Microsoft Surface Pro 2 £599
25th Oct 2013 | 17:20
Has Microsoft's beefy Windows 8.1 machine found its feet?
NOTE: This is a review of the new 2013 Surface Pro 2. You can also read what we think about the new Tegra 4-toting Surface 2. If you're interested in the software powering these devices, you can check out our dusting down of Windows 8.1, or alternatively head over to our Windows RT 8.1 review.
The Surface Pro 2 is available now in four versions, ranging from a skinny 64GB model that stretches all the way up to a wallet-busting 512GB.
- Could even more Surface tablets be on the way?
Microsoft found itself staring down two possible paths after squandering $900 million on unsold Surface RT and Surface Pro tablets. It could either scrap the idea completely to concentrate on other parts of the business or get up, dust itself off and try again.
The Surface Pro 2, which doesn't so much step through the door as put a 10.6-inch foot through it, indicates that Microsoft has no intention of lying down in the heat of battle - particularly as entering the tablet war with own-brand devices has contributed to the loss of longtime employees and soured relationships with industry partners-turned-frenemies.
Once again packing laptop-like components housed in a body more chiseled than a heavyweight boxer's jaw, it's a case of harder, better, faster, longer for Microsoft's second-generation slate.
Its predecessor, the Surface Pro, saw its UK debut five months after it was released in the US. It was received in a more positive light than Surface RT thanks to offering beefier specs and the ability to run full-fat Windows desktop applications.
We're seeing a similar story unfold with Microsoft's second-generation devices. Surface 2 gets Windows RT 8.1, while the Surface Pro 2 will be shipped with Windows 8.1 out of the box. It gets updated and tweaked internals too, the most notable inclusion being Intel's fourth generation Haswell processor that Microsoft claims improves upon the Surface Pro's battery life by 75%.
Despite its improvements, the Surface Pro 2 still suffers from something of an identity crisis. It isn't really a better tablet as it's still chunky and heavy, and Microsoft's Windows Store has a long way to catch up to Apple's App Store (and Google Play). That Facebook has only just bothered to release a Windows 8 app just about sums up the general lack of urgency around developers and the platform.
As with the Surface Pro, it's easier to think of the Surface Pro 2 as a laptop that happens to look like a tablet. Portability and convenience are the main plus points on offer, but you'll end up paying a premium for them.
Coughing up £1,029, for example, will snag you an 11-inch MacBook Air with a 256GB SSD drive, 1.3GHz dual-core Intel i5 CPU, Intel HD Graphics 5000 and 4GB of memory for £1,029. For £10 more you can pick up a Surface Pro 2 - though that's without a keyboard - meaning you'll have to add a Type Cover 2 (£109.99) or Touch Cover 2 (£99.99). Before you know it, you're shelling out a potential £1,139.
Occasional iPad Air-style overhauls aside, Apple has proved that iterating on the same design can be a formula for success in recent years, and Microsoft has banked on the same strategy with the Surface Pro 2.
Featuring the same magnesium body as the Surface Pro that Microsoft dubs "VaporMg", the Surface Pro 2 still manages to impress after a year that's unearthed a slew of attractive rivals including Lenovo's IdeaPad Yoga 11S and Sony's kickstand-toting Vaio Tap 11. Even Dell's enterprise-focused Venue 11 Pro goes about business decked in a quietly attractive, no-frills matte casing.
We can't help but feel a pang of disappointment that the Pro model is once again only available in black, while the Surface 2 is being offered in an attractive silver finish (according to Microsoft, all Surface tablets look like the Surface 2 before being painted black).
It's clear that Microsoft wants the Surface Pro 2 to be the 200lbs Silver-Back Gorilla of the tablet world, but giving it a silver fox makeover like its Windows RT-toting sibling wouldn't do it any harm either.
The Surface Pro 2 still picks up a fair amount of scratches (not to mention fingerprints), so having a cloth on hand is recommended if that's the sort of thing that irritates you.
Keep it clean and you'll spot that Microsoft has replaced the Windows logo from the Surface Pro's rear with the word "Surface". It's a subtle change, but one no doubt intended to pump a bit of confidence back into a product line that's received a kicking in recent times.
