 functionality allows for wireless interaction with all kinds of other devices. Integrated gyroscopes and accelerometers helps orient the screen and smoothly flip from portrait to landscape mode and back again. The distinctive Surface kickstand is a great feature when the device is sitting on a flat surface but is less useful when propped up on your lap.

The 10.6" display is one of the Surface Pro's more impressive features. It is clear and bright, supporting resolutions up to 1920 x 1080. Video looks fantastic on the screen and photos appear vibrant and beautiful. The screen is a definite high point for the device.

The Surface Pro's case is built out of a material called VaporMg which was specially developed by Microsoft for the tablet. The liquid metal is very tough and durable, which does come in handy when in the field. The metal case can take a lot of punishment, particularly for a device so light and small. This provides a great sense of confidence when carrying the device in a backpack into the remote corners of the globe. Short of carrying a Panasonic Toughbook on an expedition, which is a much heavier laptop, I can't think of another device that I'd want to have with me in rugged conditions.

All of these features and integrated technology is great of course, but the real question is how does the Surface Pro perform as a travel or expedition computer. The answer to that question is that it does quite well, provided you can keep it powered up. The battery life on the Pro is about 5.5 hours, which is underwhelming if you compare it to other tablets but about average for an ultrabook laptop. It is far below the new Macbook Air of course, which is getting 12+ hours on a single charge, but doesn't provide the same touchscreen/tablet form factor as the Surface. My biggest complaint about the Surface Pro is the battery life and if there is one upgrade I'd like to see in the next model, it would improved performance in this category. On the other hand, the relatively low capacity batteries are quick to charge and don't require a lot of power. A good solar panel in Base Camp will more than do the trick, so while stand alone battery life isn't great, it is relatively easy to keep the device charged.

The Surface Pro packs a lot of performance into a small package but it is priced closer to a laptop than a standard tablet. The device starts at $799 for 64GB of storage and $899 for 128GB. Add in $119 for a Touch Cover or $129 for a Type Cover and you're shelling out quite a bit of cash for a Surface Pro. On the other hand, if you need an ultra-portable device with plenty of power and features to take on your next expedition, this is a great option. It is durable, dependable and versatile. It is also very powerful, not to mention down right fun to use.

Is it the ultimate expedition computer? No. But it is very close. And with the ability to keep it charged while in the field, you may find that it fits your needs extremely well.


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