Despite their initial efforts resulting in $900 million in inventory writedowns, Microsoft is taking a second shot at the tablet market with its latest devices under the Surface brand – the Surface 2 and the Surface Pro 2.
When it was announced last year, it was a shock departure from what Microsoft had traditionally relied on for Windows – release the software, and rely on its third-party OEM partners to push products running the OS. However, when the Surface RT came out, it received a mixed response from critics and sales were below expectations.
Now, nine months after the first-generation Surface Pro was released (to a similar response to its RT sibling), we’re taking a look at its new flagship tablet device, the Intel-powered Surface Pro 2. Microsoft says they fixed the problems, tweaked the design to be lighter, and upgraded the hardware to be faster.
But, is the Surface Pro 2 what it claims to be – “the most productive tablet ever” – or is that just a bunch of hot air?
Spoiler alert: if you’ve seen the Surface Pro in stores, you’ve just about seen the Surface Pro 2.
Unlike the obvious outward cosmetic changes on the Windows RT-based Surface 2, the Surface Pro 2 has seen very few changes on its exterior from its predecessor. For starters, it’s clad in the same VaporMg casing with the same matte black coating as the Surface Pro, which gives a very strong feeling of solidity and quality, but is a little too slippery in my opinion and happens to be a huge fingerprint magnet. From the front, the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 are identical; especially from the sides where they’re just as identical, with the selection of USB 3.0, microSDXC and mini DisplayPort ports unchanged from the original Surface Pro. The thickness and weight are the same, too – which is unfortunate, as both could definitely be improved for hand-held use. Though, neither are as huge a deal as the thin-and-light crowd would have you believe, as there’s little noticeable difference when carried around in a bag.
On the back, we see the first change, and it’s purely cosmetic – the Windows logo silkscreened on the back of the first-gen Surface Pro has been swapped with the Surface text logo itself. I prefer the older design myself, but it’s definitely not a big deal either way. The biggest external change, however, is the kickstand mechanism. The Surface Pro 2 adds a second, larger angle to the original Surface Pro’s single-position stand; and allows the tablet to balance well on your lap, and on the desk – where the user does not need to slouch to view the screen head-on. We’d like to see a third, shallower angle on the kickstand, or even a variable-angle kickstand like on the Sony Tap 11, but the stand on the Surface Pro 2 is a definite improvement over its predecessor.
The Full HD (1920 x 1080) ClearType HD screen on the Surface Pro 2 is pitched as being more accurate than its predecessor’s, and the difference is noticeable, though not necessarily a big one – a side-by-side comparison with the original Surface Pro’s screen shows the new model as subjectively closer to “balanced” colour temperature, compared to the very slight blue cast on the old model. There’s very little to criticise about the Surface Pro 2’s screen – it’s bright and contrasty at all viewing angles, and the optically-bonded panel means there’s little gap between the stylus tip and the display being drawn on. The screen on the Surface Pro 2 is easily on par with the best tablet screens other manufacturers have to offer. If there’s one nitpick with the screen, it’s that its reflectivity is somewhat distracting in bright sunlight, though no worse than any other tablet we’ve played with.
The Surface Pro 2 comes with a Wacom compatible stylus included in the package, which does a good job of conveying brush strokes and pressure sensitivity in Windows Store-based applications such as Fresh Paint (included out of the box), and Autodesk Sketchbook Express. Unfortunately, proper stylus support for desktop apps such as Adobe Photoshop isn’t included out of the box, so users looking to pick up a Surface Pro 2 for professional graphics work will need to download the required drivers from the Wacom website. The other issue we’ve observed is that stylus accuracy around the edges of the screen is quite mediocre out of the box, and worse at the corners of the screen, and that installing the Wacom drivers only exacerbates the issue. It’s an issue that can be solved through manual calibration, but we’d like to see better stylus performance and compatibility without needing to install separate software and drivers and perform time-consuming manual calibration. Finally, there’s no dedicated slot for the stylus within the tablet, which leaves the Surface pen without a home (and in danger of being lost) if either the charger or the external graphics adapter are plugged in.
The other major features on the exterior of the Surface Pro 2 are the cameras and speakers, both of which are adequate, but neither of which are much to write home about. The 720p units in the front and back of the tablet are perfectly acceptable for Skype or video conferencing, but little more than that, and frankly, I’m okay with that – putting a high-quality rear camera in the back of a tablet only encourages people to become tablet photographers, which, if you’ve been anywhere near a concert or public event, you’ll agree should be discouraged. The front-facing camera could definitely be improved for HD video calling, however. The speakers are on the left and right sides of the tablet underneath the cooling vents, and are roughly what you’d expect for side-facing tablet speakers – somewhat tinny and lacking bass. If there’s one thing Samsung have done right with their tablets, it’s the front-facing speakers – they make a significant difference in the multimedia experience, and Microsoft would do well to bring them to the Surface line. Luckily, there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack, and audiophiles could potentially attach a USB DAC to drive serious sound systems.