The second Surface Pro is also much thicker than the Surface 2, measuring 13.5mm versus the Surface 2's 8.9mm. At 1.9lbs (plus 0.6g with a Type Cover 2), it's heavy too - moreso than the third-generation iPad (1.44lb) and much more than the new iPad Air (1lb) - but lighter than your average Ultrabook (the 2013 13-inch MacBook Air weighs 2.96lb).
On the left-hand side of the Surface Pro 2 is a single USB 3.0 port, a volume rocker and headphone jack, alongside a groove to help you flip the kickstand into its open position.
The inclusion of a single USB port is one aspect of the Surface Pro we hoped wouldn't be carried over. You might not need to hook up a keyboard, but it means you're out of luck if you want to use a USB-connected mouse and keyboard combo at the same time.
Over to the right a micro-SD card slot allows memory to be boosted up to 64GB. It sits alongside a power connector that's still a bit more fiddly than we would like it to be, and alongside that is a MiniDisplay port that supports daisy chaining of two external monitors of resolutions up to 2,560 x 1,440 pixels.
Display and kickstand
The Surface Pro 2 features near identical measurements to the Surface Pro and packs the same 10.6-inch Full HD display with a 1,920 x 1,080 pixel resolution. It's a crisp IPS panel with wide viewing angles, and though its 208ppi is far from market leading, it still produces deep blacks and vibrant colours with 46% better colour accuracy than its predecessor.
Let's be clear - it's not the sharpest display in its category - that accolade goes to Dell's quad-HD toting XPS 11. However, as with the Surface 2, it benefits from Microsoft's ClearType pixel rendering technology that gives fonts a smoother appearance.
Unfortunately, it doesn't fix Windows' high-resolution scaling issue, which results in text occasionally appearing ugly and jagged - imagine a monitor running in a particularly jarring non-native resolution. It's present in apps such as Chrome, Spotify, Steam and others that are yet to be updated to take advantage of the Surface Pro 2's HD stylings.
Though the scaling issue has been improved in Windows 8.1, it's still annoyingly prevalent, which is a shame because the operating system's UI shines - particularly when twinned with a striking HD wallpaper. If you've always appreciated OS X's neat and tidy UI but fancy a switch to Windows, if you ignore the scaling hiccup (which will sort itself in time), there hasn't been a better time to make the switch.
The display itself is plenty reflective, but we still managed to (just about) read text on the screen with its 400nit brightness notched all the way up. We wouldn't recommend taking it on outdoor excursions regularly, but it's good to know that it's at least readable should you need it to be.
If outdoor readability is an absolute must, it might be worth hanging on for Nokia's upcoming Lumia 2520, which the company claims is the brightest on the market. Of course, you would have to put up with Windows RT, so it would be worth finding out if Microsoft's stripped back OS is for you.
Microsoft has fitted the Surface Pro 2 with an adjustable kickstand that also appears on the Surface 2. It's certainly a welcome addition - the Surface Pro's 22-degree viewing angle was fine for hard surfaces, but stick the device in your lap and neck pain soon came calling.
The second, deeper 55-inch angle makes the Surface Pro 2 much easier to use on your lap and feels more natural, though we found that the kickstand repeatedly slipped from the first to the second position under slight pressure when placed on a hard surface. It's safe to say that we panicked a few times thinking that the thing had snapped off, as unlikely as it would be.
Touch Cover 2 and accessories
We found that Microsoft's Touch and Type Cover keyboards that debuted along with its first-generation Surface tablets were a world apart in terms of usability. Where the Type Cover offered satisfying travel and felt relatively sturdy, the Touch Cover was an exercise in style over functionality. We were almost moved to put up with the tablet's on-screen keyboard, such was its teeth-gnashing inaccuracy.
Thankfully, Microsoft has carried out work under the Touch Cover 2's hood to increase precision, upping the number of key sensors from 80 to over 1,000. It results in far more accurate key presses and allows you to almost glide from key to key.
But let's be clear - even if Microsoft tripled the number of sensors in it and doubled the width of the keys - it still wouldn't come close to keyboards that offer tactile feedback, including the original Type Cover (which has been replaced by a new Type Cover 2 that can extend the battery life of Surface tablets).
