Hands-On with the Microsoft Surface Pro 2

For all the talk of how important tablets are to the future of mainstream Windows computing, it's still surprising that only a handful of PC makers have invested in full Intel Core i-series tablets. Even more surprising, nearly one full year after the debut of Windows 8, Microsoft's proof-of-concept Surface Pro remains the high-water mark for the genre, and still stands out as our favorite slate-based laptop replacement.

That's because the Surface Pro featured a large 10-inch screen, a full Intel Core i5 processor rather than a slower Intel Atom, and 1,920x1,080-pixel-resolution display -- all specs you might find in a high-end ultraportable laptop. But the real appeal came from the ingenious detachable keyboard cover, which remains miles ahead of anything else available for slate computing.
New hardware for a new OS update
The new Surface Pro 2 is timed for the release of Windows 8.1, a major update to the current Windows OS. The Pro 2 keeps the best features of the original Surface Pro, adds new internal hardware and new accessory options, and is supposed to fix one of the primary problems with the original Surface Pro, mediocre battery life.
It does this by upgrading the processor to one of Intel's newer fourth-generation Core i-series CPUs, sometimes known by the code name Haswell. These new chips offer only modest boosts to system performance, but based on our prior testing on other laptops and hybrids with Haswell chips, serious battery life improvement can be expected. Microsoft has further said that its own internal optimizations will have just as great a positive impact on battery life as the new Intel CPUs, even though the battery size remains the same.
At the same time as the Surface Pro 2, Microsoft is introducing another new product, the Surface 2. This is the updated Windows RT version of the original Microsoft Surface, and it features a slightly slimmer body, an updated Nvidia processor, and a higher-resolution screen than the original RT version of the Surface. The Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 share the same screen now, and it's been color-tuned for greater accuracy.
While the Surface Pro 2 still comes in a slatelike "dark titanium" color, the Windows RT Surface 2 is now a lighter, silver color called magnesium.
The body of the Surface Pro 2 looks and feels just like the original version, and Microsoft says the chassis measurements are the same. The body does have a couple of subtle changes, however. The logo branding on the back panel is different, reading "Surface" rather than "Microsoft," and the built-in kickstand now adjusts to two different angles, making the screen easier to see from different positions. The original one-size-fits-all kickstand made the screen hard to see and interact with unless you happened to be sitting at precisely the optimal angle. MS says the new angle is 40 degrees, while the original was about 24 degrees.
The keyboard covers still steal the show
The best part of the original Surface line was its optional snap-on keyboards, and both have been updated. The Touch Cover has flat keys that work, but offer less tactile feedback than serious typists need, while the Type Cover has island-style keys that are shallow, but still very usable.
The $119 Touch Cover is about one-third thinner than the original version, but at the same time, more rigid for easier typing. The old system of one sensor under each key has been replaced with a full array of sensors, allowing partial key strokes to be counted more easily and accurately, and supporting a handful of gestures. In our hands-on time with the new Touch Cover, typing felt faster, with less latency and permitting great accuracy, especially when typing quickly.
The $129 Type Cover, with its full separate-key keyboard, is thinner as well, and remains one of the things people like best about the Surface. Microsoft has also shown off a second kind of Type Cover that includes an integrated battery. Only slightly thicker than the standard Type Cover, this would allow the systems to run even longer by combining the internal battery and the secondary keyboard battery, a idea already used in a handful of Windows 8 laptop-tablet hybrids.
A $59 Bluetooth adapter for the keyboard covers is also in the works (yes, it's an accessory for an accessory) that will snap onto the top of the keyboard and allow you to use it remotely as a Bluetooth keyboard.
Both the Touch Cover and Type Cover are now backlit. Especially in a system intended for frequent travel, as a tablet is presumed to be, a backlit keyboard is practically required, as you can easily end up in a dimly lit coffee shop, airplane, or meeting room.
The only real regret here is that the keyboard covers are not included with the $899-and-up Surface Pro 2, and remain an expensive add-on.
Making the Surface 2 more viable for business use, Microsoft is also adding a docking station. This $199 add-on sits under the Surface Pro 2 and includes USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports, an Ethernet jack, a Mini DisplayPort connection, and audio in/out jacks.
An evolutionary update
In our hands-on sessions with the Surface Pro 2 prior to its official unveiling, it come off as a modestly improved version of what we had seen before, rather than a true 2.0 version of Microsoft's flagship tablet. Anyone shopping for a new Windows 8 system right now should demand Intel's fourth-gen CPUs, available since June, if only for the increased battery life and power efficiency. The Pro 2 gives you that, and the new second angle on the kickstand does make it more convenient to use the Surface Pro 2 in your lap.
With no major new features or design changes, the Surface Pro 2 still relies heavily on its accessories to stand out as the market leader. But, with few new slate-style Core i5 tablets coming out (most competing models are hybrids that spend much of their time in clamshell-laptop mode), Microsoft's Surface Pro 2 manages to maintain a leading position in its small corner of the market.
Both the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 will be available starting October 22. The Surface 2, with Windows RT, starts at $449, but the previous model Surface RT, will still be available for $349. The Surface Pro 2 starts (as the original Pro did) at $899, but the RAM can be upgraded from 4GB to 8GB, and the internal storage can be upgraded up to a 512GB solid-state drive (SSD), with a full 8GB/512GB configuration costing $1,799.

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