Before you read this review, take a second to realise that Microsoft is in the tablet computer game for the long haul. In fact it invented it. Now, with the launch of Surface Pro 2, it means business.
Back in 2002 as the debris of the dot.com downturn continued to rain, clank and ring in my ears, I accepted an invitation from HP to look at its take on what was to be one of the first tablet computers in the world. What I saw was interesting, but not encouraging.
It was an HP Compaq device that ran Microsoft Tablet PC specification, a derivative of Windows XP, and it was a hefty thing with a pen. As they told me how this device would prove revolutionary for healthcare workers in hospitals and people in warehouses who need to input and review data on the move, a suspicion that they were a bit wide of the mark was planted in my mind. The sheer weight of the device alone conjured up images of wrestler Hulk Hogan posing as a nurse endeavouring to carry the damn thing from ward to ward.
For years to come various tablet configurations of PCs were rolled out, aimed at the professional worker, but it wasn’t until April 2010 when the late Steve Jobs proclaimed the Apple iPad that the tablet computer really became a consumer device (and in turn a worker’s BYOD favourite).
Just why Microsoft – which already had a hit on its hands with XP in 2002 – didn’t refine the tablet PC and think of the consumer is just another question for the history books.
One tablet to rule them all
Last year, Microsoft came out with its Surface RT device, the first device in my mind that deftly managed to bring the desktop to the tablet world, enabling real productivity benefits for users. Unfortunately, the device was a US$700m flop that burned a hole in Microsoft’s not inconsiderable wallet.
However, the Surface Pro was more favourably received, bringing true notebook power to the tablet genre, allowing users to enjoy the best of both worlds – tablet computing and apps and the full power of Microsoft’s Office 2013 on a desktop environment.
I was thrilled with the Surface Pro because it was the dream device that allowed you to consume and produce, not one or the other.
I don’t think Microsoft gets enough praise for what it has achieved with the Surface Pro, but I’m confident it will steadily drive a wedge into the one-dimensional arena occupied by devices like the iPad and various Android confections. In reality, it’s a little like comparing a WWI byplane with a WWII USAF Mustang.
With the Surface Pro 2 – as far as I’m concerned – we’re entering the jet age of tablet computing.
True mobile computing
If I had one niggle about the first Surface Pro, however, it was battery life. You may have gotten a couple of hours of work out of it but without thinking you rarely went anywhere without the power lead.
With the Surface Pro 2, however, all has utterly changed. Powered by a fourth-generation 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 processor, Microsoft claims the Pro 2 has 75pc longer battery life, which is a pretty impressive feat.
The Pro2 is available with 64, 128, 256 or 512GB of internal storage. The 64 and 128GB models come with 4GB of RAM, while the latter options come with 8GB of RAM.
Microsoft is sticking to its guns with its 10.6-inch screens, and I think they may be right in this instance. Movies, for one thing, look amazing on this longer screen.
The 1,920 x 1,080 ClearType HD screen has a 16:9 aspect ratio.
The device has a 1.2MP front-facing camera and a rear 1.2MP camera – each capable of capturing images and video at 720p HD.
In terms of connectivity, Microsoft has yet to come up with a device that has 3G or 4G connectivity, which is a shame at this point, but nevertheless all other options are catered for in terms of Wi-FI, Bluetooth and USB 3.0, and more.
Primarily, the Surface Pro is a notebook computer with tablet capabilities and as such it comes with touchscreen, ambient light sensors, 3-axis accelerometer, 3-axis gyroscope and a compass.
In terms of accessories, the Surface Pro 2 comes with the new Touch Cover 2 and Type Cover 2, which are slightly slimmer than the original Touch and Type Cover and come with a backlight system. As you wave your hand over either keyboard, the keyboard lights up magnificently. I have to admit I’m more a fan of the Type Cover than the Touch, preferring the reassuring click and depth of the keyboard as I go about my work.
I’m really looking forward to seeing the forthcoming Power Cover, which comes with an additional 30Wh battery for even more computing time and which is due to debut in early 2014. Also due to debut in early 2014 is a new docking station for the Surface Pro 2.
In terms of appearances, there is virtually little to distinguish the Pro 2 from its predecessor. They look the same and weigh the same. The only difference is the word ‘Surface’ emblazoned on the back of the VaporMg coated device’s kickstand and also the fact the Surface 2 comes with two kickstand settings – one for working on a desk and (finally) a setting that makes it easy to type with the Surface on your lap.
I have to say the Windows 8 operating system had grown on me long before Windows 8.1 arrived. The fact you could enjoy both worlds of the tablet experience and the traditional desktop was fascinating and offered a myriad of possibilities, especially in terms of managing apps and consuming content.
Windows 8.1 sees the return of the Start button and a neater way to see all your apps in one place by simply sliding the screen up with your finger.
There are also some neat tricks like hands-free navigation of the tablet Kinect-style using the camera (very useful if you’re cooking and using the computer as a recipe source). The latter I find useful, considering the number of devices I’ve destroyed through proximity to olive oil while I cook. What has to come next will be voice navigation: “OK, Surface …”
It is certainly true that the Windows 8 and 8.1 operating systems come with a whole new array of gestures to manage the device. I think this becomes intuitive quite quickly.
Overall, the Surface Pro 2 is definitely faster and the longer-lasting battery is a real bonus. The device also has the ability to launch directly into desktop mode on start-up, which could suit businesses looking to equip their mobilised workers with powerful computing on the move.
Again, I think with all the hoopla over devices like the iPad Air, the computing world is missing just how significant a contribution Microsoft is making with its Surface family.
Finally, you can do real work, and enjoy real play, on a sturdy device with a great battery. What beckons, however, is true mobility and I look forward to the day when finally the Surface devices include 3G and 4G radios. Now that would be quite the thing.
The Surface Pro 2 is available at Currys, PC World and Harvey Norman in-store and online, as well as at www.microsoftstore.com. Prices start at €899.