Second Take - Microsoft Surface Pro 2

After close to 5 months of waiting, I've finally been able to get my hands on a Surface Pro 2 slate. Microsoft's refresh to the original Surface Pro pushes the bar to the extreme when it comes to combining performance, productivity and battery life. It's also again the most expensive slate money can buy.

Readers familiar with my review of the original Surface Pro will no-doubt remember that it left me wanting more - something understandable given the nature of a first generation device. But has Microsoft corrected the numerous flaws I observed, and does the Surface Pro 2 earn an award here at lgpOnTheMove? Should you be interested in the Surface Pro 2? Read on for the full details.

PROS: Windows 8.1, improved performance over previous model, exceptional battery life, brilliant accessories, handwriting capability with included stylus

CONS: Price, availability, proprietary power connector, connectivity, fingerprint magnet


My experience with the original Surface Pro was unlike any other. Mimicking a notebook with it's x64 OS and keyboard accessory, it left all other smartphone OS-based products in the dust. But cramming all that notebook-class performance into a slate form-factor also left much to be desired. It was a first-generation product, ULV Ivy Bridge wasn't the most battery-friendly silicon, audio drivers were watered down, and storage options were spartan at best. And let's not get into the many quirks involved with getting certain software and file-types to play well with Windows 8.

Fortunately, things have progressed since then. We now have Windows 8.1, Intel has graced us with Haswell ULT and the Surface Pro 2 boasts increased RAM and SSD capacities. But these changes under the hood are only half the story. We also get improved accessories, which together propel the Surface Pro 2 into an area where no slate has ventured before - the realm of the desktop.


Microsoft's Surface Pro 2 builds on much of what was shown with the original. The form factor remains the same, even the thickness and weight remain similar. The easiest way to tell that you have the newer model will be the two-stage kickstand that extends out a further click. We're not quite there with the variable display angles of a real netbook, but it's a welcome addition.

Under the hood is where the Surface Pro 2 sees it's real advancements. A 2C/4T Core i5-4300U CPU is now paired with either 4GB or 8GB RAM options. Similarly, SSD storage has been bumped up to four choices (64GB/128GB/256GB/512GB). The unit I'm testing today is the 256GB model with 8GB RAM - this should be the minimum configuration to go with for those looking to get the most out of their Surface Pro 2.


Class-leading slate performance
Indeed, the performance improvements of Haswell ULT, even in the Core i5 flavor, will be tangible across multiple benchmarks. Running 7-zip's built-in benchmark (8GB) scored 7613, or over 25% better than the numbers shown with my HP Elitebook 2170P. In a similar fashion, 3DMark06 wrapped up with a score of 5764, a solid 1000 points higher than HD 4000. Again, these are only synthetic tests - the real proof of the pudding comes from running actual software, and to that end, I was able to run my complete suite on the Surface Pro 2.

Kicking things off was my VOB to WMV conversion which finished in an amazing 1 hour 55 minutes. That's less than half the time of the Core i3-3217U. Even more incredible was my WMEx64 test which finished in a jaw-dropping 23 minutes, or over four times faster than what Ivy Bridge was capable of. Forget comparisons with slates, the Surface Pro 2 has the high-end performance to take on that ultrabook you may have purchased within the last 18 months, and kick it to the curb!

Even more notable was the inclusion of Quick Sync this time around on the HD4400, as Microsoft seems to have fixed the issues plagued with the earlier Surface Pro. Running Media Converter 8 allowed me to crunch my 3-hour-length feature film down to H.264 MP4 format in exactly 37 minutes using CPU only, and a record-setting 21 minutes with Quick Sync enabled. Safe to say, this generation of Surface Pro slate goes beyond what any notebook or slate has done before.

You won't get faster on a slate than this
Another area users will be pleasantly happy with is the performance of the storage subsystem. Not only is it bigger than the options available on the first generation Surface Pro, but leagues faster. In fact, read/write figures by the Samsung MZMTD256HAGM mSata SSD compare well to any modern 2.5" device, and far beyond the sluggish throughput I witnessed of the older 64GB Crucial M4. It's good too that if 256GB isn't enough, Microsoft will gladly offer you a slate with 512GB of super-fast SSD storage, albeit at a hefty price premium. And no, you still cannot access the drive and swap it yourself.

Civilization V maxed out at 1920x1080
One thing the Surface Pro 2 does do as good as it's predecessor is 3D gaming. I again fired up Civilization V in DX10 mode and was again greeted by the most immerse visuals thanks to the same class-leading 207 PPI display. Unlike the old slate, however, the HD4400 allows me to run many titles much smoother, thanks to the 2GB of RAM the HD4400 graphics engine can now access for itself. This is one key reason I chose to go with the 8GB RAM config for my Surface Pro 2.

Cool Edit Pro 2 on the Surface Pro 2
Finally, I was extremely pleased to be able to install and run Cool Edit Pro, however unlike the older model, Microsoft have now got a working set of audio drivers with full line-in and stereo mix functionality. That means you can not only record from a line in source, but rip streaming content from the internet as well. There is yet again a downside, but it's not so much the Surface Pro 2 at fault, and something I will touch on later.


