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Wot I Think: Microsoft Surface Pro 2

Tablet or tablet's not?

I did an exceptionally silly thing. I bought one of Microsoft's terribly expensive laptop/tablet hybrids, the Surface Pro 2. Upon realising how silly this was, because it's hardly got much gameability and I can't ever upgrade it, I returned it. That wasn't the exceptionally silly thing, though. That happened when I realised how much I missed the Surface, so two days later I went out and bought another one. From a different shop, of course - I couldn't have faced the look on the salesperson's face otherwise.

I am pleased, if slightly guilt-wracked, to report that I am now sticking with my purchasing decision. Which also means I'm in a situation to tell you whether this attempt to crossbreed faithful old Mr PC with flighty young Ms Tablet has been successful, from the point of view of someone who primarily uses their computer for the pursuit of entertainment.

There are several elephants in the room when it comes to discussing the Surface on this of all sites. I don't know quite where I'm going to sit in fact, as there's wrinkly grey skin and dangerously protruding tusks everywhere I look. Let's start with whether I feel like I've sold out or not - the answer to that is 'a bit, I guess.' It's a product from the company that abandoned PC gaming, that has recently tried to turn Windows into a discordant nightmare of self-contradiction, and that is headed up by a guy who could have had an alternate career as Embarrassing And Slightly Sinister Step-Dad in a dreary 90s sitcom. And, of course, a company that has had a decades-long and increasingly undeserved stranglehold on the Only Free Platform. I really should be turning to Linux by now.

On the other hand, I'm a technology polygamist - I've got an iThing, I've got an Androidthing, I've got a Kindlething, I've got a PlayStationThing and thus there's no reason at all why this ruinous hunger for gizmos should fall silent in response to the Surface. All of those firms have a long and chequered history of bastardly behaviour and/or massive screw-ups. As it happens, the device itself is uncommonly attractive and desirable - not something I expected from the same firm behind the heinously ugly Xboxes or the chaotic colour-clash of Windows 8. Then again, I doubt anyone involved with the creation of the physical Surface even works in the same building as the software guys: Microsoft is basically a small nation by this point. It's a solid, luxurious feeling device with a lovely 1080p screen (though I wish it was a little less reflective) and that runs silently so long as it's not doing anything really processor intensive. Most importantly, it can transform from laptop to tablet and back again with the effectively instant removal or connection of the optional keyboard cover accessory. In theory, it's two types of personal computer in one, and that's a theory I like (not to mention need: mine is a very small flat).

The second elephant is that this isn't billed as gaming device. It's basically an Ultrabook in a tablet shell. I can only treat it as a gaming device because it can run any Windows application, and that includes games. Whether 3D ones run well is a question likely to increasingly haunt me for the duration of my ownership of this Surface Pro, but less demanding 2D and/or indie fare is another matter - no grumbles at all there. I'll come back to the issue of 3D gaming shortly, but again I just want to make it entirely clear upfront that you shouldn't consider the Surface Pro as primarily a gaming item. It's just that some game capability is a bonus feature, of sorts.

The third elephant - it really does smell rather... musky in this room now - is that the Surface is terrible and should be avoided like the plague. The more expensive Surface Pro is another matter, because underneath its garish Metro squares is a full version of Windows 8.1. The Surface Non-Pro is limited to applications and games in the Windows Store, which are few, often rubbish and unlikely to significantly improve any time soon. Do not buy a Surface: it's just a shit iPad.

The Surface Pro 2, however, I have grown exceedingly fond of, even though it is without question far too expensive for a lowish-end system (especially as the 64GB entry level model isn't worth bothering with, unless you plan to never install anything ever) and irritates me in dozens of tiny ways every time I use it. Those irritations are primarily down to Windows 8/8.1 - and by that I don't mean the usual 'Windows 8 is rubbish for desktop PCs!' but the opposite. Usual bugbear the Metro stuff, made for touchscreens, works well in this context, speedily and relatively intuitively when using the Surface Pro in tablet mode. Unfortunately, touch is half-baked, inconsistent and fiddly when trying to use non-Metro programs - i.e. almost everything you'd actually want to run on the thing. I do make do, and am increasingly adapting, but that's because I'm shrugging off taps and buttons failing to do what I requested rather than because it's matter of learning a new UI.

I managed to get pinch-zoom and similar stuff working in Chrome by installing the deeply unstable 'Canary' version and changing minute settings on the arcane Chrome://flags secret settings page, but it's crashing all the damn time, leaving me with a choice between that, standard Chrome without half the touch stuff working, or clunky, needy old Internet Explorer. Still, hopefully Canary's features will trickle down to stable Chrome before too long, and other browsers will see similar. Unfortunately similar issues abound in everything else - Photoshop, Tweetdeck, games, all sorts. This is due to Adobe and the like not updating their applications for touch support, but I'm amazed that Microsoft didn't make convincing them to do so an absolute priority. Maybe they did, but no-one listened. Either way, the result is an unreliable desktop experience. Everything does just about work in some form, but I need to compromise my expectations and be prepared to attempt simple actions multiple times. It's becoming second nature now, and the stylus is certainly more accurate, but it's a world away from the just-works slickness of iOS or post-ICS Android.

