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Microsoft Surface Pro 2 review: Better, but too heavy and too expensive
The Haswell-based Surface Pro 2 delivers improved performance and battery life, and its dual-angle kickstand is also welcome. However, the Pro 2's unchanged chassis design feels bulkier and heavier than ever, and it becomes very expensive when fully accessorised.
Wide range of available accessories, including docking station
Bulky and heavy
Magnetic power connection is still awkward
No support for 802.11ac Wi-Fi
No GPS, NFC or mobile broadband
Back in February, when we reviewed Microsoft's third-generation (Ivy Bridge) Core i5-based Surface Pro running Windows 8 Pro, we concluded that it "...combines ultrabook components with a (chunky) 10.6in. tablet form factor to deliver decent performance and excellent build quality. However, a few design issues, missing features and, above all, disappointing battery life suggest you'd be wise to wait and see how this product develops". Well, the product has now developed — into the fourth-generation (Haswell) Core i5-based Surface Pro 2 running Windows 8.1 Pro. So has Microsoft addressed those design issues, missing features and, above all, that disappointing battery life?
Price comparison The Surface Pro was a premium device, and the Surface Pro 2 is no different. It starts at £719 (inc. VAT) for the 4GB RAM/64GB SSD model reviewed here, with three other variants available: 4GB/128GB for £799; 8GB/256GB for £1,039; and 8GB/512GB for £1,439. There's a good range of accessories, including updated Type Cover 2 and Touch Cover 2 snap-on keyboard/covers for £109.99 and £99.99 respectively — the former now available in four colours and the latter now with backlighting.
Just how premium the Surface Pro 2 is emerges when you compare pricing for Microsoft's tablet+Type Cover 2 combo with Apple's equivalent 11.6-inch MacBook Air: 4GB/128GB Surface Pro 2 + Type Cover 2 £909 4GB/128GB MacBook Air £849
8GB/256GB Surface Pro 2 + Type Cover 2 £1,149 8GB/256GB MacBook Air £1,109
8GB/512GB Surface Pro 2 + Type Cover 2 £1,549 8GB/512GB MacBook Air £1,349
At the top end of the range, the price advantage in favour of the MacBook Air is a startling £200 (inc. VAT). If you accept our judgement that the (13-inch) MacBook Air is "one of the most desirable ultraportable notebooks on the market", then we suspect the Surface Pro 2 will mainly appeal to well-heeled and committed Windows users who particularly value the device's hybrid tablet/ultrabook nature.
It's worth pointing out that Surface Pro buyers get 200GB of free SkyDrive storage for two years, compared to Apple's 5GB of free iCloud storage.
The price of our review configuration was £719 for the 4GB/64GB Surface Pro 2, £99.99 for the Touch Cover 2 and £24.99 for the Surface Pen — a total of £843.98 (inc. VAT, or £703.32 ex. VAT).
In terms of general look and feel, the Surface Pro 2 is almost — but not quite — identical to its predecessor. The chamfered Titanium-finish VaporMg chassis is the same bulky fingerprint-prone unit, measuring 275mm wide by 173mm deep by 13.5mm thick. Despite changes to the internal components, the weight — give or take a few grams — is also the same at 900g (2lb). To put that in perspective, Apple's new one-pound iPad Air is half the weight of the Surface Pro 2.
The main design change is one that was requested in many reviews of the original Surface (RT and Pro) tablets: an adjustable kickstand. Granted, there are only two positions, but the second, less upright, angle for the tablet makes all the difference when you're typing at a desk using one of the keyboard covers, or trying to use the tablet/keyboard combo on your lap. I found the upright, fixed-angle Surface Pro near-unusable in laptop mode, whereas the Pro 2's new 'laid back' orientation is fine. Why this wasn't noticed and fixed before the original models came to market is beyond me.
On the subject of keyboard covers, there are upgrades to the thin, pressure-sensitive Touch Cover and the 'classic' Type Cover: the £99.99 charcoal-coloured Touch Cover 2 now has backlighting, while the £109.99 Type Cover 2 now comes in four colours (charcoal, cyan, magenta and purple). We had the new Touch Cover 2, which snaps satisfyingly onto the tablet's magnetic port and works well, save for a dodgy 'E' key on our early production sample (unless you're Ernest Vincent Wright, you'll need your 'E' sorted in order to whiz through document creation...).
We also had the £24.99 Wacom-based Surface Pen, which works well but still shares a magnetic attachment on the tablet with the 48W AC adapter. This means that when you're plugged into the mains, there's no on-tablet home for the stylus, which could easily get lost. We complained about the fiddliness of the magnetic power/stylus connector in our original Surface RT/Pro reviews, and we're still complaining on the Pro 2: it's an irritation every time it needs attaching.
There are plenty of other accessories to tempt you to spend even more money on your Surface Pro setup — most notably a £164.99 docking station with one USB 3.0 and three USB 2.0 ports, an Ethernet (RJ-45) port, a Mini-DisplayPort and audio in/out jacks. There are also various adapter cables, all priced at £34.99, and a 'coming soon' Power Cover — a 'classic' keyboard cover with an extra battery.