Shelling out the extra £10 (around $16, or AU$17) for tactile input is simply a no brainer - particularly if you regularly bash out longer documents.
Microsoft has pointed out that its new keyboard covers are stronger than before, and though we can't speak for the Type Cover 2 having not being provided one to test, typing on the Touch Cover 2 with the Surface Pro 2 in your lap still makes the device wobble too much for comfort.
On the plus side, they're far lighter and thinner than keyboard docks offered with tablets - such as the Lenovo ThinkPad Helix or Asus' Transformer Book T100 - and they now light up in the dark. The keys don't illuminate quite so brightly as those on Apple's MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models, which leak light from the edge of the keys themselves, but letters and numbers light up sufficiently to aid typing in low light conditions.
Another new accessory is the Docking Station that turns the Surface Pro 2 into a fully-fledged PC when the device is inserted. We're seeing an increasing number of docking stations with 10- and 11-inch tablets, including the Dell Venue 11 Pro, most of which offer similar features such as allowing users to hook tablets up to multiple high-resolution displays.
Microsoft's dock accessory offers a charging port, a Mini DisplayPort, four USB ports (three USB 2.0 and one USB 3.0), audio ports and an Ethernet port, so there's plenty of scope for charging multiple devices brought into the workplace or home.
Pen, touch controls and Windows 8.1
The Surface Pro 2 comes with a digital pen by that can be used for scribbling on the device's display in apps such as Microsoft Paint and Freshpaint. It's snappy and super responsive thanks to being based on technology by Wacom, making it a genuine pleasure to use on the tablet's high-resolution screen.
Certain applications can make use of the pen's 1,024 levels of pressure sensitivity. Wacom has already released a driver for Windows 8 that lets Photoshop make use of it, and further updates have brought the functionality to Windows 8.1.
If you're dead set on using the Surface Pro 2's stylus with your favorite drawing program, it's a good idea to fire its creator a query or scout around on forums to check compatibility with Windows 8.1 before parting with your hard earned cash.
In terms of pawing your way around Windows 8.1, the Surface Pro 2 behaves much like any other tablet running Microsoft's touch-friendly OS. Navigating the tablet works great with the pen thanks to its quick response time and pinpoint accuracy, which comes in especially handy as Windows' scaling issue often means you'll end up prodding a different icon or menu to the one you intended.
Of course, you can use your fingers too. Swiping in from the left lets you cycle through opened apps, while swiping in from the right opens the Charms bar, and swiping up from the bottom brings up options for that current program.
Windows 8.1 brings a number of new features, from offline caching in SkyDrive to being able to set an image as your Start screen background to customizable tile resizing. We won't detail all of the features, as we have a whole feature dedicated to just that.
Video and audio
We fired up the Surface Pro 2's Xbox app to play some video trailers in 1080p while the device was hooked up to a 42-inch full-HD Toshiba TV, and playback was buttery smooth.
Videos looked great on the Surface Pro 2's screen, and we failed to detect any input lag between the tablet and the TV when swiping and prodding our way through the app's menus. Playing YouTube videos set to 1080p was a similarly hassle-free and enjoyable experience.
The Surface Pro 2's audio capabilities could best be described as adequate. You won't be using it to blast out party anthems at a house party, but it's more than up to the task for casual listening sessions or watching video content.
Unfortunately, the Surface Pro 2's front and rear facing 0.9-megapixel cameras are something of a disappointment. Microsoft has made sure that its 720p snappers are just about up to the task of holding video calls on Skype (Microsoft is throwing one years' worth of unlimited International calls with the device), but they're fairly useless at taking stills, which we'll cover in more detail shortly.
Apps and games
The Surface Pro 2 is never going to compete with the Razer Edge-type devices of this world thanks to housing an integrated Intel HD Graphics 4400 chip, but it improves upon the Surface Pro's HD4000 by supporting DirectX 11.1, OpenCL 1.2 and OpenGL 4.0, turning the Surface Pro 2 into a novel option for on-the-move gamers with realistic expectations.
