Review: Microsoft Surface Pro II
When Howard asked me to review the Surface Pro 2, I didn't know what I was getting myself into. Smartphones have become easy because it's really about comparisons: you want to know which is the best and avoid the worst. Tablets have become increasingly difficult because the definitions are blurring as seen with a wide variety of sizes and core capabilities. And I think the hardest segment to review is computer hardware because of how impossible it is to define what makes a great computer. I was really struggling with a criteria to evaluate the Surface Pro 2 and unfortunately this review suffers as a result. I apologize in advance for what I'm writing and anticipate the colourful comments.
The Surface Pro 2 is a computer. Yet within this category, this is a desktop and not a laptop. And because the true home of this computer is on your desk, it's not a tablet or a smartphone (you can quote me when I say that Skype/Facetime will make traditional phones obsolete). In more oblique terms, the Surface Pro 2 is a transient piece of hardware, sort of like that diagram depicting the evolution of humans from amino acids to monkeys to Adam and Eve; this computer is the monkey. This computer points to what the near future will be like where your entire desktop goes with you anywhere. So other words, don't waste your money on something that will be replaced in a couple years.
What I need to emphasize here is that although I am an avid Apple fan, I give credit where it's due. Case in point, the Xbox One. I have one and love it despite the hiccups. The console will be around for many years as developers tap into the hardware power. Kinect is absolutely brilliant and performs exactly how you'd expect webcams should, and then some. What I can clearly see is the convergence of Xbox and Surface as evidenced by the operating system's interface tiles. I've said this in another review but Microsoft is better positioned to unify/harmonize the user experience across all devices than anybody else in the market, including Samsung and Apple. Once Redmond decides to hit the mash-up button, we will have a shakeup in the industry that will pull in other appliances. So in this respect, I understand why computers like the Surface Pro 2 need to exist even as a transition piece; in order to make sense of what you ultimately get, you take what's offered to you now.
So why isn't this a laptop?
The display portion has an adjustable stand that on its second setting provides an angle that could be useful from your lap but I could not feel comfortable with it. You would have to try this to know what I mean but I was worried about it sliding off my legs or flopping shut. Essentially the weight is on the display portion because the attached keyboard weighs next to nothing. When a laptop cannot function on your lap, then it's a desktop. In addition, the biggest problem I've found with the Surface Pro 2 is the weight distribution for a portable device and I attribute this to trying to compare this to a conventional laptop where the bulk of the weight is on the bottom versus the display. The theory of gravity plays with a sense of stability when the centre of gravity isn't low in altitude. I'm doing a terrible job at explaining this but I hope you can appreciate how awkward the Surface Pro 2 is off a desk.
As far as portability is concerned, the hardware is on par with laptops. It's no longer required to have a replaceable battery and even LTE isn't high on the priority list - so no penalties here. What I do have to complain about is the power adapter - only Apple has been able to make this essential piece of equipment portable and clean. You would need to keep this ugly, clunky adapter in your laptop bag and it's just outdated and cheap. The cool thing is a USB port to charge stuff with - smart.
My other complaint is about the Surface Pen (aka Stylus). It's great that it has a home that magnetically attaches to on the side but this is also the same port for connecting power. And there isn't another place to put the Surface Pen. Congratulations to Samsung for their way of sliding the S-Pen into a holster on the Note series. Keep in mind that replacement Surface Pens are $29.99 each.
Because the configuration I have is the Touch Cover 2 ($119), the lack of physical keys that behave like buttons means typing on your lap doesn't give feedback (except by sound clicks). It was impossible to type anything but typos with this keyboard. Perhaps this is due to the learning curve but I can't imagine anybody raving about the Touch Cover 2. Sure it has backlit keys and gives you funky functions like sliding your finger across the space bar to select an autocorrect option (I discovered this by mistake). Keys are nicely spaced apart but it really is that missing layer of touch that causing many typing mistakes (especially the A and S keys). And just for the record, I have typed this entire review on the Surface Pro 2 (and done spell check) but not on my lap.
Why isn't it a desktop?
So if it isn't a laptop, then it has to be a desktop. My opinion is that the configuration is best used on a desk... with limitations. While I'm on the topic of the keyboard, somebody out there who is a physiotherapist or carpel tunnel expert will hopefully agree that extended use of the flat keys will cause damage. The trackpad is difficult to use because it's small and the left/right buttons just don't work well. Because there isn't a standard size for trackpads, I wonder why Microsoft made it so small - there is space available. This is probably more relevant to the laptop argument because what's cool is being able to use the USB port to connect an external mouse. Fantastic! I use a trackball because of my wrist issues so I was glad to see this functionality.
