Device Review: Microsoft Surface Pro 2
There I was, lined up in the queue of the local electronics store, waiting to collect my Microsoft Surface Pro 2 from the seemingly tired and overworked store attendant behind the counter. I glanced over at the section of the store where all the Surfaces were lined up for display, thinking to myself about whether I’ve made the right decision or not. It definitely wasn’t easy, that’s for sure.
For quite some time now, I’ve found myself in a pickle, not knowing whether to get a fully-fledged ultrabook for university, or continue using a somewhat lackluster Android tablet to do all the heavy lifting while out and about. So when Microsoft reminded us on the 23rd of September that there was something in between, namely their Surface products, I thought, why not?
“Oh, this is pretty light”
I had the same thought pop up in my mind when I picked up the Surface Pro 2 in-store for the first time, but I just couldn’t help but notice it again. Contrary to what many people have led me to believe, the device is surprisingly lighter than what I had originally thought. Weighing in at around 900 grams (2 pounds), it really wasn’t that much heavier than my friend’s iPad 3 (650 g; 1.44 lb), and it was lighter than the 11-inch Macbook Air (1.09 kg; 2.38 lb). This to me, is absolutely fine and justified, as the Surface Pro 2 is both/neither a tablet and a laptop, and it wouldn’t be fair to judge its worth in comparison with either form factors.
With the Surface Pro 2 in my hands, it didn’t take me long to truly appreciate its hardware and design. Measuring in at 275 x 173 x13 mm (10.81 x 6.81 x 0.51 inches), its stylish and sleek chassis is made of dark, brushed magnesium which Microsoft terms as VaporMg. It not only feels premium and cool to the touch, but also feels remarkably sturdy and robust, not giving in the slightest when I tried to twisted each end of the tablet in opposite directions.
“A USB port? Oh yeah!”
In addition to the magnesium chassis I noticed during my first impressions, I was also quite glad that Microsoft included the all-important USB 3.0 port to the left hand side of the Surface Pro 2, along with a microSD card slot on the right hand side with support for up to 64 GB. The device’s left side is also home to the standard 3.5 mm headphone jack and the volume buttons, while the micro HDMI port and magnetic charging port are located on the device’s right. I must say, depending on which angle the Surface Pro 2 is at, it can be quite tricky to place the magnetic charger in the charging port. The device has a 5 MP camera on the rear and a 3.5 MP front camera. They’re passable, but not great, so I wouldn’t recommend taking photos with them unless it’s a dire necessity.
Microsoft has also touted the new and improved kickstand, an iconic feature on the Surface products. Answering the anguished calls of 1st generation Surface owners who found it difficult to comfortably view the device on their laps or lower surfaces, Microsoft now allows the kickstand to expand to a second, more reclined angle. Furthermore, the kickstand is thin yet stable, and makes a satisfying and comforting ‘click‘ when you close it.
In addition to the 128 GB version with 4 GB of RAM which I chose, the device is also available in a 64 GB variety with 4 GB of RAM, as well as 256 GB and 512 GB configurations with 8 GB of RAM. It’s advisable for those interested in the device to think carefully about the amount of storage you would like, as the system partition eats up around 30 GB of the space straight out of the box.
The Surface Pro 2’s screen is absolutely gorgeous. The 10.6 inch full-HD IPS LCD displays colors beautifully. And since the screen is optically-bonded, there’s minimal space between the glass and the touch screen, reducing glare and increasing touch sensitivity. Watching movies with friends also shouldn’t be a problem, as the screen retains its brightness and contrast from every side and at almost every angle. The screen has 208 ppi. This results in relatively crisp text, although not quite as crisp on our modern 1080p smartphones.
