Microsoft occasional ventures into hardware generally haven't ended well: Zune, Kin Phone, Spot Watch. But the new Surface Pro tablet has more going for it than any Microsoft hardware since the Xbox.
Everybody knows what a tablet is, right? It's a black touch-screen slab, like an iPad or an Android tablet. It doesn't run real Windows or Mac software — it runs much simpler apps. It's not a real computer.
But with the Surface Pro ($900 for the 64-gigabyte model, $1,000 for a 128-gig machine), Microsoft asks: Why not?
The Surface Pro looks like a tablet. It can work like a tablet. You can hold it in one hand and draw on it with the other. It even comes with a plastic stylus that works beautifully.
But inside, the Pro is a full-blown Windows PC, with the same Intel chip that powers many high-end laptops. As a result, the Pro can run any of the 4 million Windows programs, like iTunes, Photoshop and Quicken.
The Surface Pro is beautiful. It's clad in matte-black metal, beveled at the edges like a stealth helicopter. Its connectors immediately suggest its post-iPad capabilities, like a memory-card slot for expanded storage. The screen is bright and beautiful, with 1080p high-definition resolution — but when you connect the tablet to a TV or desktop monitor, it can send out an even bigger, sharper picture (2,550 by 1,440). There's one USB 3.0 jack in the tablet, and a second ingeniously built into the power cord, so you can charge your phone as you work.
Microsoft has endowed the Surface Pro with two unusual extras that complete the transformation from tablet to PC in about two seconds.
First, this tablet has a kickstand. It's a thin metal flap that disappears completely when closed, but holds the tablet at a nice angle when you're working or watching a movie.
Second, you can buy Microsoft's now-famous keyboard cover. There are two models, actually. One is about as thick as a shirt cardboard. You can type on it — slowly — but you're tapping drawings of keys, not actual keys. It's called the Touch Cover ($100 with Surface purchase).
The other keyboard, the Type Cover ($130) is thicker — a quarter-inch — but its keys really travel, and it has a trackpad. You can really type on this thing.
Either keyboard attaches to the tablet with a powerful magnetic click. For tablet use, you can flip either keyboard around to the back; it disables itself so you don't type gibberish by accident.
And if you really want to go whole hog with the insta-PC idea, you should also spring for the matching Touch Wedge mouse, a tiny $40 cordless wedge, not much bigger than the AA battery that powers it.
Some people argue that for the same money, they could buy a nice lightweight laptop with a dedicated keyboard and much more storage. Why buy Surface Pro?
Because the Surface Pro does things most laptops can't do. Like it weighs 2 pounds, with touch screen. Or work in portrait orientation, like a clipboard. Or remain comfortable in one hand as you make medical rounds, take inventory or sketch a portrait. Or stay in a bag as it goes through airport security.
There are some disappointments.
The Surface Pro runs Windows 8, which is two operating systems in one — with all the attendant confusion. The Surface Pro is not to be confused with the less capable Surface, with come out a few months ago. The speakers aren't especially strong. The screen and keyboard are slightly smaller than what you'd get on a real laptop.
You should also realize that of the base model's 64 GB of storage, only 23 are available for your use. The real heartbreaker, though, is the battery. I barely got 3.5 hours from a charge.
Even so, the Surface Pro strikes a spot on the size/weight/speed/software spectrum that no machine has ever struck.