Surface Pro 2 – A Real World Review

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Surface Pro 2 Review

A very well used Surface Pro 2

After much deliberation I decided to go ahead with the 2nd most expensive single purchase of my life. 5 years ago, I spent £8000 on a new car. Four weeks ago, I placed a pre-order for a Surface Pro 2. You only live once, why not treat yourself every once in a while? After a few short clicks and a phone call to the girlfriend to get the all clear, I was suddenly £1100+ worse off.

Why did I go with a Surface Pro 2 rather than any other laptop/ultrabook? Basically, I succumbed to desirability – and you can blame Apple for that. Despite being an avid PC user, you cannot deny that Apple makes some phenomenal hardware for their products – a fact PC manufacturers have been failing to compete and match with for quite a few years. When the Surface 1 Pro got announced, I almost pulled the trigger there and then were it not for reviews complaining about poor battery life, a lack of system RAM, and the rumours a Pro 2 was only a matter of months away using Intel’s newer 4th gen Core i5 CPU. Thankfully for me those rumours were true. Despite watching the Microsoft Surface press conference and being utterly dismayed as the price of an 8GB Surface Pro 2 was £250 more than I was originally willing to pay, I couldn’t resist my temptation in purchasing such a nifty looking and unique computer. Tablet and laptop all-in-one, encased in some very cleverly designed hardware.

Rather than give you a full technical review (there are many other web sites out there that have covered the details thoroughly – I would recommend taking a look at AnandTech’s review in particular for an honest and detailed perspective), I thought it would be interesting to go over some of the details reviewers may have missed whilst using Microsoft’s latest and greatest device. What has using the Surface Pro 2 been like to use for the first two weeks?

Back of a Surface Pro 2

The only place to find which model of Surface Pro 2 you have, without turning it on.

What I Bought

  • Surface Pro 2 – 256GB, 8GB RAM
  • Type Cover 2, Purple

Both devices were delivered in pristine condition, with no apparent manufacturing defects in a rather sleek packaging exterior quite reminiscent to the minimalist Apple style. The Surface came with 70% battery charge, surprisingly. After 10 minutes of initial configuration, I was welcomed with the new Windows 8.1 start screen, all with my previous Windows 8 settings being imported in directly to my new computer seamlessly over Wi-Fi. Nice.

The Hardware – Surface Pro 2

Underneath a Surface Pro 2

Underneath a Surface Pro 2. Note coke cans will magnetically stick to the bottom if they get close enough.

I read on numerous review sites the Surface Pro 2 is too heavy – nonsense. It is solid and noticeably a lot heavier compared to an iPad. But in no way is it unwieldy or uncomfortable. You can easily hold it in one hand for a decent amount of time without having to worry about fatigue, though the 16:9 screen does mean it feels different in your hand compared to other tablets you may be accustomed to. Build quality is up there with the best, and the 2-stage kickstand is extremely sturdy – you will never mistakenly push the surface out of your desired position. The Windows button is touch-sensitive and vibrates on a finger press. A volume rocker is located on the left hand side of the device, and has a good solid feel.

The screen oozes quality – it is incredibly bright at its highest setting, and it coupled with a 1080P resolution results in a display that matches the overall build quality of the Surface. The touch screen itself is also extremely accurate with both finger and the supplied pen as input, though not everything is rosy in this department as I will explain later. The size and pixel density does make details very small – if your eyesight isn’t up to par, steer well clear from the Surface – even with the Windows 8.1 DPI scaling,  the small form factor does take some getting used to.

Top of a Surface Pro 2

Note the gap? That’s where hot hair exhausts out of the device. It’s also where the impressive speakers produce their sound from.

The thing that’s impressed me the most thus far has been, surprisingly, the speakers. For such a small device, they really do pack a punch. They won’t go replacing a half decent pair of desktop speakers, but on the road they produce a good sound. If you were to make a complaint on them, they could do with a bit more bass and a little less tinny, but for their size I have yet to see a device come anywhere close in sound quality.

