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Microsoft Surface Pro 2 review: Better battery and performance, same thick body

This slate sequel has better battery life and performance, but the thick body feels more like a Surface Pro 1.5.

Dan Ackerman Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming
Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
11 min read

Editors' note (June 29, 2017): Microsoft has unveiled its followup to the acclaimed Surface Pro 4. (The Surface Pro 3 and Pro 2, which is reviewed below, have been discontinued.) Called, simply, the Surface Pro, the newest version is very similar to the Pro 4 model but has modest improvements that include incrementally better battery life, a newer processor, and a quieter, fanless design. On the downside, the Surface Pen stylus that came bundled with previous editions is no longer included by default and the new keyboard covers are more expensive than ever. That noted, the new $799 Surface Pro ($1,027 with the Surface Pen and basic black keyboard cover) remains the gold standard for Windows hybrid PCs though it does not warrant the upgrade from current Surface Pro 4 owners. 


Microsoft Surface Pro 2

The Good

The <b>Microsoft Surface Pro 2</b> is a faster, longer-battery-life version of the original model, upgraded with a current-gen Haswell processor. The keyboard cover is also improved with backlit keys, and is among the best tablet accessories ever devised.

The Bad

The Surface Pro 2 remains stubbornly thick and heavy compared with some sleeker competitors. The base 64GB version may leave you starved for storage, and the keyboard cover, practically required, should be included instead of sold separately.

The Bottom Line

Microsoft's subtly updated Windows 8.1 tablet feels more like Surface Pro 1.5 -- improved battery life and better accessories make it a worthwhile (albeit pricey) laptop replacement, but it's still not an iPad-level category killer.

Editors' note: The review of Microsoft's Surface Pro 2, originally published in October 2013 and updated since, follows.

Just in time for Microsoft's Windows 8.1 operating system update, the company's flagship Surface tablet line is also getting a makeover. Or in the case of the $899 Surface Pro 2, it's more of a makeunder -- there's no flashy physical redesign, as with the thinner, lighter, higher-res Surface 2 (the updated Windows RT version that starts at $449).

Of course, you're probably here because the Surface 2, despite its myriad improvements, isn't a "real PC." Unlike that model's compromised Windows RT operating system, the Surface Pro 2 reviewed here runs the real-deal Windows 8.1, which includes full backwards compatibility with older Windows programs, not just the ones available in the Windows Store.

In addition to having the operating system edge on its non-Pro sibling, the Surface Pro 2 also packs some internal improvements compared to the first-generation Surface Pro. A new Intel fourth-generation Core i5 processor -- along with some internal system tweaking by Microsoft -- has delivered notably improved battery life. The Pro 2 lasted nearly 7 hours in our admittedly tough battery test, versus just 4.5 on the original. Still not MacBook Air territory, but it's a worthwhile leap. Sweetening the deal is the Surface's ingenious detachable keyboard cover (available in flat Touch and real-key Type versions, both now with a handy backlight), which remains miles ahead of anything else available for slate computing.

Scratching the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 (pictures)

See all photos

But a keyboard cover isn't included in the purchase price, even though it's frankly crazy to buy a Surface without one. That $120-$130 add-on makes the Surface Pro 2's $899 starting price feel illusory. Further, that $899 is only for a 64GB solid-state drive (SSD) version, less storage than you'll find in most similarly priced ultrabooks. For a more reasonable 128GB SSD version, it's $999, and when you add in a Type Cover, you're looking at an investment of over $1,100 just to get started with the Surface Pro 2.

The Surface Pro 2 is also entering a crowded market of Windows 8.1 PCs in all shapes and sizes that are either out now or coming soon. Among the closest competitor is Sony's comparably priced Sony Vaio Tap 11, which outshines the Surface Pro 2 in many ways -- it's thinner and lighter, despite having a slightly larger screen, and its included keyboard cover has a more traditional keyboard layout and a larger touch pad (that said, I like the magnetic clasp and wide kickstand of the Surface Pro 2 better).

In comparison, the still-chunky Surface Pro 2 is left feeling more like a Surface Pro 1.5, at least in terms of design. And yet, that may not be such a bad thing for Microsoft. The Surface Pro was intended from the beginning to show the way for PC makers to design and build better tablets, and it looks like that's actually starting to happen.

