Microsoft Surface Pro 2 Windows tablet
Though the Surface Pro 2 changes little from its predecessor, every little change is for the better.
- Ultrabook-like performance
- Improved battery life from original Surface Pro
- High-res, good quality 1920x1080 display
- Very solid magnesium-alloy build
- Dual-angle kickstand
- Still too heavy and thick for comfortable ‘tablet’ use
- Older Windows desktop applications don’t scale well to the high-density display
- Paint job is prone to scratches and marks
- Only one USB port, no SD card slot
- Not really suited to lap-top use (or other precarious perches)
A major improvement over the Surface Pro, but a few issues still leave it struggling for relevance among established tablet, netbook and laptop form factors.
Less than a year after it unveiled its first Windows 8-powered Surface Pro tablet, Microsoft has delivered a hardware update in the form of the Surface Pro 2. Sporting a new fourth-generation ‘Haswell’ Core i5 processor and the freshly-minted Windows 8.1, the Pro 2 is… well, otherwise nearly identical to the original Surface Pro.
Opinions around the original were divided – we rated it an average 3-of-5 stars in our final print issue of PC World New Zealand, whereas our Australian compatriots at GoodGearGuide rated it a more impressive 4-of-5. It came down to whether you took an optimistic or pessimistic (I’d like to say ‘realistic’) view of the compromises and limitations inherent in the Surface’s design.
While the new version doesn’t really change that much, the things it does improve are some of those that most compromised the original – and thus, the rose-tinted glasses feel a little more comfortable this time around.
Side-by-side, the Surface Pro 2 and Surface Pro are effectively identical. Dimensions, weight, construction materials, design and port placement – this is no radical redesign. It’s still a rather thick 13mm (actually 13.5, this time) and weighs in at 910g, right up at the top end of the tablet scale.
The Pro 2’s case is constructed from magnesium alloy ‘VaporMg’, and painted in a ‘Dark Titanium’ finish. The alloy case is exceptionally rigid and resilient, but unfortunately that doesn’t extend to the paint job.
Within days of unboxing my Surface Pro 2 review sample, the rear of the casing was covered in fine scratches. I’m careful with review products – I treat them with the same kid-gloves as I do my own technology. My three-year-old personal laptop still looks brand-new, and it’s been around the world with me. The Surface looks like it’s been through a warzone, when in reality it’s only been back and forth between my home and office, tucked safely into a leather satchel.
The area around the tablet’s magnetic power connector is also covered in scratches, which is unsurprising. Unlike Apple’s small, self-aligning MagSafe connector, the Surface’s power connector is a long, narrow strip that’s difficult to align properly despite its magnetism. It’s easy to connect it slightly off-centre, so you think it’s charging when it’s actually not. A side-effect of the finicky alignment is that every time you go to plug the power adapter in, you end up with another few scratches on the tablet body in that general vicinity.
Aforementioned scratches are all only paint-deep: the Surface Pro 2 really is very solid, and it would be difficult to inflict any more than cosmetic damage without a fair bit of effort (or negligence).
Everything I’ve just said – the power connector, the easily-scratched finish, the solid construction – could all be about the original Microsoft Surface Pro. None of this is new.
Honestly, I don’t think I could tell the old and new models apart without lifting the built-in kickstand and checking the hinges, which are the most obvious point of difference. Why? Because like the new Windows 8.1 RT-based Surface 2, the Surface Pro 2 has a dual-angle kickstand for about twice the usefulness of its single-angle predecessor.
This is the first of many small improvements that have a disproportionately large impact.
One of the major limitations to the Surface Pro was its single-angle kickstand. As both of the official Surface keyboards are non-supporting (they don’t hold the tablet up in a typing position), the kickstand is what determines your viewing angle when using a keyboard.
The single angle of the previous model was only useful in a small range of situations, whereas a laptop or netbook with a free-rotating hinge lets you set up whatever sort of viewing angle you need. The new dual-angle kickstand still isn’t that flexible, but between the two angles it offers (one steep and one shallow), it covered the majority of usage situations I encountered and dreamed up during my testing.
