Since my first review of Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2 I’ve continued to use the ultra-portable device for work and leisure but I’ve not really pushed the hardware to find its limits. In the last week that has changed. I’m in Austin for the annual South by Southwest Conference, and I wanted to answer a simple question. How well does the Surface Pro cope in a fast-moving, mobile, environment where improvising, working on the run, and creating content, is key?
This isn’t an exploration of the hardware, the specifications, or the market position of the device. Many of those bases were covered in my earlier review of the Surface Pro 2 here on Forbes. This is more on how the Surface Pro feels in a high-pressure environment.
The one set of specifications that I do need to mention here is the configuration. I’m using the Surface Pro 2, which runs the full implementation of Windows 8.1. It has the highest RAM and storage capacity (8GB and 256 GB of storage). I’m also using the Type Cover 2 for mouse and text input.
The starting point for this isn’t actually in Texas, it’s Edinburgh Airport. With a nineteen hour trip from my front door to the hotel in Austin, and twelve hours of that in the air in Economy, there are a lot of opportunities to use the Surface Pro 2 as an entertainment station. Thanks to the high-capacity battery and the Haswell chip architecture, the Surface Pro 2 was with me all the way through the trip. To be fair the Surface Pro 2 was not in constant use. I slept for a few hours on the main transatlantic flight, I wasn’t using it when transiting between flights, and other times I was occupied with actual paperwork.
That said, when I was ready to watch a film, listen to some music, or take in a TV show, the Surface Pro 2 was there and ready to go. Although the kickstand on the second iteration of the Surface design only has two positions, I found that the wide-angle view of the 1080p screen meant that popping the Surface Pro 2 on the tray table was a comfortable viewing angle, and provided a better experience than the in-flight entertainment screens.
There’s also something really nice about the full-screen view of the music player, with its smart choice of fonts and typesetting on display. A good full-screen visual experience isn’t really a requirement for a music app, but the Windows 8.1 view is welcome. The only gotcha is that the Surface Pro 2 has no DVD drive. I had to make sure the video files were loaded up before I left home. I have a network drive at home that stores my media, so some drag and drop action and my library was ready for the trip
One quirk I did find was that opening the touch UI based video application and trying to start a video wold result in a codec error on some video files, but if I opened the same file from a Windows Explorer view on the traditional Windows desktop, then the touch based video application would open and play the video file.
Having used the Surface Pro 2 for a few weeks now, there are many little quirks like this that I seem to be using to make the most of the Pro 2. There are times that the touchscreen UI used by Windows 8 works perfectly, but there are other times that I have to drop to the traditional desktop to perform a task.
If all you want are basic tablet functions, with a little bit of email, web browsing, and consuming media, a Surface Pro 2 is going to be a slab of overkill – although the Windows 8 touch interface is more than competent for these features, the basic Surface and Surface 2 tablet will suffice. Those devices are restricted to the touch interface and apps specifically designed for Windows 8, and I’ve spoken about that environment in the previous review. Once you step outside that mode and start to create content, the Surface Pro 2 suddenly becomes a very useful device to have around, and it’s the traditional desktop view that creates the value for me.
Simply put, the ability to run traditional Windows programs means that my productivity has been sky-high with the Surface Pro 2. I’m able to produce the audio podcasts of interviews that I do at SXSW with ease on Microsoft’s ‘tablet’. I’m able to use my portable high-end recorder, copy the files over USB and use my familiar and powerful editing tools. I can do the post-processing work, the ID3 metadata, the upload, edit the post, and publish without feeling that I am being limited by a mobile OS.
This is the main area where I have found the Surface Pro 2 to be a better choice than a tablet, phablet, smartphone, or a ‘full’ laptop, but it’s not the only strength. There are two Windows apps that I personally find incredibly useful. The first is Paint Shop Pro 3, which is admittedly very long in the tooth but is a competent bitmap editor and allows me to edit photos and spot graphics as required. Are there more modern options? Yes, but my learning curve for graphical editing on a new device that can run PSP3 is almost nil. Speed is of the essence at an event such as SXSW, so muscle memory and familiar apps are a must. The Surface Pro 2 is one of the few ultraportable tablets that offer me that option.
