Never one to be put in a corner, Microsoft exploded our ideas of what laptops and tablets should be when the Surface Pro arrived earlier this year.
Despite its similar size to the Surface RT, it ran full-blown Windows and included proper, powerful laptop components. It met the needs of demanding gadgeteers after Ultrabook power in a tablet form factor.
Despite its unclassifiable nature, we quickly became converts. Here was a 10.6in tablet capable of running hardcore software such as Photoshop and After Effects, which with the addition of a Touch or Type Cover provided proper laptop-style typing.
But there was room for improvement – especially with regards to battery life – and most gadgeteers soon realised they still needed both a tablet and a laptop in their lives.
Now Microsoft has refreshed the line with a cheaper starting price, battery-saving Intel Haswell innards, kick-ass kickstand and sensor-stacked Touch Cover 2 accessory. Plus it's also one of the first devices to land with Windows 8.1 out of the box.
So the Surface Pro 2 looks as though it's addressed our problems with the original, and now it doesn't cost the price of one and a half Ultrabooks either. Is this the gadget Microsoft needs to prove the true genius of Windows 8, or will it fall off our knees one time too many?
Microsoft has very much 'done an Apple' with the Surface Pro 2. Rather than ripping everything up and starting again, the changes over the original Surface Pro are almost too slight to notice. The 900g weight, size and 10.6-inch 1080p screen are the same, which is no bad thing given how much we liked the original design, though MS could have done a little work rebalancing the Surface Pro + kickstand + Touch Cover set-up to make it less top-heavy.
The biggest change is actually to the neato flip-out kickstand, which now bends back almost 90 degrees as well as the original 45-ish, making it far more comfortable to use for normal-sized humans at a desk. It does dig into your thighs a little, but not enough to cause a lack of circulation. And with all the electronics stacked behind the screen, you needn't worry about heat damaging your more delicate regions.
All that, and the news '80s tech fetishists were waiting for: the Surface Pro 2 is now also available in silver.
Still 1080p, now with added colour
The crisp, clear screen was one of the best aspects of the previous incarnation of the Surface Pro, packing a near-retina 208ppi in that 10.6-in Full HD display. Microsoft hasn’t upped the pixellage for the Surface Pro 2, putting the Surface 2 on a par resolution-wise, but it has ‘colour-tuned’ the screen to pump out more accurate hues than its predecessor.
It’s a stunner, with great viewing angles and intense HD playback. A bizarre niggle is that some Windows menus - such as device manager - look a little blurry. But this oddity can’t detract from how gorgeous and sharp the screen is. Not only does it give the best tablets a run for their money, the Pro 2's display will put most laptops to shame.
Beneath the Surface
Bigger changes lie under the Surface Pro 2's hood. At the nerve centre sits a dual-core Core i5 Intel Haswell processor tuned to 1.5GHz. It's much the same as the chip we found in Apple's latest MacBook Air, which means there's impressive power in that there silicon. Intel also provides the graphics chip in the form of HD4400, and it's backed up with a modest 4GB of DDR3 RAM.
Because Microsoft doesn't like us using its tablets as enormous pen drives our sample only came with a 64GB SSD. This is upgradeable at purchase to up to 512GB, but that will set you back a tear-inducing amount in total.
This is no nuclear-powered gaming PC, but it's seriously impressive that Microsoft has packed these components into a fat-ish tablet form factor which barely makes a sound and doesn't weigh a ton. It's quite a feat of engineering.
Dimensions: 275 x 173 x 13.5mm
Storage: 64/128/256/512GB SSD
Memory: 4GB (64/128GB), 8GB (256/512GB)
Display: 10.6in ClearType Full HD 1920 x 1080
Processor: 4th generation Intel® Core ™ i5 Processor
Cameras, Video & Audio: Two 720p HD cameras, front and rear-facing, Microphone, Stereo speakers
Ports: 1x USB 3.0, microSDXC card reader, headphone jack, Mini DisplayPort
You really can game on a Surface Pro. That integrated Intel HD 4400 chip can't compete with mid-range AMD or Nvidia graphics, and it's only a slight bump up from the HD 3000 in the original Pro, but it's happy with most games from a couple of years ago. (If you want a real gaming tablet, take a look at the portly Razer Edge Pro.)
Grid 2's cars look lovely and shiny (at least at the start of the race) and Source games such as Left4Dead and Portal 2 run slickly. Unreal Engine-powered shooters will also run, as long as you drop the resolution and turn off some of the more demanding effects.
What's most impressive, though, is how well the Surface Pro 2 works as a portable console. Whack an Xbox 360 pad into the USB 3.0 port (did we mention that?), plug in some 3.5mm headphones (although the internal speakers are as good as those of the best tablets) and you've got an excellent gaming experience in every room in the house, as well as on your public transportation vehicle of choice. Compared to your average, plasticky Android gamepad, it's awesome.
