What’s the difference between Microsoft Surface and Surface Pro?

Microsoft has a habit of choosing naming schemes that are confusing.  And then to make matters worse, they change them often.  I am going to try to clarify the difference between the Microsoft Surface and Surface Pro tablets which have names that sound very similar and looks that are almost identical, but at the root are very different devices.

The key difference is that they run two different versions of Windows: normal Windows 8 and Windows RT.  And the key difference between the two versions of Windows is what processor they use.  So, sorry for getting a little technical here, but I must jump into what is different about the processors.

There are two major types of processors that personal computing devices use.  The one that has been dominant for the last several decades is from Intel.  This runs almost all servers, desktop computers, and laptops.  Every version of Windows up until this time has been created solely for Intel processors (with some exceptions, but that would digress and confuse the issue).  The one problem with Intel is that it uses a lot of power so you don’t get very long battery life on mobile devices.  This is something they are working very hard to conquer and recently have made good strides towards.

The other major processer is called ARM.  It has only become popular in the last few years.  It uses very little power and so can run mobile devices for a lot longer.  It runs almost all smart phones and tablets.  All the hot mobile devices like the iPhone, iPad, and Android phones like the Samsung Galaxy use ARM.

The problem is that the way that you write programs for these two different processor types and even operating systems is very different.  So if you write a program for the Intel processor it will not work on a computer with an ARM processor and vice versa without a lot of work.  With the new version of Windows Microsoft is trying to find a way to fix that.  They created a new type of program that is commonly referred to as Metro.  Most of these new types of programs can run on either ARM or Intel.  That is the future.  But we live in the present. (Microsoft’s real plan for the future is that Windows, Windows RT, Windows Phone, and Xbox will all run essentially the same operating system and the same apps, but that is another post.)

In the present, Microsoft created two versions of Windows.  Windows 8 uses Intel processors and can run all programs that were created for older versions of Windows plus the new programs that have been created for Metro.  I am currently running Windows 8 on my laptop so I get both backwards compatibility and future compatibility.  Any device that I could use with Windows 7 like printers and USB 3G modems can be used with Windows 8.

The other version is called Windows RT.  It is built for ARM and so cannot run any programs that have been built for older versions of Windows.  It can only run the new Metro programs.  So it is future compatible, not backwards compatible.  In order to make Windows RT more useable right away, Microsoft rewrote Office for ARM so that it can be used on Windows RT.  That is why Office works on Windows RT even though most other “old” programs do not.

Finally, we come to the Surface.  Just like there are two versions of Windows, there are two versions of Surface that run those two versions of Windows (http://www.microsoft.com/surface/en-us). There is Surface Pro which runs the Intel version of Windows 8 and Surface (originally called Surface RT) and Surface 2 which run the ARM version of Windows.

The Surface is ARM based and only runs programs specifically written for this new version of Windows.  These are still few and far between but that is improving and Microsoft is really pushing to help developers get the the most popular apps on the platform (Flipboard just got added last week).  It does come with Microsoft Office, but it is the home/student version which means that it can be used at home for writing letters and for students to do their homework.  Because it runs on the low powered ARM processors it gets between 8 and 10 hours of battery life.

The Surface Pro (and Surface Pro 2) is essentially a very nice laptop/tablet that runs Windows 8 on Intel.  It is backwards compatible with all software that runs on Windows 7.  The original version only got between 4 and 5 hours of battery life, but the new model is supposed to get 40% more.  It does not come with Office, but the normal version can be installed on it.

So, which one should you get?  The Surface 2 is ideal for young students and those who will only be using the new Windows 8 apps.  It is not backwards compatible with most things from your old computer, but it does come with a full version of Microsoft Office.  The Surface Pro 2 is ideal for business people who want to take advantage of the tablet and mobile revolution, but still need backwards compatibility with everything that they used to do on their old computer.

I have had the original Surface (RT) and really like it.  The only current downside that I see is that new apps are written for Android and iOS first and only make it the Surface much later if at all.  For more information you can read my full review of the Surface RT.

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