I wondered recently in another thread
if the Surface Pro—being a full-fledged Windows 8 PC—would be sufficient to act as an HTPC. There's been a lot of buzz, talk and reviews about the merits and shortcomings of the Surface Pro, so much so that more niché uses like HTPC haven't been covered. The Surface RT model is not able to run legacy Windows software, of course, so at least for now it's a non-starter in this arena. But I was intrigued by the newer Surface Pro.
I have a primary desktop-based HTPC hooked up to the main 65" plasma in the living room, but I also have a more modest home theater system in the bedroom, planted firmly in front of an exercise bike. I currently have an entry-level Denon receiver (AVR-1513) hooked up to an Xbox 360 in an effort to trick myself into exercising (lost 25 lbs. so far!) So it's been working, but I thought with a library of 800+ lossless-quality MKVs sitting on my NAS drives and at my fingertips, it would be another great way to pass the time.
I went ahead and bought a 128GB Surface Pro. At the time of this writing, they are still in very high demand and difficult to come by, which I suppose is another reason the AVS regulars haven't put one through its paces. I've been using the system for a week now, and although this is not meant to be a review of the device, suffice it to say everything you've read in the reviews is true: it's a full-fledged Windows 8 machine, has a great screen, a nice stylus, an amazing Type Cover keyboard, and USB / Mini DisplayPort connections. It also runs fairly warm and the battery life is pretty short, as reviewed.
One of the first things I did was install my suite of home theater software:
—Windows Media Center (as widely reported, unless you purchased Windows 8 early and got a free WMC Upgrade Code, this is a $10 add-on to the system. Not a big deal.)
—Media Browser, my preferred front-end for WMC7 (now WMC8?)
—LAV Filters (for subtitles, audio handling, etc.)
In terms of hardware, the Surface connects easily to a WiFi-n network as you would imagine. The screen of the Surface beautiful, and thankfully is 1920x1080 resolution, so it maps 1:1 to an external 1080p HD display.
The Surface has a single USB port, which you can use for anything you would on a "normal" computer—a wireless mouse receiver, external storage devices, or (most likely) a USB hub to connect even more devices.
While this report is centered on using a Surface Pro, I wanted to note some important (and not well-publicized) differences between this model and the RT model:
1) Most important, for some reason the RT model sports a mini HDMI output, while the Pro model features a Mini DisplayPort output. Make sure you get the right HDMI adapter for the Surface Pro! They look VERY similar.
2) You do NOT need to purchase Microsoft's first-party Mini DisplayPort to HDMI adapter. As of this writing they are currently as hard to come by as the Surface Pro itself. In fact, in my search for one, the Microsoft Store themselves stocked a Belkin adapter which they recommended.
3) Notable but not as important as the above, the Surface Pro uses a 48W power supply, while the RT uses a 24W power supply. These items are right next to each other on the shelf and the packaging is very similar, so if you purchase a second power supply (there is one included, of course), be sure to get the right one.
Anyway, back to the HTPC:
I was concerned that the Mini DisplayPort might not support audio, but thankfully it does. Upon connecting the Surface Pro via HDMI to my Denon receiver, the Surface Pro recognized the availability of my HDTV as a secondary display, and like any external display, you can choose how to use it with Windows 8: Mirror the Display, Extend the Desktop, Use Only the External Display, etc. Works like a charm.
Secondly, the Sound Control Panel also recognized the Denon AVR as a Sound device. I was monkeying around with some settings and was initially alarmed because I was getting video but NO audio from my receiver (it was still coming through the Surface), until I realized I had inadvertently set the Sound Control Panel back to using the Surface's relatively-meager built-in speakers. Just make sure to select your Receiver (it should switch to it automatically when you connect an HDMI device) in the Sound Control Panel of Windows Desktop mode, and you can Configure your speakers as normal there (2.1, 5.1, 7.1, etc.)
So, did it work? In a word, yes.
Here are a couple of shots of maybe one of the only 5.1-equipped exercise bikes you're gonna run across. As you can see, the Surface Pro fits perfectly on my particular bike's magazine holder, and it only requires the single HDMI connection to use on my bedroom home theater system. Of course you may need to also plug in a power supply, but a full charge will easily let you watch anything but the longest of films (4+ hours would be pushing it.) You may notice that I'm Mirroring the display in the photo here, which you might find distracting for watching a movie. No worries, under Power Options you can control what happens when you close the lid of the Surface (in my case, the Type Cover, which is folded back behind the Surface in the photo), and you can just set it to "Do Nothing" when closed, so the system won't go to sleep and you can just enjoy the picture on the external HDTV. Works just like any other laptop in this regard.
The performance so far has been flawless, but I've got a couple of tips:
1) Make sure you have either a great WiFi network, or have the ability to attach your Surface to a CAT-5 network (you can use a standard USB Ethernet adapter for wired connections.) I use the well-reviewed ASUS RT-N66U wireless router, which is rated with particularly high throughput, and my bedroom is only about 50 feet away from the router with a clear signal path. Your mileage may vary on your own network, but I had NO stutters and NO connection issues streaming a lossless-quality 30GB MKV from my ReadyNAS Pros to the Surface. It worked perfectly.