Keyboard and touchpad
The Surface Pro 2 is compatible with the same Touch Cover 2 and Type Cover 2 keyboard accessories we looked at with the Surface 2.
Both cases have been upgraded from their previous versions with the addition of a backlight and improvement of the built-in touchpads.
The Touch Cover 2 is the very definition of thin-and-light, at 2.5mm thick and just 190 grams. The keys are very subtly raised, but do not contain mechanical switches and have no key travel when ‘pressed’: the entire keyboard is packed with touch sensors, which work like a permanent version of the on-screen keyboard.
The new version is significantly more accurate and responsive to keystrokes than its predecessor, though still subject to human error – as there’s very little delineation between keys it’s easy to hit the wrong one, no matter how accurate the keyboard itself is.
The Type Cover 2 trades a bit of portability (though really not that much) for a traditional mechanical keyboard. It’s still only 5mm thick, and weighs 255 grams. Every bit of space is made use of, to deliver a keyboard that’s just under 95% of full width. Key travel is understandably shallow, but it provides a good typing experience nonetheless. I was able to type 105 words-per-minute right out of the box, whereas my traditional ‘desktop’ typing speed is around 110-115.
Both keyboards lock themselves when folded behind the tablet, so you won’t find yourself accidentally typing garbage when holding the Surface in tablet-mode.
The Touch Cover 2 has an RRP of NZ$185/AU$140, while the Type Cover 2 is NZ$200/AU$150. Do factor one of these into the price of the Surface Pro 2: without one of the optional keyboards, the tablet is a very hard sell.
The Surface Pro 2’s screen is the same as the original: a 10.6-inch 1920x1080 panel with 10-point multitouch. It’s a good resolution for the size, giving an approximate 208 pixels-per-inch.
The screen is beautifully clear and sharp, with great colour. The glossy finish can be a little overly reflective, however: when the Surface Pro is off, the screen is essentially a mirror. Even as I sit and type this, with the brightness turned up high, I can see my own reflection clearly in the background. It’s distracting, and makes the Surface Pro 2 difficult to use in bright sunlight.
One thing to consider is that while 208ppi is beautifully sharp at laptop and tablet viewing distances, the traditional Windows desktop interface does not scale particularly well.
Display: The scaling problem
While 208ppi is beautifully sharp at laptop and tablet viewing distances, the traditional Windows desktop interface does not scale particularly well.
Windows was designed to cater for low-density displays, around 96 dots/pixels-per-inch. That equates to a 23-inch 1920x1080 pixel display, which is one of – if not the most – common screen sizes for home desktops.
Most Windows applications were written with that 96ppi resolution in mind, and never intended to scale up. This means that on high-density displays like the Surface Pro 2’s, traditional Windows applications have tiny buttons, menus and text – difficult to see for anyone without 20/20 vision, and difficult to operate by touch for anyone, period.
Microsoft addresses this by defaulting the Surface Pro 2 to 150% UI scale, which does exactly that – blows everything up to 150% of its intended size. This does make text easier to read and buttons easier to press by touch, but it tends to cause blurring in any applications that weren’t specifically designed to scale (which, as above, is most of them).
This is true of the Surface 2 as well, which has the same high resolution. However, the Surface 2 only runs Windows 8 Store applications, which are designed to scale across screen sizes. Only Microsoft Office 2013 RT runs in the the traditional desktop interface, which was designed with scaling in mind and does so fairly gracefully.
I don’t condemn the Surface Pro 2 for its high resolution – far from it, I applaud Microsoft for providing a high quality display. The advantages of the extra resolution are clear in photos and videos, and the extra screen real-estate is valuable when running ‘legacy’ desktop applications. However, do bear this issue in mind.
Windows 8.1 hasn’t solved the scaling problem, and if you’re buying the Surface Pro 2 primarily to run desktop applications rather than Windows 8 apps, you’ll have to choose between overly-tiny or slightly-blurred text and UI components.