The display is a 10.6-inch ClearType full-HD, 10-point multi-touch screen with a resolution of 1,920 by 1,080 pixels, as before. However, it has been tweaked to deliver better colour accuracy and is certainly one of the Pro 2's better features — bright and crisp, with good viewing angles in both horizontal and vertical planes.
Ports, slots and controls are the same as before: one USB 3.0 on the left, along with an audio jack and the volume rocker; power button on the top right; MicroSD and Mini-DisplayPort on the right, separated by the power connector; docking/cover port on the bottom. It would be nice to see Thunderbolt connectivity enter the picture next time around.
The front and rear 1.2-megapixel 720p LifeCams are unchanged, too. These and the decent (for a tablet) audio subsystem make the Surface Pro 2 a good platform for videoconferencing. It's worth noting that Surface Pro 2 buyers get one year of unlimited Skype calls to landlines in over 60 countries, and free Wi-Fi at Skype hotspots worldwide.
The key upgrade in the Surface Pro 2 is the move from Intel's third-generation (Ivy Bridge) to fourth-generation (Haswell) Core i5 platform. The Surface Pro ran on a 1.7GHz/2.6GHz dual-core Core i5-3317U CPU with integrated HD Graphics 4000 and a thermal envelope (TDP) of 17 watts. The Surface Pro 2 runs on a 1.6GHz/2.6GHz Core i5-4200U CPU with integrated HD Graphics 4400 and a thermal envelope of 15W. The result, as documented later, is improvements in both performance and battery life.
Our review unit had the entry-level configuration of 4GB of RAM and 64GB of SSD storage, but 4GB/128GB, 8GB/256GB and 8GB/512GB variants are also available. If I were buying a Surface Pro 2, I'd want 8GB of RAM, and would probably settle on the model with 256GB of storage to stop the price tag getting out of hand.
If you want wired networking, you'll have to buy either a USB-to-Ethernet cable for £34.99 or the £164.99 docking station. Otherwise, it's Wi-Fi, which is unchanged at dual-band 802.11a/b/g/n support via a Marvell Avastar 350N chipset. No next-generation 802.11ac — as seen on the latest MacBook Airs and Pros — here. As before, Bluetooth 4.0 LE is present, but there's still no GPS, NFC or mobile broadband.
As far as software is concerned, you get Windows 8.1 Pro with its pseudo-Start button and other interface tweaks (see Ed Bott's Metro hater's guide to Windows 8.1 if you're a desktop diehard). Note that unlike its ARM-based Windows RT counterpart, the Surface Pro 2 does not come with a preinstalled copy of Office 2013 — all you get is a link for buying, activating or trialing the productivity suite.
In the absence of Microsoft's now-dropped Windows Experience Index (WEI), let's start the performance evaluation with a comparison of the Surface Pro 2 and its predecessor on Maxon's Cinebench 11.5 CPU and OpenGL benchmarks:
Although the CPU scores barely differ (a 4.4 percent advantage to the Haswell-based Surface Pro 2), the OpenGL result shows the Surface Pro 2's HD Graphics 4400 GPU delivering a 19.1 percent improvement over the Surface Pro's HD Graphics 4000. This is no gaming machine or platform for heavy graphics lifting, but it's no slouch either.
Here, the Surface Pro 2 running Internet Explorer 11 is some 23 percent quicker than the Surface Pro running IE10. Note, however, that if you install Google's Chrome browser, the Surface Pro 2 won't deliver the same level of performance on this benchmark.
The Surface Pro was most heavily criticised for its battery life, which we estimated at around 4.5 hours, depending on the screen brightness level and workload mix. Using the same test methodology (described in the graph caption below), we're pleased to note that the more power-efficient Haswell platform delivers a marked improvement in the Surface Pro 2:
With a middling screen brightness and a realistic mix of load and idle time, you can expect between 6 and 7 hours of battery life from the Surface Pro 2 — an improvement certainly, but still short of the 8-hours-plus needed for comfortable 'all day' working on battery power.
The Surface Pro 2 is an improvement on the original model, especially in the much-needed area of battery life. The dual-angle kickstand is another welcome enhancement. However, the 900g/2lb chassis design was bulky and heavy at the beginning of the year, and it's looking even more so in this unchanged outing. The Surface Pro 2 is well made and a decent performer on its new Haswell platform, but if Microsoft's flagship tablet/ultrabook is supposed to push the design envelope, to show OEMs what can be done with the x86/Windows 8.1 platform, then a chassis refresh should be a high priority.
We're impressed with the range of accessories for the Surface Pro 2, but they can generate an eye-watering price tag. For example, we priced up a configuration that we'd specify if we wanted to do regular work on the Surface Pro 2 in the office, at home and in transit. Here's how it panned out: 8GB/256GB Surface Pro (£1,039); Type Cover 2 (£109.99); Surface Pen (£24.99); Mini-DisplayPort HD AV Adapter (£34.99); Arc Touch Mouse Surface Edition (£59.99); Docking Station (£164.99). That's a total of £1,438.95 (inc. VAT, or £1,199 ex. VAT) for an accessorised-up 10.6-inch tablet. If we'd gone for the top-end 512GB SSD tablet, it would be £1,838.95 (inc. VAT, £1,532 ex. VAT).
The Surface Pro 2 and its accessories are nice bits of kit, but they're not that nice.