The biggest changes to the Surface Pro 2 are on the inside; the processor has been upgraded to a 4th-generation Haswell chip, the Intel Core i5-4200U, which provides about the same level of performance as its predecessor’s Ivy Bridge CPU, but with improved battery life (which we’ll see in the benchmarks section). Storage, while still on the mSATA interface, has been upped from the 64/128GB options on the original Surface Pro to include 256GB and 512GB SSD options alongside the existing sizes. The 256GB and 512GB models also receive a boost to 8GB DDR3L RAM, which should help in memory-intensive situations. We’ll go into more detail on how these hardware changes affect performance later on, but suffice it to say that the Surface Pro 2 delivers Ultrabook levels of performance in a tablet form factor.
The active cooling fan and vents that line the Surface Pro 2 might indicate that the performance that the Intel processor brings comes at a cost of lots of noise and heat, but surprisingly that’s not always the case. The fans only seem to kick in when the system is really being pushed to its limits, such as multithreaded photo and video editing applications, Flash-heavy websites, and intensive games; otherwise, the Surface Pro 2 remain as silent as the fanless ARM and Atom-based iOS, Android and Windows RT tablets. When the fans do run, the sound made is more of a quieter whoosh rather than a high-pitched whine, which is a non-issue in all but the quietest environments. The Surface Pro 2 does get quite a lot warmer than the aforementioned mobile OS-first tablets, however; it seems that Microsoft has tuned the power settings towards letting the tablet reach a higher thermal profile before letting the fans kick in. If you’re particularly susceptible to sweaty palms, the tablet’s casing can get quite uncomfortable to hold, especially under load, though flipping an attached Touch Cover (or Type Cover, attached in reverse) to the back provides a surer grip.
Finally, we’ve also got the updated Type Cover 2 alongside the Surface Pro 2, and it’s both a step forward and a step back from the original Type Cover. The keyboard is the step forward – the typing action is firmer and the key travel feels a little deeper than the original, while retaining the full key size that made the Type Cover an impressive keyboard to type on. The keys are also now backlit, which will please some; I’ve not personally found backlit keys important for my use, but it definitely helps usability in less well-lit environments. The step back is the trackpad – it’s marginally smaller than the trackpad on the original Type Cover, and is now made of the same vinyl-like material as the rest of the Type Cover 2’s casing, which makes the trackpad hard to differentiate from the palm rest by feel alone. The trackpad on the Type Cover 2 is adequate for single-finger pointing, but its limited area means multi-finger gestures such as scrolling or pinch-to-zoom are cumbersome to perform. It’s also quite susceptible to accidental taps, which gets in the way during extended typing. The mouse buttons are just as annoying – unlike the physical buttons present on the original Type Cover, the Type Cover 2 reverts to touch-sensitive pads identical to those found on the Touch Cover and Touch Cover 2, and their action feels incongruous with the typing action offered on the keyboard. If you do pick up a keyboard accessory for the Surface Pro 2 (or the Surface 2) and don’t need a backlit keyboard, try to pick up the original Type Cover if you can – or be prepared to pick up a Bluetooth mouse.
On the software front, the Surface Pro 2 comes pre-loaded with Windows 8.1 Pro. (We aren’t explicitly reviewing Windows 8.1 here, but we’ll make reference to it where relevant to our review of the Surface Pro 2.) Since it’s powered by the same Intel Core i5 processor that comes with the latest laptops and Ultrabooks, the Surface Pro 2 retains compatibility with most existing Windows applications (unlike the Windows RT-based Surface 2), though some legacy apps do have issues on its high-res screen (see further below). The Surface Pro 2 also runs all Modern Windows 8 applications, which are more optimised for touch input, though many third-party applications still need to be updated to support the features of Windows 8.1.
In terms of storage space, the 256GB model I have on hand came with 212GB of free space out of the box, with an extra 8GB of space savings possible if the recovery partition is moved onto a flash drive. Once I installed all the apps and games I use on my computer on a regular basis, I was left with 160GB free space remaining. If you’re not installing many applications that take up multiple gigabytes of space, the 64GB model may be adequate, though we’d recommend the 128GB model as a minimum baseline for long-term usage. Should you run out of space, the microSDXC slot supports cards up to 64GB in size; moreover, Windows 8.1 allows a card in the removable storage slot to be set as the default destination for music, photos and video, which improves its utility as a slower, longer-term storage medium, as well as exposing access to removable storage to the in-built media applications.
