Surface 2 and Pro: The Devices

This is the second installment of my “Surface 2 and Pro” series. My first post, Surface 2 and Pro: The People, covered a bit of the launch event as well as the people behind the Surface. Here I’ll cover the specifics of the devices and the peripherals and what they mean from a user perspective.

To recap, on Monday, September 23, 2013, in New York City, Microsoft unveiled the second generation of its Surface line, the Surface 2 (formerly the RT) and the Surface Pro 2. I was lucky to be one of a dozen or so Surface enthusiasts Microsoft invited to the event to share the experiences we’ve had with the Surface since its release a year ago and to get a sneak peak at the new devices.

I’ll cover the devices in the same order Panos Panay did in his keynote, Surface Pro 2 first then Surface 2. I’ll finish with the peripherals.

Surface Pro 2

The Surface Pro 2 looks and feels identical to the Surface Pro — same elegant design, same svelte VaporMg casing, same weight. But that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. The Surface team set out to make the Surface Pro 2 better in every way and, as you’ll see below, I think they accomplished more than anyone thought they would even attempt. Here are the improvements that were specifically addressed in the keynote.

  • Performance – 20% performance improvement over the Surface Pro. This comes from the new Intel i5 Haswell processor as well as other internal hardware improvements that weren’t specifically discussed. Panos pointed out that both the Surface Pro and Pro 2 are faster than 95% of the laptops in the market today. I don’t have any test results to back this claim, but if you’ve ever used a Surface Pro you know it’s fast and the Surface Pro 2 steps it up another 20%. Don’t let its size fool you. The Surface Pro 2 is a powerful laptop and desktop replacement in tablet form. It can easily handle pretty much anything you throw at it.
  • Graphics – 50% performance improvement over the Surface Pro. That’s right, 50%. To demonstrate how powerful this is, Panos demonstrated jogging through raw 6K video downloaded from a RED Dragon camera using Assimilate software. That’s 9x the resolution of full HD and it handled it without even the slightest of delays or stutters. For anyone that needs robust graphics performance, like video or photo editors, the Surface Pro 2 should be on your short list.
  • Display – the screen is the same awesome 1080p ClearType HD display that was in the Surface Pro, but now with 46% better color accuracy. It is also calibrated to industry color standards straight out of the box. That means if you’re a video or photo editor or artist that relies on accurate color reproduction, there’s no need for third-party calibration. Just turn it on and go. It should also be noted that the screen has about half the reflectivity of any competing device. Low reflectivity improves screen readability and reduces eye strain.
  • Memory – the Surface Pro comes with 4 GB of RAM. That’s still true of the 64GB and 128GB variants of the Surface Pro 2, but the 256 GB and 512 GB SSD variants will come with 8 GB of RAM. This may not mean much to the average user, because the machine is so powerful even with just 4GB, but for those that do heavy processing tasks like video and photo editing, CAD/CAM, gaming, programming, etc., the extra speed offered by another 4GB will come in handy.
  • Battery Life – despite the performance improvements listed above, the Surface Pro 2 is purportedly able to achieve 75% better battery life, with the same size battery as the Surface Pro. There have been a wide range of reported usage times for the Surface Pro, anywhere from 4 to 8 hours, but let’s be conservative and assume that the average user is getting 4 to 5 hours of normal usage. That’s actually what I’ve been averaging pretty consistently. With a 75% increase that bumps battery life to somewhere around 7 to 9 hours. That’s 7 to 9 hours of battery life for a full powered i5 Haswell PC in a 2 pound tablet form factor. Add the Power Cover (really the Power Type Cover) and you’re looking at 2.5x the battery life compared to the Surface Pro. That would be 10 to 12 hours. I’ll go over the Power Cover in the peripherals section.
  • Speakers – some have complained about the Surface Pro speakers being too weak. I was one of those people, although I recently found a solution (Sound > Playback > Speakers > Properties > Enhancements > check Loudness Equalization) that makes a big difference in the boost. Nonetheless the Surface team boosted the power of the speakers in the Pro 2. They also added Dolby Digital processing. The sound quality from the Surface Pro was already top notch, with excellent sound reproduction from the built-in speakers or through earphones, but Dolby takes it to another level.
  • Kickstand – the kickstand now has two positions. The first position is the same 22 degrees found on the Surface Pro. This is just fine for average height people, but it was found that for working on your lap or for taller people a more horizontal screen position was needed. So now there’s a second position at 44 degrees. I was able to try it out at the announcement and it does make a big difference. It’s particularly great when you’re standing at a desk or counter looking down on the machine. The 44 degree position was perfect.
  • Runs Cooler and Quieter – there were no specific figures given, but it was claimed the Surface Pro 2 runs cooler and quieter than the Surface Pro. This hasn’t been a big issue, but if you read product reviews and tech forum comments some people have complained about occasional heat and fan whir. Whether or not you’ve had problems, cooler and quieter can never be a bad thing.
  • Pricing – pricing starts a $899 for the 64 GB SSD with 4 GB of RAM, the same price as the Pro 64 GB model; 128 GB and 4 GB is $999; 256 GB and 8 GB is $1,299; and 512 GB and 8 GB is $1,799. I think the Pro 2 is well priced, particularly given the upgrades from the Pro, although the jump from a 256 GB to 512 GB SSD seems a bit much. I think the sweet spot will be the 256 GB model. Remember, you can add another 64 GB of storage with the micro SDXC slot.

