Review: Microsoft Surface Pro 2
March 13, 2014
With the first Surface Pro, Microsoft laid out its vision of the future: one mobile device with the guts of a laptop that can replace your tablet, laptop, and maybe even desktop. Unfortunately that first model also brought along some sketchy battery life. But what happens when you improve on that by 75 percent? You have the Surface Pro 2, a much less compromised hybrid PC.
Apart from smartphones and the occasional smartwatch, I've been using the Surface Pro 2 as my only computer for the last couple of work weeks. Usually those kinds of experiments end with a sigh of relief that they're over. Record observations, comment on the journey, and go back to the devices that have already earned a place in my workflow and playflow.
But this time? Well, let's just say some of my old devices are going to be looking for new homes. I often have to switch between work and play at the drop of a dime, so the idea of hybrids like the Surface always appealed to me. But with some big improvements in a few key places, the Pro 2 finally lives up to the future that Microsoft pitched back in 2012. Simply put, this thing's a versatile beast.
The biggest improvement comes from using it in laptop mode. I thought the first Surface Pro was sorta good as a tablet, kinda good as a laptop, and pretty cool when you rolled it all up into one. But the Pro 2 is actually a damn good laptop. With very few physical changes from last year's model, how is this possible?
It starts with the new dual-position kickstand. As we mentioned in our Surface 2 review (remember, that's the model than runs a more limited version of Windows), the new kickstand now props up your Surface in either a 55 degree angle or a 22 degree angle. It might not sound like a big deal, but it makes a huge difference when you're actually using it on your lap.
I find the 22 degree angle (the only option in the first-gen model) to be a little awkward on my lap. I can't look at the screen head-on, and it's more prone to falling down if I shift my legs. But the new 55 degree position is just about perfect. I can lean back and recline, with the kickstand leaning comfortably on my legs.
Another big improvement comes from the Type Cover 2. Just because Microsoft's Surface keyboard covers are sold separately, don't think for a second that they're optional. The covers are essential purchases if you're throwing down for any Surface. And while you could save a few bucks and use one of the first-gen covers with the Surface Pro 2, I think the new Type Cover 2 is worth the extra money. For starters, it's firmer. When typing on your lap, you don't want a flimsy keyboard that could bend back and forth and muck up whatever it is you're typing. The Type Cover 2 feels much more stable on lap.
The new Type Cover also has better keys. A shorter travel distance gives them a very snappy feel. It makes typing on the Surface just about on par with the experience of using a dedicated laptop. It also has some new backlit keys, so you'll hopefully make a few less typos in the dark.
As for the Touch Cover 2, which lacks physical keys, I think it's also better than its predecessor. But in most cases I'd still recommend the Type over the Touch. I've spent years adjusting to various touchscreen keyboards, but nothing I've found has replaced the feeling of good old-fashioned moving keys. Most of this is repeated from our Surface 2 review, so I won't drone on any more about the keyboard covers. But feel free to hit that up if you want a bit more detail on the new models.
The last big improvement in laptop mode comes from battery life. Microsoft says that the new Pro 2 lasts 75 percent longer than its predecessor, and I'd say that's about right on the money. On a typical day I use the Surface Pro 2 very heavily – browsing feeds in tablet mode, spending hours in Photoshop on the desktop, and lots of typing – and its battery handles that workflow better than you might expect. I usually drop it on a charger during longer breaks, just to be safe, but even when I don't it usually lasts a good portion of the day. Behold the power of Haswell.
Of course ARM-based devices like the Surface 2 and iPad are always going to have better battery life than x86 PCs like the Surface Pro 2. That's just the nature of the beast. But Intel's battery-sipping Haswell chips have things looking up on the x86 side.
If you want to stretch the Surface Pro 2's battery life out even longer, Microsoft's Power Cover finally goes on sale next week. It's basically a thicker and heavier Type Cover 2, minus the backlit keys, but – here's the killer part – plus a built-in battery. Microsoft says it can extend your Surface's battery life by up to 70 percent. US$200 is pretty pricey for a keyboard accessory, but if it lives up to those estimates, I think it's definitely worth a look. I pre-ordered one, and will be reviewing it within the next couple of weeks.
