By Jim Shimabukuro
Updated 11/19/13, 9/6/14
(Related articles: “Thoughts on the Surface Pro 2 After 8 Months” and “Why the Surface Pro 2 Will Be a Game Changer in the Tablet World Series.”)
About three weeks ago, when all I had to go on was reviews, I predicted that the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (SP2) would be a game changer. I had just put in my order then and was told that shipment would be in mid- or late-December. Thus, I was surprised and happy to learn, in late-October, that it had been shipped for next-day delivery. It arrived on schedule, and in the time it took to remove it from the packaging, plug it in, and turn it on, I knew that the notebook was dead.
I’ve had it for about a week and haven’t had time to do more than a few things, but what I’ve seen is impressive. The look and feel reminds me of the original iPad and iPhone4 — which I’m still using. Rock solid and sleek, beautifully engineered. In contrast, the clamshell notebook with its hinged keyboard suddenly seems odd, anachronistic, looking more like yesterday’s typewriter than tomorrow’s computer.
Don’t get me wrong. The SP2, like the original iPad, is far from perfect, and better and less expensive models from Microsoft and competitors will soon be flooding the market. However, it’s more than done its job as a groundbreaker. In short, it’s the first viable full-blown Windows PC in a tablet chassis.
Form factor alone, however, wouldn’t be worth much if the tablet couldn’t perform. The big question for me was — and still is, to some extent — will it perform?
In size, it’s slightly larger than the original iPad and only a half pound heavier. But the difference in terms of sheer power is huge. The SP2 runs the 64-bit version of Windows 8.1, MS Office 2013, and everything else you can run on a notebook or desktop. It has a high-resolution 1080p display and an HDMI port. Plug in a 26″ 1920 x 1080 monitor and you have all the size you’ll need. It has a standard USB 3.0 port and a micro-SD card slot. Plug in an external two-terabyte drive, a CD/DVD player-recorder, a thumb drive, or an SD card for more onground storage.
I didn’t order the type cover, which adds a removable keyboard and screen protector, but I can plug in a USB keyboard with a touchpad if I want to or a USB expander to add multiple devices such as a mouse. I decided to wait for the SP2 power cover, which is designed to provide backup battery power and a keyboard. It should be available in early 2014.
In its max configuration, it has 8GB of RAM and a 512GB solid state drive. The miracle is that they got all of this into a tablet. But this is just the miracle I’ve been waiting for. From the moment I held an iPad in my hand, I knew it would be only a matter of time before someone would offer a Windows tablet. However, I never imagined it would be Microsoft.
The tablet is the natural successor to the notebook. You can hold it in one hand, like a clipboard, and do stuff on it with the other hand, and you can do this untethered, away from the desk or office — or anywhere else. You can’t do this with a notebook. That’s it. That’s the difference that spells doom for notebooks.
With a type cover, you instantly transform it into a notebook. The choice between a tablet that can also be a notebook and a notebook that can’t be a tablet is a no-brainer.
The screen is 10.6″, measured diagonally, and my guess is that this is the optimum size for a tablet PC. Any larger, and it becomes unwieldy; any smaller, and you can forget about doing anything serious with it.
However, this size issue isn’t a stalemate. My guess is that tablets will radically alter the web interface, with services and apps increasingly re-gearing to accommodate and enhance the tablet and overall mobile experience. In short, the days of having to pinch or spread your fingers on a tablet screen to view webpages are numbered.
In terms of operating systems and productivity software, Microsoft will probably continue to lead the way in maximizing the tablet format and turning it into a de facto standard for software and web developers, and whither Microsoft, the industry is sure to follow.
For input, the SP2 comes with an onscreen keyboard and a digital pen. It also has Bluetooth connectivity, but I haven’t been able to link my Apple wireless keyboard to it. I’ve tried the digital pen for writing and sketching but haven’t had much success. Perhaps it’s a matter of time and experience. For now, I use it in places where my fingertip is too big. BTW, the pen takes copying and pasting text from one app to another to a whole new level. Quick, accurate, and easy. The on-screen keyboard is unimaginative. It’s made to look like a manual keyboard and is way too big. (See the photo below.) It takes up half the screen. I’m sure it won’t be long before a Windows upgrade provides one that takes up only 20% to 30% of the screen. [Correction: See the 11/19/13 update below re the smaller alternate onscreen keyboard.]
Weight is a concern. At two pounds, holding it in one hand and typing with the other for more than a few minutes is challenging — but not impossible. I’ve been using my iPad this way for years, and the SP2 is only slightly heavier. I think I’ll adapt to the weight and feel of the SP2. The key is balance, or finding an angle and position that minimizes the strain on my hand and fingers.
Now, for the really important question, “Does it work?”
My initial feeling is yes. The screen is vivid — sharp, clear, and steady. It’s fast. My desktop runs an Intel quad-core i7-3770 processor, and the SP2’s Intel dual-core i5-4200 Haswell appears to be just as fast, at least in the limited uses that I’ve put it through. All programs run as expected. Web browsing is trouble free. The SP2 seems steadier and better behaved than my iPad in rendering a wide range of webpages.
I tried to do some real teacher work on it. For example, I opened a WordPress course page in one window and a Twitter page in another. I copied some text and URLs from the former and pasted them in a tweet to a class. No problem.
I then opened a discussion forum in my college’s LMS (learning management system) and copied some quotes into tweets. Again, no problem. Seems simple enough and nothing to get excited about, but I’ve never been able to do this effectively with my iPad. To be able to do this sort of everyday work on a tablet is, for me, a seachange.
The major issue with the original Surface Pro was battery life. It was way too short. The major advance in the SP2 is purportedly battery life, with significant improvement. However, beyond claiming improvement, Microsoft steers clear of specific times. Understandable, considering that battery drain is a function of use and hardware configuration, and some uses burn more power than others. After years of using the iPad, my expectations for tablet battery life are high. However, I may need to adjust my expectations for PC tablets to accommodate their power differential. I’ve yet to hit the wall in my daily use, and an overnight charge lasts a whole day. But I haven’t given it prolonged workouts on complex and power-hungry tasks so I’ll have to wait and see if battery life will be a problem for me.
Announcing the death of notebooks at this juncture may be premature, especially when the SP2 is not without shortcomings, but I believe it represents a whole new era for computing in which tablets, which can also be used as notebooks, will dominate the industry, dwarfing notebooks and further overshadowing desktops. The SP2 is the first feasible step in bringing the tablet into the productivity arena, and it represents a technological breakthrough that will impress those who have treated tablets as toys for consuming rather than tools for producing.
Make no mistake — the SP2 is a tablet, first, and a notebook, second, and this has far-reaching consequences for the way we work and think of technology. In future versions of tablet PCs, I think we’re going to see mods that will invite their use as desktop replacements, which means large external multi-monitor capabilities and touchscreen features on the monitors that will transform them into seamless extensions of the tablet. It goes without saying that their weight and thickness will drop significantly in the next year or two and their battery life will continue to improve dramatically to the point where it will no longer be an issue.
Price, I believe, will continue to remain high during the rapid development phase, with users paying a premium for innovations and refinements. However, once a plateau is reached in terms of ideal specs, allowing for production to catch up and stabilize, prices will begin to drop dramatically.
My original comments re the onscreen keyboard being unimaginative and too big were in error. I discovered a smaller alternative while exploring the settings under “ease of access center.” I had to use the pen on the keyboard but fingers aren’t out of the question for some. As you can see, it takes up only about a third of the screen and presents a very usable display for composing. An added feature is the option to use the pen to insert handwritten text or sketches.