The Surface Pro 2, the PC Reborn in Tablet Form…

Upgrading that trusty old laptop or desktop PC is a risky and exciting adventure. Full of expectation, spending large wads of cash and anticipation that eventually wanes giving way to business as usual.

Here at Highpants we recently found ourselves in this very situation, in the market for a new PC. Working in the IT industry this requires a machine that can handle developing databases one minute and writing on the go the next.

Presented for your reading pleasure is the account of our latest adventure in gadget hunting. Sit back, get comfortable and enjoy the ride.

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Before purchasing the new tablet gadget I contemplated expectations, what is it I expect to be able to do with the new gadget? Broadly I imagined the possibilities of a complete mobile office, with the ability to tackle any workload and situation with the one device. For this we would need to run fairly powerful developer tools, we needed to be mobile but share a common file storage drive between multiple people along with the standard email and office requirements.

highpants-surface-pro-2-blipAfter considering the options the Surface Pro 2 was chosen, with the most flexible input options, most powerful hardware and clever design it gives us the best chance at success, can reality meet expectation?

Part of the clincher for us is the ability to run remote desktops and Citrix just like our old desktop machines. For some of our customers this is essential in order for us to do our job, and the Surface Pro 2 handles it easily.

A number of models are available at the moment with the range starting at $1,019 for the base model that includes 4GB of Ram and a 64GB SSD. The model we selected includes 8GB of Ram and a 256GB SSD ($1,469), both to allow for running more powerful apps than standard users.

While the 8/256 Pro 2 is an expensive option it is worth the investment if you need to run any productivity apps. With the 8/256 Pro 2 I have so far been able to install Visual Studio 2010, SQL Server 2012, Office 2007 along with a number of freebie graphics apps and some games. With all of that installed I still had a bit over 100GB free to work in. This coupled with the 220GB shared Skydrive, that we are testing as a shared drive, space seems OK.

Off the shelf the tablet doesn’t include a keyboard or mouse. While a mouse may be an option from a time long gone the keyboard is still an essential accessory. The range and variation of keyboards available precludes including them all so Microsoft went the opposite way. We chose the black Type Cover 2 with LED backlighting.

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The Surface Pro 2

The Surface Pro 2 is by no means a slim supermodel of a tablet (.53in/1.34cm), at the same time it packs an incredible amount of computing power into a slender black slab of technology.

The slick near black magnesium case (10.81 x 6.81 x 0.53 in) is solid and rigid to hold, there is zero flex in this 900 gram tablet. Power and volume buttons run along the top of the case. Power and ports run along the left and right edges and include a full sized USB 3.0, stereo headphone jack, microphone, mini display port and micro SDXC card reader.

Setting the tablet up is via the now familiar Windows 8 experience, enter your Windows live credentials and off you go.

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Every Input Method and Usage Model Covered.

Microsoft has endowed the Pro 2 with many ways to keep it productive; touch screen, keyboard, mouse, pen, USB and Bluetooth to add other PC input devices. The touch screen is 10 point touch compatible and gesture ready.

highpants-surface-pro-2-brightA variety of snap on keyboards and input devices are available with more appearing all the time. The DJ’s Touch Cover and power keyboard with internal battery are still on the must get list.

The best keyboard at the moment is the LED Backlight Type Cover 2, while compact the keys have good feel for such shallow keys and it does feature a full row of function keys and a fairly conventional key layout, which is a good thing.

The pen was a surprising joy to use; personally I have never taken to pen based input in the past but this pen I use. It hasn’t replaced the mouse for me, I most often actually use both together, mouse and pen both held in my right hand, left hand on the keyboard. The pen itself is magnetic and doesn’t require contact to control the pointer. It even has its own gestures, hold down for right click options for example.

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The touch screen is the key to the whole equation, on the Pro 2 it works really well. I found it far more responsive than the Sony Android tablet used on the road in the past. Since the tablet is often lap bound the screen is usually within easy reach, often closer than a mouse would be. This combined with Windows new touch awareness and the Windows experience starts to make sense on the Surface.

