Alongside the release of Windows 8, Microsoft debuted two tablet/laptop hybrid devices, the Surface RT and Surface Pro. These were succeed a year later by the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2. With twelve months to take on board issues found in the software and hardware, I was keen to review Redmond’s latest foray into this space to see what has changed. With a Surface Pro 2 review unit in hand , let’s take a closer look at the device.
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The Surface Pro 2, as the name implies, is the second iteration of Microsoft’s portable Windows 8 computer released last year. It has some physical improvements over the original Surface Pro, and the specifications include the addition of the fourth generation Haswell Intel Core i5 processor. Take this hardware and pair it up with the next version of the OS (Windows 8.1) and you have the best distillation of Microsoft’s vision of modern computing currently available.
I believe Microsoft wanted to have at least one reference device that took their vision of the software and hardware that Windows deserves. Rather than trust a hardware partner to do that, they have went out and built it themselves. Lessons were learned, new parts were available, and the Surface Pro 2 is now the current unfiltered vision of Microsoft and Windows in 2014.
The Surface Pro 2 takes all the compromises that are present in any hardware design (power, portability, input, connectivity, etc) and makes them work together, and in the process addresses the biggest compromise of all… mixing a laptop and a tablet. Attempts at this sort of inbetweener device have been made before, but in the Surface Pro 2 I feel that Microsoft has successfully answered many of the issues around this form factor. They’ve not answered all of the issues, and as you’ll see there are still some blind spots in the Surface Pro 2 that would make me hesitant to offer a general recommendation.
That said, there is a sweet spot where the Surface Pro 2 is absolutely the computer to have with you. If you are looking for a portable experience the will allow you to check on your life quickly while on the move (email, Facebook, Twitter, a bit of web browsing) but you also need to crank up the computing power (perhaps for video and audio editing, photoshopping, or to work in and IDE to do some coding), the Surface Pro 2 gives you that option. It’s a flexible device, but that flexibility come at a cost both financially and in ultimate functionality.
The design of the Surface Pro 2 externally is identical to the original Surface Pro 2. You still have the ten point mutli-touch touchscreen dominating the front of the device with fantastic colour reproduction and wide viewing angle, you still have the almost chamfer free diagonal slope away from the screen on the sides of the device, and you still have the smooth back of the device with the full width kickstand. The pressure sensitive Wacom Stylus is still a wonderful artistic tool without a permanent storage home in the hardware, and the tablet-esque power and volume buttons are all in attendance around the spine of the machine.
You also have the magnetic attachments for the various covers that can be attached along the long base edge of the Surface Pro 2. This allows a number of peripherals to be added that double up as a cover over the screen. Microsoft has demoed a ‘mixing desk’ cover, and are talking about a power cover that will extend the life of the Surface Pro 2. The real strength in the covers are the two keyboard options. The Touch Cover 2 and the Type Cover 2 have also been updated from the first generation covers. They now sport backlit keys, and in my opinion you really need to have one of these covers to get the most out of any of the Surface devices. There is an onscreen keyboard, and for short text inputs that’s enough. But for any serious work on the Surface Pro 2 (and this is a device designed for working on) you#re going to need to have a faster input mechanic, and that means something physical.
My Surface Pro 2 came with the Type Cover 2, which provides a full moveable key set for the keyboard, with 1.5mm of travel in each independently moving key. It’s not full speed on typing, but I can reach around 90% of my normal speed, and it’s very easy to touch-type on. While both covers have an almost unforgivably small trackpad area, I found myself using the touchscreen for almost every potential mouse operation. The covers do add to the cost of the devices (£99.99 for the Touch Cover 2, and £109.99 for the Type Cover 2), but I don’t think anyone looking at the Surface Pro 2 will be looking for a budget machine.
The Surface Pro 2 weights 900g (call it 2lb), which is hefty for a tablet. If you want to do a fun comparison take two iPad Airs, stack them on top of each other, and you pretty much have the size and weight of the Surface Pro 2. In comparison to a modern ‘ultrabook’ though, Microsoft’s hardware is lighter. If I stick with the Apple comparisons, the Surface Pro 2 is two-thirds the weight of the MacBook Air 13″, and a tenth lighter than the MacBook Air 11″.
With the internal hardware Surface Pro 2 has riffed well on the first device – the biggest change is the switch to the Haswell architecture, which offers improved performance and better power efficiency, which all leads to better battery life. The Surface Pro 2 will comfortably manage between six and seven hours of mixed usage (the Surface Pro was generally between five and six hours of life on the battery). That’s not enough for a ‘full day’ of work, although the promised power cover will provide an extra battery source for the Surface Pro 2 in the future. But it’s not here, and not in the box, so work on that seven hour figure and expect to charge the Surface Pro 2 on a daily basis.
The speakers have been beefed up, along with some Dolby processing added into the mix. For such a small portable computer, I was really impressed with the speakers. They are loud, have good stereo separation, and fill a medium-sized space (such as a hotel room) with rich tones. I’m already subscribed to the Xbox Music Pass for my smartphone, so the monthly ‘stream what you like’ option carries over on to the Surface Pro 2, along with a downloading option for my favorite tracks.
Then there’s the kickstand. It seems strange that one of the most recognizable benefits of the Surface hardware over other tablets and convertibles is a stand that clicks out from the rear, but it’s a win and Microsoft should take every one of those. Where the original Surface design had one position for the stand, the Surface Pro 2 offers two angles to support the device. While it is still not as flexible as a friction hinge on a laptop, offering a slightly shallower angle as well as a more upright angle
It’s time for the Windows 8.1 question. I want to live with the Surface Pro 2 for a few more weeks so I can offer a more considered answer on the question of Windows 8.1 and its dual nature. For the moment consider these as first thoughts after around two weeks of use. That’s enough time to make my first assessment and find a good mix of strengths and weaknesses in the OS.