Speaking of included applications, being a first-party Microsoft-made device, there’s little to no bloatware to speak of. That said, Windows 8.1 now comes with quite a few applications preloaded by default, such as the standard calendar, contact management and multimedia applications, Skype, and several news and information based apps that use Bing as their data source. One app we’re particularly happy to see preloaded on the Surface Pro 2 is Fresh Paint, a painting app that does an excellent job of supporting the stylus included with the tablet, as well as showcasing the Windows 8 interface. The Surface Pro 2 also includes an offer of 200GB of SkyDrive storage for 2 years, as well as unlimited Skype calling and Skype WiFi hotspot usage for 12 months, which is a decent bonus if you happen to rely on these two services.
There are two issues with the software of the Surface Pro 2 as it comes out of the box. Firstly, display scaling in Windows 8.1 is still quite rough, and it shows on the pixel-dense display of the Surface Pro 2. The display is initially set to 150% scaling, which results in text sizing, aliasing and alignment issues in dialogs, menus and the rest of the legacy Windows user interface. Apps designed for the Windows 8-style interface are unaffected as they are designed for pixel-dense screens, but older Windows applications that haven’t been updated for so-called HiDPI displays are affected. (Chrome has HiDPI support as an experimental feature, but it’s still incomplete – strangely, Opera, which now uses the same rendering engine as Chrome, has far better HiDPI support once enabled in flags.) Multi-display scaling, which was supposedly improved in Windows 8.1, is also quite frustrating; it’s not possible to set a different custom percentage scaling per screen, which proves to be annoying when plugging the Surface into a larger second monitor. I’ve found setting the display scaling to a custom value of 120% gives the best compromise between readability and correct rendering on the desktop, and on my 22″ external monitor, but Microsoft has a lot of room for improvement in supporting displays with higher pixel densities and multiple displays.
The other issue with the Surface Pro 2’s software is that the out-of-the-box drivers feel half-baked. For a device targeted at professionals that includes a pressure-sensitive stylus intended for drawing and writing, the lack of out-of-the-box driver support for stylus sensitivity in Adobe Photoshop and other professional applications in the desktop environment is inexcusable. The included Intel graphics drivers are also imperfect, crashing on 3D-intensive applications and games such as Civilization V. This can be worked around by installing the latest driver zip package from the Intel website, but ideally we should not be seeing these issues on a brand new device.
These issues aside (both of which can be worked around with a little tweaking), the Surface Pro 2 will handle pretty much every Windows application you can reasonably throw at it. Amongst others, I’ve installed Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Visual Studio 2012, Office 2013 and Torchlight II on the Surface Pro 2, all of which can be handled by the tablet without major slowdowns and hiccups once driver issues are ironed out. If you need a tablet that’s powerful and compatible enough to run anything you throw at it, the Surface Pro 2’s a pretty good place to start.
Since Microsoft is pitching the Surface Pro 2 as the ultimate tablet for productivity, we will be testing it as such, starting with general computing and Web benchmarks, leading up to a more intensive professional photo editing task and gaming performance.
First off, we’ve run PCMark 8 by Futuremark the Surface Pro 2 as a synthetic evaluation of common computing task performance. In the Home test, which runs a mix of light computing tasks such as Web browsing, word processing and casual gaming, the Surface Pro 2 scored 2988, a 13% improvement over the comparison ultralight notebook on PCMark (based on an Intel Core i7-3517U and discrete graphics). In the Creative test, focused on photo and video editing and other more intensive tasks, the Surface Pro 2 scored 2899, a 14% advantage over the comparison notebook in Futuremark’s database. In the Work test, focused on productivity tasks, the Surface Pro 2 scored 3849, a 7% shortfall compared to the comparison notebook – the difference most likely down to the faster Core i7 chip in the comparison machine.