Microsoft Surface Pro 2MacBook Air 11-inch (June 2013)Sony Vaio Tap 11
Display size/resolution10.6-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen11.6-inch, 1,766x768 screen11.1-inch, 1,920x1,080 touch screen
PC CPU1.6GHz Intel Core i5-4200U1.3GHz Intel Core i5-4250U1.5GHz Intel Core i5-4210Y
PC memory4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz4GBDDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz
Graphics1,792MB Intel HD 44001,024MB Intel HD Graphics 50001,739MB Intel HD Graphics 4200
Storage64GB SSD hard drive128GB SSD hard drive128GB SSD hard drive
Optical driveNoneNoneNone
Networking802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0802.11a/c wireless, Bluetooth 4.0802.11b/g/n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating systemWindows 8.1 (64-bit)OSX Mountain Lion 10.8.4Windows 8 (64-bit)

Design and features
The body of the Surface Pro 2 looks and feels almost exactly like the original version, and its measurements are the same. The body does have a couple of subtle changes, however. The logo branding on the back panel is different, reading "Surface" rather than "Microsoft," and the built-in kickstand now adjusts to two different angles, making the screen easier to see from different positions. The original one-size-fits-all kickstand made the screen hard to see and interact with unless you happened to be sitting at precisely the optimal angle.

At the same time as the Surface Pro 2, Microsoft is introducing another new product, the Surface 2. This is the updated Windows RT version of the original Microsoft Surface, and it features a slightly slimmer body, an updated Nvidia processor, and a higher-resolution screen than the original RT version of the Surface. The Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 share the same screen now, and it's been color-tuned for greater accuracy. While the Surface Pro 2 still comes in a slatelike "dark titanium" color, the Windows RT Surface 2 is now a lighter, silver color called magnesium. Overall, while I think the Surface Pro 2 is the more useful product, I wish it had gotten the same design love as the RT version.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The best part of the original Surface line was its optional snap-on keyboards, and both have been updated. The Touch Cover has flat keys that work, but they offer less tactile feedback than serious typists need, while the Type Cover has island-style keys that are shallow, but still very usable.

The $119.99 Touch Cover 2 is about one-third thinner than the original version, but at the same time, more rigid for easier typing. The old system of one sensor under each key has been replaced with a full array of sensors, allowing partial keystrokes to be counted more easily and accurately, and supporting a handful of gestures.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The $129.99 Type Cover 2, with its full separate-key keyboard, is thinner as well, and remains one of the things people like best about the Surface. Its magnetic connection is powerful enough that you don't have to worry about it coming loose, and, while the closely packed keys take a little getting used to, it's comfortable and accurate for long-form typing. The touch pad is small, but responsive -- and you're clearly meant to use the touch screen for much of your navigation.

Microsoft has also shown off a second kind of Type Cover that includes an integrated battery. Only slightly thicker than the standard Type Cover, this would allow the systems to run even longer by combining the internal battery and the secondary keyboard battery, an idea already used in a handful of Windows 8 laptop-tablet hybrids. A $59 Bluetooth adapter for the keyboard covers (yes, it's an accessory for an accessory) will snap onto the top of the keyboard and allow you to use it remotely as a Bluetooth keyboard. In the not-sold-separately department, as with the original Surface Pro, you also get an active-stylus Surface Pen that magnetically attaches to the power connector for transport.

Again, both the Touch Cover 2 and Type Cover 2 are backlit. Especially for a system intended for frequent travel, as a tablet is presumed to be, a backlit keyboard is practically required, as you can easily end up in a dimly lit coffee shop, airplane, or meeting room.

The only real regret here is that the keyboard covers are not included with the $899-and-up Surface Pro 2, and remain an expensive add-on.

The Surface Pro and Tap 11 keyboard covers.

Sarah Tew/CNET

By way of comparison, the keyboard cover included with the Sony Vaio Tap 11 doesn't attach via a magnetic hinge; instead its wireless connection allows you to move it anywhere nearby. It's certainly more flexible, but also lacks the more laptoplike feel of the Surface Pro's kickstand-plus-keyboard setup. The Vaio version has keys that are slightly smaller, set up island-style, with empty space between each key. The latter much more closely resembles current laptop keyboards, and feels marginally better to type on. However, it's thin, and in the lap it flexes a good deal even under moderate typing.

The Surface Pro 2 has a 10.6-inch display with a native resolution of 1,920x1,080 pixels, which is what we'd expect from a laptop or tablet in this price range. That's a major point of differentiation from lower-cost Intel Atom tablets, which usually have lower 1,366x768-pixel-resolution screens. Microsoft says the Surface Pro 2 has an "optically bonded ClearType Full HD display," and an ambient light sensor can adjust the screen brightness automatically. Compared with the very similar Sony Vaio Tap 11, the Surface Pro 2's screen was brighter and crisper, with excellent off-axis viewing angles.