As for connectivity, I was concerned about the single USB port not being enough to match my needs. It is a constraint, but not a hugely negative one as I just swap between my external DVD drive, USB sticks and USB > RJ45 adapters as and when necessary. Not perfect, but acceptably manageable The mini-display port worked a charm, connecting to my 32” 1080P TV with audio perfectly using a mini-Display Port to HDMI adapter – the one I used was not the official Microsoft model, so save yourself a few quid and buy a cheaper brand instead!

The Bad

With all this praise, you could be excused for thinking nothing’s wrong with the Surface Pro 2. However I do have some quibbles. Two of them involve the pen.

Pen Inaccuracy on Surface Pro 2

Although not a great pic, you can clearly see a difference between where the pen is touching the screen, and where the software is registering it.

So, let’s create a little scenario everyone will go through with a Surface. You want to charge your Surface Pro 2 after exhausting the battery from a long day’s work. The magnetic charger occupies a recess on the right hand side of the Surface, so I plug it in to give it +10 health points. To do this, I need to unplug the pen, which it too also lives in the same magnetic port. As well all know, pens do have a habit of disappearing. So where can I safely keep my £30 Surface pen whilst charging? Oh yeah, that’s it – nowhere. It’s free to wander into a forgotten pocket, a stray pen pot or, heaven forbid, roll down the back of the desk into an abyss, never to be found again. Put simply, it seems to be a simple but surprising oversight not knowing where to put my pen when the Surface is charging – it doesn’t help that replacements are not cheap.

The second issue with the pen is that the accuracy skews at the top left and right hand corners of the screen. It could be a defect with my model admittedly, but it is an inconvenience nonetheless when trying to close an open program with the pen, or navigating down a program’s ‘File’ menu. For all other uses (i.e. OneNote and Fresh Paint for me), its fine.

Post Review Edit: I have tried re-calibrating the pen, and although it fixed the top right/left hand corners, it also made the centre of the screen less accurate – a trade off I was not willing to make. I’m not sure if this is a defect in my unit, or a defect in general. I will update again once I know more.

Lastly, the screen and case are a finger print magnet. It would have been nice if Microsoft bundled a cleaning cloth, or at least made the finish of the Surface chassis more fingerprint resistant.

 

Back of a Surface Pro 2

The rear of a Surface Pro 2 – fingerprints not included, but come as a free extra minutes after use!

The Hardware – Type Cover 2

The Purple Type Cover 2

PIMP – The Purple Type Cover 2

Firstly, a keyboard cover is compulsory for the Surface no matter which one you go for in my opinion– the on-screen keyboard is great, but at the end of the day major functionality is lost without the physical version, plus it protects your screen whilst transporting your machine around. If you are thinking on getting any Surface, you must get a keyboard. And get it in purple – because purple is pimp.

With the Type Cover 2, you get a rigid keyboard layout that’s startlingly thin, yet still behaves like a regular keyboard with individual keys pressing down onto a sensor to register your input. I was expecting a severe reduction in typing speed with a cramped layout, but after a small learning curve I’m surprised how effective the Type Cover 2 is. A slightly small left-shift key is the only obstacle that took me a little longer to get used to.

The Type Cover 2 keyboard lights up, and can be turned off by just pressing the F1 key (a word on that – the Surface ships with Function mode locked on, so hitting the F5 key to refresh a page will just bring up the Windows 8.1 search bar. To turn it off, press Fn + Caps). It’s genuinely useful, plus it looks much more impressive compared to many other back-lit keyboards as the entire key icon is lit uniformly, rather than a single LED in the centre of the icon. There is a little light bleed between the keys, but I quite like the effect. When reviewing your work, the keyboard light dims to save power – but merely pressing your hands back on the rests next to the track pad or a key press will light them up again–a nice little feature. Oh, about that track pad…

The Bad

Colour Fade on Type Cover 2

You can see some wear on the Type Cover 2 on the touchpad and around the edges already, after just 2 weeks of (everyday) use.

…it’s really not very good. It’s too small and I’m not a fan of the buttons, or the lack thereof– call me old fashioned, but I like feeling the response of a button press. For the Type Cover 2 there’s no clickable mouse button, nor are there any guides for where the mouse clicks are registered on the surface area bar a single line down the middle separating left from right. For minor navigational needs, it’s adequate – but for anything more than 5 minutes of mouse time, I had to resort to getting a mouse out as I would just get too frustrated using it.