Our Surface Pro 2 was configured with 4GB of main memory, though the availability of an 8GB version means that it would be worth stumping up extra for the added performance in games. If you are thinking of picking one up for gaming, be warned. Windows 8.1 is something of a bloater and only leaves 26GB of free space remaining on the 64GB Surface Pro 2 before you've done anything with it.
Unlike the Surface 2, the Surface Pro 2 isn't designed to be a device that relies on cloud services (compared to, say, the Surface 2), so you might want to consider loading movies and other large files onto micro SDXC cards. Installing a few Steam games on that hard drive would see space gobbled up in a snap.
We fired up 2007 game Team Fortress 2 to warm the Surface Pro 2 up. Powered by Valve's Source engine, it's a rough indicator of how the device will handle other games - such as Left4Dead2 and Portal2 - will fare.
To test the game, we ran a one-minute benchmark with it set to the Surface Pro 2's native 1,920 x 1,080 resolution. We tuned all video settings to the highest option except for Filtering (which was set to Bilinear) and Antialiasing (which was disabled), and Vsync was left on.
The Surface Pro 2 hummed along without a hitch at a smooth 60FPS, resulting in a playable experience that looked great and allowed us to sniper our way around the map with confidence. As expected, upping Antialiasing to 8x MSAA and Filtering to Anisotropic 8x caused framerates to drop dramatically to an average of 22FPS, rendering it practically unplayable.
Next up was Skyrim, which initially refused to load until we deleted the game's local content from within Steam before reinstalling it - something of a hiccup in Windows 8.1 according to Steam's forums. As with any new OS, it's a good idea to keep all graphics drivers and Steam games updated to avoid compatibility issues.
Running at native resolution with all of the settings tuned to low, we managed to crank an average frame rate of 26.3 FPS out of the Surface 2 Pro. Keeping the settings the same but dropping the resolution to 1,280 x 720 pixels resulted in a much more playable average of 37 FPS, and image quality was still more than bearable, if a little blurrier.
Better yet, hooking up an Xbox 360 gamepad gave us a portable console-like experience. Slaying dragons on PCs has been a pastime throughout the years, but not many can say they've done it using a tablet while sat on the train.
The Suface Pro 2's front and rear-facing cameras are both 0.9-mexapixel snappers. They're also underwhelming, to say the least.
We were disappointed to discover that they're just as poor as those found on the Surface Pro. Outdoor shots in brightly-lit areas come out the best, though they still lack any vibrancy and are often blurry in the absence of an auto-focus function.
The Surface Pro 2 particularly struggled with taking pictures where light was shining onto objects from behind, which caused exposure to appear over or under exposed (a manual slider to alter exposure slightly helps with this).
Battery life and performance
Other tablets have received healthy battery boosts by featuring Intel's fourth generation Haswell chip, and we can report that the Surface Pro 2 receives a similar benefit.
But be warned - despite Haswell onboard the Surface Pro 2 doesn't quite get the leggy battery life of, say, Apple's new MacBook Air models that can run for 10 hours on a single charge.
As in most cases, how long the Surface Pro 2's battery life lasts is hugely affected by how the tablet is set up, the number of apps running at any one time, and factors such as display brightness, whether Wi-Fi is on and other power options (such as allowing the device to go to sleep when not in use).
We used the Surface Pro 2 constantly throughout the day, surfing webpages, doing some light gaming and holding a few Skype calls. All of this was done with the tablet on the 'Balanced' power mode, with screen brightness set to around 75%.
The tablet gave up the ghost after just under seven hours, which we thought was pretty good going compared to the Surface Pro's short-lived battery life.
That longevity didn't extend to our grueling 3DMark benchmark, however, which constantly looped a video and opened applications until the battery depleted. We only managed to squeeze just over three hours of use from 3DMark's Home test with the device's brightness set to full, screen dimming disabled and sleep mode turned off.
This only just puts the Surface Pro 2 ahead of the original Surface Pro where hardcore battery benchmarks are concerned, meaning that you're more likely to see an advantage when using the device intermittently throughout the day, rather than pummeling the battery with everything you can throw at it.
