Microsoft Surface Pro 2 review
The original Microsoft Surface Pro - the "is it a tablet, is it a laptop replacement, and will we argue about this forever?" device - was sort of great and sort of not all at once. It found itself jostling between techie genres, almost trying to establish a home all of its own. But far fewer people than Microsoft had predicted were willing to part with the wedge of cash required for this wedge of a tablet and offer it that new home.
So much so that the Surface Pro 2 has arrived a mere matter of months after the original. That's a faster turnaround in the bid for perfection than a Rocky training montage. The Surface Pro sequel shows that Microsoft is listening though: it's got Intel Haswell architecture which, in turn, means battery life improvement; the rear kick-stand can now rest in two positions; and Windows 8.1 is on board for a better user experience.
Are all these improvements - the likes of which should, arguably, have been standard in the original model - enough to make the Surface Pro 2 a surefire success, or does it all just feel like the original revamped with a little extra polish?
Straight out of the box and the Surface Pro 2 has more than a whiff of original Surface Pro about it.
It's the same size. That, in short, means its chunky in tablet terms given its 1.35cm thickness. But it's not huge: it measures roughly the same as one and a half iPad 4s, so depending on your viewpoint that might not seem at all oversized for a device packing an Intel Core i5 processor inside.
Weight follows a similar suit: at just over 900g, the sub-1kg weight is, again, about one and a half iPad 4s. It's not going to break any wrists or bag straps, but in the same breath it couldn't be accused of being a lightweight tablet.
Whatever your personal take on the there's one feature that we can't help but love: the screen. The Surface Pro 2 hasn't changed anything compared to the original in this department, but then it didn't need to. The 10.6-inch IPS panel offers a 1920 x 1080 pixel Full HD resolution and it looks glorious. Viewing angles are epic, touch-responsiveness is top notch and despite some necessary bezel - measuring in at around 1.8cms all around - the device looks neatly framed. There's enough room for fingers and thumbs to hold it, so the bezel neither looks nor feels to excess.
If you're not one for using your fingertips for control - touch just might not be your preference, plus it will mean keeping your Surface's screen that much cleaner - then the included stylus pen can be used to write directly into applications. It's comfortable to hold, despite being a little plasticky, and feels much like a normal pen in use. The stylus' tip takes command when near to the Surface's screen so that close-up hands and their motion don't disrupt the input, while 1,024 pressure levels mean the deft of hand can illustrate with a decent level of control.
But there's a potential issue: the price. The 64GB Surface Pro 2 costs £719. The 128GB model is £799, 256GB £1,039, and 512GB £1,439. Add a keyboard - more on those accessories in a moment - for upwards of £99 and that inflates the price yet further. As the operating system carves into the SSD's capacity - the 64GB model we had on review offered just over 37GB of space when first booted up prior to installing any applications; around 6.5GB outside of that is partitioned for drive recovery - we'd recommend also buying a 64GB microSD card to slot into the side. But that further adds to the cost and, all in, a 128GB Pro 2 starts to more realistically knock on the door of a grand.
Microsoft does also throw in two years' SkyDrive subscription offering up 200GB of online storage space for not a penny more on the purchase. If you want to keep that after 24 months then it'll cost £64 a year ongoing, £32/year for 100GB, or £16/year for 50GB.
For the overall cost implication there are plenty of alternative devices out there, from Ultrabooks such as the Lenovo Yoga 11S, less powerful yet cheaper tablet alternatives such as Samsung ATIV, or that opposite direction of travel from something like the MacBook Air.
But that's not to give the Surface Pro 2 a bad rap. It is expensive, but then it does look and feel like a quality device. Rid thoughts of it being just a tablet, look at it as a fully portable full-on laptop replacement and, for some, it'll make perfect sense.
The solid design makes for a sturdy, well-built slate, complete with rounded edges for a minimalist visual appeal. The flip-stand attached to the rear now easily pops into one of two positions for a steeper angle of view. It's an eloquent solution, but a stand with limitless position options would have been preferable.
Elsewhere the minimalist aesthetic continues. Buttons are limited in number, comprised of a slender power button and plus/minus volume control tucked away around the device's edge. Ports comprise of a single USB 3, 3.5mm headphones jack and a mini DisplayPort. Neat, tidy, simple - although we would have liked a second USB port and there's more than enough room for one to have been included.
Also to the side is the magnetic 5-pin charge port that sucks the included power cable into place, complete with a light to confirm charge. But there's a problem here, too, just as with the original Pro: the included stylus pen also sits into this position, so both can't be connected up at once. But that's not the main gripe, it's the risk of sitting the stylus in the position when on the move. We've knocked it out of its magnetic slot and watched it go flying - if you're out and about on the move and that happens then you might never see the stylus again. We think a simple in-body holster would have made a far more elegant solution, even if that would have meant rejigging the inner boards.
