When Microsoft had to write down $900 million of unwanted inventory in July this year, there was only one device that could be responsible.
The Surface tablet – or, tablets rather; the RT and the more expensive Pro – weren't best loved by customers, with the original pair essentially laughed out of town when Microsoft claimed they offered the functionality of both a tablet and a laptop.
Microsoft are still making the same claims and it's still as difficult a challenge. However, with this update to the Surface line, they're closer than they've ever been before. Whilst broad swathes of the market attempt to be the 7-inch king of entertainment and with Apple positioning the iPad air as a productivity machine of their own, it's worth seeing exactly how far Microsoft have come with the Surface.
Note: There are two tiers of Surface devices – the more expensive and more powerful Intel-powered Surface Pro 2 and the ARM-powered Surface 2 (previously the Surface RT). The latter uses Windows RT 8.1 (which doesn’t support software designed for Windows 7 and earlier) whilst the former uses Windows 8.1 (the 'full fat'version). We do have something to say about the Surface 2 as well though, so read on.
Design and build
Firstly, the Surface Pro 2 is visually identical to its predecessor. It’s made from the same Microsoft-patented VaporMG material and still offers a distinctly ‘premium’ feel (although it also attracts both smudges and nicks). It also has the same port allocation, meaning there’s a USB 3.0 connection for your various sticks and drives - something the iPad still doesn't offer.
Unfortunately, the Pro 2 also has the Pro’s same weight problem: it’s 900g and more than half an inch thick. This may not sound like much but it’s just less than double the size and weight of the new iPad air and it means the Pro 2 never feels like a tablet. You wouldn’t take it out on the bus to read ebooks with, though you might if you could grab a table on the train.
The kickstand in the new Surface Pro 2 and Surface 2 can now be set at two different angles - meaning it's possible, but not easy, to use it on your lap.
Kickstand and keyboard
On a flat surface is where Microsoft’s 'hybrid' really comes into its own (though hopefully not where it got its name): attach a keyboard and plonk it on a desk or table and the Surface Pro 2 is a wonderful device. Microsoft have finally upgraded the kickstand so it works in two positions - one of which appropriate for an actual computer - and the keyboard accessories are beautifully designed.
Microsoft offers two of them, both of which do duty as a cover and are held into place by a pair of satisfyingly clunky magnets (never underestimate the psychological pleasure of a good clunk).
There's the £99.99 Touch Cover 2 and the £109.99 Type Cover 2. The Touch Cover is made out of a sort of felt material with a tiny touchpad on the bottom - it's backlit and beuatifully responsive but still feels awkward for long periods of typing. Happily the Type Cover is a perfect complement for th Surface Pro. It's a little thicker than the Touch Cover, sure, but for only £10 more it allows you type happily all day.
Battery and screen
The battery life is one of the most significant areas of improvement for the Surface Pro. The first generation barely lasted for longer than four hours at a time but the new version (with help from a firmware update out earlier this month) easily pushes past the eight hour mark.
This means you'll get a full day’s work out of it and considering how you might use the device (eg, a couple of hours a day during travel) then you might not even need a charger for days at a time.