Also, over the course of the first week I’ve had the Type Cover 2 outright stop working on me. Disconnecting the Type Cover 2 and reconnecting resolved the issue, but it was still an annoying behaviour. During the second week it has behaved itself, but I’m all too aware it could go again. Regrettably the colour on the Type Cover is fading around the edges and the touchpad area – a real shame considering how awesome it looks.

Post Review Edit: It appears the faded look was actually dirt – a quick clean with some spectacle lens cleaner and a dampened lint free cloth removed all of the faded look. This also helped returned the keys to to an “almost new” finish, unlike the pic to the right. If it stands the test of time is another matter, but at least my Type Cover looks a lot happier now.

Real-World Experiences

Battery Life

Surface Pro 2 Power Connector

The magnetic power connector for the Surface Pro 2. You won’t need this connected nearly as often as you might think.

Firstly, I’m used to laptops rather than ultrabooks, so when I saw 7.5 hours battery remaining from my first full charge I was genuinely a happy bunny, but also cautious as I know most guides are optimistic at best. 7 hours and 26 mins later, it died after plenty of OneNote taking using the pen, downloading and installing programs over Wi-Fi, a fair amount of web browsing and a quick bit of music during lunch. It may not be as impressive as some ultrabooks, but going through the vast majority of the working day without a charge is definitely an improvement on my i7 laptop only lasting 3 hours. There has also been a firmware update that has further increased the battery life of the Surface Pro 2. I truthfully haven’t noticed the difference since this has been installed, but any free charge duration is a good thing in my books.

General System Performance

Surface Pro 2 - Thickness

I don’t consider this too thick for a fully capable computer – do you?

I’ve only done a little Photoshop work since the Surface entered my life, but at no point have I seen the Surface Pro 2 struggle with anything I have thrown at it thus far. The Surface Pro 2 turns on from a cold boot in ~6 seconds, Adobe CS6 apps load in a matter of seconds, Photoshop layer filters apply quickly, plus intensive CPU workloads are handled pretty well. It may not have the brute force of some Core i7 processors in mobile computers – my previous gen Core i7 work laptop definitely felt a bit faster under demanding situations with plenty of applications open – but at no point have I really seen my Surface Pro 2 struggle thanks to a lack of horsepower.

As explained earlier, I was keen on getting the 8GB RAM flavour of Surface due to the nature of my job requiring many apps running open at the same time. It appears Windows 8.1 is extremely good at memory management however – even with my full repository of apps open I regularly use (CentraStage, 10+ IE 11 web pages in desktop mode plus a few in Metro, Word, Excel, Outlook, remote desktop metro app, VPN, numerous other miscellaneous Metro apps) it only just crept over 4.6GB of RAM usage. Switching between apps was instantaneous, with zero lag or delay.

Heating/Cooling

Under normal computing loads the Surface is silent. Yes, silent. Not a whisper. When you throw more intensive tasks (or keep your Surface turned on in a cosy bag like I accidently did one journey home, whoops) you can hear its little fans going. It does however get warm over a long period of use, and can even get outright hot to touch during a long gaming session. The device has yet to crash on me during any situation so far, so clearly even when hot, it’s within acceptable levels for the hardware inside.

Using Metro Apps and Desktop Mode

Surface Pro 2 Metro Capabilities

This new feature in Windows 8.1 really does improve productivity, and feels great with touch.

Windows 8 didn’t get the reception Microsoft were after on its initial release – it appears not many of us wanted to embrace a touch-orientated computing experience. And to be honest, on my desktop at home a lot of the metro apps went unused. I liked the idea behind the concept – it just wasn’t executed in the most consistent method, the hardware wasn’t out there initially to take advantage of the new touch direction, nor were the changes effectively communicated to users. People were left confused and angry with Windows 8.

Now with both Windows 8.1 and a hybrid device like the Surface Pro 2, I ‘get it’. Being able to multitask with snapped applications, scrolling with IE on one half of the screen and Word 2013 on the half (like I have been doing writing up parts of this review) is a revelation. Using metro apps with a touch input is a joy, even when you have your type cover out. The device work well as a tablet, as a laptop or as a hybrid system accepting all three input methods. Swiping from the left side of the screen to open the most recent Metro app has a more modern feeling to switching apps, without losing any basic functionality. Essentially, I am enjoying using a computer again with this fresh user experience.