Sometimes touch things work unexpectedly - I was fine playing a whole bunch of XCOM without a keyboard and mouse attached - but don't ever count on it. Tiny madnesses also abound, such as the layout on the virtual keyboard changing depending on whether it's a Metro app or a standard program, or said keyboard only automatically popping up in some text fields - the overriding sense is that the OS was made by a thousand people who never once talked to each other, let alone to software developers at other firms.

Speaking of typing issues, Nelly #4 is that the Surface Pro is a very expensive desk ornament and/or email reader if you don't also pick up one of the clip-on keyboards. But don't get the Touch one, because you won't be able to type at high speed on it. Get the preposterously expensive (£109! I can only justify this because being self-employed means buying work-related hardware brings down my tax bill) Type 2, which has more-or-less proper keys built into an impressively thin cover, and even a tiny but just about serviceable two-button trackpad. Really you'll want a wireless mouse too though, as the trackpad is too fiddly and flaky for high-precision work/play. Gets me through toilet breaks though - more on which later, I'm, afraid.

There's a stylus included, which is a not entirely reliable halfway house between finger and mouse, but it has been a help for mouse-and-keyboard-free use, and there is something quite pleasant and satisfying about using it too. I think it makes a tablet seem more like a Future-Device than a touchscreen does, oddly. Again, it worked pretty well in XCOM, which reflects the fact that Firaxis' game can be played entirely with a mouse if you so choose; in anything where a keyboard is necessary you're going to need the Type Cover or a USB keyboard. It is simply preposterous, given the high price of the Surface Pro, that even the more basic Touch cover isn't included in the box; if those greedy beggars at MS want to make these things truly successful, that should be the first thing they redress.

Dumbo #6 is that the bastard thing can't be upgraded, aside from sticking a MicroSD card into the side for a little extra storage. I'm actually happy with that as a means of adding a bit more space to the 128GB model I have, especially as all my music comes from streaming services, photos and docs are in the cloud and all that jazz. The real problem for is that the £799 model I bought only has 4GB RAM. Models with 8GB are available, but only for Surface Pros with 256 or 512GB of storage, which pushes the price over £1000 and into a place where Alecs fear to tread. Even if I had the nerve to ever crack the thing open, the RAM's soldered onto the motherboard so I'm forever stuck with 4GB. This has been no problem whatsoever for my usual desktop work - writing, bit of Photoshop, web-browsing, movie-watching, hacking the FBI and all that - but because there's no dedicated graphics memory, the weeny GPU is eating up a whole load of RAM when I run higher-end games, often prompting a panicky warning and an offer to auto-close the game from Windows 8. That said, the integrated Intel HD 4400 graphics chip is probably too piss-weak to make meaningful use of extra memory anyway.

Those are the major negatives out the way. 1200 words in, I'll now tell you why I like this hobbled thing as much as I do. Part of that is that, quite simply, it's a very lightweight PC with a built-in 10.6" monitor. It's little longer and a little thicker than a pre-Air iPad, but about the same weight - not uncomfortable to hold at all, though you will need both hands in play. The other part of why is... well, here's a faintly disgusting but 100% true scenario for you:

- I'm currently, as repeated mentions in the very post might suggest, playing XCOM again. (Yes, it's for some manner of should you/shouldn't you buy judgement regarding a certain expansion, but that's a while off yet I'm afraid). Much as I would love to perform 16 hour, motionless binges on the game, unfortunately my frail human body irregularly demands the likes of fuel, waste evacuation or being adjusted into a different position. Most inconvenient. However, the Surface enables me to continue playing the game while not being in the same place as my main PC, thanks to savegames going into the Steam Cloud. When the Steam Cloud works, that is - it's not always a given, and I have had some infuriating experiences wherein one machine or the other outright refused to sync. Manually ferrying saves around on a USB key is a miserable business.

It would not be inaccurate to say that I've attempted similar with a traditional laptop, which my singed and weight-bruised thighs were not happy about - so a small, handheld, lightweight device with a touchscreen changes matters significantly, with regard to on-toilet gameplaying. I do apologise for any unwanted mental images here, but please believe me when I say that this system has made me very happy. I suspect desktop streaming services, like Splashtop or the stuff the NVIDIA Shield is trying, will ultimately be the better solution, but right now I'm simply loving being able to pick up where I left off on the main PC with this 10.6" shiny thing. As I say, the touch controls work pretty much fine in XCOM - it won't be the case in an FPS or suchlike, although the Type Cover might just about get me through short, er, sessions.