As a tablet, the Surface Pro 2 is still a lot thicker and heavier than something like the iPad Air or Kindle Fire HDX 8.9. But just remember that those tablets don't transform into laptops and they certainly don't run full desktop operating systems. The Surface Pro 2 is a different kind of device, and this kind of device is going to have some heft.
Despite the bulk and weight, I don't have a problem using the Surface Pro 2 as a tablet. Of course you aren't going to want to hold it in one hand or expect it to feel like a paperback book for marathon reading sessions. But the nice thing is its screen is big enough that I can usually just rest it on my lap and, more or less, forget about the weight. Would be nice to shave some millimeters and grams off of its chassis? You bet – and I imagine future models will do just that. But I still think the Surface Pro 2's versatility far outweighs its beefiness. And if you want a Surface that's lighter and thinner – and you don't mind sacrificing desktop apps – then the Surface 2 is much more comfortable to hold as a tablet.
The Surface Pen stylus, a big point of differentiation from most other Windows 8 hybrids, is back with the Pro 2. And by "back," I mean it's exactly the same as it was in the first-gen model. That isn't a bad thing: the Wacom-based pen is still accurate, comfortable to hold, and snaps into the tablet's charging port for easy storage. It's excellent for navigating those desktop apps that don't work well with fat fingers, it makes selecting text a breeze, and it's a great companion for Photoshop. Just don't expect anything new or different from last year's stylus.
In my experience, overall performance is pretty damn good. Of course it zipped through every Metro (Start Screen) app I threw at it, but it's also a workhorse on the desktop. Photoshop is easily the most processor-intensive app I use, and everything there is as fast as I'd want it to be. Even demanding filters like content-aware fills on high-resolution images process in ten seconds or less.
So who is the Surface Pro 2 for? Well, if your creating content and consuming content overlap and intertwine, then you're probably going to love it. I often jump from browsing feeds to surfing the web to writing emails to drafting posts to creating images in Photoshop (with a few other stops along the way), and this is pretty much the ideal device for that. Its tablet mode is better for the consumption part than laptops are, and its laptop mode is much better for the creation and work parts than iPads and Android tablets are. Hell, you can even hook it up to a monitor, mouse, and keyboard to replace your old desktop PC (and Microsoft sells a US$200 Docking Station if you want to make that transition easier).
It's easy to gasp at the sight of the Surface Pro 2's $900 starting price. Add an essential keyboard cover to the mix, and you're paying a minimum of $1,020. And that's just for the base 64 GB version (though its microSD card slot can help to stretch that out). Price points only go up from there, capping out at $1,800 for the 512 GB version. Make no mistake: this is a premium, high-end device.
But if you do want the power of a Windows-running laptop along with the perks of a touchscreen tablet, then consider how many other devices the Surface Pro 2 could replace. The 11-in MacBook Air starts at $1,000. That just about covers a Surface and keyboard cover alone. But if you want to add a tablet to your collection, tag on another $230 for a Nexus 7, $400 for a Retina iPad mini, or $500 for an iPad Air. And none of those devices have digitizers for "real" styluses, so if that's a must for you, throw in another $90 or so for a pen and tablet bundle.
Of course not everyone needs all of that. If all you're looking for is a device that lets you surf the web, post on Facebook and Twitter, watch Netflix, and play the latest Flappy Bird clone, then grab an ARM-based tablet and call it a day. Or if your workflow rarely extends beyond Office and emails, then a Surface 2 might be what the doctor ordered.
But if the simplicity of so-called post-PC devices doesn't cut it for you, and you long for the power and versatility of a desktop OS, then the Surface Pro 2 can be an outstanding device. It still makes for a beefy tablet, but if you can live with that part? Well, you get one hell of a versatile and portable PC.
The Surface Pro 2 starts at $900 (plus $130 for the Type Cover 2 or $200 for the battery-extending Power Cover) and is available at various online and brick & mortar retailers, including the product page below.
Product page: Microsoft