REVIEW: Surface Pro 2

The Surface Pro 2 delivers on the productivity front but a hefty price tag and the weighty form factor might be a turn off for some consumers.

Surface Pro 2

Microsoft’s struggles with the Surface have been well documented with poor sales of the Surface RT forcing it to write off nearly $US1 billion and slash prices in the process. But Microsoft remains determined to make inroads with the release of the new Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2.

Surface RT might have been a bust but Microsoft has painted a different picture with the Surface Pro. According to Microsoft’s Corporate VP, Panos Panay, the original Surface Pro was the “best selling model in its class” but the company has yet to release any actual sales figures to backup those claims.

The sales data might be missing, but Microsoft has at least listened to the feedback on the original Surface Pro and fixed a few things.

At the top of the list, battery life has been improved considerably and there’s now a dual-angle kickstand, making it much easier to use on your lap or desk. There are also a number of new accessories, including updated keyboard covers and even a docking station.

Moreover, this year’s refresh closely aligns with Microsoft’s new-found devices and services strategy, set in motion by outgoing CEO, Steve Ballmer. The result is the integration of Microsoft’s cloud and communication services with 200GB of included SkyDrive storage and a year’s worth of free international Skype calls with every new Surface.

So how does the Surface Pro 2 stack up in a market already overrun with hybrid notebooks and the tablet space dominated by Apple and Android?

New adjustable kickstand with last year’s design

The original Surface Pro was almost impossible to use on your lap thanks to a bizarre design decision that restricted the kickstand to one angular position. Thankfully, Microsoft has rectified the issue this time around by introducing a dual position kickstand, that provides much more of a comfortable angle to the screen. Apart from this, the design aspects of Surface Pro 2 are identical to its predecessor.

The sturdy VaporMG chassis with a chamfered titanium finish still feels solid in the hand. There’s a distinct premium feel to the device and it’s one of the aspects of the Surface that Microsoft nailed the first time around.

Unfortunately, there are no changes to the thickness and heft of the device, which still stands at a chunky 13.5mm and weighs 900 grams.

That makes the Surface Pro 2 almost twice the weight and thickness of Apple's iPad Air. And the extra heft makes using the device as a tablet for long periods impractical.

Of course, the tablet is only half of the story with the Surface. Attach either of the new Type Cover 2 and Touch Cover 2 accessories to the base and the Surface turns into a full-fledged Windows Ultrabook. The keys on both covers are now backlit and Microsoft has implemented a whopping 1092 sensors in the Touch Cover 2 to improve accuracy and speed of typing.

It’s an improvement. But the Touch Cover 2 is still neither responsive nor accurate enough to replace a real keyboard. The Type Cover 2 on the other hand feels great. It’s a full-size keyboard with real keys and allows typing at regular desktop speeds. The onboard trackpad also works well, particularly with two finger scrolling but is a bit small for performing Windows 8 gestures such as pinch to zoom.

Microsoft will also be releasing a Power Cover accessory and a docking station early next year. The Power Cover is essentially a bulkier version of the Type Cover 2 but with an integrated battery that will extend the battery life of the Surface as well.

The Docking Station will be an interesting addition as it essentially positions the Surface Pro 2 as a tablet/notebook hybrid computer that can also act as a desktop replacement. It won’t come cheap though, with the accessory expected to retail for over $200.

More powerful machine and longer battery life

The other big news with the Surface Pro 2 is the move to Intel’s Haswell processors.

Inside, is a Core i5 4200U dual core processor, which is the same CPU as what Apple used in both the 11-inch and 13-inch Macbook Air. It’s also the same processor as what you will find in most sub-$1500 Windows Ultrabooks. The Macbook Air, however, has slightly better graphics performance with an Intel HD 5000 onboard in comparison to the Surface Pro 2’s HD 4400.

That said, the graphics performance still provides a 50 per cent boost in performance over the HD 4000 found in the original Surface Pro.

More importantly, the switch to Haswell chips has resulted in significantly better battery life. With the screen brightness set to 50 per cent, we were able to edit documents, browse the web, check email and watch occasional video for a little over seven hours before we had to reach for the charger.

Nice improvement but it still doesn’t quite match the 10 hours the likes of Sony Vaio Duo and the Macbook Air offer. It also falls well short when compared with other tablets such as the iPad Air, which can handle 12 hours of heavy use.

Microsoft is offering more storage options with the Surface Pro 2, starting from the base 64GB model for $1,019 through to $2,039 for the 512GB version. Keep in mind that the 64GB model only comes with 23GB of actual usable storage so it might be wise to spring for the 128GB variant.

All of the models do, however, have the option of adding up to an extra 64GB of storage via the onboard microSD card slot. Hooking up an external drive is also possible with the newer USB 3.0 port.

It’s worth noting that the device uses the same 10.6-inch 1080P IPS display from last year’s model, but the colour accuracy has been noticeably improved this time around with pictures and other content exhibiting more of a natural tone.

The Wacom pressure sensitive stylus also makes a return and it works splendidly well with the inbuilt handwriting recognition. The stylus also makes it easier to navigate the not-so-touch-friendly Windows 8 desktop. Having the versatility of a pen stylus, touch and keyboard/mouse support all on one tablet is a boon for productivity but the heft of the Surface Pro 2 again proves to be a hindrance.

The Surface Pro 2 comes with Windows 8.1 out of the box and the updated OS comes with some notable productivity enhancements including the ability to have a desktop program open side-by-side in split-screen mode with an app downloaded from the Windows store. This feature scaled nicely on the display of the Surface Pro 2 and it’s an example of another productivity edge that Windows 8 has over Android and iOS.

The Surface Pro 2 delivers on the productivity front but it comes at a premium price point and including mobile broadband support and Office 2013 could have been a nice touch from Microsoft. While Office 2013 has been bundled into with Surface 2 it remains glaringly absent from the Surface Pro line.  

At $1,019 for the base model plus an additional $150 for the Type Cover 2 - which is almost a mandatory accessory - you’re looking at almost $1,200 just to get started. Add another $110 for the 128GB option. At that price, there are alternatives such as the Dell XPS 11 2-in-1 Ultrabook which promises better battery life and a higher resolution display.

On top of that, there's a wave of new hybrid-notebook tablets set to hit the market by the end of the year.

So, if you’re after a tablet for content consumption then there are cheaper alternatives out there. But the Surface Pro 2 does tick a lot of boxes when it comes to productivity.