Audio is decent for such a small system, but the small physical size of the chassis restricts how much air a speaker can actually move. For Skype or other camera usage, both the front and rear cameras are 720p, and take advantage of the improvements to the default Windows camera app in the recent Windows 8.1.

Connections, performance, and battery
With a body as thick as an ultrabook, one might reasonably expect more ports and connections from the Surface Pro 2. The single USB 3.0 port feels skimpy, and it's accompanied by Mini DisplayPort and a microSD card slot, which means you'll likely need adapters to use those.

However, there is a silver lining. A dedicated Surface Pro dock was sorely missing from the original Surface launch. Now, making the Surface 2 more viable for business use, Microsoft is adding a docking station. This $199.99 add-on sits under the Surface Pro 2 and includes USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports, an Ethernet jack, a Mini DisplayPort connection, and audio in/out jacks.

Microsoft Surface Pro 2
VideoMini DisplayPort
AudioStereo speakers, combo headphone/microphone jack
Data1 USB 3.0, microSD card reader
Networking802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical driveNone

The Surface Pro 2 starts (as the original Pro did) at $899, but the RAM can be upgraded from 4GB to 8GB, and the internal storage can be upgraded up to a 512GB solid-state drive (SSD), with a full 8GB/512GB configuration costing $1,799. Our review system was the base $899 model.

The Surface Pro 2 slightly outperformed the previous version in most of our benchmark tests, and was faster than the Sony Vaio Tap 11, which uses an even lower-power Core i5 Y-series chip, as opposed to the U-series in the Surface Pro. With its almost-laptop feel, thanks to the kickstand and keyboard cover, the robust Surface Pro 2 feels like you can throw any mainstream workload at it, from Photoshop to HD video playback to office tasks, and have it feel just as zippy as the bigger laptop probably sitting on your desk right now. The main barrier to all-day productivity is probably going to be the smaller screen size.

The biggest difference between the original Surface Pro and the Surface Pro 2 is the latter's upgrade to Intel's fourth-generation Core i-series CPUs, sometimes known by the code name Haswell. These new chips offer only modest boosts to system performance, but are important because they offer serious battery life improvement.

Microsoft has further said that its own internal optimizations also contribute to better battery life. However credit should be assigned, the results were pleasing, with the Surface Pro 2 running for 6 hours and 55 minutes in our video playback battery drain test. The original Surface Pro ran for only about 4 hours and 30 minutes in the same test, and its middling battery life was one of the main knocks against it.

Multimedia multitasking test (in seconds)

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

MacBook Air 11-inch (June 2013)

Microsoft Surface Pro 2


Microsoft Surface Pro


Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11


Sony Vaio Tap 11


Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test (in seconds)

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Microsoft Surface Pro

Microsoft Surface Pro 2


Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11


Sony Vaio Tap 11


MacBook Air 11-inch (June 2013)


Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

MacBook Air 11-inch (June 2013)

Microsoft Surface Pro 2


Microsoft Surface Pro


Sony Vaio Tap 11


Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11


HandBrake MMT (in seconds)

(Shorter bars indicate better performance)

Microsoft Surface Pro 2

MacBook Air 11-inch (June 2013)


Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11


Sony Vaio Tap 11


Video playback battery drain test (in minutes)

(Longer bars indicate better performance)

MacBook Air 11-inch (June 2013)

Microsoft Surface Pro 2


Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 11


Sony Vaio Tap 11


Microsoft Surface Pro


Sarah Tew/CNET

The Surface Pro 2 feels like a modestly improved sequel to what we had seen before, rather than a true 2.0 version of Microsoft's flagship tablet. Anyone shopping for a new Windows 8 system right now should rightly demand Intel's fourth-gen CPUs, available since June, if only for the increased battery life and power efficiency. The Pro 2 gives you that, and the new second angle on the kickstand does make it more convenient to use in your lap. The biggest disappointment is that it's still got that first-gen hardware look, while Sony has managed to shave its competing Tap 11 system down to a thinner, lighter package.

With no major new features or design changes, the Surface Pro 2 still relies heavily on its accessories to stand out as the market leader. But, with only a few new slate-style Core i5 tablets coming out (most competing models are hybrids that spend much of their time in clamshell-laptop mode), Microsoft's Surface Pro 2 manages to maintain a strong position in its small corner of the market.


Microsoft Surface Pro 2

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 8Performance 8Battery 8