Just in time for Microsoft's Windows 8.1 operating system update, the company's flagship Surface tablet line is also getting a makeover. Or in the case of the AU$1019 Surface Pro 2, it's more of a makeunder; there's no flashy physical redesign, as with the thinner, lighter, higher-res Surface 2 (the updated Windows RT version that starts at AU$529).
Of course, you're probably here because the Surface 2, despite its myriad improvements, isn't a "real PC". Unlike that model's compromised Windows RT operating system, the Surface Pro 2 reviewed here runs the real-deal Windows 8.1, which includes full backwards compatibility with older Windows programs, not just the ones available in the Windows Store.
In addition to having the operating system edge on its non-Pro sibling, the Surface Pro 2 also packs some internal improvements compared to the first-generation Surface Pro. A new Intel fourth-generation Core i5 processor, along with some internal system tweaking by Microsoft, has delivered notably improved battery life. The Pro 2 lasted nearly seven hours in our admittedly tough battery test, versus just 4.5 hours on the original. Still not MacBook Air territory, but it's a worthwhile leap. Sweetening the deal is the Surface's ingenious detachable keyboard cover (available in flat Touch and real-key Type versions, both now with a handy backlight), which remains miles ahead of anything else available for slate computing.
But a keyboard cover isn't included in the purchase price, even though it's frankly crazy to buy a Surface without one. That AU$100-AU$150 add-on makes the Surface Pro 2's AU$1019 starting price feel illusory. Further, that AU$1019 is only for a 64GB solid-state drive (SSD) version, less storage than you'll find in most similarly priced ultrabooks. For a more reasonable 128GB SSD version, it's AU$1129, and when you add in a Type Cover, you're looking at an investment of almost AU$1300 just to get started with the Surface Pro 2.
The Surface Pro 2 is also entering a crowded market of Windows 8.1 PCs in all shapes and sizes that are either out now or coming soon. Among the closest competitor is Sony's comparably priced Sony Vaio Tap 11, which outshines the Surface Pro 2 in many ways. It's thinner and lighter, despite having a slightly larger screen, and its included keyboard cover has a more traditional keyboard layout and a larger touch pad (that said, I like the magnetic clasp and wide kickstand of the Surface Pro 2 better).
In comparison, the still-chunky Surface Pro 2 is left feeling more like a Surface Pro 1.5, at least in terms of design. And yet, that may not be such a bad thing for Microsoft. The Surface Pro was intended from the beginning to show the way for PC makers to design and build better tablets, and it looks like that's actually starting to happen.
Design and features
The body of the Surface Pro 2 looks and feels almost exactly like the original version, and its measurements are the same. The body does have a couple of subtle changes, however. The logo branding on the back panel is different, reading "Surface" rather than "Microsoft," and the built-in kickstand now adjusts to two different angles, making the screen easier to see from different positions. The original one-size-fits-all kickstand made the screen hard to see and interact with unless you happened to be sitting at precisely the optimal angle.
At the same time as the Surface Pro 2, Microsoft is introducing another new product, the Surface 2. This is the updated Windows RT version of the original Microsoft Surface, and it features a slightly slimmer body, an updated Nvidia processor and a higher-resolution screen than the original RT version of the Surface. The Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 share the same screen now, and it's been colour-tuned for greater accuracy. While the Surface Pro 2 still comes in a slate-like "dark titanium" colour, the Windows RT Surface 2 is now a lighter silver colour called magnesium. Overall, while I think the Surface Pro 2 is the more useful product, I wish it had gotten the same design love as the RT version.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The best part of the original Surface line was its optional snap-on keyboards, and both have been updated. The Touch Cover has flat keys that work, but they offer less tactile feedback than serious typists need, while the Type Cover has island-style keys that are shallow but still very usable.
The AU$139.99 Touch Cover 2 is about one-third thinner than the original version, but at the same time, more rigid for easier typing. The old system of one sensor under each key has been replaced with a full array of sensors, allowing partial keystrokes to be counted more easily and accurately and supporting a handful of gestures.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The US$149.99 Type Cover 2, with its full separate-key keyboard, is thinner as well and remains one of the things people like best about the Surface. Its magnetic connection is powerful enough that you don't have to worry about it coming loose, and while the closely packed keys take a little getting used to, it's comfortable and accurate for long-form typing. The touch pad is small but responsive, and you're clearly meant to use the touchscreen for much of your navigation.
Microsoft has also shown off a second kind of Type Cover that includes an integrated battery. Only slightly thicker than the standard Type Cover, this would allow the systems to run even longer by combining the internal battery and the secondary keyboard battery, an idea already used in a handful of Windows 8 laptop-tablet hybrids. A Bluetooth adapter for the keyboard covers (yes, it's an accessory for an accessory) will snap onto the top of the keyboard and allow you to use it remotely as a Bluetooth keyboard. In the not-sold-separately department, as with the original Surface Pro, you also get an active-stylus Surface Pen that magnetically attaches to the power connector for transport.
