Microsoft Surface Pro 2: A Costly Improvement
Microsoft's latest Surface model running the full desktop version of Windows 8.1 is a definite upgrade over last year's model. But, at its steep price, will you be ditching your laptop for it?
Along with the release of Windows 8.1, Microsoft is now shipping the second iteration of its hybrid tablet-laptop devices -- the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2. The Surface 2 is the upgrade to the Surface RT and runs Windows RT 8.1, the scaled-down version of Windows that only runs "modern" applications. The Surface Pro 2 runs full-blown Windows 8.1 and is powered by Intel Corp's long-awaited fourth-generation Core architecture, code-named Haswell, which promises significant improvements to performance and power utilization.
The elegant hardware introduced in the Surface Pro carries over to the Surface Pro 2. Noteworthy improvements to the new model include a dual-mode kickstand (also available with the Surface 2), louder speakers with Dolby processing and better performance. While those are nice cosmetic refinements, the real improvement comes in the fact that the Surface Pro 2 is a much more powerful upgrade over the original system introduced earlier this year. In many regards, the first version wasn't practical for business users, especially considering its high price tag.
Besides a major boost in performance, adding Intel's new Haswell Core i5 processor and other engineering improvements made to the Surface Pro 2, Microsoft claims users should see a 75 percent improvement in battery life. That equates to approximately 7.5 hours. That compares with four to five hours most users reportedly achieved with the original Surface, which is a real dealbreaker for workers who don't always have access to power. The Surface Pro 2 ran about seven hours under normal usage, which includes using e-mail for two accounts, Word 2013, OneNote 2013 and Web browsing. In standby mode, it can get more than 12 hours.
Because the "Pro" models run Windows 8.1, enterprises looking to run traditional Windows applications that desire or require complete client management will want to go with the Surface Pro 2 versus the Surface 2.
Tablet, Laptop or Both?
Despite Microsoft's claim that it provides the best of both a tablet and PC experience, I'm not sure I would consider the Surface Pro 2 a tablet. It has a touch-screen display and runs modern-style apps from the Windows Store. That's about where the similarities with devices like the Apple iPad and Google Android tablets such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab end.
The Surface has a screen width of 10.81 inches, which is slightly larger than many other tablets. Because of the better hardware offered with the Surface Pro, it falls more in the laptop category, even though using it without a mouse or keyboard is very snappy. It even managed to interpret my horrible handwriting.
When I started using the Surface Pro 2, I was strictly using out-of-the-box applications, like OneNote, Mail and Internet Explorer. That puts it in the Windows-RT-on-steroids category. This was pretty impressive, but businesses have yet to run apps from the Windows Store. CRM and other enterprise apps are coming, however, and Microsoft believes this transition will take place over time.
Since I receive a lot of PDF documents as e-mail attachments, I wanted to see how much time the Surface took to open a PDF from an e-mail attachment. It took 2.2 seconds. This didn't change if the PDF viewer was open with nothing in it or closed completely.
Using it to create Office documents performed very well, even when storing changes to SkyDrive. Since SkyDrive works to sync files in the background after the initial startup of Word 2013 in the Office 365 trial, there were no noticeable delays accessing documents.
The first full application I installed on the Surface was SQL Server Management Studio 2012, which can be resource intensive. The install completed, but seemed slow. I did move the installer to the desktop before running it to ensure the Surface wasn't overly reliant on networking during the installation. That process wasn't bad or a complete deal breaker, but being an all solid-state device (the 64GB/4GB RAM model), I expected it to be a bit faster.
My everyday laptop has 16GB of RAM and an i7 Intel processor, so the downgrade in horsepower is considerable. That could account for the somewhat sluggish experience on the Surface Pro 2. SQL Server Management Studio 2012 performed fairly well once installed. Querying/accessing my company's SQL Servers was no different from other systems I've used.
The Surface Pro 2, like its predecessor, doesn't come cheap. The smallest Pro 2 costs $899, plus $129 for a Touch Cover keypad. That price goes up with added storage and RAM. Since it only has Wi-Fi as a connection method (barring some tricky weirdness with a USB to Ethernet dongle), it costs about $400 more than a comparable iPad. It can be argued a 32GB iPad, which costs $599, is more comparable considering the usable disk space on the Surface Pro 2 with 64GB is actually 37GB.
The Surface Pro 2 is more laptop than tablet and the hardware isn't cheap to produce, but getting the price closer without the need to fire sale the units later might entice more professionals to head down Microsoft path.
The more limited Surface 2 (see the separate review online at redmondmag.com/surface2) only runs Windows RT 8.1, and costs $549 for a 64GB unit ($449 for a 32GB version) without a keyboard. That makes them decidedly cheaper than the iPad, though lacking its appeal given the dearth of apps in the Windows Store compared with the Apple iTunes Store.
Gray Area for IT
The new Windows 8.1 works great and corrects many of the bugs from the original release of Windows 8, but the majority of business travelers/professionals are accustomed to the mouse and keyboard options available in a laptop. True, Windows 8.1 and, by extension, the Surface Pro can do that, but these same individuals have probably tried other tablets that don't run Windows.
Using Windows 8.1 in an all-touch environment (accessories aside) is an interesting experience, but there are some things that just need a keyboard and mouse. Not because touch doesn't work or is missing features, but because it is harder to get it just right without practice.
