What if your laptop was a tablet? Imagine—something sleek and easy to carry that still runs all of the software you need, such as Microsoft’s Word and Outlook, as well as your favorite document management software, redlining tools, and templates.

PC manufacturers have been trying this for years, but usually come up with plastic-clad behemoths neither easy to hold nor pleasant to use. It took Apple to show the computer industry what a tablet should look like. Now, Microsoft demonstrates what a tablet should do.

The Surface Pro brings Windows compatibility to a sleek, modern tablet. Debuted in February, it runs the full spectrum of Windows software, giving it a range of abilities unavailable on the iPad. This benefits both the lawyers who use tablets and the IT staff who manage and support the devices. Though not always the best of both worlds, the Surface Pro combines strengths of laptops and tablets, making it a compelling new option for users who value mobility.

The Surface Pro’s ability to run any Windows program makes it easier to use and more reliable than other tablets. Many lawyers rely on specialized, proprietary software that exists only for Microsoft Windows. On tablets, lawyers have to seek out iPad- or Android-friendly replacements that might not work the same as—or even connect with—desktop programs.

Imagine a colleague emails you a document, but sends you a link to your document management system instead of the file itself. Can you open that link on an iPad? Can you edit the document on an Android tablet? Sure, some systems have tablet-friendly apps, but can they provide the same experience and tools as a desktop PC? The Surface Pro is intended to do exactly this. You can assume that if it works on a PC, it will work on the Surface Pro.

Security and management

The Surface Pro also benefits from security features that are well-known on PCs but less common on tablets. For instance, Windows 8 Pro’s built-in BitLocker feature can encrypt the Surface Pro’s hard drive. If the device is lost or stolen, encryption greatly reduces the chance of someone extracting sensitive data.

The Surface Pro also works with centrally-managed security utilities such as virus scanners, metadata cleaners and data management apps that integrate with Outlook. Many of these tools are incompatible with iOS and Android, which forces iPad users and their IT departments to seek out replacements. By contrast, with Windows 8, firms can secure tablets with the same tools and policies they already use for Windows desktops.

Windows 8 tablets, like the Surface Pro, are easier to administer than iPads and Androids because they are compatible with the PC management tools IT departments typically use. Firms can deploy security and software updates to the tablets via tools like Microsoft’s System Center Configuration Manager. IT administrators can also use Active Directory and Group Policy to manage settings for tablet users and grant them permission to access particular applications and files. The upshot is that a Surface Pro can be secured and managed with as much IT attention as a desktop and far less than an iPad.

Competitors

The Surface Pro’s security and compatibility strengths owe to its Windows 8 Pro operating system, and while other tablets can run Windows, few are as well-reviewed. The Surface Pro is easily confused with the Surface RT, which is less expensive and less powerful. The RT comes with a stripped-down version of Microsoft Office, missing Outlook. It is also unable to run the add-ins that connect Office with document management systems and metadata clean ing utilities, making the RT unappealing for most attorneys.

Other Windows 8 Pro tablets exist from makers like Lenovo and Dell, but they tend to be clunkier than the Surface Pro. The Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13 and the Dell XPS 12 both weigh about 3.4 pounds versus two pounds for the Surface Pro, making them less appealing for mobile users. The Surface Pro also won favorable comparisons with these devices regarding design. C|net declared it "the best high-end Windows 8 tablet," citing "its compact form and excellent little Type Cover." (Its keyboard doubles as a screen protector.)

Convergence or compromise?

As with any new gadget, the Surface Pro is by no means perfect. Poor battery life has been a common complaint. The New York Times‘ David Pogue reported that his machine lasted 3.5 hours on battery power—a reasonable lifespan for a laptop but much less than expected for a tablet. The discrepancy arises from the fact that Windows 8 tablets require stronger, more power-hungry processors than the less feature-rich iOS and Android operating systems. Nonetheless, this limitation could prove irksome to former iPad and Android tablet users.

Former iPad and Android users may also miss using their old apps. Though a new tablet user will likely appreciate using the same apps on tablet and desktop, lawyers already using the iPad, say, have probably adapted to its quirks. Different tablet platforms are not compatible with each other’s apps, so a former iPad user may have to re-download, or even repurchase, familiar apps for the Surface Pro.

Moreover, the Windows Store, a source for Windows 8 apps, is relatively new and does not offer as many recreational apps as Apple’s App Store does, meaning that many iOS apps will not have exact Windows 8 equivalents. This limitation should be mitigated, though, by the Surface Pro’s ability to run standard Windows programs, of which there are many.

The bottom line

In spite of its limited battery life, Microsoft’s Surface Pro offers features that are missing in the mainstream tablet market. Being able to run familiar desktop programs on a tablet-sized device gives users the option of replacing two devices, the tablet and the laptop, with one. This is a convenience worth considering, and law firms that value mobility should investigate whether the Surface Pro meets their needs.