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Microsoft Surface Pro 2 review

The body of a tablet, the soul of a laptop

Photography by Michael Shane

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Microsoft Surface Pro 2 hero (1024px)
Microsoft Surface Pro 2 hero (1024px)

I’ve been using the Surface Pro ever since it came out, but as much as I want to I’ve never been able to use it as my laptop replacement. It’s powerful and impressive, but it’s just too limited as a laptop, and too chunky as a tablet. I use tablets for long periods of the day, and I regularly work on my lap with a real keyboard, so a hybrid laptop and tablet sounds like a perfect solution. The Surface Pro wasn’t it. The battery doesn’t last long enough for tablet use, and it’s not comfortable to use as a laptop in my lap.

Nine months after introducing the first device, Microsoft is back — it knows my problems, and says it’s solved them. The Surface Pro 2 promises 75 percent more battery life, improved lap use, faster performance, and more, smarter accessories. Microsoft's second refreshed attempt to blend beauty and power into the perfect Windows 8 machine sets you back $899. That’s a small price to pay — if this is the laptop I’ve been waiting for.

Small laptop, big tablet

The look and feel of the Surface Pro 2 is practically unchanged from the original Surface Pro. As much as I’ve longed for a slimmer Surface Pro 2 that feels a little more like an actual tablet, the new model is identical in weight and bulk to the old model. As always, it’s made of Microsoft’s “VaporMG” material and, unlike the Surface 2’s nice silver model, it’s still only available in black.

If you put a Surface Pro next to a Surface Pro 2, it’s impossible to tell the difference from the front. Even the port placement is the same. There’s a prominent Windows logo below the screen, a power button on the angled edge at the top, and a full USB 3.0 port, volume rocker, and headphone jack on the left side. As it’s the same size as the original Surface Pro (half an inch thick and a little more than two pounds), it’s still rather difficult to use in portrait, or in one hand. 

Pen input is where the Pro 2’s screen shines

On the right there’s the usual mini DisplayPort, microSD reader, and the magnetic power connector. Microsoft claims to have improved its power connector with the Pro 2, but it’s still tricky to attach on the steeply angled edge. Slightly beneath this host of ports is the same peripheral venting system, which pushes air out of tiny vents around the entire device.

Microsoft claims there’s 46 percent more color accuracy on the Pro 2’s display, but I couldn’t see any significant differences between the two models. The stasis isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it’s still a great-looking 1920 x 1080 panel with deep blacks and bright whites. Samsung did manage to bump its latest Galaxy Note 10.1 up to a 2560 x 1600 LCD panel, though, and Apple’s iPad also has a higher resolution, so there’s room for Microsoft to improve.

It may want to take its time, though: while Windows’ high-resolution scaling support has improved in version 8.1, it’s still not great for third-party desktop apps, many of which simply haven’t been updated to support this new high-resolution world. Apps like Chrome are blurry and don’t pick up touch points properly, and Photoshop just looks tiny. Pixel-dense displays are perfect for the modern Windows 8-style apps, but if you’re a heavy desktop user then it’s still a frustrating experience using traditional apps on these types of devices.

Where the Surface Pro 2’s display really shines is with the Wacom-made, pressure-sensitive stylus. It’s identical to the original Surface Pro, and the mix of pen, touch, and keyboard / mouse support is still a killer combination on this tablet. Input can be a little tricky to get used to while you switch between finger and pen for navigation, but it’s still a bonus to be able to take notes in OneNote or draw in apps like Fresh Paint. Unfortunately, the pen still attaches to the power connector, and still falls off easily in my bag — I’d really like to see Microsoft provide a place to store this within the tablet itself, because it’s such a key addition to the experience.

55 degrees and sunny

It’s not until you flip the Surface Pro 2 over that you discover its differences. Microsoft has nixed the Windows logo at the rear in favor of the word “Surface” wordmark in the company’s typical Segoe font. That’s just a minor change, but it’s written on the big new addition: a two-stage kickstand. While you could always use the Surface Pro as a tablet in your lap, I had trouble sitting comfortably while using the keyboard and trackpad on Microsoft’s special Type or Touch Covers. The new kickstand opens to a second angle that doesn’t look incredibly different on a desk, but it digs into your legs better, instead of the delicate balancing act of the original angle. It’s much sturdier.