Even though Windows 8 has been around for a year, businesses aren't jumping to move their users to the new OS because of the dearth of applications developed for the new modern interface. Plus, many organizations have just rolled out (or are still rolling out) Windows 7-based PCs. It's likely some will be early adopters or these units will find their way into the enterprise by those buying their own devices, but the corporate move to Windows 8 and touch could be more difficult for some than anticipated.
The Mail App is really quite good as it connects to both Gmail and Exchange without much problem, but it's still not Outlook. Since the Surface Pro 2 can run Outlook once it's installed, there's no reason not to do so. To use the mail/calendar live tiles, however, you'll need to configure those apps to access your mail and calendar.
The Mail and Calendar apps in Windows 8.1 are very similar to the same set of apps found on the iPad. There are some who will like this experience for all their mail and calendar needs. Most professionals will probably still want to use Outlook, though some may differ on that point. With the Surface Pro, the only thing getting in the way is licensing, although the "One Desktop/One Portable" license for Office should allow the shared use of one license.
The entire device is in that gray or hybrid area. It isn't a laptop or a tablet, it truly is both. Classifying the Surface Pro 2 as either falls a bit short. Most would probably put it in the tablet category because it can work with full touch and takes two hands to hold. Working with the familiar Windows experience will be a draw for some, once they work around the fact that the modern Windows app experience is quite different.
The hardware makes the case for the Surface Pro 2 being a laptop, although with a smaller SSD and only 4GB of RAM, this particular Surface is either right at or just a bump over an entry-level laptop for most business professionals. A higher-end version with 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD is due out shortly. For the IT pro, it might be a good road device since it can connect to everything a laptop can (even using Direct Access) and runs PowerShell with no limitations.
Better Hardware Options
The improved hardware and expansion capabilities are a huge win. The fact that Microsoft put both a full-speed USB 3.0 port and a micro SD slot in the Surface is a big plus. Microsoft has also added accessories that many IT decision makers will find appealing, like a docking station. The $199 device will let users dock their Surface Pros to a unit that powers the device, offers an additional USB 3.0 port, three USB 2.0 ports, a hard-wired Ethernet port (10/100 Ethernet RJ-45), 3.5mm audio input/output connections and a mini Display Port for those who want to connect larger monitors. This makes is suitable for workers who want to use the Surface Pro or Surface Pro 2 as their primary desktop PC and mobile device.
The startup time for the device was impressive from full shutdown. Several tests, stopwatch in hand, came up at four to five seconds to get to the login screen. If the device goes to sleep after inactivity, it gets back to the lock screen in about two seconds. Waiting for the Surface Pro to be ready shouldn't be much of an issue.
Some road warriors may still balk at the 7.5 hours of battery life offered on the Surface Pro 2. Microsoft has said it will release its Power Cover next quarter, which has its own battery and can increase usage by up to 50 percent. The Power Cover will also work on the Surface 2, which Microsoft claims gets 10 hours without that cover. Microsoft also released its Wireless Adapter for Typing Covers, which connects via Bluetooth to a TV or other monitor in a room. That costs $60.
Many of the mobile business users who might carry the device will probably need to back up their content and data somehow. This is a challenge for laptop users, as well, but being able to connect an external hard drive and take advantage of the File History features in Windows 8.1 is definitely helpful. Microsoft is offering 200GB of free SkyDrive storage for those who purchase either the Surface 2 or Surface Pro 2. Of course, if you end up using all of that capacity, you'll be on the hook for $100 a year after that two-year period ends.
Though not unique to the Surface, the Surface Pro 2 comes with the new Internet Explorer 11. This is a nice upgrade over Internet Explorer 10. One thing that might catch the attention of business users and IT organizations alike is that Microsoft has integrated Flash into the browser. Many feel Flash is bad and doesn't run on the majority of other tablet devices (and shouldn't), but when Microsoft "baked it in" they also took over the Flash updates for Internet Explorer 11. This means they'll come with other Windows Updates on patch Tuesday, not every other day and twice on Sundays, as currently seems to be the case with the Flash Updater.
Many of the positives for the Surface Pro 2 are software-related. A number of the new features in Windows 8.1 are available on numerous third-party devices (see sidebar), but the fact that the features are available on an ultra-mobile touch screen device with no change in operation or degradation of performance speaks volumes about how far Microsoft and Windows have come.
Remember, the original Surface was a coffee table and the new ones are more like tray tables with hardware that might exceed a good number of corporate-issue desktops in use today. I still haven't completely decided if the Surface Pro 2 is the next thing for me, but as I use it more, I am sure things will become clear one way or another, as it is a very compelling device. While Microsoft was last to arrive to the tablet dance, now that the company is clearly committed to tablets, Surface will only get better as it matures.
The combination of laptop and tablet devices may be the future of computing, depending, of course, on how many devices people choose to carry with them. If you're looking for the ultraportable tablet-like experience with the ability to use Outlook and other Office applications, the Surface could fit this need very nicely, but I'm not sold on the Surface as my only device yet. As most people tend to have more than one device these days anyway, maybe that's a moot point.
Derek Schauland has worked in technology for 15 years in everything from a help desk role to Windows systems administration. He has also worked as a freelance writer for the past 10 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.