The second application is Windows Live Writer, which for me is still the blogging client that provides the most value for me when composing and posting entries.
I’ve looked at audio editing tools, MP3 tagging software, FTP and data upload, and the creation of blog posts, on iOS and Android tablets, and they do not come close to the polish and confidence that I can achieve using a desktop environment. The Surface Pro 2 allows me to minimize the time from recording an interview to the point where I can upload it. For anyone covering a real-time event, speed coupled with accuracy is vital, and the Surface Pro 2 delivers.
The Surface Pro 2 is not without problems. The high pixel density on the screen does mean that the UI elements on the Windows desktop need to be be altered for comfortable experience, and relying on the touchscreen to work with the smaller Windows elements can be very awkward. There is a stylus available in the Surface Pro 2′s retail packaging, but without an easy way to carry the pen in the casing of the Surface I have left it at home. I’m confident in bringing the Surface into the rough environment of SXSW. The Surface Pro is slung into my bag, taken out countless times, gets knocks and bumps in the real world. Using the magnetic catch for the AC adaptor is not a practical solution, it’s far too weak a magnet and the pen has proven before to be easily shaken off the holder.
This means the trackpad on the Type Cover 2 becomes vital for the desktop mode. It’s a very small trackpad so you’ll have to choose between lots of swiping or very coarse accuracy. I’ve tended to the former and relied on a steady finger with 150% desktop scaling and this seems to work well, but it still feels awkward. Sitting at a desk it’s fine, but standing around the Convention Centre it’s not as easy to click on the smaller elements. Most of the interaction that I’ve been doing while walking has been in the touch mode, so it’s nowhere close to being a deal-breaker.
The weight of the Surface Pro 2 is also closer to a laptop than a tablet. It’s not a svelte piece of tech but that’s part of the compromise you accept to get the power of a full desk-bound system into the tablet form factor. I can live with that.
The one area where the form factor is awkward is in the sessions at SXSW. The kickstand which works so well on a table or airline seat is a struggle when it’s on my lap. Either the Surface Pro 2 with the Type Cover 2 has to rest against my elevated knees (so I need to sit, but be on tiptoes to get a workable angle), or it sits flat in my lap with the kickstand closed and using the on-screen keyboard which reduces the visible screen and my speed of text input. Neither of these are great solutions for taking notes or writing. This is the major trade I need to make with the Surface Pro 2 – the extra ability to create and publish while on the move balanced against a slightly more awkward environment when in a session.
In my original view I noted that the Surface Pro 2 was a great all round portable computer but there was a window where it works incredibly well. If your needs are in that space, the Surface Pro 2 is the machine to choose. My time at SXSW Interactive with Microsoft’s machine has reinforced that view. Apart from the weight issue, the Surface Pro 2 can match the Android tablets, and while the apps for the iPad give Apple an edge for ease of use, having the entire Windows catalogue of apps along with the computing power to use them on the move means you can do almost anything with the Surface Pro 2.
Not everyone attending a conference needs to have the ability to create content, for many staying in touch through email, social networks, and browsing the web will be enough when attending an event. For those people ‘the tablet’ will be more than enough for their needs. For me, I need something more than the consumption and light editing of my online presence. I also need something that is portable, easy to carry, has a battery life that gets me through the day, and that I can trust to do what I need it to do.
The Surface Pro 2 is all that and more. Given the other hardware choices open to me, given the software I can use, given what I need to achieve at an event, the Surface Pro 2 is one of the best devices I can choose for covering a conference.
Disclosure: Microsoft provided a Surface Pro 2 and Type Cover 2 for review purposes.