Backlit, rigid, thinner Type and Touch Covers

The covers are key if you want to use this tablet as a laptop, which is how Microsoft wants you to use the Surface Pro 2. While you’ll spend $900 on this device, it’s just a big, expensive tablet until you add a Type Cover or Touch Cover. (Microsoft may flaunt it in all of its ad campaigns, but there’s no keyboard cover in the box.) The Type Cover 2 connects via the magnetic dock connector at the bottom of the Surface Pro 2, and it’s slightly more rigid, thinner, and more colorful than the original Type Cover. It’s the perfect partner for the new kickstand angle. I found using them together made it a lot easier to type comfortably on my lap without worrying that the Surface Pro 2 might drop on to the floor.

There are backlights inside both Type Cover 2 and Touch Cover 2, customizable on the F1 and F2 keys. The Type Cover 2 no longer has a clicking mechanism on its trackpad, switching to a fabric approach like the Touch Cover 2.

There are lots of changes you don’t see, too, particularly to the Touch Cover 2. Microsoft has now placed over one thousand touch-sensitive zones on the Touch Cover 2, which lets the cover support a range of new gestures. Swiping from the right brings up the charms, and sliding two fingers across the number keys will highlight text. With more sensors it’s also more accurate, and I don’t have to correct as much as I used to. However, I’d still recommend a Type Cover for heavy typing — nothing compares to real keys.

 Adjusting the two angles requires no switches or buttons — you simply push on the kickstand until it clicks into place. It’s certainly a big improvement from the original Surface Pro, but if you’re looking to use it mainly as a laptop in your lap you’ll probably want to opt for a traditional laptop. Improved as the Pro 2 is, it’s still no match for a laptop display that’s fully adjustable, or a sturdy, attached keyboard.

 There are plenty of new accessories, too, like a new Docking Station and a Bluetooth adapter for the Type Cover. These new accessories do little to improve the laptop / tablet hybrid experience away from a desk, save for a new Power Cover (due early next year) that will help boost the battery life. Blades might be the future of the Surface, but they can’t change the fact that the Pro 2 is still a tricky mix of tablet and laptop.

 Normally I wouldn’t care much about cameras on a 10-inch tablet, but the low-light improvements for Skype video calls on the Surface 2 make me wish Microsoft had made the same effort to upgrade the Surface Pro 2. There’s still the super-wide-angle front-facing camera with 720p support for video calls, but the Surface 2 bumps this to a 3.5-megapixel version with 1080p. It doesn’t make sense not upgrading the Surface Pro 2 cameras, especially when the Surface 2 benefits from a new Photo Loop feature that allows you to “rewind” the camera in real-time.

The power play

The Surface Pro 2 might look like a tablet, but inside it’s all laptop. During its launch event, Microsoft spent a lot of time explaining the Pro 2’s performance improvements, with good reason: this is one of the fastest tablets on the market. It’s not a limited device like the Surface 2 with Windows RT, and because the Pro 2 uses an Intel chip you can run desktop apps like Photoshop or Chrome. It offers Intel’s latest Haswell 1.6 GHz Core i5-4200U processor with integrated Intel HD Graphics 4400, 4GB of RAM, and either 64GB or 128GB of internal storage. (You can also get 256 or 512GB of storage, which comes with 8GB of RAM.) It’s clearly aimed at professionals and those who need raw power, and it doesn’t disappoint.

I never experienced any noticeable slowdowns during my use of multiple Windows 8-style apps, Photoshop, Chrome, and other desktop apps. In fact, it boots up within just four seconds, and resumes from sleep in less than two. That’s even quicker than my original Surface Pro, and insanely fast for a Windows PC.

Insanely fast for a Windows PC

While Microsoft has upgraded to Intel’s integrated HD Graphics 4400 chip, this is still very much a tablet or ultrabook experience — it’s no gaming PC. It’s greatly improved, and I could happily play Steam games at varying resolutions, but you’ll definitely still want a separate mouse. The Type Cover 2 doesn’t support trackpad movement while you’re pressing a key down, so it’s rather useless if you were hoping to play a quick game of Counterstrike. The Touch Cover 2 is a little better, but it’s hit and miss too.

