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 $899 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 $449).
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 7 hours in our admittedly tough battery test, versus just 4.5 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 $120-$130 add-on makes the Surface Pro 2's $899 starting price feel illusory. Further, that $899 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 $999, and when you add in a Type Cover, you're looking at an investment of over $1,100 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.
|Microsoft Surface Pro 2||MacBook Air 11-inch (June 2013)||Sony Vaio Tap 11|
|Display size/resolution||10.6-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen||11.6-inch, 1,766x768 screen||11.1-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen|
|PC CPU||1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U||1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U||1.5GHz Intel Core i5-4210Y|
|PC memory||4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz||4GBDDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz|
|Graphics||1,792MB Intel HD 4400||1,024MB Intel HD Graphics 5000||1,739MB Intel HD Graphics 4200|
|Storage||64GB SSD hard drive||128GB SSD hard drive||128GB SSD hard drive|
|Networking||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0||802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Windows 8.1 (64-bit)||OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.4||Windows 8 (64-bit)|
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 color-tuned for greater accuracy. While the Surface Pro 2 still comes in a slatelike "dark titanium" color, the Windows RT Surface 2 is now a lighter, silver color 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.
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 $119.99 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.
The $129.99 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 touch screen 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 $59 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 $899-and-up Surface Pro 2, and remain an expensive add-on.
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 laptoplike feel of the Surface Pro's kickstand-plus-keyboard setup. 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 1,920x1,080 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 1,366x768-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.