There are still some major steps forward Microsoft can make with their next OS revision – some settings are still only available in the desktop interface, and for first-time users the initial OS walkthrough is still pretty pathetic at explaining key gestures needed to make the most of Windows 8.1. But devices like the Surface make me realise why Microsoft have gone with such a bold design move. Windows 8 is a brilliant operating system for hybrid computers.

Internet Explorer 11

The Suface Pro 2 with its Cover On

How the Surface Pro 2 looks with its cover on, ready for transportation.

For a browser with a touch interface, there’s no competition for Internet Explorer 11 – it’s the best tablet browser out there by a country mile as it fully supports flash, has a good touch interface and is lightning quick. Pages render fast and accurately, whilst swiping the page to the left or right neatly navigates backwards or forwards. That’s not to say it’s not without its flaws – opening links in a new tab doesn’t always load a page instantly like it should, sometimes taking 10-15 seconds for it to start downloading. The desktop version of IE doesn’t have this issue thankfully, and it likely will be fixed in a forthcoming Windows Update, but it is an issue that shouldn’t be present in the release version of the software. Another quirk I’ve found regards uploading group photos on Facebook. It moans about not having Flash installed, when in actual fact it’s built into the web browser by default. Therefore the fastest way for me to upload 100+ photos was to install a competing web browser – not the best marketing trick in the book Microsoft, no matter where the blame lies with the incompatibility. It’s a shame, because I was hoping for a one browser experience, but within a week I had already installed Firefox to overcome this hurdle. C’est la vie. On the whole though, IE11 is really rather good. I never thought I would have said that 5 years ago.

Gaming (not tablet gaming, I mean REAL games!)

Whilst downloading my random 3 games of choice from my Steam library, I had low expectations as to what the Surface Pro 2 could do when you threw 3D matter at it. An important thing to note first of all – unlike traditional flat panel displays, because of the pixel density you can get away with reducing the resolution from 1080P to more manageable screen resolutions with minimal drop in quality. Of course a higher resolution is desired, but with demanding games its best to stick to lower resolutions to get a higher FPS. As you would expect, running the Surface with AA and anisotropic filtering isn’t a good idea for more recent games, though truth be told on this size display it doesn’t really need it as you won’t notice the difference.

I tried out three games to see what the Surface Pro 2 can muster, and recorded them for your viewing pleasure – Skyrim, Batman: Arkham City and The Witcher 2. Each I put the game on max details 1366*768 then if necessary reduced the details from there to get a playable experience. Any DirectX 11 features, like tessellation, were turned off. I decided to record each gaming session externally so as not to affect the frame rate you would see with the Surface.

Firstly, Batman: Arkham City.

As you can see, Batman: Arkham City is not only playable, but it’s playable at max details. At no point during my 2 hours of gaming did the frame rate drop to unacceptable levels, and most of the time hovered around the 25-30FPS mark. The game has a neat benchmark utility that showed a lowest frame rate score of 19FPS, with an average of 25FPS and a max of 31FPS – totally acceptable levels. It sometimes struggled flying through the city as the caped crusader, but on the whole I was impressed how well it coped. This game gets a solid green light.

Next, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.

Skyrim’s performance wasn’t that great, even with the reduced resolution – it was choppy and hardly a smooth experience, but more annoyingly the lag between pressing a key on the Type Cover and it registering made it a very frustrating experience. Actions would be delayed by up to a third of a second, ruining the sense of immersion and making combat unnecessarily hard. Considering the buggy nature of Skyrim I guess this isn’t a surprise, but it is still a disappointment. An amber light for Skyrim unfortunately – and a sore point for many people I would expect, considering the game’s popularity.

Finally, The Witcher 2 – the most demanding game I threw at the Surface Pro 2.

Unsurprisingly, I had to turn down the details quite a bit – max settings can easily make a top end PC sweat, let alone a machine with integrated graphics. What was surprising though is the game is still playable, to a certain degree, at medium to low detail settings, whilst still looking pretty damn tasty to boot. No keyboard/mouse delay, just consistent mid teen frame rates. Some of the bigger battles containing plenty of special effects can cause a fair amount of a stutter, but if you are willing to sacrifice a lot of the graphical details dedicated for top end graphic cards, The Witcher 2 is playable on a Surface Pro 2. Amazing!

