Microsoft Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 benchmarks and hands-on

Microsoft launched the next-generation Surface 2 and Surface 2 Pro at an event in New York City on Monday, pairing them with a number of new covers and other accessories designed to enhance the functionality of the basic Surface experience. The basic message is that Microsoft has enhanced the Surface with additional performance, while extending battery life and slimming down the tablet’s overall profile with skinnier covers.

Old Surface Pro versus new Surface 2.

On the first count, Microsoft certainly appears to have succeeded; the addition of an upgraded Core processor to the Surface Pro 2 undeniably improves the tablet. A quick hands-on with both the new Touch and Type Covers leaves me thinking that Microsoft has taken a step back with its portable keyboards, however.

Surface 2 Pro: Can you play games? Yes

Inside the Surface 2 Pro is a self-reported Intel Core i5-4200 “Haswell” CPU running at 1.6GHz, versus the Core i5-3317u “Ivy Bridge” chip at 1.7GHz that powered the original Surface.

The original Surface Pro conked out under heavy load in just 2.5 hours or so, though lighter Web browsing and battery management could push it out a couple more. One Microsoft employee we talked to felt that the new Surface Pro 2 could pull 5 hours under heavy gaming. (With the new Power Cover, battery life will be extended to 10-plus hours.) A more formal review will settle the difference.

What is clear, however, is that the Surface Pro 2 is definitely a gaming machine of some sort. Microsoft showed off World of Warcraft and Portal 2 running smoothly—yes, these games are several years old, but they do run, and well.

A face-down Surface 2 shows off the new kickstand angle.

Still, numbers generally don’t lie. I slipped in a USB key with FutureMark’s PCMark 7 suite (the Surface won’t run a test or two in our more recent WorldBench 8 and 8.1 tests). We re-benchmarked the original Surface Pro (128 GB/4 GB RAM) and generated a score of 4,447. The new Surface Pro 2 (256 GB/8 GB RAM) returned a score of 4,888 using the identical benchmark—just 9 percent better. That’s not earth-shattering, but we are talking about generational improvements from one set of integrated GPUs to the next.

Since our tests are confined to x86 processors, we didn’t benchmark the ARM processor-based Surface 2. It felt speedy enough, but that’s a very basic impression.

The new Type Cover: hmmm....

Let’s be clear: Typing is a personal activity, and most users have their own set of subjective preferences regarding their own keyboards, mice, and monitors. I’ve never liked using the Touch Cover, for example, if only because the relative lack of tactile feedback slows me down and forces me to hunt and peck more than usual. But I’ve always felt that the Type Cover nearly provided a full keyboard experience, with satisfactory tactile feedback and a travel distance that made me feel like I was using a desktop keyboard.

The new Type Cover is about a millimeter thinner than the original.

Subjectively, I tend to prefer big and clunky—and that’s not the direction Microsoft is moving in. Both the new Type and Touch Covers are slimmer than before, shaving off a millimeter or so of thickness on each. But Microsoft also took a real step forward, adding dynamic backlights that sense the presence of your hands and turn off when not in use. Backlights don’t seem like a big deal, but that misunderstanding disappears the first time you take your tablet or laptop into a crowded conference room or lecture hall and the lights dim.

I brought my old Surface Pro along, both for the plane ride to New York as well as to the event itself for a direct comparison. Personally, the Type Cover feels like a small step back—not huge, but noticeable.

And while I still don’t like the Touch Cover, well, it felt slightly more usable than I remember it.  (And no, I don’t know if the older Touch Covers can be used with the new model.)

Striding boldly forward

The new Surface 2 docking station, due next year.

Microsoft didn’t have the Docking Station (right, and at top) or the Power Cover set up to use, leaving me with the impression that the company is still finalizing the design.

I suspect—well, hope—that Microsoft’s on to something here, though. If Microsoft plays its cards right, the Docking Station could transform the Surface into the engine powering something like a desktop, while the Power Cover could add the stability to make the Surface a true convertible tablet or two-in-one. (In a nice touch, Microsoft employees told me that the Power Cover charges the Surface’s internal battery, so that you can grab it and go if need be.)

Quite frankly, Panos Panay, the Microsoft executive in charge of the Surface launch, oversold it a bit. Seriously: “lapability”? What does that mean, exactly? If it means the ability to work with the Surface in a lap — maaaayybee. Neither the Touch nor Type Cover nor the dual kickstand gives me the feeling of working with a notebook in my lap. I’m hoping a more rigid Battery Cover changes that impression.

Surface Remix

Honestly, I didn’t really play with the ”Surface Remix” project that Microsoft had on hand, both because of a lack of time and without knowing if it would be a finished product. If you’re an audiophile or DJ, however, it’s worth checking out.

The bottom line: the additional performance and battery life are unquestionably significant strides forward for the Surface tablet. The new covers? Not so much. Microsoft’s message appears to be that the Surface is an engine of productivity; at this point, I’d go so far as to say that my fingers will want the old Type Covers back, backlit keyboard or no backlit keyboard.

Microsoft didn’t supply Surface tablets for review, so our analysis was based on limited time with demo units at the company’s launch event.

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