We know from the teardown by the fine folks over at ifixit that the Surface Pro 2 uses the same 42WH 5676mAh battery as it's predecessor. Paired with the efficiency improvements Intel made with Haswell, this monster of a slate battery can finally flex it's muscle.

As with the previous model, Windows 8.1 still lacks native DVD support, so I went with Corel's WinDVD Pro 11 software to do my VOB playback testing. This came out to exactly 5 hours, or a 25% improvement over the original Surface Pro. Even better were the numbers shown when playing back WMV content - I managed to achieve a stunning 9 hours and 5 minutes on a full charge.

Of course, many of you will be using the device with wifi turned on. My testing with Hulu resulted in a time of 4 hours 46 minutes - an improvement of over 90 minutes. Similarly, fans of Netflix should see 4 hours of run time without the power cord.

Serious users will no doubt be best interested in how the Surface Pro 2 performs away from the mains when doing real work, and I'm happy to report that this device does not disappoint. With the backlit keyboard attached, I managed to do 7 hours 41 minutes surfing the web. That's a whopping 60% improvement over the original Surface Pro, and for folks who religiously adhere to their lunch breaks, will get you through an entire work day without going anywhere near an outlet!

My final battery test involved gaming, and as with the last model, I fired up Civilization V at default graphics settings in 1080P, wifi off, with max battery power plan enabled. That fun lasted a full 2 hours 35 minutes - a very respectable time considering the extremely unique 3D gaming experience the Surface Pro 2 is able to provide.


The fans used on the Surface Pro 2 are identical to the ones used on the previous model. Even with F@H running the unit is just marginally audible - fire up any audio source and the fans will be drowned out entirely. Less intense workloads place the unit practically inaudible. This makes using the Surface Pro 2 at night and even in a completely silent environment very easy.

Temps are incredibly well-behaved as well thanks to the process refinements in Intel's 22nm Haswell ULT architecture. I ran the F@H SMP client and observed a peak value of only 78C on the 2C/4T CPU at an ambient temperature of 24C. Best of all, this brutal real-world workload was able to run with Turbo Boost enabled, pushing the CPU to 2.43GHz on all four threads, 24/7 stable, and sans throttling! That's quite the performance achievement given the thermal constraints of such a slim device profile. More normal workloads will put the CPU at 44C for web surfing or 57C watching an extended-length video.


As with the first generation of Surface products, Microsoft has once again shined when it comes to showcasing the best accessories ever produced for a slate. Along with my purchase of the Surface Pro 2, I also picked up the new Surface Docking Station and the new purple Type Cover 2 backlit keyboard.

Let's start with the keyboard. The Type Cover 2 improves upon the former in two areas. First, and most important, it now offers backlighting, allowing you to get your typing done in situations where you have no adequate ambient light, or simply don't want to keep a light on near you. Second, Microsoft has introduced some new color options such as purple, cyan and magenta. I personally like the purple - it is a very muted pastel tone, yet stands out from the boring black nicely.
Just a fantastic backlit slate keyboard

The backlighting is done particularly well. You can manually adjust the intensity between low/med/full using the F1/F2 keys, and the backlight will gradually dim to off automatically after 10 seconds. But the best feature of the keyboard by far is the proximity sensor built in - simply hover your hand 1-2 inches above the keyboard, and the backlight will activate by itself WITHOUT having you first hit a key or touch the track pad. It's simply brilliant, and something I really wish other backlit keyboards could also do.

The docking station accessory
As for the docking station, this is by far a must-have accessory for those that use the Surface Pro 2 in desktop mode, primarily as it provides the kind of connectivity you would expect from a notebook or desktop. Attaching the slate to the dock simply requires sitting the back of the slate flush with the face of the dock and pushing the two sides inwards together. For removal, simply pull both sides outwards away from each other. A small power LED on the top right lights up to show that you've docked the slate properly.

USB, RJ-45, audio and DP connectivity
Once connected, you will then have access to the ports located along the rear. These include an RJ-45 connector, audio input/output, three USB 2.0 ports, a USB 3.0 port, Display Port connector and a power connector. The power connector not only feeds power to the slate, but will charge the battery and provide power to the USB ports simultaneously. For this reason, the dock won't work without the power cable connected.

Fortunately, the docking station uses a standard barrel power connector. This means you could easily get by with an external battery pack such as my Energizer XP8000 to power and charge the Surface Pro 2 while away from the mains. Mind you, if your objective is to throw the docking station into a gear bag to do this while on the go, a much beefier external battery such as the Energizer XP18000 would better serve the purpose.

The two 3.5mm audio connectors provide an easy way to attach external speakers and/or a headset with separate 3.5mm mic attachment. There is one big downside though - that mic/line-in input is a 2-pole (mono) connection only. You won't be able to use it to record/monitor an external stereo source. That may be a deal-breaker for some, but the fact that you can attach a USB sound card is one workaround.