Again, both the Touch Cover 2 and Type Cover 2 are backlit. Especially for a system intended for frequent travel, as a tablet is presumed to be, a backlit keyboard is practically required, as you can easily end up in a dimly lit coffee shop, airplane or meeting room.
The only real regret here is that the keyboard covers are not included with the AU$1019-and-up Surface Pro 2 and remain an expensive add-on.
The Surface Pro and Tap 11 keyboard covers.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
By way of comparison, the keyboard cover included with the Sony Vaio Tap 11 doesn't attach via a magnetic hinge; instead its wireless connection allows you to move it anywhere nearby. It's certainly more flexible, but also lacks the more laptop-like feel of the Surface Pro's kickstand-plus-keyboard set-up. The Vaio version has keys that are slightly smaller, set up island style, with empty space between each key. The latter much more closely resembles current laptop keyboards,and feels marginally better to type on. However, it's thin, and in the lap, it flexes a good deal even under moderate typing.
The Surface Pro 2 has a 10.6-inch display with a native resolution of 1920x1080 pixels, which is what we'd expect from a laptop or tablet in this price range. That's a major point of differentiation from lower-cost Intel Atom tablets, which usually have lower 1366x768-pixel-resolution screens. Microsoft says the Surface Pro 2 has an "optically bonded ClearType Full HD display", and an ambient light sensor can adjust the screen brightness automatically. Compared with the very similar Sony Vaio Tap 11, the Surface Pro 2's screen was brighter and crisper, with excellent off-axis viewing angles.
Audio is decent for such a small system, but the small physical size of the chassis restricts how much air a speaker can actually move. For Skype or other camera usage, both the front and rear cameras are 720p, and take advantage of the improvements to the default Windows camera app in the recent Windows 8.1.
Connections, performance and battery
With a body as thick as an ultrabook, one might reasonably expect more ports and connections from the Surface Pro 2. The single USB 3.0 port feels skimpy, and it's accompanied by Mini DisplayPort and a microSD card slot, which means you'll likely need adapters to use those.
However, there is a silver lining. A dedicated Surface Pro dock was sorely missing from the original Surface launch. Now, making the Surface 2 more viable for business use, Microsoft is adding a docking station. This add-on sits under the Surface Pro 2 and includes USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports, an Ethernet jack, a Mini DisplayPort connection and audio in/out jacks.
The Surface Pro 2 starts (as the original Pro did) at AU$1019, but the RAM can be upgraded from 4GB to 8GB, and the internal storage can be upgraded up to a 512GB SSD, with a full 8GB/512GB configuration costing AU$2039. Our review system was the base AU$1019 model.
The Surface Pro 2 slightly outperformed the previous version in most of our benchmark tests and was faster than the Sony Vaio Tap 11, which uses an even lower-power Core i5 Y-series chip, as opposed to the U-series in the Surface Pro. With its almost-laptop feel, thanks to the kickstand and keyboard cover, the robust Surface Pro 2 feels like you can throw any mainstream workload at it, from Photoshop to HD video playback to office tasks, and have it feel just as zippy as the bigger laptop probably sitting on your desk right now. The main barrier to all-day productivity is probably going to be the smaller screen size.
The biggest difference between the original Surface Pro and the Surface Pro 2 is the latter's upgrade to Intel's fourth-generation Core i-series CPUs, sometimes known by the code name Haswell. These new chips offer only modest boosts to system performance but are important because they offer serious battery life improvement.
Microsoft has further said that its own internal optimisations also contribute to better battery life. However credit should be assigned, the results were pleasing, with the Surface Pro 2 running for six hours and 55 minutes in our video playback battery drain test. The original Surface Pro ran for only about 4 hours and 30 minutes in the same test, and its middling battery life was one of the main knocks against it.
(Credit: Sarah Tew/CNET)
The Surface Pro 2 feels like a modestly improved sequel to what we had seen before, rather than a true 2.0 version of Microsoft's flagship tablet. Anyone shopping for a new Windows 8 system right now should rightly demand Intel's fourth-gen CPUs, available since June, if only for the increased battery life and power efficiency. The Pro 2 gives you that, and the new second angle on the kickstand does make it more convenient to use in your lap. The biggest disappointment is that it's still got that first-gen hardware look, while Sony has managed to shave its competing Tap 11 system down to a thinner, lighter package.
With no major new features or design changes, the Surface Pro 2 still relies heavily on its accessories to stand out as the market leader. But with only a few new slate-style Core i5 tablets coming out (most competing models are hybrids that spend much of their time in clamshell-laptop mode), Microsoft's Surface Pro 2 manages to maintain a strong position in its small corner of the market.