While we are loathe to run Web benchmarks, as browsers often spend more time optimising against the benchmark instead of improving overall performance, we’ve still run a few to provide some guidelines on expected Web performance and standards support on the Surface Pro 2. The difference in performance between the desktop and Modern versions of IE11 is insignificant.
|Webkit SunSpider 1.0.2 (lower is better)||142.8ms||229.7ms||206.0ms|
|Mozilla Kraken 1.1 (lower is better)||2764.1ms||1767.1ms||1756.7ms|
|Futuremark Peacekeeper (higher is better)||1651||3879||4225|
|HTML5 Test (higher is better)||355 + 6||463 + 13||442 + 9|
On the storage front, the mSATA SSD in the 256GB Surface Pro 2 delivers solid speeds, registering 450MB/s and 330MB/s sequential read/write speeds in CrystalDiskMark 3.1, and 14MB/s and 32MB/s 4K random read/write speeds. We don’t have the other storage sizes on hand to test their performance, but since SSD performance is directly correlated with storage capacity, we expect the higher-capacity models to have higher storage system performance.
To give an idea of how these synthetic benchmarks affect real-world activities, we’ve run a couple of fairly intensive computing tasks to see how they compare with a more dedicated laptop
In the first real-world task, we’re running the Surface Pro 2 through a representative photography workflow in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5, importing 118 RAW+JPEG files from a 16MP camera, batch processing them and exporting them as resized JPEGs – a somewhat CPU, memory and sequential disk read/write intensive workflow. Here, we’re comparing the Surface Pro 2 to a more powerful computer (in this case, a 2011 model Dell XPS 15 desktop replacement laptop with a 1.73GHz quad-core Core i7-740QM, 6GB of RAM and a 240GB SSD), to see how close the tablet can get to approaching notebook performance.
|Test (in min:sec)||Surface Pro 2||Dell XPS 15 (2011)|
|Applying Batch Adjustments||Negligible||Negligible|
|Rendering 1:1 Previews||10:45||8:45|
|Exporting and Resizing||4:41||3:39|
Given that the Dell XPS 15 was designed to be a quad-core desktop replacement, the dual-core Surface Pro 2 pulls in a respectable result, only 1-2 minutes behind the laptop. If you’re processing thousands of photos, you’ll definitely want to have a faster laptop or desktop to handle the processing, but if you’re out in the field, the Surface Pro 2 will get the job done without the backbreaking pain of carrying a desktop replacement notebook on the go.
On the gaming front, we’ve thrown Torchlight II at the Surface Pro 2 to see how the HD 4400 GPU handles gaming at 1080p – running at a lower resolution is possible, but we prefer the experience of games at native resolution and lower detail levels, rather than running at a lower resolution. The Surface Pro 2 averaged 30 FPS in Torchlight II at 1080p at low settings, dipping down to around 24 FPS for more intensive fight scenes; again, just about a playable experience, though turning down the resolution will help for those who wish to do so. The Surface Pro 2 won’t be mistaken as a gaming device by any stretch of the imagination, but the integrated graphics chip handles moderate gaming well, and should work well for older games or less graphically intense indie titles.
Benchmarks aside, the general feel of the Surface Pro 2’s performance is that it’s highly responsive in use, most of the time. There’s very little delay in launching applications (to be expected on an SSD-based device), there’s little slowdown with running multiple applications and browser tabs, and the simultaneous multitasking experience on Windows 8.1 in both desktop and Modern environments is far superior in utility than the multitasking systems we’ve seen on iOS and Android. Where the performance of the Surface Pro 2 stumbles is upon sleep/wake; there’s a noticeable 3-5 second delay to wake the tablet from sleep, which is jarring compared to the instant wake we’ve come to expect from mobile devices. Boot time is quick (about 8 seconds from power-on to login screen), but we’ve come to expect instant-on responsiveness in our mobile devices, and Microsoft and Intel need to step their game up here.
To investigate the battery life of the Surface Pro 2, we’ve taken a look at 4 different usage scenarios: word processing, Web browsing, photo editing and gaming. We’ve set the tablet to 50% brightness and turned off adaptive auto-brightness., left the power policy on Balanced, and installed the latest firmware and software updates available to date.
For the lighter workloads, word processing and Web browsing, the Surface Pro 2’s battery life falls behind the leading tablets and laptops, but is still just about adequate. A pure word processing workload nets a little over 9 hours of battery life, enough to get you through the work day if necessary. Web browsing through an assorted selection of websites, some computationally intensive and Flash-heavy, others not, netted around 7 and a half hours on Chrome. We weren’t able to automate our test pattern with Internet Explorer 11, but our monitoring of OS resource usage indicates Chrome is more resource intensive than IE 11 on the Surface Pro 2, so browser choice may make a difference in battery life here.
The more intensive tasks, photo editing and gaming, will drain the Surface Pro 2’s battery much faster than the lighter workloads, as the CPU doesn’t have the chance to go to idle. Photo editing and processing in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom drained the battery from full to empty in 4 and a half hours, and Civilization V drained the battery in a touch over 3 hours. With these use cases, the Surface Pro 2 cannot deliver tablet battery life – it’s best treated as a lightweight laptop.