As with the original Surface Pro's charger, if you do run out of juice there's a handy USB port on the charger itself allowing you to plug in your smartphone, camera or other USB-powered gadgets (now including HP's Chromebook 11) at the same time to save space when you're traveling. For a further battery boost, you may want to opt for one of the company's Type covers, which Microsoft claims boosts the battery by up to 60%.
Our Surface Pro 2 was incredibly fast to use thanks to housing a nippy 64GB SSD. Whatever you're doing on it - from installing or opening desktop and Windows Store apps to copying files between folders - is carried out in a snap. Connect the device to a fast fibre-optic internet connection using the built-in 802.11n Wi-fi (no 802.11ac this time around) and it really flies.
Unfortunately there's no LTE onboard, so you'll have to resort to plugging a 4G dongle into the sole USB slot if you're planning to connect to faster mobile broadband services on the road.
Benchmarks - PCMark 8
Home Battery life test - 3 hours and 12 minutes
1.5 - CPU - 2.52 pts, OpenGL - 20.97 fps
Ice Storm - 41598
Cloud Gate - 4504
Fire Strike - 640
Hands on gallery
Microsoft has taken the option of improving upon on what was there before with the Surface Pro 2, so if you wasn't keen on the concept of a tablet offering the functionality of a laptop, you're unlikely to be swayed by this second effort. On the other hand, fans of the Surface Pro will like the Surface Pro 2 even more for its practical improvements.
One of the main plus points of the Surface Pro 2 over the Surface 2 is that it can simply do more thanks to increased battery life, RAM, storage and improved graphics. The inclusion of Intel's Haswell CPU may not give it a noticeable performance boost, but it does give it the legs to go for a few more hours that could make the difference when you're finishing off that all important document or gaming session on the way home.
The Surface Pro 2's display may not have received an upgrade, but then it didn't need one. It's still a fine IPS panel that helps bring Windows 8.1's colorful and vibrant nature to life. The tablet itself is easier to use thanks to improved keyboard covers - even the Touch Cover 2 will prove more than adequate for most this time around.
The Wacom pen is once again excellent and once extends beyond being a mere novelty, and we're pleased to see that Microsoft has given it a magnetic connector so that you can attach it to the side of the device when not in use.
If just one change is made to the Surface Pro 3 should it, er, surface, we want it to be slimmer. The Surface Pro 2 is undoubtedly more portable than an Ultrabook, but it's still heavier and bulkier than rival tablets. If Microsoft can slim it down by the same amount that it has the Surface 2, we'll be whipping out our credit cards before you can say "VaporMG".
The Surface Pro 2 may benefit from Intel's Haswell processor, but we would still like to see a model with dedicated GPU, rather than shared. It may require something of an engineering feet from Microsoft, but we're allowed to dream.
It may not be a fault of the Surface Pro 2 itself, but Windows 8.1's persistent scaling issues on the desktop put something of a damper on the whole experience, leaving you with tiny fuzz text that - for now - has us avoiding certain apps until they get an update.
The Microsoft Surface Pro 2 still straddles the middle ground between laptop and tablet, but a lack of identity doesn't mean that it should be shunned - far from it. The traditional lines between device form factors are increasingly blurred, and those seeking a fresh form factor that offers real productivity gains (in addition to on-hand entertainment) will find lots to love with the Surface Pro 2.
That said, it's an incremental upgrade from the Surface Pro, so if you didn't fancy what it had to offer the first around, there isn't anything drastically new that will have you reaching for the Surface Pro 2 this time.
It's also a machine for anyone rooted firmly in the Windows camp. The traditional desktop mode allows you to install anything from browser extensions to full-fat applications and more, and its value increases further still if you think of Microsoft's Windows Store as a growing ecosystem that will offer an increasing number of quality apps over time.
Starting at £719 ($1,162, or AU$1,212) without a keyboard, however, it's worth thinking twice about picking up a Surface Pro 2 if there are specific aspects of a similarly priced laptop or tablet that you know you would benefit from. If you're a mobile worker in need of a lightweight tablet that's brimming with apps, for example, or a professional in need of a powerhouse laptop with a quad-HD display, there are better options than the Surface Pro 2 out there.