Microsoft announced the second generation of its Surface and Surface Pro tablets Monday, with significant improvements to both devices. We had a chance to briefly kick the tires, and the initial impression is that Microsoft has listened to its critics and produced some solid contenders.
Let's start with the Surface Pro 2. Panos Panay, Microsoft corporate VP, Surface, says that the original Surface Pro is the best-selling device in its class of laptops over $800. But he said, "Our goal is to make it better."
When you first pick one up, it's hard to tell the difference between the Pro and the Pro 2. Yes, Pro 2 is a fraction thinner and lighter than the original, at 2 pounds and just over half-an-inch thick, but otherwise it's cosmetically virtually identical. However, the kickstand, which only opened to one angle (22 degrees) on the original, now has a second setting at a steeper angle that makes it easier to use on your lap.
They start to diverge when you turn it on: the screen has had a lot of love. It now boasts full HD resolution, and the colours are, Microsoft says, 46 per cent more accurate. Sitting a Surface Pro 2 next to its predecessor, you can see the difference; reds are redder, blues are bluer and video is smoother and more precise (the company claims a 50 per cent improvement in video performance). Audio profits from the addition of Dolby, and of a boost to the integrated speakers.
Battery life has been an issue with Surface Pro users, and the inclusion of Intel's new Haswell processor promises a 20 per cent improvement. However, says Mr. Panay, thanks to other engineering changes, users will now get all-day battery life. That we couldn't test in the few minutes hands-on, but will verify the claim once review units become available. To make the device last even longer, Microsoft has introduced a keyboard with built-in battery. Mr. Panay says that the Power Cover's 30 watt-hour battery, plus the other integrated improvements, will generate a whopping 2.5 times the battery life of the original Surface Pro.
The connectors are pretty much the same on the Pro 2 as the Pro, with the notable exception that the USB port has graduated from USB 2.0 to USB 3.0. The Pro 2 comes with Windows 8.1.
To address companies' need to give employees one device, not several, Microsoft has introduced the Surface Docking Station. Rather than dropping the tablet onto the dock, which would necessitate removing the keyboard, you put the tablet, plus keyboard, in the middle and squeeze the dock shut from the sides to make a connection. Once docked, the tablet gets support for two more monitors, 7 more USB 2.0 ports and one more USB 3.0 port, an Ethernet port, and, of course, a power connection.
Both the Touch and Type covers have had a makeover as well. The Type cover now comes in pink, blue and purple as well as the original basic black, and it has been reengineered to be thinner, with a shorter key throw, while still being more rigid. It felt good to type on, and the new key switches don't drop letters as the original model does sometimes. Mr. Panay said it was designed for "lapability." We'll see.
The Touch cover now has 1092 sensors, rather than the original's 80, making it virtually impossible to miss hitting your key. Microsoft has also added support for a couple of gestures: run two fingers over the letter keys to move the text insertion cursor, the same gesture on the number keys selects text, and one finger run along the spacebar chooses from the predictive text offerings.
Oh, and both new keyboards are backlit. They even dim when the keyboard is not in use, to save power.
All of these accessories, plus a couple more, work on both old and new Surface Pros, and on the Surface tablet.
The Surface 2, running Windows RT 8.1, is, says Panay, the revamp people needed. Again, physically it's much the same as the original, with the exception of the improved kickstand, and the fact that it's silver, not black. It has the same screen as the Pro 2, is thinner and lighter than the original Surface, and claims 25 per cent more battery life. Mr. Panay says he regularly gets 12 hours battery life from his device. He says both computational and network performance have been improved, to make the Surface run 3-4 times faster than the original. Again, we shall see, though a demo of Halo: Spartan Assault running on an external monitor through HDMI out on a Surface was as smooth as it was bloody.
The cameras have both seen improvements, with the major enhancements to the front-facing one's performance in low light so when you Skype the family they'll actually be able to see a face, not a dark blur.
The Surface 2 will list for $449, and is available for pre-order on September 24. It, and the new Pro, will hit the shelves October 22. The Surface Pro 2 comes in four models, with up to 512 GB storage and 8 GB RAM, starting at $899. The original Surface RT will continue to be sold at $349; it will receive a free upgrade to Windows RT 8.1 when the OS is released.
As an added bonus, purchasers of either Surface 2 device will receive a free year of Skype international calling and Wi-fi hotspot access, plus 200 GB of space on SkyDrive for two years.