Behold, I return!
I’ve been away for a long time, haven’t I? Why, you might ask? Exams. Patients. Blood. The usual excuses. I’ve taken the time to drop more cash on more expensive things though, so here’s a combined review of the Surface Pro 2.
Microsoft have worked hard to capture the tablet market, but they’re just not there yet. The iPad still dominates along with a handful of the various Android tablets, although I’d argue Android isn’t as strong for tablets as it is for phones. Microsoft have pushed forward with two devices – the ARM-powered Surface 2 (successor to the Surface RT) and the Surface Pro 2, the successor to the original Surface Pro. For those who are still confused, the Surface Pro line have proper x86-64 CPUs, meaning they’re effectively ultrabooks in a tablet form factor. They run the full desktop version of Windows 8.1, which at least means you’re not tied to the (relatively anaemic) Windows Store range of apps, although things are (very, very slowly) starting to improve in that arena. This comes with a few disadvantages, as we’ll get into in a second.
The Surface Pro 2 is visually indistinguishable from its predecessor, save for a few very minor elements like Surface branding on the back (instead of the Windows logo). Otherwise it’s practically identical – maybe a little thinner and a little lighter, but the difference is so slight it means nothing. You’ve got a USB 3.0 port, a combined headphone/mic jack, the same fiddly power connector, and the same rear and front facing cameras. Oddly the Surface 2 received a new, higher quality rear camera, while the Pro 2 did not. Who made that decision? The kickstand is back but it has a second position which makes the tablet lean back more… and quite frankly this is the way it should have been in the first place. Everything feels incredibly sturdy and high quality – there’s no plastic-fantastic Dell design here. You’ve also got a MicroSD slot on the right side – which is absolutely essential for expanding storage capacity. Finally, you’ve got a mini DispalyPort outlet for video out.
In the box you’ll get the tablet itself, the digitiser pen, a charger (which includes an auxiliary USB port for charging a USB device at the same time – this is good!) and a few pamphlets, two of which net you 200GB Skydrive storage for 2 years, and some free Skype time for 1 year. Generous. Of course the Surface Pro 2 retails at a minimum of $1000 AUD and that’s for a 64GB model, so maybe it’s not that generous after all. Notably you do not get either a Touch or Type Cover in the box, so you’ll need to pony up the extra $150 or so for a Touch Cover (or more for the Type Cover). In terms of specs, all of them come with a new Haswell Core i5 CPU at 1.6ghz that can clock up to 2.4ghz under load. The 64GB and 128GB (reviewed) models come with 4GB of RAM, while the 256GB and 512GB models have 8GB. It’s worth noting that you don’t get the full amount, because Windows takes up several gigabytes of space on its own, so actual capacity is much less. You’ll practically need a MicroSD card. All of the Pro line come with a Wacom digitiser screen supporting 10 points of touch, and the pen has a decent amount of pressure sensitivity.
Describing how the Surface Pro 2 works as a device is more or less describing how Windows 8.1 works, so if you don’t find any appeal in Win 8.1 you’re probably not going to like the device. With that in mind, I won’t comment too much on software except to say that there’s enough grunt here to run most of your daily computing tasks, and then a little bit more. I was even able to play a few games at low quality settings, like Civilization V or Legend of Grimrock. It isn’t a gaming machine, but if you don’t care about quality you can get away with using it in a pinch (just not on battery). If you use a mid-range laptop or ultrabook and dock it when you’re done, this has plenty of power to match it and will easily meet your needs.
Otherwise it’s worth noting that the Surface Pro 2 falls into some weird middle ground between tablet and ultrabook. It’s like a tablet in that you can hold it and tap away at it like an iPad, or plop it on your knees and do other tablet-y things. It’s highly portable and easy to carry. Unlike a tablet though it’s not comfortable to hold for extended periods, particularly with one hand, so it’s not quite as comfortable as a tablet. It’s like an ultrabook in that it has plenty of power for most tasks – this thing might be small but it rivals ultrabooks in power, even surpassing some of them. There are no compromises in terms of software capabilities (beyond performance when it comes to mobile devices of course). Unlike an ultrabook though it’s much more portable, but you’re not going to be using this thing on your lap – its form factor lacks any sort of stability to sit it in your lap like a conventional laptop. If I had to put it on a spectrum between ultrabook and laptop, I’d say it’s an ultrabook that pulls double-duty as a tablet. Why? It’s more comfortable to set it up on a table and use it that way for prolonged periods, rather than using it as a tablet. It works as a tablet, and it does a decent job of it, but you can’t hold it like an iPad. You’ll tire quickly.
In terms of battery life the Surface Pro 2 does resolve the major issue from its predecessor – you’ll get roughly 7 hours on a single charge. The more you stress the system, the less charge you’ll get, but it’s nowhere near as bad as its predecessor. Some reviews reported battery life in the order of 5 hours, but a firmware patch quickly followed release that pushed it up to the expected 7 to 8 hours. It’s worth noting that these aren’t instant-on devices like iPads – after being put into sleep mode for an extended period it’ll go into a hibernation state, which means going through the UEFI bootloader again. It boots fast (within 10 seconds) but it’s not instant-resume.
I have noticed a few bugs with the Surface Pro 2 though, and they’re probably Windows 8.1 related. My biggest issue is with the Touch Cover’s logic. Closing it should put the computer to sleep, while flipping it open should wake it up. Sometimes it works, but frequently it doesn’t, and the entire cover will become unresponsive. Sometimes disconnecting and reconnecting it will fix it, but if it doesn’t it seems likely that it’ll just cause Windows to crash completely. Likewise folding the cover onto the back is supposed to deactivate it, but sometimes it doesn’t and the same behaviour can result. It’s frustrating and something I have very little patience for from a tablet. What worries me is the same behaviour would manifest on my old Surface RT, which isn’t promising. I hope it gets fixed.
The pen is fantastic, although the digitiser seems to regularly become inaccurate, particularly at the screen edges. I frequently have to reset calibration. It also doesn’t like the pen being at an angle – you have to really watch the on-screen cursor, not the pen’s position, to get the taps right. Any sort of x86 Win 8 tablet should have one of these – desktop mode, for all its improvements, is practically unusable without it. I say that from using an Acer W700, particularly when dealing with apps like Chrome which don’t scale well and just plain don’t work well in touch mode at all (no seriously, Chrome is absolute trash for touch screens on Win8). It magnetically attaches to the power port when not in use… and it frequently doesn’t want to stay there. It’ll fall off in your bag and might disappear, never to be seen again. This pen really shines with apps like OneNote though – I’ve used it to take notes and draw quick diagrams and it works perfectly.
Verdict – Good
Good – Versatile, powerful, portable, real jack of all trades
Bad – Master of no trade, heavy as a tablet, doesn’t work so well as an ultrabook, damn expensive
It’s hard to really categorise the Surface Pro 2, and the end of this review might seem almost like a negative response, but it isn’t really – the Surface Pro 2 is an excellent, versatile device which is more ultrabook than tablet, but works well enough as a tablet too. It won’t replace an eReader or iPad Mini in terms of portability, but it will replace an ultrabook while also pulling double duty as a tablet. The biggest problem is that damn cost – at $1000 for an entry level model, you’re still going to want a Touch or Type Cover for it as well, otherwise you’re crippled. But it’s a solid, quality device that works extremely well and is well made, and comes with good first party support from Microsoft. It’s just a question of whether the price is too high.