But what’s a beautiful screen when it’s scratched or damaged? The good thing is, a singular piece of Corning Gorilla Glass 2 covers the entire front area of the Surface Pro 2, so you can expect greater resistance and endurance for what is arguably one of the most important parts of the device. Despite this however, I still decided to cover the front with a screen protector for that extra layer of protection and some added peace of mind. As with all screens, the screen of the Surface Pro is prone to smudges and fingerprints, but when the screen brightness is high, it’s hard to notice them.
The screen also uses Wacom active digitizer technology, which provides extremely high pressure sensitivity when you’re using the included pen or stylus. This means the Surface Pro 2 is fantastic for artists who are looking for a device that doubles as a high-quality drawing pad. I’m also thankful that the screen has palm rejection, which means that you can comfortably write with the included pen as you would normally would, without having to worry about any screen interference from the rest of your hand. I found this to be particularly useful when quickly jotting down notes on the Surface Pro 2 when there wasn’t a keyboard around.
“Yeah… it’s not bad”
In all honesty, a Surface wouldn’t be a Surface without the optional keyboard cover. So I was disappointed that it wasn’t included with the tablet as a singular package, and even more so when I found out that it was going to cost me an additional $150 AU for the Type Cover 2. The alternative would have been the Touch Cover 2, which was only $10 cheaper.
The Type Cover 2 keyboard attaches to the bottom of the Surface Pro 2 via magnetic pins, and latches on strongly—strong enough to lift the device from the keyboard. I like how incredibly thin the keyboard is, being 1.5 mm, which reduces overall weight and clunkiness. Despite the thinness, it retains decent travel, making typing for long periods a decent, if not pleasant, experience. Typing in the dark also isn’t a problem, as this time round, Microsoft added backlit keys to the Type Cover.
Besides the actual keys of this accessory, the keyboard is made of a felt-like material that is soft and comfortable to the touch. One of the downsides of this construction is that even the touchpad is of the same material, making mouse navigation rather cumbersome due to the increased friction and grip. Furthermore, I’ve found it very difficult to actually press the left and right felt pads that serve as left and right clicks because of their non-existent travel. Another gripe of mine is that the touchpad is very narrow, which coupled with the very little differentiation between the pad and the actual keyboard material, further hinders a comfortable mouse navigation experience. I’m well aware that I can simply use the touch screen to navigate, but I don’t want to stretch my arm towards the screen and hold it in the air for a prolonged period of time while simply browsing the web. But then again, that’s just me.
The keyboard also acts as a cover for the screen, hence the name Type/Touch Cover, by folding upwards towards the screen. The felt-like material is adequate enough to guard the screen from the accidental bump or knock, but it definitely won’t hold against anything forceful. Additionally, because of this form factor, you don’t have to carry around two separate parts around. Rather, you can simply have it all as one piece. Reading in the Microsoft Surface forum on XDA, however, there have been concerns raised regarding the screen getting scratched by the keyboard, either by the actual keys, or because there was something was wedged in between such as a spec of sand or other hard material.
Having the Surface Pro 2 replace both my Android tablet and home laptop PC that ran Windows 7, the transition was quite a jarring experience. No doubt, the biggest change for me was the axing of the Start menu, which was replaced by the ‘Metro’ interface of Windows 8.1. At first, I was doubtful about whether I would take kindly and settle in comfortably with the new interface since I’ve been using Android and Windows 7 for a very long time. I then came to realize that Windows 8.1 is actually quite similar to aspects of both operating systems.
PC users will most definitely be familiar with the Desktop ‘app’ on Windows 8.1, retaining that wholesome desktop PC experience minus the Start menu. In fact, besides the missing Start menu, there really isn’t anything else different from the desktop of Windows 7. Similarly, parallels can be drawn between Metro UI’s Live Tiles and Android’s widgets, both of which constantly and conveniently provide live updates and feeds right on the home screen. Additionally, Live Tiles are highly customizable, even more so than most Android widgets, allowing you to resize, recolor, and move them according to how you like. Users of the Galaxy Note series will be familiar with Windows 8.1’s feature of splitting the screen into two resizable portions, both running different applications at the same time. There is also a ‘Charms bar,’ which slides out from the right of the screen to provide handy shortcuts such as to settings and search.