I'm not sure I could say that this truly justifies the great expense of the Surface, but it is exceptionally pleasing. Clearly, I'm having to run games at lowest settings (save for textures, which are happy on High) and lower than the Surface's native resolution of 1920x1080, but XCOM on low at 1366x768 musters 30 frames per second, feels fine and doesn't look half bad. As mainstream PC games move to PS4/Xbone bases and more than likely cease to cater to low-end graphics chips I suspect I'm going to be increasingly screwed, but I'm comfortable with knowing that there's an infinite world of amazing indie and strategy fare the Surface won't struggle with. This was and is never going to be my main PC gaming device, but as a portable stopgap it's doing well so far. It's also very nice to look at, hold and generally go 'ooh' at, at least phyiscally.

Mostly, though, I dig the Surface because it sidesteps what's forever driven me spare on my i- and Google-things: half of the internet doesn't display properly, I can't run most of the things I download and, on Apple especially, I can't even download much outside of what's in the official store. With the Surface, I get the fancypants tablet fun but not the aggravating restrictions. It's a PC, with all the problems that entails, but I have and will always prefer finding ways to circumvent or resolve those problems than simply having huge swathes of the electronic world shut off for safety and/or walled gardening. If I read about a neat browser game, I can just run it here, even if it needs Unity or something. That's what I've always wanted from a portable computer, and this is, if nothing else, an exceptionally portable computer.

I can also just directly plug the thing into my big monitor and keyboard/mouse rather than machine-switch when I want to do proper work/looking-at-shit-on-the-internet. It might need games dropping to rock-bottom setting, but the device hasn't blinked in the face of browsing, blogging and b-movie-watching. It also doesn't suffer the thunderous noise and ravenous electricity consumption of my main PC, so I feel a little less environmentally rapacious (though that's undone if I think about all the harmful stuff that went into actually making this toy).

Sadly, there is a downside to this being a PC - a dual-core, ultra-low voltage Intel Core i7 - running full-fat Windows, as opposed to a super-low-power ARM chip running a super-thin custom operating system. For one, it takes a couple of seconds to wake from sleep, as a laptop does when you open its lid rather than as an iPad or Android device does when you press its button. I'm grudgingly adjusting to it, but I have been spoiled by the instant response of 'true' mobile things. Secondly, the battery life isn't a patch on an iPad or decent Android tablet, although it does give my phone a run for its money, and roundly trounces the miserable 2-3 hours my (soon to be sold in order to fund this purchase) gaming laptop manages.

It musters five to six hours for Looking At Shit On The Internet, in my experience, but only around three for running 3D games like XCOM (which is about half an hour on the gaming laptop). On lower-end, 2D fare, the CPU won't have to go full-pelt and I'm expecting a longer life, but even so it's fair to say this isn't an outright replacement for a true tablet. I almost never leave the house these days - thanks, baby. Thaby - so power points are always to hand, but you'll probably hear me having a right old whine on Twitter the first time I take the Surface on a long train or plane journey.

I'm committed to the thing now, but I suspect the smart decision for anyone craving a Surface is to hang on for the next generation, when Intel's very recent incursion into proper GPU territory (as with the Iris Pro, currently only available on its highest-end mobile CPUs) may have borne dividends for ultra-portable PCs and tablety things. This second generation is only iterative from last year's very similar first, with the main gains being in battery life. Much as I like the Surface Pro, I'm experiencing the inevitable punishment of the early adopter and I wish I'd had the willpower to wait another year or two for the tech to mature. At the same time I really am enjoying having a proper PC in a sleek -don't say sexy don't say sexy - and sexy - DAMMIT - form factor I can take anywhere. I can download anything, I can open anything in whatever I want to open it in, I can plug a gamepad, a keyboard and/or a mouse in and it'll just work, and I don't have Ghost Steve Jobs or Unsmiling Eric Schmidt standing in the way of any of it. The iPad's going on eBay, put it that way.

PC, for all its sins and chaos, has always been where I'm most comfortable, which is simply from an endless tinkering and flexibility mindset rather than some ugly Master Race attitude, and having my tablet also be that does feel like a weight off my finickity shoulders after years of dealing with iOS's restrictions. The Surface is very much a First World Solution to a First World Problem, in other words. I don't by any means need it. There is no way I could justify it as a necessity, an improvement to my professional or personal life, or even recommend it as the portable device to buy. It's just that, well, it turns out it really suits me. Now that the dust of multiple receipts has settled, I'm very glad I bought then returned then re-bought this Surface Pro.

Bloody hell, Windows 8 though. What a mess.

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XCOM: Enemy Unknown

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About the Author
Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about video games.