A note about recharge times: the Surface Pro 2 recharges from empty to full in 2 hours and 40 minutes during continuous use with the provided 48W charger (and from empty to 75% in 2 hours) – expect better charge times with the screen off. This is actually quite an impressive result; many of the tablets I’ve used in the past have required leaving them on the charger overnight to ensure they’re topped up; not with the Surface Pro 2.
Overall, the battery life you’ll get out of the Surface Pro 2 highly depends on your use case. For light word processing and Web browsing usage, you’ll get a day’s worth of work – it’s a couple of hours short of the 11-inch MacBook Air, and not up to the same level as iOS and Android tablets, but it’s enough not to feel limited in battery life throughout the day. We’re not at the point in battery life where we can play graphically intensive Windows games all day on a tablet, but the Surface Pro 2 pulls in a respectable battery life result for the amount of performance on offer.
Surface Pro 2
From $1019 (64GB model)
- In general, performs pretty well most of the time
- Screen bright and contrasty in all angles
- Kickstand makes it perfect for lap or desk use
- 3-5 second sleep/wake time where rivals are instant-on
- Display scaling in Windows 8.1 still quite rough
- Out-of-the-box drivers half-baked
The PC is dead – long live the new PC
The question of whether you should buy the Surface Pro 2 isn’t a question of specs, of performance, or even battery life. The Surface Pro 2 ticks all of those boxes; especially in performance. Ultimately, it’s a philosophical question – one that revolves around what you believe the future of computing should be.
If you believe that the future of computing involves a series of dedicated devices that each serve a subset of tasks well, the Surface Pro 2 is not for you. It’s too heavy to be a purely consumption-focused tablet, its pen-and-keyboard-cover inputs (especially the trackpad) don’t have the same input fidelity as a dedicated laptop’s keyboard and trackpad (though the Type Cover does an impressive job of replicating the laptop keyboard experience), and the out-of-the-box experience lacks the polish you should expect for a device that costs over $1000 here in Australia. For you, the Surface Pro 2 will come as a disappointment, a device that falls short in your chosen comparison with the ideal device in that tablet/laptop space.
However, if you believe that the tablet space has catered to the consumption-focused market for too long, the Surface Pro 2 might be the right device for you. Here is a device that fulfils the tablet PC dream: a computer light enough to carry everywhere, yet one that comes with few limitations on what you can do with it; powerful enough to do practically anything one can think of doing on a full-sized computer, yet with enough battery life to last through the day. I’ve written, researched, edited and published this review entirely from the Surface Pro 2 (RAW photos from the camera included), which is much more than can be said for my attempts at the same on other tablets.
This flexibility comes at a price, however. The base 64GB model starts at $1,019 without a keyboard, and the price goes up from there; $1,129 for 128GB, $1,469 for the 256GB model with 8GB of RAM, and a staggering $2,039 for the 512GB model. Once you factor in another $150 for the Type Cover 2, the sum total comes to a touch over $1,600 for the 256GB/Type Cover 2 combination I have here. For something that costs $250 over the equivalent-capacity MacBook Air, that’s tough to swallow. On the other hand, to match the performance and functionality of the Surface Pro 2 as tablet and laptop, you’d have to buy both a MacBook Air and, say, an iPad, which tips the financial balance back towards the Microsoft-built tablet. As with many things, it’s a matter of perspective.
It’s entirely fair to say that the Surface Pro 2 comes with a set of compromises – merely sufficient (instead of stellar) battery life, a mediocre trackpad, poor display scaling. However, the alternative of carrying multiple dedicated devices, such as a separate laptop and tablet, also brings a set of compromises – double the weight to carry, the cost of multiple devices, and the hassle of synchronising work between devices (costing time and bandwidth, a particularly unreliable resource on Australian telecommunications networks, it seems). It’s up to you to decide on the set of compromises that best suit you; while the Surface Pro 2’s compromises aren’t for everyone, there’s undoubtedly an audience for whom these compromises are reasonable.
Overall, we recommend the Surface Pro 2 to anyone who actually wants to get stuff done on the go – whether that be writing, drawing, programming, or media editing – while also being able to switch easily to watching video, browsing the Web, and playing games. It might not be able to match competitor products on an individual level, but it’s a good enough tablet, and a good enough laptop – and brings the benefits of a single-device experience that multiple dedicated devices cannot.
The PC is dead – long live the new PC.
Words and Photography: Norman Ma
Layout: Terence Huynh