Last but not least, that RJ-45 connector only works at 10/100 Mbps speeds, If the Surface Pro 2's 802.11n wireless isn't fast enough for you, your only other option to move data quicker is to invest in a USB 3.0 802.11ac dongle. The benefit of going to such extreme lengths will for one let you access files stored locally on your NAS at speeds comparable to Gigabit Ethernet. Keep in mind, the Surface Pro 2 will let you access files stored on a NAS natively through file explorer, without requiring any special app.

Third party accessories are also well suited to harnessing the productivity potential of the Surface Pro 2. My Logitech M570 wireless trackball and Z305 notebook speakers, for example, complement the docking station and Type Cover 2 backlit keyboard phenomenally well. I also love the idea of plugging in that portable 4TB Seagate HDD over USB 3.0, or a WQHD/4K monitor via DisplayPort. Altogether, they can transform the Surface Pro 2 into a full-blown desktop. Add the right peripherals, and the Surface Pro 2 can replace entirely your home or work PC and tackle virtually any traditional computing task.

If I did have one last wish, it would be for a thicker backlit keyboard cover that had a secondary battery. This would have several key advantages. Firstly, it would negate the need to worry about not having an external battery on me, making the proprietary power connector a moot point. Second, it would still allow use in the flipped position in slate mode, giving you extended handheld use for more power-hungry activities like 3D gaming or video streaming.

UPDATE: Microsoft's Surface Power Cover does essentially this, except that it lacks any backlight. That may be a compromise for some, or a deal-breaker for others.

UPDATE 2: Microsoft has a 12V car adapter accessory available that DOES allow use of an external battery, making the proprietary power connector a non-issue.


Of course, no slate is perfect, not even the Surface Pro 2. As is the case with all handheld devices, it is still an awful fingerprint magnet. Wiping it down for each use becomes a chore, especially when using the onscreen keyboard or tapping/dragging items on the screen. True, you can get a screen protector designed to repel fingerprints, but it does nothing to mask the back of the unit. I would like to see Microsoft move to a textured, rubber-like finish.

Could the docking station be improved? I definitely wish the line-in jack had stereo connections rather than mono. This would allow connection of external audio sources for recording purposes. In fact, I would choose that over having a second headphone jack. It would also be great to make the move to a 10/100/1000 RJ-45 connector for faster file transfers.

Do the lack of USB ports on the device still annoy me? Having the docking station is a big help, and I admit it would be a rare scenario for someone on the go to need more than one port, especially when the docking station can stash in a bag, or a small four-port USB hub go into a jacket pocket.

Going along the same lines, I don't know if the lack of a full-size SDXC card slot is something to nit pick, especially when you can get a Surface Pro 2 with 512GB of storage, and now microSDXC cards as big as 128GB. I already own a USB adapter that works with any size SD card, so the workaround is only a minor one.

Should price be the ultimate deal-breaker then? At $1299, the Surface Pro 2 unit I'm looking at definitely isn't cheap, either for a slate or a notebook. Add the cost of the docking station ($199) and the Type Cover 2 keyboard ($129) and you're in the $1600 range - the exact same price as a 11.6" Core i5-equipped HP EliteBook Revolve G2 Tablet. It's tough to compare the Surface Pro 2 to a notebook, but even tougher to compare to a convertible netbook.

Another important factor for some will be the rather large footprint needed to use the Surface Pro 2 with the docking station and keyboard attached. Expect to sacrifice a flat, firm space of roughly 12 inches wide by at least 11 inches deep, and that doesn't include room you'll need for plugging in USB devices around the back. This is also roughly the same footprint needed when using the dual-stage kickstand sans dock. Clearly, this is not a solution that can be used on your lap, where a smaller 10" netbook with it's clam shell form-factor offers better ergonomics.

Perhaps my biggest beef of all with the Surface Pro 2, and the one to thank for this review coming so late, is the lack of availability. I kept a sharp eye on inventory, yet for many months outlets such as Staples simply could not keep stock of either the slate, docking station or keyboard. Even Microsoft's own retail outlets could not guarantee supply. That's an incredibly infuriating situation for consumers serious about making the purchase. Nor does it help Microsoft either - their goal should be to get this iPad-killer in as many hands as they can, yet the company doesn't seem to care about making those sales happen already. It would be disappointing to learn if mismanagement by Microsoft is to blame for product supply not meeting consumer demand.


I have been thoroughly impressed with the Surface Pro 2. Microsoft have worked out much of what held back their original attempt, making a product that is not only the best slate on the market, but a slate that can replace most people's notebooks, and in some cases, even desktops. The redesigned accessories further push the device's capabilities, and thanks to the improved battery times, can now run for a full work day.

Desktop gadgets and proper start menu
It is, without question, the best performing slate with the most features and capability. It does what no other slate on the market can, and with it's focus on productivity, content creation and true multitasking, makes other slates look like overpriced toys. It's accessories are truly unique, yet carefully designed, and together provide the user a complete computing solution. Even for those looking to make Windows 8.1 behave more like Windows 7, the options are definitely there.

This is the slate to beat, this is the slate for other manufacturers to catch up to, and this is the slate that has earned the lgpOnTheMove Performance Slate Award.



Pandora streaming content Copyright (C) 2005-2014 Pandora Media Inc. Used for demonstration purposes only.

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