Display: Surface Pen
Tied in with the display is Microsoft’s pressure-sensitive digitiser, the ‘Surface Pro Pen’. It’s included in the box, and replacements sell for AU$40/NZ$45. That’s important to know, because you will lose it. Probably more than once.
The stylus is a standard digitizer, with 1024 levels of pressure sensitivity for use in applications like Photoshop. It has a non-retractable nib at one end, and eraser at the other. There’s a single right-click button on the side.
It’s an unpowered stylus, so no obscure AAAA-sized batteries to replace. (Yeah, that’s really a size.)
While the pressure sensitivity is very accurate and motion is accurately captured, I could never get the pen calibrated all that well on the display. This means that the place the nib meets the screen is never quite where Windows thinks the nib is meeting the screen – when you’re drawing or painting you can get used to it, but it always caught me when I was trying to tap tiny on-screen buttons or icons (see my high-density-display-scaling rant above).
Questionable accuracy is nothing compared to the pen’s one great advantage, though. The Surface Pro Pen gives you something that you won’t get on any iPad or Android tablet, or any Windows tablet without a digitizer pen: it lets you ‘hover’.
You know on – well, most websites ever – how you have to hover the mouse over a button to make a menu pop up? Or, for a highly specific example, take Twitter: in the Direct Messages view, you can only delete a message by hovering the cursor over said message, which causes a little rubbish bin icon to appear. The web, and many traditional Windows desktop applications, are riddled with examples of this.
On a touch-only device, there’s no way to ‘hover’ – your finger is only detected when it comes in contact with the screen. The same is true with third-party capacitive styli (...or ‘styluses’) – you can’t hover over something on-screen as you could with a mouse pointer.
The touchpads on the Touch Cover and Type Cover keyboards let you do this with the surface, but only in ‘laptop mode’ – not when there’s no keyboard connected, or the keyboard is folded behind, in ‘tablet mode’.
The Surface Pro Pen is detected within a centimetre or two of the screen, letting you hover over things and bring up those otherwise-unaccessible menus, giving you access to a huge range of websites and software that weren’t designed with touch-driven interfaces in mind.
Specs & Performance
The Surface Pro 2 is similar in spec to the Surface Pro, but moves from a third-generation ‘Ivy Bridge’ Intel processor to a fourth-generation ‘Haswell’ chip. Intel’s two big selling points with Haswell are battery life and integrated graphics performance, and in both cases we saw a notable improvement.
The new tablet’s Core i5-4200U processor sports two cores with Intel’s Hyper-Threading technology for a total of four threads. It has a base clock of 1.6GHz (slightly slower than the base of 1.7GHz on the original Surface Pro), and a maximum ‘turbo’ clock speed of 2.6GHz.
There are 64, 128, 256 and 512GB versions available – the 64 and 128GB versions include 4GB of RAM, and the 256/512GB versions have 8GB. We tested the 64GB version with 4GB RAM.
Raw CPU performance was near identical to the previous version’s Intel Core i5-3317U – a few percentage points lower in some benchmarks, a few higher in others, but nothing that would have an appreciable impact on application performance. It’s about equivalent to a mid-level Ultrabook, and anywhere from 2–10 times the performance of low-powered, Intel Atom-based Windows 8 tablets we’ve tested in the past.
The new chip moves us forward from Ivy Bridge’s Intel HD Graphics 4000 platform to Haswell’s shiny new Intel HD Graphics 4400, which you’re welcome to read up on, if you care about the underlying tech. This review is long and in-depth enough as it is, so we’ll cut straight to the results.
In our GPU-heavy benchmarks, we saw an improvement of up to 78% in one test, and an average improvement of 38% across all tests. This is great for GPU-accelerated photo, video and 3D software, and also expands the range of games you can run on the Surface Pro 2 (though it’s still limited to fairly graphically-undemanding titles in the gaming space, compared to anything with a dedicated graphics card).