The beauty of the Surface Pro was that it was the first computing device to offer true 3-in-1 capabilities. It could be a desktop, a laptop, or a tablet. It could be a simple content consumption device in tablet form, say to watch Netflix or listen to music, but it could also be a powerful laptop and desktop replacement. Surface Pro 2, with all its upgrades, makes the device that much more versatile and powerful. If you’ve never used a Surface Pro, stop by your local Microsoft Store to get some hands-on. Or honestly, go ahead and pre-order the Surface Pro 2 because odds are pretty solid that you’ll love it.

Surface 2

The Surface 2, formerly the RT, has been completely redesigned. I mean completely redesigned, from the hardware internals to the VaporMg casing to the screen. This isn’t the typical gen 2 incremental upgrade you usually see from device makers.

For those of you not familiar with the difference between the Surface Pro/Pro 2 and the Surface RT/2, let me explain, because there has definitely been some confusion. The Surface Pro/Pro 2 is the same as any Windows PC you’ve ever used, it just happens to be in the form of what we’ve come to define as a “tablet”. It can run any Windows “desktop” application from consumer to enterprise, and it can also run all of the finger-friendly “tablet” apps from the Windows Store.

The Surface RT/2 is an ARM based device that is most similar to what we’ve come to define as a “tablet”, a device primarily meant to be used to consume content like videos, photos, music, surfing the web, reading email, etc. It’s a direct competitor to the iPad and Android tablets, whereas the Surface Pro/Pro 2 are direct competitors to traditional laptops and desktops. However, the Surface RT/2 also allows you to be productive because it includes the full Office suite including Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote. I’ll get into this more below.