To summarize, the Surface Pro 2 is in no way designed to be a gaming machine. Occasionally though, you will want to have a moment to de-stress from real life and get sucked into an alternate world – and for that, the Surface Pro 2 can help. The fact you can get away with a much lower screen resolution means games that you would have thought had been out of your reach are suddenly playable – The Witcher 2 being the best case in point. With the arrival of the PS4 and the Xbox One in the coming weeks, I expect this to not be the case in the future as PC system requirements spiral upwards – but for current gen gaming, the Surface Pro 2 can cope surprisingly well. Just don’t expect much future-proofing.

Other Points to Note

Suface Pro 2 - USB Port

You can see some scuffs on the inside area of the USB port…

  • Although durable, the paintwork is not perfect on the Surface Pro 2. I’ve received a mark or two already around the inside edge of the USB port from connecting external devices a few times.
  • There is a dynamic contrast effect at work here with the Intel graphic drivers. This is separate to the auto-brightness setting that adjusts to your ambient light. Even if I put the device in ‘high performance mode’, with the screen set to maximum brightness, playing a video will still occasionally adjust the contrast mid-scene. I hate this, and looking around on the Internet I don’t appear to be the only one. To make things worse, there is no long-term fix or option to turn it off as of yet.
  • The Type Cover 2 picks up dirt quite easily, and the keys are surprisingly bad at highlighting whatever grease and muck are on your fingers. You will be constantly wiping the cover nearly as often as you do the screen.
  • Wi-Fi signal is pretty good, with decent speed and range performance. The Surface Pro 2 doesn’t support the new 802.11 AC standard unfortunately, so you can’t make the most of the latest and greatest wireless technology – you will have to settle for N connectivity.

Conclusion

2 weeks in, has the Surface Pro 2 been a worthwhile investment? If you want a simple answer, it would most definitely be a yes. Microsoft have made a beautiful piece of hardware and I can see it being by my side for a good number of years to come. The main problem with the Surface Pro 2 though is the price tag – for such a premium device, it really ought to have come with a keyboard in some guise to sweeten the deal. Consumers who don’t buy one will regret their decision the moment they get home and start using the Surface properly, looking upon their purchase with distasteful eyes. There are also those minor issues like the somewhat inconsistent gaming performance, the pen not being 100% accurate across the entire display, the odd keyboard disconnections and Internet Explorer bugs that detract from the entire package.

Surface Pro 2 in Position 1

Surface Pro 2 in the higher position….

As a hybrid device, the Surface Pro 2 is exemplary. As a laptop, it’s a very good and stylish device let down by a poor track pad and a lack of connectivity ports. As for it being tablet, user’s expectations of weight plus that annoying metro Internet Explorer bug when opening a link into a new tab are thorns in its side. You could also argue as a negative there’s a serious lack of apps in the Windows Store compared to iOS and Android tablets – there’s no escaping this truth, but it’s nowhere near as big a problem as you might initially expect. The web browser is so good you don’t often need an app like you would on Android or iOS. Tablet-focused gaming is another matter, and that needs addressing as there are simply not enough games out there.

 

Surface Pro 2 in Position 2

…or the new lower position – offering better viewing angles whilst using it on your lap or on a desk.

For me, the Surface Pro 2 has been a great choice – the more the days have went on, the more I have appreciated what it can do in such a small form factor. I heartily recommend one if you are looking for a premium, mobile Windows product.

Links

Microsoft Surface Pro 2 – Official Site
Anandtech
TESV: Skyrim
Batman: Arkham City
The Witcher 2
85%
85%
Very Good

A great device marred by some minor annoyances, the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 comes very close to the ideal all-in-one laptop/tablet replacement - if you are willing to pay the premium price.

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About Author

Luke is a Citrix & Microsoft IT consultant based in the UK. His Citrix qualifications include CCE-V, CCP-N and CCP-M. He also holds an MCSA in Windows Server 2012 and is a certified MCITP on Windows Server 2008. He loves cats but hates spiders and the cold.

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