The Surface Pro 2 really is a laptop-spec machine in a tablet-like form factor, which accounts for its weight and thickness. It will run applications like Adobe Photoshop – not as well as a mobile workstation or desktop, but certainly as well as an equivalently-specced Ultrabook.
Performance: Battery Life
The new Haswell chip gave the Surface Pro 2 a 35% improvement in battery life.
It was this ‘laptop-performance’ advantage that created the corresponding disadvantage in the original Surface Pro: laptop-like battery life. With the original, we saw 2hrs 48mins in our intensive ‘productivity’ test: this was less than 40% the battery life offered by lower-spec Intel Atom-powered Windows 8 tablets, and less than 60% the battery life of the only other Core i-based Windows 8 tablet we’d tested at that time (Acer’s Iconia W700).
The battery life was simply unacceptable for a tablet, and was on the low-side for an Ultrabook – whatever category we placed the original Surface Pro in, that one stat made it come out on the bottom.
The new Haswell chip gave the Surface Pro 2 a 35% improvement, up to 3hrs 46mins in the same test. With less demanding use and low brightness (our ‘productivity’ test runs at 50%), we were able to manage a full 8.5-hour workday.
It’s still not at the level of an iPad or some Android tablets, but it’s well into Ultrabook territory, and that’s exactly what the Surface Pro 2 is at heart.
Storage on SkyDrive
Like the Surface 2, the Surface Pro 2 comes with 200GB of cloud storage on Microsoft’s SkyDrive service, for a period of two years. The offer is available on all purchases before 31 December 2014, and must be claimed within 90 days of purchase.
I picked this apart in my Surface 2 review, so head on over there if you’d like the full analysis. In brief: it’s a great offer if you already use SkyDrive, or another cloud storage service that you don’t mind switching from. Just beware the lock-in effect – if you store 200GB ‘in the cloud’, when your free storage runs out at the end of two years, you’re going to have to start paying up or lose it all.
In New Zealand, getting your 200GB back down (should you decide not to pay up) could take a fairly long time and easily blow away your monthly data cap, too. In two years’ time, there are still going to be plenty of internet-connected citizens on ADSL, under the current UFB rollout plan.
200GB of data on SkyDrive is presently worth NZ$132/AU$100 per annum, making the offer worth NZ$264/AU$200 in total.
Bargain-hunters and serial hagglers should note that the offer is not, by any means, redeemable for cash.
Connectivity is strong in tablet terms, because of the fully-functional Windows installation and USB 3.0 port.
Connectivity hasn’t changed from the original Surface Pro: one USB 3.0 port, microSDXC card slot, headphone socket, and mini DisplayPort. Wireless is 802.11a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0.
This is simultaneously one of the strongest and weakest areas of the Surface Pro 2.
Connectivity is strong in tablet terms, because of the fully-functional Windows installation and USB 3.0 port. This means you can connect up any peripheral, whatsoever, that will work with a Windows 8.1 PC. If you need to install proprietary drivers, that’s fine – you can download and install them. If you need companion software, that’s fine too, as long as it’ll run on a Windows 8 desktop or laptop, it’ll run on the Surface Pro.
If you need to interface with equipment – anything from musical instruments to video-capture gear, digital multimeters to oscilloscopes, Arduino microcontrollers to 3D printers – the Surface Pro 2 is equivalent to a laptop. This cannot be claimed of any Android or iOS tablet. as Windows is still the principal platform targeted for most such software.
The downside is that compared to the Ultrabook it really is inside, the Surface Pro 2 really doesn’t give you much. You have one USB port: plug in a USB flash drive, and you have to unplug your mouse. Sure, the solution to that might be to use a Bluetooth mouse, but there are plenty of other examples.
Trying to copy music from an external hard drive to your smartphone? That takes two USB ports – you’ll need a USB hub. Going with the techier use cases above, what if you want both your USB oscilloscope and Arduino programmer plugged in simultaneously? Again, USB hub. I have long ridiculed any laptop with less than three USB ports, saying two is not enough. One? One is just pathetic. Simply adding a second port would fix one of the largest remaining issues with the Surface Pro 2.