...and full-fat software
Now to the reason you're considering splashing out twice the price of a Retina iPad: the Pro 2's ability to handle real Windows programs via full Windows 8.1, and not just the sprinkling of tablet apps that its Windows RT-equipped Surface 2 sibling allows you to use.
The Surface Pro 2 is sprightly when it comes to hardcore image and video editing in programs such as Photoshop and Premiere Pro, although we did notice slight judders in the latter when it came to editing 1080p clips.
The advantage here is that you’re running full versions of both pieces of software, so there’s none of the stripped-back amateur fare that you'll find on iOS or Android-running competitors.
The stylus-based digitiser - co-designed by digi-pen expert Wacom - is particularly handy in Photoshop, with its pressure-sensitivity and accurate strokes creating the best stickman you’ve ever seen. Hey, we’re gadget testers, not artists. The digitiser's also clickable without batteries, taking a leaf out of Samsung's big book of magnetic fields, and even functions when you hover it above the screen.
As with gaming, it just doesn't get old being able to run full software on a supremely portable device, and the experience is night-and-day smoother than that of the slew of Windows 8 Pro tablets with Intel Atom processors, such as the gorgeous Lenovo Thinkpad Tablet 2.
While Windows 8.1 has taken some grand strides to being more usable on desktops, the way it runs on tablets is still much the same - although it does seem ever-so-slightly faster. Microsoft has also done a great job of streamlining the interface, with fewer taps necessary to update apps or switch accounts.
Internal apps such as the alarm and calculator are bold and touch-friendly, and Internet Explorer 11’s side-by-side tabbing is really useful. We did hope the new Windows 8.1-exclusive Facebook app would fill us with rage about friends' holidays in a very aesthetically-pleasing manner, but it completely failed to install.
Want more? Read Stuff's in-depth Windows 8.1 review.
You've got the touch
Our sample was supplied with a Touch Cover 2, which was positively brimming with possibilities in our early demos. Its 1092 touch sensors allow it to function as a massive multi-touch surface, but also features smart technology which detects keystrokes rather than brushes, which makes it a great deal more accurate than the original.
It kicks ass over an on-screen keyboard, but can't keep pace with a sorted hardware keyboard. There's quite a bit of flex when you use it on your lap, and because it's so thin, tapping becomes more akin to drumming, which could annoy the guy at the desk next to you.
The gestures are a mixed bag too - a horizontal swipe with two fingers is meant to move the cursor, but more often than not it results in a random jumble of letters appearing. And swiping or tapping to delete words or cycle through predictive text takes some getting used to. This could improve over time; we certainly hope it does.
The Touch Cover 2 costs an extra US$120 ($150) on top of the Surface Pro 2, but despite all of its built-in cleverness, we think that's a bit too much. We'd like it a whole lot more if Microsoft threw it in for free.
A Type Cover ($183) wasn't supplied with our sample, but with its proper keys it looks like a better investment if you're planning to use the Surface Pro for extended writing sessions. If you fancy turning the Surface Pro into a desktop you can pick up a docking station which adds extra USB ports, Ethernet and a monitor-out, due early 2014.
Double the battery
The single most disappointing aspect of the original Surface Pro was its battery life, which couldn't muster much more than a single film or a couple of hours of web browsing.
Happily the Surface Pro 2's battery life is far more reasonable – we managed to use it for general web browsing and writing this article for five hours before it fell over, which puts it on a par with most laptops and Ultrabooks (although a fair distance behind the similarly powerful MacBook Air). Sure, it's nothing to rave about, but with Core i5 on board it's not a bad showing. We'll update our review with a HD video rundown very shortly.
If this is all a little disappointing, there’s another accessory: a fatter, sturdier Power Cover which packs an extended battery as well as the Type keyboard on top. It'll apparently increase battery life by 75%, turning the Pro 2 into an all-day computing champion. It's coming early 2014.
Like Windows 8.1, the Surface Pro 2 proves that Microsoft's dream of uniting tablet and laptop could still make sense. There's nothing else quite like this device out there – with the exception of bulky beasts like the Razer Edge Pro – and if the Pro 2 ticks your ergonomic and aesthetic boxes, it'll reward you with a near-seamless 'real' computing experience.
We still love the solid, understated design and stunning screen. But it’s the improvements to battery life and components which make it far more practical and versatile, and they're what make it go straight into our list of the best tablets in the world, ousting the previous Surface Pro.
If you’re considering a new laptop, a new tablet, or indeed both, take a step back and consider all the options: with the Pro 2, Microsoft has turned Surface into a real contender.