What's missing from a desktop setup is network ports. I'm still going to say that hard-wired is the most reliable and fast way to get connected. The Surface Pro 2 has 802.11 a/b/g/n but is missing ac which is a shame. About a month ago I upgraded my Airport Extreme to the latest version and wireless transmission speeds are off the charts. I didn't have any problems connecting the Surface Pro 2 wirelessly and copying files to network resources went flawlessly. A note to Mac users: Mavericks and Windows 8.1 play together very well… even better than Windows 7 - just set things up the correct way and throw away any computer with XP.
I am purposely avoiding as much discussion about the operating system because it's really more about the hardware in this review because that can't change as frequently as the OS. There was already a firmware upgrade that helped to improve battery life but I didn't really notice a difference. The other update to Windows did made application launching more snappy but the laggy wakeup time (maybe 1.5s) still bugs me because I'm expecting instant on -off. So to say my piece about Windows 8.1 is the ability to use the classic desktop - awesome. As much as I love the tiled interface, there are just some things that are better done the old fashion way (best example is ipconfig from the command prompt).
Another big thing that I think is missing is some sort of docking station that you can slide the Surface Pro 2 into where it will charge and be able to connect to all sorts of other things, one of which is some hard drive array to backup stuff (doing so over wifi would be risky and lengthy) or a second display (there is a mini display port on the side but I don't have the DVI or HDMI adapter, and yes you can wi-di but I don't know many people that have that). There will always be some sort of limitation to this kind of device that is trying to be the jack of all trades. And unfortunately, I find more faults trying to figure out what kind of computer this is. Because like I said earlier, you can use the USB port like you would any other computer - plug in a printer, flash memory, mouse, camera - it works great. On its own, the Surface Pro 2 is better as a desktop computer.
Why isn't it a tablet?
Whether you believe it or not, Apple's iPad has set the benchmark for this hardware segment and no matter which way you look at it, the Surface Pro 2 doesn't come close. It is a very thick tablet. The pictures tell it all. What you can't see is the weight, and I mentioned earlier that it just not balanced in your hand and awkward to hold onto (especially while on the can). Think about this: this Surface Pro 2 weighs about 2lbs; my 13" Macbook Air is just under 3lbs and my original iPad is 1.5lbs. To further throw this device under the bus, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition is 1.3lbs and the iPad Air is 1lb.
Bottom line: a tablet should not be thick or heavy. This alone is my case for why the Surface Pro 2 isn't a tablet.
But the problem is that the Surface Pro 2 isn't supposed to be a tablet, right? …or a laptop… or a desktop… Confused? The irony is that you don't get the keyboard as part of the package off the shelf. Plus the default interface is the cool tiles which are clearly geared for your index finger or Surface Pen. Swipe up and you get a wall of apps. And fortunately the store is filling up with more and more applications (although won't catch up to Apple or Google). One of apps I used most is "The Big Bang Theory" which magically streamed episodes with Vietnamese subtitles… I won't say anymore about that one.
I'm trying to limit my talk about the software but have to mention something about the Office suite. My preference is Word and Excel over Pages and Numbers. On the Surface Pro 2, Office runs in the classic environment and there isn't a tablet version like what you experience on the iPad. I'm definitely boxing myself in when I say that desktop publishing should be done on a desk. And I'm back to deciding that this computer isn't suited as a tablet. So what can it do? What if you won this at some silent (but deadly) auction and nobody's willing to buy it off you?
I recently had to pick up something from the local electronics store and spent about 15 minutes examining the 4k TVs. I came to the conclusion that the collective "we" are suckers for marketing. And once again I will stress that you cannot evaluate any device on the specifications alone. Doing that kind of comparison is just idiotic. Evaluate the device on the functionality that you value in priority. This is how I base my reviews on and I haven't felt the pressure to buy the next new thing because what I do have does my tasks. I will close off with these notes that I hope will help you understand and appreciate the Surface Pro 2 and thus whatever you currently have.
I admit that the first thing I go to is Facebook on my iPhone/iPad/Macbook. So it's great that there's an app specifically geared for Facebook on the Surface Pro 2 - and it works quite well. There's also apps for Twitter and the other usual suspects. What is missing is that layer of integration with the operating system in the form of rich notifications. I don't get the sense the app development had much funding because it's really thin in terms of bringing social media into the core of the device.