  • Performance – it’s now powered by a Tegra 4 processor versus the Tegra 3 in the RT and if you believe the benchmarking tests it runs 3x to 4x faster than the Tegra 3. Microsoft also doubled the bus size for RAM (2 GB of it) and WiFi. This means much higher data throughput for processing and wireless data transmission. And that means much better performance. In total, the Surface 2 is claimed to run 3x to 4x faster than the RT. Whereas people complained about the RT being at times slow or laggy, the Surface 2 takes “tablet” performance to another level for seamless operation. In fact, Panos demonstrated running all of the Office applications in the background, all open simultaneously in their own cascaded Windows, while playing Halo Spartan Assault. There was no lag whatsoever. Unless you’re a power user that should really have the Surface Pro or Pro 2, the Surface 2 should meet all of your content consumption and Office productivity needs with aplomb.
  • Graphics – graphics has been improved considerably. The Tegra 3 chip had 12 GPU cores whereas the Tegra 4 chip has 72 cores. That means fast and fluid graphics without lag, be it watching videos or playing games. Part of the demonstration was transmitting Halo Spartan Assault to a massive projection screen via the HDMI port and it was flawless.
  • Display – the Surface 2 now gets the same incredible 1080p ClearType HD display that was upgraded for the Surface Pro 2. This is a major improvement from the 1366 x 768 display in the RT, with better resolution, better color reproduction, and better reflectivity. It still only supports 5 touch points instead of the 10 for the Surface Pro and Pro 2, but I’ve yet to see anyone use more than a couple of fingers simultaneously, so I can’t imagine this will be a problem.
  • USB 3.0 – the RT had a USB 2.0 port, the Surface 2 gets upgraded to a USB 3.0 port just like in the Surface Pro and Pro 2. That means theoretical data transfer speeds of 5 Gbps (gigabits per second) versus 480 Mbps (megabits per second) with USB 2.0. That’s about 10x the transfer rate. So whether you’re connecting an external hard drive, an Xbox controller (they were using a wireless Xbox controller running through a USB dongle while playing Halo), a USB-to-Ethernet adapter, etc., you should have no problems with data transfer speeds.
  • Cameras – The back camera has 5x the resolution of the back camera in the RT. The front camera now has a 1/3 inch sensor that allows for incredible low light performance. Panos demonstrated the low light capability on a Skype call. The lights in the room were dimmed to almost complete darkness and the sensor, along with the improved software behind it, effectively adjusted the ISO to maintain a constant brightness as if the lights were still on. The point of it is that making a video call should be as easy as clicking a button. You shouldn’t have to worry about lighting because lighting isn’t always controllable. Let the device do the work for you.
  • Battery Life – Surface 2 gets 25% better battery life than Surface RT, with the same sized battery. Panos said he uses it for well above 12 hours per day with his use case. Obviously, mileage will vary depending on how you use the device, but 10+ hours should be pretty easy to hit. With the Power Cover you’re looking at 20+ hours.
  • Kickstand – the kickstand now has two positions, 22 degrees and 44 degrees, just like the Surface Pro 2.
  • Windows – comes with Windows RT 8.1, which is a major update over 8.0. But I’m not going to go into that. What you need to know about Windows on the Surface 2 is that it isn’t your typical “tablet” operating system. Think of it as Windows Lite. You can’t run traditional PC applications like on the Surface Pro/Pro 2, just as you can’t run Mac applications on an iPad, but unlike iOS on the iPad, with Windows RT you can setup multiple user accounts on a single device so that each user can install their own apps, arrange their Live Tiles however they like, and personalize all of their app and OS settings; and you can do true multitasking, running multiple applications at the same time, in their own windows on the desktop and side-by-side on the Start Screen. You can setup multiple accounts on an Android tablet, but you can’t do true multitasking and certainly not in multiple program windows. If you don’t think true multitaking and windowing isn’t a big deal, give it a try on a Surface RT or Surface 2. I think you’ll change your mind.
  • Office – Office came pre-installed on the RT, but 8.1 now has Outlook. So now you get Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote for free, included in the price of the device. And this is full Office, identical to what you’d find on a traditional PC, the code has just been rewritten to run on the ARM architecture of the Tegra chip. And because of the power of Windows RT 8.1, you can run all of the Office applications simultaneously, in their own windows, just like you’ve always been able to do on a PC.
  • SkyDrive – with the purchase of a Surface 2 you get 200 GB of SkyDrive storage free for 2 years. That’s a $200 value. 
  • Skype – you get one year of free international Skype calling and free Skype WiFi hotspot usage at millions of WiFi hotspots. That’s at least a $60 value. Although if you’re a big Skype user it’s worth much more than that to you.
  • Apps – RT launched with 10,000 apps. There are now 100,000 apps in the Store and it’s growing daily and app quality is constantly improving.
  • Pricing –  32 GB is $449, $50 cheaper than the initial pricing on the RT. The 64 GB model is $549. Seriously? Given the major upgrades made to the RT, to get it $50 cheaper than the first gen device is incredible value.