It's a shame there's nowhere better to keep the stylus, but ignore that for a moment and the array of Surface Pro accessories on offer is impressive. They can transform it from tablet to laptop to desktop.
The one we think people are most likely to buy into is the new Touch Cover. Aptly named Touch Cover 2, it's a super-thin keyboard with backlit, light-up keys that doubles up as a protective cover. It clips into the base of Surface via the magnetised connector and that's it - done. Not only is it thinner than before, it's got a lot more sensors for a more accurate typing experience. Because individual keys don't have any resistive travel typing can cause some inaccuracies, but where your finger lands, even if it touches two keys together by accident, the device will judge what you've landed closest to. The whole panel can also be used as a two-finger gesture panel to scroll around in documents - drag right across the keys, not even just the trackpad section, which makes for tighter word editing we've found.
Other options - that we've not seen in person - include a docking station, new type cover with resistive keys, and mouse that, in combination, will ultimately transform the Surface into a desktop PC. If you want a single device to cover all bases via accessories transformation then Microsoft has got the options there.
The Surface Pro 2 comes complete with Windows 8.1 Pro as standard, the latest notched-up version of Windows that adds in the Start button - although this only acts as a toggle between tile screen and desktop, it's not like in Windows 7 and before - and delivers plenty more beyond that. We could write Windows 8.1 to death here, but we've already done that in a separate review with the full ins and outs.
READ: Windows 8.1 review
In summary, we found certain 8.1 features to enrich the Surface Pro 2's position as a lap-based tablet device. Things like multi windows with up to four size-adjustable frames on screen are small but useful for a touch device; open an email with an image direct into the Photo app without needing to jump between windows makes lighther work of tasks. We like boot to desktop too, as we don't spend too much time on the tile interface - but that's up to your personal preference.
It's all simple little things, but things that make the user experience that little bit better. Can't moan about that.
However, some will say 8.1 is what the original Windows 8 solution should have always been, while others will feel it's essentially still the Windows 8 experience they loved or loathed in the first instance with some new buttons on its coat.
What you can't see is where the biggest changes lie. The inclusion of Intel's fourth-gen Haswell Core i5 processor in the Surface Pro might not be something you'll notice much, as in raw power terms it's much the same as generation three. But what you will definitely feel - if you've used the original Surface Pro extensively, anyway - is that the battery life is way better.
It was one of our moans about the original model, and while it's not quite of MacBook Air and Mavericks performance standards, the alleged 25 per cent performance boost was realised for us. We were easily getting over five hours of use out of the Pro 2, probably nearer to six hours in combination with dimming the screen down, during periods of use that included a variety of activities such as picture editing, raw file processing via PhotoShop and stacks of browsing and word processing.
Microsoft has split the Pro 2 into what we'd consider "Pro" and "more Pro" options: the 64GB and 128GB variants come with 4GB of RAM, while the 256GB and 512GB variants are loaded up with 8GB. All models have Intel HD Graphics 4400 rather than a beefy graphics card, however, but there's just enough scope to handle some gaming. Although if you want to run at the screen's native 1080p resolution then anticipate a drop in frame rate for the most demanding of titles, so don't think of Surface Pro 2 as a gaming mecca.
Finally there are the cameras, one front, one rear, both capable of 720p video capture. Microsoft told us that these have been optimised since the original Surface Pro release, but they're still not all that. In many respects we don't care because tablets certainly aren't cameras, but the Surface has got the goods to handle face-to-face calls via Skype - and the app comes loaded in Windows 8 as standard.
Surface Pro 2 is a subtle push forward for the device, and a necessary one. It's no giant leap, though, and just like before we're toing and froing between its highs and lows and balance to price point.
Overall there's no denying that it's a solid, well-built device with a glorious screen. Think of it as a standalone tablet, however, and it feels a little bit too thick and heavy. Think of it as a boundary-blurrer that straddles the tablet-meets-laptop category and you'll be a far happier customer.
If anything the second-generation Pro shows us that Microsoft is listening. From the physical adjustments of the flip-stand, through to better battery life from Haswell, and the steps forward in software with the introduction of Windows 8.1.
Whether that amasses to enough to get you on board and give the Pro 2 a new home, well, that's going to depend on your point of view. We find the Surface Pro 2 genuinely decent to use, better built than plenty of Ultrabooks, but also that it doesn't entirely connect with us as a tablet-like device. If only it came with the keyboard included for a touch less cash.