The Surface Pro 2 ties heavily into Microsoft’s cloud-based services. SkyDrive integration can be found as an option in every ‘save’ dialog, and is very visible when you go into certain applications, such as the photos app. The contacts and calendar app syncs into the online equivalents, and the email app will be set up with your Hotmail account. While it’s an easy matter to add other email clients into mail, the calendar has less wide-ranging support. Microsoft may want everyone to make the switch, but I suspect many people will be coming from other environments (notably Google) and software support here is weaker or requires some hacking in the background (such as manually adding the iCal address from your Google Calendar, which allows changes to be synced into the Surface Pro 2, but not out of the hardware).
You don’t have to buy into Microsoft’s vision of cloud services, but this is the way of the modern operating system. OSX has iCloud, Chrome OS naturally ties in with Google’s services, and the major mobile operating systems are all tightly integrated with central servers. You can run Windows 8 standalone, but much of the benefit of the Windows 8 styled apps and interface is lost.
Compared to a new user, I probably have an advantage with the tablet styled Windows 8 apps and launcher that is the primary UI for the Surface Pro 2 and Windows 8.1. Having been a fan of Windows Phone 8, Windows Phone 7, and the Zune HD before, I’ve seen the design language known previous as Metro evolve through the years. The Surface Pro 2 feels like a natural evolution of the software platform. In the same breath, I can see why it has drawn such a poor reception from the consumer. Microsoft has made the word ‘Windows’ mean something, and even though there is the equivalent of the Windows 7 environment hiding under the Metro layer (through the ‘desktop’ app listed as a program, but also available as a live tile) someone turning the Surface Pro 2 on is going to encounter a rather alien environment with very little guidance on how to do things.
That’s still an issue in the Surface Pro 2. Admittedly the Pro 2 has an advantage over the Surface and Surface 2 – those devices are ARM chip based and are limited to running applications specifically designed for that chipset, the Surface Pro 2 (in theory) will run any Windows application that would run on Windows 7. That’s a really big consideration, and it starts to show where the Surface Pro 2 is targeted as.
Having a tablet that can run full-blown desktop applications provides a huge amount of power for a road warrior. With a USB 3.0 socket and a standard file manager I can take audio files out of my recorder, set the audio levels in a small Java utility called the levelator, edit the sound files in Audacity, tag them using Audio Shell, upload them to a server using Filezilla, and then put together the blog post pointing towards an edited podcast using Windows Live Writer.
Every professional has a workflow they have mastered, and how well a new computer deals with that in the first few moments will help guide their confidence in that piece of hardware. In the case of the Surface Pro 2, I’m very happy with its ability to deal with my podcasting work. That’s something that I simply don’t attempt with an iPad or Android tablet. It’s also something that the ARM based Surface and Surface 2 would not be able to accommodate.
It’s also worth noting that at no point in this workflow were any Metro styled apps used. I did briefly look at the WordPress client available in the Windows Store, but it was so fundamentally flawed (no ability to switch between blogs, no ability to store or edit drafts, and after that I stopped using it) that I decided I would use the web to work with my blogs if I needed to do any online work, and the frankly ‘best blogging client on the planet‘ Windows Live Writer in the ‘Windows 7 desktop’ mode for any heavy-duty writing of blog posts.
Much of the Windows 8 experience will come down to developers using the new UI and understanding what Microsoft is looking from the look. Even with more than a year of developer time, the historical library of apps means that much of my time is going to be spent in the older environment. And here you find the Surface Pro 2 struggling with its dual nature. The 1920×1080 pixel screen, squeezed into a diagonal measurement of 10.6 inches leads to some wonderfully smooth and detailed graphics (especially in the Metro interface), but in the desktop mode the UI elements are incredibly small, the fonts are officially tiny, and I had to spend a lot of time working the display and UI element settings to get a look that allowed my older eyes to be comfortable with the view. It’s still not perfect, and Microsoft needs to work on the high-def screen support.
And right here you can see the two sides of the Surface Pro 2 coin… a large finger-based environment that will allow me to look at my social networks, access and reply emails, manage my calendar, address books, and notes (with the still under-appreciated OneNote); or a highly portable Windows 8 device which just about replaces a laptop’s functionality.
This is why I think the Surface Pro 2 is a device that has a very narrow user-base that will make full use of the capability of the hardware. The majority of people looking for a ‘Windows tablet’ should look at the ARM powered Surface 2. The Metro interface will be dominant, all the features that you would expect to find on a tablet are there, and you have the bonus of the Touch or Type keyboard covers and Office RT for your office-based documentation.
The Surface Pro 2 does all of that, but it can also switch to being a Windows 8 computer with enough processing power (and up to 8 GB of RAM). By sacrificing screen size and trusting the Haswell architecture, you have a portable computer that should cope with all but the most demanding tasks you could ask of a Windows 8 based laptop. That dual nature makes the Surface Pro 2 one of the most interesting devices I have test in a long time.
It’s not cheap and you’ll need to think carefully about your use case. If that matches with the Surface Pro 2′s nature then you have a winning combination, and you should seriously consider this mix of tablet and ultraportable.
Disclosure: Microsoft provided a Surface Pro 2 and Type Cover 2 for review purposes.