Let me hit on the pricing again, because it’s really insane. Let’s say you splurge and get the 64 GB model for $549. Subtract the value of Office, which is at a minimum $99 (much more really on a value basis because you get to use it for the life of the machine, plus you get free upgrades), 200 GB of SkyDrive storage for two years ($200 value), and free Skype ($60+). That’s $360+ worth of software and services for free in a $549 device. Effectively, that means you’re getting the device for no more than $200. If you were to buy the 32 GB model, it’ll cost you a net $100. That’s absolutely incredible value.

Peripherals

Both the Surface Pro 2 and the Surface 2 are impressive devices, but with the new peripherals they are even better.

  • Docking Station – the docking station was designed to work with the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2. It doesn’t work with the Surface RT/2. While the Surface Pro could be turned into a desktop using an HDMI-to-VGA dongle and a Bluetooth keyboard and mouse, the docking station is a more elegant solution. The docking station clicks into the USB 3.0 port and the power port on the sides. There is no need to remove the Touch or Type Cover. It has a display port that supports two monitors and up to 3840 x 2160 resolution, an audio input/output jack, an Ethernet port, a USB 3.0 port and 3 USB 2.o ports. It also charges the battery while docked. Price is $200.
  • Power Cover – the Power Cover (or Power Type Cover) has a 30 watt-hour battery. It’s identical to the Type Cover 2, just thicker and heavier because of the battery. Attached to the Surface Pro 2, it gets 2.5x the battery life as the Surface Pro on the built-in battery. That means a realistic battery life of 10 to 12 hours. Attached to the Surface 2 you’re looking at 20+ hours of life. If you need ultimate portability, the Power Cover is a must-have option. It charges when attached to a Surface while you’re charging the Surface. The Surface battery charges first, then the Power Cover. When disconnected from a power outlet, the Power Cover battery is used first, then the built-in battery. And when the device is turned off the Power Cover charges the device. In every use case, the Power Cover’s job is to keep the built-in battery charged as long as possible. The Power Cover is slated to be released early next year and isn’t yet listed in the Microsoft Store. Pricing is unavailable at this time.
  • Touch Cover 2 – this is a major upgrade over the original Touch Cover. The gen 1 Touch Cover had 80 sensors, gen 2 has 1,092 sensors. This means much more accurate typing, both physical and predictive. Touch Cover 2 will also support gestures. Additionally, the Touch Cover 2 is backlit and the backlighting is proximity activated, not touch activated. It turns off completely to save battery if not used for about 10 seconds. Type Cover 2 is 2.5 mm thick, 1 mm thinner than gen 1. Pricing is $120, just like gen 1.
  • Type Cover 2 – 1 mm thinner than gen 1 and is now almost as thin as Touch Cover 1. This was accomplished by taking 1 mm of travel out of the key switch, but at the same time improving the switch for a better feel and faster typing. The keys are now also silent, meaning you can type in a meeting or in class without annoying everyone with your tap-tap-tapping. It is also backlit with proximity sensing and auto shutoff, just like the Touch Cover 2. Pricing is $130, just like gen 1.
  • Surface Music Kit – I’m not sure of the details, but it is rumored that the “blade” for The Surface Remix Project will be available for purchase. The Surface Remix Project and its custom “blade” is the first step in exploring the almost limitless possibilities of the Surface line. Check it out and dream up what you might like to see in a custom blade.
  • Wireless Adapter for Type Covers – affectionately referred to as the “chopstick”, this is a Bluetooth wireless adapter, with a built-in rechargeable battery, that attaches to the hinge of your Touch or Type cover and turns it into a wireless keyboard. So you could, for instance, set your Surface next to your TV and connect it via an HDMI cable while sitting on your couch wirelessly typing away. The chopstick can be charged using any standard micro-USB cable. Pretty cool. It’s priced at $60.

