Saturday, 09 November 2013 17:19

Smooth Surface Pro 2 – Review


Microsoft Surface Pro 2 is ‘THE’ tablet of 2013. Quite simply no competitor has eclipsed its design, function, or features – although there are some extremely competent tablets/hybrids coming.

First impressions - it is a very nice package. From its classy dark titanium, VapourMg case to the gift box - suggests this is an exclusive and expensive device.

For fear of trivializing this exquisite piece of engineering, it is yet another of the new breed of Windows 8.1, Intel 4th generation Haswell i5 Core, tablets. I could equally describe the new iOS based iPad Air, or Android based Galaxy Note/Tab 3, or any of the tsunami of new 8.1 tablets, hybrids, or sliders as one of many because in the end that is what they are – iOS, Android or Windows tablets.

What I have learned - as both a purist and a reviewer - is that the operating system, and what it can do, is more important than necessarily the hardware. iPad for consumption and convenience is great, Android – especially Samdroid – has its place. Windows on a Haswell Core or Bay Trail Atom processor does what Windows does – USB, mouse, keyboard, external screens, printers and runs Office and all those legacy programs.

It is not about iPad killers or ARM’s wars – it is about purpose.

Note I usually never give something a 10 out of 10 rating – things can always be done better.

Screen 9/10

The 10-point, multi-touch, 10.6”, 1920x1080p, 16:9 display is clear and vibrant. Microsoft says it is optimised for ClearType display. It is as good as my iPad 9.7” Retina for website viewing – nearly an extra inch of real estate will do that.

I found it good in direct sunlight but a little reflective if the screen was on the wrong angle – the 2-stage fold out kickstand fixed that.

Touch cover 6/10

Many reviews note the ‘reassuring magnetic click’ when attaching a cover – yes it is!

I have an irrational dislike of the touch cover – it is like typing on a – well a rubberised sheet. The backlit keys are good for night use and its only 2.76mm thin.

Using a standard pangram test, this cover was about 20% under my best typing speed. Despite a ‘typists’ bias the cover is remarkably functional after you get used to ‘no throw’ or tactile feedback. AU$139.99

Type Cover 8/10

For just $10 more - and in purple, pink, sky blue, and black - the Type cover is the choice. Microsoft have resisted the trend to using awful chicklet style keys and instead used a full sized, metal, backlit key. Its 5.4mm thin.

A power cover is coming that will add more battery life as well as a Bluetooth adaptor that allows the touch/type covers to be converted to Bluetooth.

Pro Pen 8/10

A real Wacom pen that does not use a bulbous, inaccurate, rubber pad. The pen is precise and when not in use magnetically clips onto the power socket.

It works in Microsoft Office, OneNote, Adobe Acrobat documents and pen enabled apps like Fresh Paint. It is pressure sensitive – push harder and you get a thicker line. A button on the pen has trhe same function as a right mouse click and the cap acts as an eraser.

Handwriting recognition is good – I think OneNote is a program that I should be using more. If you lose the pen, the replacement cost is $39.99.

Intel Haswell i5 Core processor 9/10

This is the main - but not only - reason the Surface Pro 2 will succeed. It uses a 1.6/2.3GHz i5-4200U CPU. The U stands for Ultra low voltage – 15W and the dual core has hyper-threading effectively giving it quad core performance without the power drain. The integrated Intel HD4400 graphics supports up to three displays – the tablet screen and two external 1080p via DisplayPort daisy chain configuration. It also has Wireless Direct display capability.

Sensors and tech stuff 8/10

It has the usual ambient light sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer (compass). I would have preferred a GPS/GLONASS but that would have required a 3G/4G card.

The question is why this is not available with mobile data – the usual response is that most people tether to a mobile phone and share their data.

Wi-Fi is N standard – AC would have been nice but there are still power and aerial issues to solve for tablets.

Bluetooth is 4.0 – low power.

There is a microSD slot for up to 64GB expansion.

Cameras 4/10

Both front and rear cameras are 720p and fulfil basic web camera needs - perhaps the only disappointing and substandard feature.

System memory 7/10

It runs 64-bit Windows 8.1 Pro (so it can log into corporate domains). In a week of constant use as both a tablet and a desktop replacement, the 4GB version (option 64 and 128GB SSD) did not suffer seldom using more than 50% of installed RAM. There is an option for 8GB and 256/512GB SSD storage.

If you are using it as a tablet you will probably use the free 200GB Microsoft SkyDrive and 64GB is barely tolerable (only 32GB free) but if you are using it as a desktop replacement 256/512GB would be best – all depends on your budget.