Another connectivity issue is the inclusion of a microSDXC card slot instead of full-sized microSD. This makes sense in smartphones and ‘pure’ tablets, because the main purpose of that card slot is expansion storage.
On a device like the Surface Pro, where you could be (and I certainly was) running Photoshop, it gains the same use a card slot has on a desktop or laptop – giving you a quicker way to pull photos off your camera than plugging it into a USB port. Most cameras still use full-sized SD cards, which the Surface does not accept. This is another area where as small change would add a great deal of laptop-level usefulness.
Finally, DisplayPort? Yeah, actually I’m quite happy with that, and you should be too. Though it means you need an adapter to output via HDMI, DVI or VGA, DisplayPort is the most comprehensive and useful display connection available if you’re only going to have one port. Given that there’s limited room on the Surface Pro body, and riddling the thing with ports wouldn’t be great for the looks or ergonomics, DisplayPort was a good choice.
At the New Zealand launch event, a Microsoft rep told us the Surface Pro 2 would output video via DisplayPort at up to 3840x2160, thereby supporting an extremely large external display. It also has support for multiple daisy-chained displays, which other interfaces (HDMI, VGA) don’t provide.
Before we move on, one nice little touch worth mentioning is the USB power port on the Surface Pro 2’s power adapter. There’s nothing to it, really – just a USB 2.0 port that provides power (not actual USB connectivity to the Surface). It’s there so you can charge companion devices – such as your smartphone, MP3 player or travel router – without needing a separate USB mains adapter or tying up the port on the Surface Pro.
The USB charger is particularly valuable to international travellers, as it removes the need to carry a separate charger and international-plug-adapter for your smartphone. One less thing to leave in the hotel room, too.
Though the Surface Pro 2 changes little from its predecessor, every little change is for the better. The dual-angle kickstand, improvements to the already-awesome keyboard accessories, and notably better battery life are all huge points in the Pro 2’s favour.
As much has changed, however, there is far more that has stayed the same. The Surface Pro 2 is still the same thickness and weight as its predecessor, which make it awkward as a tablet. Yes, it’s much thinner than a netbook, but netbooks have the major advantage of a hinged keyboard – letting you pitch the screen at whatever angle you need. Netbooks also have far better weight distribution than the screen-heavy Surface Pro when it comes to lap-top use.
Windows 8.1 hasn’t improved Windows 8’s application scaling, meaning that traditional desktop apps will always be a bit fiddly or awkwardly-enlarged on the high-density screen. The included pen is useful here, but not as accurate as we’d have liked.
The Surface Pro was a brilliant concept, given the best execution Microsoft could manage at the time. The Surface Pro 2 is that same brilliant concept, executed slightly better using the latest technology. I strongly suspect that by the time we get to the Surface Pro 3, or Surface Pro 4, Microsoft will have itself an incredible, category-defining product.
At this stage, the Surface Pro 2 is still trying to carve out a niche for itself. On the Surface website, Microsoft pitches it as “Heart of a laptop. Body of a tablet. Designed for the power user who doesn’t stand still.” Sure, it’s marketing speak, but it’s also true – right now, that’s the niche.
If you’re the type of person that really would connect the Surface Pro 2 up to your 3D printer or Arduino programmer, you’re the type of person that might be interested in a Surface Pro 2. If you’d run Visual Studio or Eclipse on the thing, or use it as a diagnostic tool when doing Wi-Fi installations… perfect.
If you just want something tablet-sized to browse the web on, buy an iPad. If you just want Microsoft Office in a tablet form-factor for university, buy a Surface 2. If you just want to type a whole bunch on a decent keyboard, buy a netbook or Ultrabook.
The Surface Pro 2 makes too many compromises one way or the other to suit any of those super-common uses. If your use case is outside the norm – if you’re really “the power user who doesn’t stand still”, the Surface Pro 2 was made for you.
|Microsoft Surface Pro 2||64GB||$1,019||$1,299|
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