As you can see, the updates to the Surface line are major. From the improvements to the Surface Pro 2 to the complete redesign of the Surface 2 to the awesome new peripherals, the gen 2 Surface line is a game changer. Pre-order is available now and the devices will be available on October 22. If you’ve never used a Surface, stop by your local Microsoft Store to get some hands-on time. I think you’ll be very impressed.

Surface 2 and Pro: The People

On Monday, September 23, 2013, in New York City, Microsoft unveiled the second generation of its Surface line, the Surface 2 (formerly the RT) and the Surface Pro 2. I was lucky to be one of a dozen or so Surface enthusiasts Microsoft invited to the event to share the experiences we’ve had with the Surface since its release a year ago and to get a sneak peak at the new devices. It was nerdvana. And it was extra special for me, because I had just gotten married in Los Angeles two days before. That my wife let me come to the announcement, without first getting an annulment, proved once and for all she is the one. I love you babers!

The day started with a presentation from Panos Panay, the head of the Surface team, during which he outlined the myriad improvements made to the gen 2 devices. After the presentation, we got some hands-on time with both Surfaces and a host of new peripherals. The demonstration space was broken into two sections. One section had functional devices where you could sample both the S2 and the SP2 along with the new Touch and Type covers. RED Digital Cinema and Assimilate were also there demonstrating how they use the SP/SP2 in their movie production workflow, transferring 4K+ video straight from their cameras to the device for on-set footage review. The second section had the devices broken apart so you could see the insides, with Surface engineers there to talk you through the whys and hows of the Surface design and the improvements from gen 1. This is also where the new peripherals were displayed.

I’m not going to go into the details of the new devices in this post but, in short, the new Surface line is a game changer. The Surface 2 is a complete redesign of the RT, not just an incremental upgrade. The Surface Pro, with improved performance and significantly longer battery life, now offers power users true all day mobile computing. The peripherals, ranging from the “chopstick” adapter that turns the Touch/Type Covers into wireless keyboards, to the upcoming Power Type Cover with a built-in battery for extended battery life, to the docking station that officially transforms the Surface Pro into a full power desktop, takes things to another level. But as impressive as the new devices are, even more impressive are the people behind them and their vision.

Mr. Panay set the tone. His presentation was heartfelt and passionate. That he is proud of what the Surface team has accomplished is an understatement. Throughout the 15 hour day, I had the chance to speak with everyone from the head of Surface engineering to the head of Surface marketing, and the message was consistent. If I could sum up their feelings it would be something like, “Yes, we are proud of what we have created, but we know this is just the beginning. With Windows 8, the Surface, and what is to come, we will completely change the way the world looks at computing and help people do things they never before thought possible.”

Perhaps the biggest first step in the “never before thought possible” direction is The Surface Remix Project, with its custom DJ “blade”. Along that same line, Microsoft teamed up with the Art Center College of Design to brainstorm custom blades for a wide variety of uses. Honestly, if you can imagine it, you can probably make a custom blade for it. What custom blade would you like to see for the Surface?

But it doesn’t stop with blades. I think what surprised me most about the Surface team was that they were there to learn just as much as they were to show the new devices. What do you like about the Surface? What don’t you like about the Surface? What features would you like to see next on the Surface? What other ways do you think the Surface could be used? Typical marketing questions, right? Except they were being asked by the head of Surface engineering.

It’s not that he and his team haven’t been asking and answering these questions all along. It isn’t that they aren’t paying attention to feedback on the Internet (they are fully aware of the Surface’s praises and criticisms). For him it was another brainstorming session, with real users in a casual setting, getting honest, unfiltered feedback. Sometimes innovation is sparked by the smallest of ideas. And you can rest assured that the Surface team has plenty of ideas for future releases. I can’t go into details, but I will say that I would be incredibly surprised if you aren’t impressed by gen 3+. Not that gen 2 isn’t itself amazing.

To wrap it up, let me say this. Gadget geeks often get the impression that the people behind the scenes don’t get it, that they don’t care what consumers need and want. But after spending a day with a subset of the Surface team, I can assure you they get it. They know what we need, they know what we want, and they are working hard to create the devices (that we can afford) that will meet our demands and that will shape the future of computing.