Gaming on a Surface Pro 2 is also a quick way to hear the fans whirl through their vents on the edges of the device. While it’s not nearly as loud or frequent as my MacBook Air, they spin up the moment you start pushing the system. I never noticed them when playing Flash content, but heavy work in 3D applications and games definitely gets them going. Otherwise, the Surface Pro 2 is silent during regular use, and rarely gets more than a little warm.

There’s plenty of power, but LTE capability would add a lot to the portability side. A Surface 2 with LTE is expected early next year on AT&T in the US, but Microsoft has no plans to bring LTE to the Pro — that’s a shame, since having this much power online everywhere would be great.

Microsoft is throwing all its services and power into the Surface Pro 2

Software and apps

All the power of the Surface Pro came at a cost in battery life nine months ago, but I’m happy to report that Microsoft’s promise of a 75 percent improvement for the Pro 2 is genuine. The Surface Pro 2 lasted 7 hours, 33 minutes on the Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of websites and high-res images with screen brightness set to 65 percent. That’s nearly double the Surface Pro score, which lasted for 3 hours, 59 minutes. It’s the same package and screen, but it’s clear that Intel’s Haswell chip is helping to improve battery life here. While it’s not the 10 hours you might expect from a tablet, given the compromise for laptop-style power it’s definitely acceptable.

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2 comes with Windows 8.1, which brings a whole host of changes, including built-in Bing search, improved Snap Views, and some smart syncing for SkyDrive. If you’re a regular SkyDrive user, you’ll be happy to learn that the app no longer syncs all your files by default. That’s particularly useful for the 64GB model of the Surface Pro 2, which only comes with around 32GB of addressable storage out of the box.

To sweeten the Surface Pro 2 deal, Microsoft is also throwing in 200GB of free SkyDrive storage and a subscription to Skype’s Unlimited World and Wi-Fi service. That gives you free unlimited calls to landlines and mobiles in the US and unlimited landline calling internationally to over 20 countries. The Skype deal expires after 12 months, and the SkyDrive storage only lasts for two years, but it’s still two handy freebies for those buying into Microsoft’s ecosystem.

While Windows 8.1 is an impressive update, there’s still a lack of Windows 8-style apps. Facebook is the latest big name to build an app, and Flipboard will arrive shortly, but Microsoft’s own apps continue to be the best on the platform. Fresh Paint is a great example of the potential for a hybrid like the Surface Pro 2, and the Windows Store desperately needs more of these types of apps to improve the idea of this tablet and laptop hybrid. Thankfully, the Surface Pro 2 runs on an Intel chip, so you’ll still be able to run the thousands of legacy apps available. In its push for a tablet future Microsoft hasn’t forgotten about compatibility on the Surface Pro 2, and it’s rather impressive that these desktop apps will run regardless of screen size, resolution, or OS. They just work.

Microsoft understands the compromises, but hasn't fixed them yet

The Surface Pro had far too many compromises to be used fully in each tablet or laptop mode, and Microsoft is clearly trying to address those with the Surface Pro 2. A new two-stage kickstand improves the lap use and the accessories have been tweaked and refined. Even the battery life is much better to the point where you could realistically use this as a tablet. However, it's still bulky for its primary tablet purpose and nothing has changed to address that. It's the same weight and size as the original, so Microsoft still wants you to make compromises on the tablet side. A Surface with the specifications of the Pro and the slim form factor of the Surface 2 is the dream.

The Surface Pro 2’s unique mix of touch, keyboard, mouse, and pen really does work. It does everything you would expect a regular desktop PC to do. But it's far from the perfect device for all four inputs, as it makes you compromise everywhere, but if you really want it all then there are few other devices with as much versatility. Microsoft is insistent that its Surface Pro can be both, and this second-generation is proof of how hard it's trying to achieve that.

There are plenty of tablet and laptop alternatives, or even a myriad of hybrid devices out there. Windows 8 has really helped push the idea of a tablet and laptop combination, but nobody has perfected this yet, not even Microsoft. A PC maker needs to produce the answer in a package that doesn't compromise on battery life, weight, or lap use. That may be achievable, but it feels a long way off. Until then, the Surface Pro 2 is a great machine if you can deal with some of the compromises. If you can't, there are plenty of great tablets, and plenty of great laptops. Microsoft still needs to convince the world that we only need one device, and that it can make the only one we need.