The line between communicating via social media and traditional email accounts is blurring. But for now, there is a native Mail application that presents a clean interface. It helps you organize messages and does the trick for the most part. And because I made the case that the proper home for the Surface Pro 2 is on your desk with the keyboard, I prefer composing emails on this device than on my iPad. The other point that needs to be made is around the ability to switch to the classic desktop and use Outlook. This should be a huge draw for corporate enterprise, notably for mobile sales representatives that need access to legacy applications through virtualization. If you need to grab information from other apps and attach to emails, the classic desktop route is much easier to accomplish such tasks.
For information that isn't accessible through a dedicated app, a browser is the way to go and I prefer the classic desktop method and using Chrome. And because it's a full blown version of Windows, you can view every website just like on a regular computer. Can't say the same for the iPad or Galaxy tablets. This is the best thing to consider when looking for something to supplement your laptop and the Surface Pro 2 stands above the crowd here. If you want a device that's more portable and compact than a laptop, this is your only option right now for a full internet experience.
I mentioned earlier about my unimpressed 15 minutes looking at a 4k TV. And only recently have I realized how important codec settings are. For example, I have seen 720p videos that look (and sound) better than 1080p. Compression is a deal breaker. Just because the Surface Pro 2 has a full 1080p display doesn't mean all your movies will look incredible. I loaded on a few of my favourite James Bond movies that have been upscaled and they looked adequate. It wasn't anything impressive. YouTube videos showed fine and the audio out of the speakers lacked dynamic range which is what I expected. I can't complain about it but it's worth noting that the maximum volume isn't loud at all, and this might be due to the speakers not pointed towards the user's face.
One other thing I noticed is the aspect ratio… it definitely very 16:9 which is great for movies (although I've noticed more films being released in anamorphic widescreen/cinemascope that's wider but thinner). So the viewing experience is better than on the iPad for example because it's closer to 4:3; this makes the black bars on the top and bottom more annoying.
The quick story here is that both the front and rear cameras are garbage. Microsoft really skimped out here. Images are very noisy, focus is slow and it's just not easy to use. The worst part is the focal length… I couldn't find specifics about it but it's like using a cropped sensor and getting a magnification effect. To really bring out the poor planning in this… I can't applaud Microsoft enough for the work on the Kinect sensor. Images looks great and the exposure algorithms are the best for webcams. Why in the world couldn't you negotiate with the camera supplier to put something scaled down in the Surface Pro 2? As a result, Skype video calls are adequate but seriously suffer from the poor optics and software driving it.
Some of you might be proud to hear that Samsung is the clear leader in really making use of the stylus for their tablets. I'm a big fan of the Galaxy Note 10.1 and right away was able to learn quickly how to use the mini-apps for the S-Pen. For my time with the Surface Pro 2, I could only make use of the Surface Pro Pen as a point-and-clicker. I tried to learn "flicking" but it just didn't work (allows you to navigate in directions). There is the OneNote app that allows you to scribble notes but Samsung executes this far better. The pen hardware is similar to the S-Pen with its pressure sensitivity and integrated button. But really here, the software and apps make the biggest difference.
One other annoyance here… you'd think you can activate the soft buttons using the pen. Nope. Not sure you can on the Samsung. The bottom line here is that the Surface Pro Pen is useless. When you misplace and lose it, don't worry about buying a replacement. Your index finger is far more effective.
When you award a rating, you have to have some sort of threshold or definition for what constitutes 5 "Howies". And each device category will have its unique rating requirements. But what the heck am I supposed to do with the Surface Pro 2? Does it belong in the laptop category? Tablet? It's a real struggle here to say whether I would recommend anybody buying this for $900 when it doesn't have anything comparable. For that money, I'd buy a refurb Macbook Air or 5 Chromebooks. I don't see a future for this device because it's the monkey and will not capture a market because it doesn't address a real need; it is trying to create a need that nobody will fall prey to.
I really tried to find something of a value proposition in the Surface Pro 2 but what I ended up doing is being creative: beneath the surface is decent horsepower and software, but Microsoft should've quit after the first version when the shortcomings surfaced. This sequel is very much like Ocean's Twelve.
Intel Core i5 1.60 GHz Processor
64GB Storage (also available in 128/256/512GB)
4GB RAM (8GB also available)
10.6" Full HD display
720p front and rear cameras
Stereo speakers, headphone port
USB 3 port
MicroSD card slot
Mini Display port
Surface Pro Pen stylus