Tablets are great consumption devices. Media looks great on a portable screen you can just shove in your bag when you're done, but actually being productive on one is a pipe dream. Thankfully, with the Surface Pro 2, that pipe dream is finally becoming a reality.
What Is It?
The Surface Pro 2 is the follow-up to the original Surface Pro, packing better hardware and a better experience with Windows 8.1.
On the outside, it's pretty much the same as last time: same heat sink fan panel on the rear, same jet black design, same thick bezel, same port configuration. Hell, it even weighs exactly the same. The only real difference comes from the extra angle added to the kickstand to make it more lap-able.
The real changes are concealed under the hood, and they’re designed to push the Surface Pro 2 even deeper into laptop-tablet hybrid territory.
The new Surface Pro 2 is running the new Intel Fourth-Generation Core “Haswell” chips. It's an Intel Core i5-4200U under the hood to be exact, clocked at 1.6GHz with the capability to boost up to 2.3GHz if needs be, while also packing 4GB of RAM. The new Haswell chips means Microsoft is able to claim a 75 per cent battery improvement over the last model, dragging the overall usage time up to around 7 hours.
Customisability at build has also become a priority, with storage variants now ranging up to 256GB and 512GB solid-state options with 8GB of RAM apiece. That’s some seriously impressive hardware, and it’s doubtful you’d be wanting for much more in a mobile computing solution anytime soon. Don’t worry if you can’t afford a massive physical storage variant, however: both Surface 2 models will have microSD expansion slots and 200GB of free Skydrive storage for two years.
Surface Pro 2 starts at $1019 for the 64GB version, which is actually $20 more than the launch price of the original Surface Pro back in May. The 128GB Surface Pro 2 is priced at $1129, the 256GB model is priced at $1469, and the 512GB version is priced at $2039.
There's so much to love about the Surface Pro 2. It's faster, smarter, better featured and more customisable than ever.
It's still just as beautiful as it ever was, with the matte-black finish and that wide 1080p screen that makes your content shine. It also now has that second-stage on the kickstand which means you can work in more places.
Despite packing power you're likely to find in a moderately-specced Ultrabook, the Surface Pro 2 is as-near-as-makes-no-difference completely silent when doing tasks like surfing the web, watching content or other basic functions. The fan kicks in a bit when you're playing games, which is probably a good thing considering how warm it gets. We played Metro: Last Light and Tomb Raider with reasonable performance from the Intel Iris graphics.
We experienced a few frame rate issues during big action scenes and water scenes (so basically the whole first level of Tomb Raider) but turning graphics quality down to low ensured a consistent experience. Despite having more power than necessary to handle Metro apps, really resource intensive stuff like gaming on the Surface Pro 2 is still a sometimes-food. Most of the time it doesn't need all that power, but if you're someone who wants a bit of grunt just in case you need to put your proverbial foot down and run Photoshop or a game on their device, then it's a necessary evil. Just weigh up how much you really want to do that before sinking the cash.
The accessories are really a slam dunk for the Surface Pro 2, allowing you to expand on your experience almost endlessly. That's really the whole point of an operating system like Windows 8.1 paired with this sort of device: make the base device small and portable for the majority of people who want that sort of thing, while also adding the ability to expand on the experience for others with clip-on keyboards, expandable display ports, USB 3.0 ports and even a whole desktop dock for office-bound folks. It's perfect. It's a true all-in-one.
The new Touch Cover has more sensors than ever so you don’t have to jam your fingers down on the buttons as you type. Instead, you can just gently glide over the keys as you would on a normal keyboard. It’s still kind of cramped and the feedback is still paltry, and that takes a bit of getting used to.
The Type Cover has also been improved, with more travel on the keys and a more robust construction. There’s even a Type Cover with built-in batteries now to give your Surface an extra bit of juice while you work.
The best part about both of these new keyboard covers is the backlight Microsoft has managed to squeeze in. An ambient light sensor at the top of the keyboard decides when your backlight should be activated, and it gently fades out when you’re not using it. You’re wowed, however, when you rest your wrists back on the front of the keyboard to find that the keys gently illuminate again, ready for use. That’s a quality touch.