The only input method missing (although it can be added like any other PC device) is Kinect style gesture sensor. This is the subject for a whole other story that revolves around an Xbox tablet with Kinect and discreet GPU which may or may not be released this year.

Dock
Dock

As a desktop replacement adding a monitor and Bluetooth mouse to the Surface and you’re ready to get to work at the desk. The soon to be released docking station will improve this experience even further. The dock will allow two monitors to be hooked up along with up to 4 USB devices. While it is true that a laptop can work as a desktop the Surface works better, the detachable keyboard reduces the tablets footprint down to nearly nothing. Until the dock is available a 4 port USB expander is handy for this situation.

Unplug the monitor, snap on the Touch Cover and your ready to hit the road. When you regularly see the Pro 2 transition through different situations it does become apparent that this is an extremely impressive device, even after a month’s use the wow moments continue.

After having all of the new input methods available I have quickly concluded that touch screen is the most important. Your next PC, whatever type, should include a touch screen. Frankly your next PC should be a Surface Pro 2 but at the very least make sure you get a touch screen laptop, be daring and go touch screen on the desktop too, it’s well worth it.

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Hardware Specs and Performance

In order to be able to perform well while doing a variety of professional productivity tasks the Pro 2 needs to have a reasonably powerful CPU doing the heavy lifting. Being a tablet you might expect the amount of grunt that can be shoe-horned into such a limited space would be tiny, Atom tiny. Thankfully this isn’t the case and the Pro 2 has enough grunt to do most any task.

highpants-surface-pro-2-bluePersonally I do everything from taking notes in meetings with the pen to developing databases and applications with the one device. Writing articles in word and publishing them using the full blown version of WordPress, done at full speed on the very same device.

Sitting behind the 10.6inch widescreen Full HD display is a 4th generation Intel® Core™ i5-4200U Haswell Dual Core Processor running at 1.6GHz. You may not use the Surface to render your next 3D feature film but it can remote into the server farm that will. Providing pixel pushing power is an Intel HD 4400 graphics chip, not a gaming powerhouse by any means. Settlers Online is currently the game of choice with a great modern touch and pen compatible interface and great free price.

Communications abilities include a TPM Chip for enterprise security, Wireless: Wi-Fi (802.11a/b/g/n) and a Bluetooth 4.0 Low Energy chip. There is no slot for a sim card so Wi-Fi is the best networking option. Front and rear 720p cameras provide snap happy options while the on-board sensors include and ambient light sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer.

Battery life for the Pro 2 has improved over the previous generation with between 5 and 6 hours of run time for a light workload. Running at full tilt playing games (Counter Strike-Source) the battery will run dry in about 4 hours.

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The Changing Landscape of Computing.

The changing landscape of the PC world is going to be a major challenge for Microsoft and their Surfaces. The changes occurring in this landscape don’t represent the handing of the torch from old technology to new. Instead this change is being driven by the expansion of the user base and new usage models that have appeared.

Microsoft is no longer able to count on its monopoly to guarantee revenue, it now has competition and they are making Microsoft work for its money. Microsoft once again have to innovate, and this is a good thing. The elephant is learning to dance.

highpants-surface-pro-2-blackPatches and Updates

Since first purchasing the Pro 2 Microsoft has sent out numerous patches, the latest of which were delivered last week. Before the latest series of patches there were a number of sleep, restart and dimming issues. The latest patch seems to have fixed these issues and the tablet seems to be running a bit cooler too.

Conclusion

I tried Android tablets and frankly wasn’t that impressed, the apps felt incomplete and I couldn’t run the what i needed or wanted. Laid out flat in your lap or sitting up with its flip out stand on a desk the Surface Pro 2 has finally seen reality match expectations.

So far aside from the minor issues that now seem fixed the Surface has performed flawlessly, in every situation. Who knew going to the laundry could be so productive.

Here at Highpants we love our new Surfaces, although it was awkward initially, gadget envy isn’t good in the office. This left only one solution, Surfaces all round. This little black slab of technology is as cool and forward thinking as a gadget can get, especially a PC gadget.

Rating: 9/10

Reference: Microsoft Surface Pro 2