2) I happen to use the Poster view in Media Browser as my preferred interface on my primary theater system, and wanted the same interface for the bedroom. This interface happens to not be touch-friendly with the Surface screen. When you attempt to scroll through your library by swiping, it simply selects the first movie you touch, and opens the Movie Info screen for it. The solution adds another level of slickness to the setup, particularly if you're not able to keep your Surface Pro near you during playback: I researched several different Remote apps for my Apple iPhone 4S, and found that HippoRemote was an ideal way to control the Surface Pro without touching it. The HippoRemote connects easily to any computer (including the Surface) using the included VNC server (no configuration needed, really) as long as your iOS device is on the same WiFi network as the Surface Pro. I'm sure you can find an equivalent solution—if needed—for Android devices, etc.
What's great about HippoRemote is that only does it have a virtual touchpad, mouse buttons, and multiple keyboard layouts, but it also features a ton of preconfigured control layouts for virtually every popular multimedia program on the computer: everything from iTunes, Netflix, XBMC, and—yes!—Windows Media Center has custom key layouts you can use with common functions readily available. Plus, you can make your own layouts if needed, but the Windows Media Center configuration was great for me. I could quickly scroll around my Media Browser library using the Up / Down and Page Up / Page Down, Enter and Backspace keys to browse for a title. Or, just use the onscreen keyboard to type in the name of the movie you want.
Note that I only found HippoRemote helpful because I use the full-screen Poster view in Media Browser. The Surface Pro touchscreen may work better in other Media Browser themes or screen views and would be simpler than using a second device, but I didn't check them. A much more common usage scenario will probably be using an external wireless keyboard or remote for control, so those should work just as well as they would on a "regular" HTPC (the Surface supports Bluetooth connections too, of course.)
3) If you use Media Browser, it's imperative that you get the very latest version. Only the latest version supports Windows 8, which would otherwise have kept me from this experiment altogether.
4) The relative lack of local storage on the Surface Pro hasn't been an issue for me. While I did opt for the 128GB model and popped in a $50 64GB MicroSDXC card, you really don't need a lot of space. I've installed all my home theater software, Microsoft Office, the Adobe CS suite, several Steam games, iTunes, the entire Adobe Font Library for my design work, and still have 60GB free on the system drive, and haven't needed to touch the 64GB card at all. Any home theater enthusiast worth their salt is going to be storing their media on external devices anyway, so local storage on an HTPC isn't that important. I hardly use any local storage on my primary HTPC, either.
5) There's no reason why you couldn't install more software too, like Media Center Master (which I use to organize my library on my primary HTPC.) I'm sure other platforms like XBMC and Plex would work as well.
So, are there any downsides?
Only one for me: so far, the only thing I have not been able to get to work is bitstreaming DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD audio codecs. Kind of a bummer. Not sure if it's an incorrect configuration, or (I think more likely) that the AV chip inside the Surface is incapable of bitstreaming the lossless HD audio codecs, unlike NVIDIA and AMD Radeon cards in dedicated desktop HTPCs. If so, it's unlikely that will ever be added given that this is a pretty niché feature. When I play back my MKVs, my receiver reports "Multi In Blu-ray" for Dolby TrueHD titles, and reports DTS (not DTS-HD) for those titles. The PCM light does come on for DTS, but I don't think that means I'm getting lossless audio decoding.
My LAV Splitter is configured to bitstream HD audio, of course, just like my primary HTPC, so I don't believe it's a configuration error, but I would love it if it was, because so far that's the only disappointment in the setup (and given that it's a secondary system hooked up to a freaking exercise bike, I can live with it.) If anyone has any luck bitstreaming lossless audio codecs from a Surface Pro, please post here. I would love to be proven wrong on this.
As a test, I also installed a Trial version of Arcsoft's TMT6, which as far as I know is one of the only pieces of software that can actually decode DTS-HD and Dolby TrueHD, and I didn't have any better luck. Not only was TMT6 NOT able to play an MKV stored on a NAS (it reported an unknown filetype, so I had to manually copy a test MKV to the Desktop in order to get it to open), but the playback performance was horrible and unwatchable. WMC8 and Media Browser with MPC-HC as an external player worked great.
Overall I'd definitely recommend trying a Surface Pro out if you are curious. Don't forget you have a FULL, completely portable Windows 8 PC at your disposal, which opens up all the viewing possibilities you also have: Netflix, PC gaming (a huge missed opportunity in the marketing of this device), web browsing, email, etc. While there are some shortcomings to the Surface (battery life being the most notable), overall the Surface Pro compares well to a MacBook Air—with the legacy catalog of Windows software dwarfing anything available for either OS X or iOS apps, for that matter. The Surface RT is more equivalent to an iPad, third-party apps notwithstanding. I use a Mac for my primary workstation and Windows 7 for my primary HTPC, and an iPhone and iPad 3, but so far the Surface Pro has been a great addition to the family.
And it'll probably only get better from here.