We also have to give Microsoft props for allowing people to customise their Surface Pro 2 before they buy it. No two people compute exactly the same, especially with a device that can be used for just about anything, so allowing users to choose more built-in memory, more RAM or even just different accessories is really important.
The addition of the new USB 3.0 port is also welcomed. You forget just how important a decent I/O is to a tablet, and it's something that manufacturers like Apple and even Samsung have been missing from their tablets for a long time. Microsoft is even edging out OEM competitors like Toshiba and Asus by sticking a fast, full-sized USB port on the actual device itself.
The bottom line? This thing isn't just a paltry consumption device, it's a hybrid tablet workhorse dressed to impress and specced to the nines.
The Best Part
It's running a full version of Microsoft Windows 8.1, and not rubbish RT. It's a fully-fledged PC dressed as a tablet, and we love that.
Not everything is perfect on the Surface Pro 2, however. First and foremost, the battery is really disappointing.
We only managed to squeeze out an uptime of under five hours for this thing on a Balanced mode, despite the new power-sipping Haswell processor under the hood. What the hell, Microsoft? We don't want to compare the two directly, but by just sticking a Haswell chip into a MacBook Air 13-inch and changing pretty much nothing else, Apple was able to blow out the battery uptime to a whopping 11 hours. What's the Surface Pro 2 trying to run under there that's sucking up so much power?
According to Anandtech, the problem stems from an overzealous Wi-Fi module that's draining the battery faster than usual. There's already a firmware update for customers to download which reportedly shapes up the power drain from the Surface Pro 2, and we'll be testing that one throughout the next week to see if it improves. Early benchmarks have shown that battery life improves significantly post-update, with Anandtech experiencing life of 8.3 hours of web browsing. It's just a shame that the original issue slipped through QA testing.
It's worth noting — as we did with the original Surface Pro — that you're not about to set parties on fire with these speakers. Get headphones or a Bluetooth option if you want decent sound.
Also, those storage gripes are back to haunt us, with the operating system and other various bits and bobs taking up around half the storage space on the SSD before you even turn it on. We'd recommend getting a MicroSD card for your content, or just buying a bigger model.
We also noticed a few issues with Wi-Fi that meant the signal strength was weak, even when the device was sitting next to the router. Hopefully the firmware issue sees to that too.
As we mentioned in our review of the Surface 2, the new kickstand angle is great, but not without issue. Combined with the use of the new keyboard covers the whole thing gets pretty long. That means you had better have pretty lengthy thighs to get this thing comfortably positioned on your lap so it won’t not going to fall off and kill itself. Don’t try to cross your legs and use it, either. It’s not a rigid device, so you’ll be awkwardly folding yourself to match the position of your folding tablet.
The Worst Part
The Surface Pro 2 is fairly pretty expensive for what it is. Ostensibly, this thing is a tablet designed for getting stuff done, and while it's a slam dunk for hybrid device-lovers what with all the keyboards and expandable accessories, it still looks like a tablet on the shelf.
The 64GB Surface Pro 2 — that's the base model — costs $1019. For that you get the Intel Core i5 Haswell processor, 4GB of RAM and, naturally, 64GB of storage. If you want a Touch Cover, you'll be paying $139.99, while the Type Cover will cost an extra $10 at $149.99. All up, you're paying $1158.99 for the entry-level device.
For just $100 extra, you'd be able to find a swathe of Ultrabooks with more storage, a larger panel and potentially better battery life. Call me crazy, but I think people might baulk at the price for this professional-grade tablet, but I'm happy for sales figures to prove me wrong in the long run. The future might not be as compelling to users as Microsoft thinks it is here.
Should You Buy It?
This device is representative of the hybrid tablet-laptop future that we want. Not only is it still freaking gorgeous to look at, it's running a fully featured operating system, packing in amazing accessories and ports for you to expand your experience. It's expandable, lap-able, adorable and enviable, and we love it.
It’s everything you could want in your everyday Ultrabook, more than you could possibly dream of on your tablet, combined in a beautiful package with fully-featured software and intelligent accessories. Microsoft has found a winning formula, and all it needs to do now is play the hardware game each year to innovate on it. Thinner, lighter, faster, better accessories.
The sky is the limit for Surface Pro.