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Surface Pro 2 impressions

I recently convinced my advisor to purchase a Surface Pro 2 for me. Here are my impressions after a little over a week of use.

The hardware

The Surface Pro 2 is heavier than I expected, but the weight is evenly distributed, so it’s comfortable to hold landscape with one hand. Portrait, on the other hand, needs the other hand (heh), and then it can feel a bit top-heavy. Once you’re used to it, the weight is not objectionable.

The screen looks fine. I would prefer a 16:10 aspect ratio over the Pro 2’s 16:9, given that I’ll be using it portrait-mode for reading, but that would increase the tablet’s size and weight. I’ll defer to expert analysis regarding its color accuracy, but in casual use, I had no complaints. The screen supports 10-point touch (no problems noted) and includes a Wacom digitizer for pen input, which I’ll touch on (heh) later.

The Surface Pro 2’s two-position kickstand is sturdy in both positions. The first position is comfortable for use on a desk. The second is intended for use in your lap, but because the kickstand must rest on your legs, the keyboard ends up closer to your body than when using a laptop, and it’s still generally uncomfortable. You can stand the tablet up in portrait orientation, but the screen is nearly perpendicular to the surface the Surface (heh) is standing on, which is impractical for reading.

The Surface Pro 2 includes both front- and rear-facing cameras. The front-facing camera is good enough for videoconferencing. The rear-facing camera is almost certainly worse than your phone’s camera and clumsier to use; I would have cut it to reduce cost.

There are two keyboard covers available (at extra cost, which is a bit silly for a laptop replacement), of which I got the Type Cover 2. Once you’re used to it, it’s a surprisingly good keyboard, to the point that I’m typing these impressions on it now. It does have some flex to it, adding to the awkwardness of using the Surface Pro 2 in your lap. The touchpad is usable but not great, and the touchpad buttons are awful, making click-and-drag difficult (but still easier than using the pen).

The magnetic charge port is on the right of the tablet. When not charging, you can stow the pen there, its right-click button having the appropriate shape and ferromagnetism. The pen stays quite secure in a backpack, but I often dislodge it when taking the tablet out or picking it up off a table. There’s no place to put it when charging. Also, the mini-DisplayPort output is at the bottom of the right side, below the charge port, and the pen is just long enough to not fit into the charge port when your Surface is connected to an external display. Stowing the pen in the charge port is clever and keeps the weight evenly distributed (avoids a hollow for pen storage, though I guess you could put it in the middle?), but it has its shortcomings.

Besides mini-DisplayPort, connectivity is limited to a single USB 3.0 port, a microSD slot, and a headphone jack. A tactile volume rocker and power button and a capacitive Windows button (sends you to the new UI) round out the hardware affordances.

There’s a docking station available that acts as a USB hub (providing three USB 2.0 ports and forwarding the USB 3.0 port) and Ethernet adapter (presumably also over USB). It also adds a microphone/line-in jack and has an integrated charger (though that means the whole thing won’t function without power). There’s no stylus storage, again, and if you intend to use the stylus you’ll want to forgo the docking station and leave the tablet flat on your desk.

Performance is good enough for the Surface Pro 2 to replace my old laptop containing an i7-2820QM; despite having half as many cores, running my unit tests only takes about 10% longer. This is despite replacing a 45W TDP part with a 15W one (and the fan never audibly spins), though to be fair, my laptop was handicapped by a mechanical hard drive.

The software

Windows 8.1 Pro, when configured to boot directly to the Desktop, is pretty much just like Windows 7, except there’s no start menu; the “start button” just sends you back to the new UI. You run programs either by pinning them to the taskbar or by searching for them in the Search pane (swipe in from right or mouse to the upper-right hot corner). Settings have been split between the Control Panel and new settings UI, but the Search pane can usually take you to the right place. On the Surface (and presumably on other tablets?) there’s a dedicated button to the left of the taskbar notification area that launches an on-screen keyboard or pen input window. And that’s basically all the user-visible changes for Windows 8.1.

Unfortunately most applications are not prepared to handle on-the-fly scaling changes, so Windows 8.1 requires you to log out (closing all your applications) to change DPI settings (as you would when switching from the tablet’s screen to an external monitor). It feels as though you have to choose between “tablet mode” and “desk mode”. This is the worst part of the Surface Pro 2 experience. (Tip: right-click the “start button” to log out. The Search pane doesn’t list logging out as an action and there doesn’t seem to be any other UI for it.)

Pen and handwriting recognition

The Surface Pro 2 includes a Wacom digitizer. Pen input works great except at the very corners of the screen, where you have to look at the pen ‘cursor’ (a small dot) rather than the pen tip lest you accidentally close a window you were just trying to un-maximize. (Tip: drag the title bar down from the top of the screen instead.) The digitizer detects the pen when it’s within about two centimeters of the screen, which is used to disable touch, providing effective palm rejection.

Handwriting recognition is very accurate, assuming you write like you were taught in school. That is, the recognizer seems to operate on the pen input events, not the resulting letterforms – so if you’re like me and write ‘g’ starting from the descender up and around, Windows will think it’s a ’d’ or ‘f’, while ‘g’s starting from the top are correctly recognized. The recognizer’s result is cross-checked with a dictionary, so ‘confiduration’ is corrected as you’d expect, but ‘give’ becomes ‘five’ and ‘giving’ becomes ‘divine’. You can tap on a word to correct it letter-by-letter, and allegedly the recognizer will learn from your corrections – but you can only correct with the pen, so I can replace that ’d’ with an ‘f’ and back, but I’ll never get a ‘g’ in there the way I write it, so no learning can occur.

If you write your letters traditionally, handwriting recognition is good enough that you can go without the keyboard. I’ve basically given up – typing is faster and more accurate anyway.

Sometimes, when interacting with the new UI elements such as the swipe-in-from-right Search pane, the pen input window doesn’t appear, and /of course/ the Search pane covers up the taskbar’s ‘open keyboard/pen’ button. As a workaround, you can write in the pen input window, then invoke the Search pane, and your text will appear in the text box.

Overall

If I had purchased the Surface Pro 2 with my own money, I’d be a little disappointed, because it’s almost but not quite perfect, and for its price I expect perfection. But having received it from work, I’m satisfied. It’s a tablet that can replace my laptop (which itself replaced my desktop except for gaming – go Moore’s Law).