However, there are still a couple of gripes I have, one being the very nature of Metro UI. It’s fantastic for touch oriented devices like the Surface Pro 2, where navigation is as simple as a swipe and a tap,
but when you’re using the device with a mouse, and especially with the touchpad, navigating the horizontal interface can be confusing. You have to either drag the bar at the bottom left or right with the mouse, or scroll up or down, which doesn’t quite make sense. Another thing is the very notable lack of apps, exemplified further when migrating from Android. But then again, you get the ability to run desktop X86 programs in return, which I guess is a fair exchange. Despite this, it should be noted that there are plenty of desktop applications that are still not optimized for the Surface Pro 2, resulting in tiny and misaligned interfaces (Photoshop), and small or fuzzy fonts (Google Chrome).
Update: I’ve been made aware that you can also navigate the Metro UI by simply moving the mouse to the either edge of the screen, or by scrolling vertically on the touchpad. Apologies for the misrepresentation.
Among the more acclaimed features of the Surface Pro 2 is its powerful 4th-Gen (Haswell) Intel Core i5 processor. A dual-core CPU clocking in at 1.6 Ghz, the device can expand this to 2.6 Ghz with Turbo Boost. But more importantly, it significantly increases the battery life compared to the original Surface Pro. The previous model would last no more than 5 hours at the most. But with the new CPU, the Surface Pro 2 lasts up to 6 and a half to 7 hours, depending on the power settings.
With the i5 processor, 4 GB of RAM, and Intel HD Graphics 4400 on the inside, the Surface Pro 2 didn’t stutter or lag one bit when handling my medium to fairly-heavy usage. Multitasking resource-intensive desktop applications such as Photoshop, AVG, and Mozilla Firefox, while having multiple background applications running such as Dropbox, Box, and Evernote did not pose a challenge at all. This shows that the device can easily handle any mainstream workload. Streaming 1080p videos on YouTube was handled just as easily, a rare occurrence on my previous laptop. You can see more detailed performance tests conducted by CNET below.
Final Thoughts (for now)
I’ve heard plenty of times from commentators that the Surface Pro 2 is a good device, but there are better laptops out there, and there are better tablets out there. Sure, if that’s how you want to see it, that’s absolutely fine. But you may have noticed that I have not once referred to the Surface Pro 2 as either a tablet or a PC. Why? Because it’s neither, and it shouldn’t be compared and judged as such. You can’t rip off the screen of a laptop and use it as a tablet. Rather, it’s in it’s own class of devices, among the likes of the Sony Vaio Tap 11 and the Dell Venue 11 Pro, and to an extent, hybrids in other form factors such as the Lenovo Yoga and Sony Vaio Duo. These are all devices that are highly capable of serving as a PC, as well as providing similar convenience and portability as a tablet.
This unique form factor, in combination with the device’s superior build quality and exceptional performance, are all very compelling factors to choose the Surface Pro 2. Throughout my first week of owning the device, it has served me and my needs well, and has surpassed my expectations for a device that many have unfairly judged negatively in comparison to devices of other categories.
Of course, the device, as well as its category, is still young, and it still has quite a distance to travel, as seen with the gripes I’ve experienced. Hopefully in the future, Microsoft will shave off a couple of millimeters from the device’s thickness, introduce better designed keyboards (especially considering the prices you’ll be paying for them), and increase the battery life—all of which I’m sure will come in time.
But nevertheless, in its current state, the Surface Pro 2 is a fine and highly capable device that’s slowly and steadily proving that it’s here to stay.
What are your thoughts on the Surface Pro 2? Share them in the comments below, as well as in the Microsoft Surface XDA forum. If you’re interested in development on the device as well as on Windows 8, be sure to check out the Windows 8 development forum.