USB 3.0 9/10

It has a single full size USB 3.0 port.

I plugged in a four port USB 2.0 unpowered hub and attached a wireless mouse and keyboard dongle, a Canon ipI00, a WD USB3.0 2TB My Passport hard disk, and a Telstra 4G wireless hotspot. The Surface powered these without protest but in in reality battery drain would probably halve the work time.

Microsoft is also releasing a dock in early 2014 that has four USB ports (1 x USB 3.0 and 3 x USB 2.0), Display port, Ethernet port, and will recharge the tablet.

A better investment may be a USB3.0 dock – sometimes called a port replicator. Typically, these have HDMI and/or DisplayPort and/or DVI/VGA ports; USB 3.0 and USB 2.0 ports; Gigabit Ethernet; microphone and speaker jacks. These have an internal video card to support dual 1080p or a single screen with higher resolution. Look for brands including Toshiba Dynadock, Asus, Lenovo, HP, Targus, and Kensington.

Mini DisplayPort 8/10

I would have preferred HDMI 1.4 – with Ethernet and audio return channel - but mini DisplayPort is fine for connecting up to two extra external displays or projectors. Microsoft sell mini DisplayPort to VGA or HDMI adaptors for $49.99 each. Jaycar has a range of lower cost adaptors – a three in one full size HDMI, DVI, DisplayPort for $39.95, DVI for $29.95 and VGA for $29.95.

Add to that the Dolby speakers and its good as a movie consumption device.

Power supply 8/10

Although it irks me to have an external bulky power supply it is necessary as it needs a 12v and 5v supply for the Haswell chip – Atom based tablets can use a 5v USB charger. The 48W supply is small and has a 1amp USB charge port as well. A car charger with USB charge port is coming at $59.99.

Battery life 7/10 - Good and bad

Bad is that this device is always on – in the background - so if you do not leave it charging it will be flat within a week or so. I was caught out and it is damned annoying.

Good is the useful life. Pounding away all day using Word, Excel, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and 50% screen brightness more I got 8 hours use. Another test – a HD Movie via a USB stick with headphones plugged in – just over 8 hours. Other reviews corroborate this time.

The iPad Air – which also drains the battery when not in use – has 10 hours typical use and that is not powering USB or Wi-Fi or Bluetooth devices.

Weight 7/10 and carry-ability/convenience 8/10

At 907g and 13.5mm thick - plus a cover – it is not the lightest tablet – these remain in the Bay Trail Atom class. Size wise it is smaller than an A4 sheet of paper and the dual level – well three level if you count flat - kickstand works on a desk or a lap.

Enterprise 9/10

I have added an this category because it has a TPM 1.2 (trusted platform module) chip for enterprise use. Many of its competitors will have this feature but it means enterprise can securely attach it to networks and for data to be encrypted – a relief if a device is lost.

I have also rated it highly because it comes with Windows 8.1 Pro for domain use as well as the potential to use it with a dock and substitute perfectly well for a desktop. I would be seriously looking to replace old desktops with this.

Windows 8.1 8/10

This is the crux of this review – you need to be entirely comfortable with the operating system you chose. Will it do all you expect? Do you even know what you expect it to do?

Windows 8.1 is both a touch - tablet - and desktop operating system.

It works well as a tablet with the Metro user interface that is clean, reasonably intuitive and despite being 100% different to Windows Desktop does not present as large a learning curve as critics suggest. Metro will - on a tablet - do mostly everything the traditional desktop will.

Metro’s shortcomings – if you categorise them as that – in comparison to the desktop are:

  • multiple screens with multiple custom sized programs – it supports multi-screens but windows need to snap to predetermined sizes
  • Lack of a start button – let’s face it we have been using that since the early 90’s and the free Classic Shell brings back the Windows start button anyway
  • If you use a mouse instead of touch it’s sometimes hard to find the charm bar

That is it – nothing nefarious. In fact, with a little persistence, you can wean yourself of the old familiar desktop and having bought a tablet that is precisely what I suggest you do.

I am disappointed that the Surface Pro 2 does not come with a free Office Home and Student - that is reserved for Atom based tablets at present.

The bottom line

You will see that the majority of ratings are 8 or more – that is as good as it gets.

Before I started this review I had high expectations – was this the device that would give me portability and power? Yes, to both!

While it is unique in its style – it is the best pure Intel Haswell tablet - it is damned expensive in comparison to the some competitor’s options. The 64GB is AU$1091, 128GB is $1129, 256GB is $1469 and 512GB is $2039 – all plus a type cover at $149.99. Then add about $200+ for a dock, perhaps a full sizes Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, and Office, and its price is over the top.


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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!



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