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Microsoft’s hybrid misses mark

If you’re in the market for either a new laptop or a new tablet computer, Microsoft Corp. thinks it has exactly what you need. But Microsoft is wrong.

On Saturday, you can finally buy the full-powered version of Microsoft’s quirky new computer, the Surface.

An earlier version, released last year and called the Surface RT, features a low-powered processor and a stripped-down version of Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system.

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The new model, the Surface with Windows 8 Pro, is a full-fledged Windows laptop crammed into a sleek black touchscreen tablet. It’s fast, it’s powerful, and it even manages to make Microsoft’s controversial Windows 8 software look pretty good.

It’s also too hot, too heavy, too noisy, and too costly. If you’re in the market for a tablet or a laptop, you can do better.

I almost hate to say so, because the Surface Pro is far from awful.

Its laptop-like features make it more versatile than Apple Inc.’s iPad or other tablets. And its gorgeous touchscreen and surprisingly good stereo speakers make it a very good multimedia machine. But the Pro’s weaknesses and compromises keep it from being an excellent tablet or a superb laptop, leaving a fair-to-middling hybrid.

At a glance, the Pro seems identical to its cheaper cousin, the Surface RT. You’ll know better when you pick it up. The Pro weighs 2 pounds, half a pound more than the RT or iPad. Two pounds is featherweight for a laptop, but massive for a tablet; carrying the Surface Pro in the crook of my arm became fairly uncomfortable in short order.

The angular design of the device doesn’t help; it’s less finger-friendly than are the iPad’s rounded edges.

The Pro’s weight doesn’t matter when you pop out its clever rear kickstand and magnetically attach the optional keyboard. Now you’ve got a decent computing alternative. With its weight resting on its narrow bottom edge and the kickstand, this wannabe laptop sits awkwardly on the human lap. But the $130 Type Cover, with spring-loaded keys, provides an adequate typing experience, though some of the keys are in unusual locations, and the integrated touchpad is too small.

Unlike the underpowered and often sluggish Surface RT, the Surface Pro carries an Intel Core i5 chip and 4 gigabytes of RAM. The extra muscle pays off. Windows 8 performs much better on a really snappy machine like the Pro. I found myself opening and closing programs by touching the screen instead of rubbing the inadequate mousepad, and realized I was enjoying the experience. I don’t think I’ll ever love Windows 8, but on the Surface Pro, I began to like it a little.

As a sort-of-laptop, the Pro offers valuable extras you don’t get on an iPad. There’s a USB port for adding external drives or a standard mouse and keyboard. You get a slot for Micro SD memory cards, and a DisplayPort connector where you can plug in an external monitor.

What you don’t get is enough storage.

The model I tested had 128 gigabytes, but 41 of them are given over to the Windows operating system and other built-in files. I get just 87 gigs to work with. Buy the cheaper, 64-gigabyte model and you get only 23 gigs of usable storage space.

Like other laptops, the Surface Pro can run pretty hot, which adds to the discomfort when you’re toting it around like a tablet. Now and again, it gives off a sound that no iPad has ever made — the irritating buzz of a cooling fan.

All that heat is coming straight out of the battery, which isn’t up to the challenge.

The Surface Pro flunked my usual test, when I stream a movie over a Wi-Fi wireless Internet connection. I started with a full battery and fired up “Cleopatra,” a four-hour epic from the early 1960s. Roddy McDowell had just declared war on Richard Burton when the battery died, 2 hours and 40 minutes in. Unless you’re never more than 10 feet from a power outlet, I’d call this poor result a deal-breaker.

But then, the Surface Pro’s price should scare you off. Once you price in the optional but essential keyboard, the cheapest Surface Pro comes in at over $1,000. For that you could buy a decent touchscreen laptop and an iPad Mini. It’d be a better investment than Microsoft’s unsatisfying hybrid.

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