Why the Surface Pro 2 became my favourite computer. Ever. | PCGamesN

Why the Surface Pro 2 became my favourite computer. Ever.

Surface Pro 2 review

In a moment of madness last year, I bought a Surface Pro 2. I’m absurdly, insanely happy with my purchase. It’s quickly become my favourite computer, ever. It’s not the most powerful, by a long shot. It’s expensive (£1200! for a version with 8Gb RAM once you price in the cost of the keyboard). And it’s so brazenly different to what else is available, it’s clearly not the right PC for everyone. But it is the most flexible and unique bit of hardware I’ve ever used. I think, more than anything, it reminds me why I love PCs in of themselves. 

I want to explain why. 

Some hard truths: the desktops and laptops that you can buy on store shelves are invariably terrible. Laptops aren’t sold on quality; they’re sold to meet very thin margins. The stuff that matters: battery life, weight, responsive keyboards and trackpads) are inevitably compromised. It’s the same with desktops that you can buy: filled with crapware, or missing a GPU, or bundled with a keyboard that makes you wince. 

In this market, it’s so weird to me that Microsoft (or Intel for that matter) never bothered building PCs. For whatever complicated business reasons, Microsoft left it to Dell, HP, Acer, and a legion of build your own enthusiasts to build the hardware. They were happy to build webcams, and keyboards, and mice and Xboxes and phones. But never actual PCs. Surely, you’d think, they’d at least build some. But no. 

That changed last year, when Microsoft announced the Surface and Surface Pro tablets.

The Surface line are hybrid laptops and tablets. They are about the same size as an iPad, but with built in USB, DisplayPorts and MicroSD slots. They have touchscreens and webcams and a clever line of detachable keyboards. They’ve got a well-engineered kickstand at the back, that allows it to rest, screen angled up, ready to do work. Or play. 

But there are significant differences. The basic Surface line use ARM derived processors, like the iPad. It looks like it’s running Windows, but it isn’t, really. It’s used a re-engineered version of Windows that can’t run legacy programs. It’s thinner, lighter, and has decent battery life, but can’t run XCOM or Civilization V. 

The Surface Pro is different. It is a bit fatter and heavier, but comes with the full version of Windows 8, and a pretty high-end Intel i7 processor. It is a hell of a laptop, but squeezed into a tiny form factor. It weighs about a pound-an-a-half, a little bit more than the iPad 1. They have a pen, that can act as sort of a mouse replacement and let you doodle pictures of wangs during boring meetings. They have a pretty robust battery life: I can get 7 hours of battery life out of it (although a recently bodged update from Microsoft has knocked that back a little bit). But most importantly, it will run pretty much everything I throw at it. And more.

It’s that last point that I struggle to get my head around. 

I can’t get over what a little beast this thing has turned out to be. 

Usually, there’s always the caveat. “You know, don’t expect to be running Crysis on this thing.”

Except, no. This thing runs Crysis. And Rome 2. And Battlefield 4. 

You might have to drop the detail down a little bit, but hey, here’s Rome 2, running in a coffee shop on a dinky little thing. 

I don’t know what happened when I wasn’t looking, but suddenly, integrated graphics have gone from a joke to “huh”. I spent my first few days tinkering with it, trying to break it. But I’ve just about given up. It just works. 

I think what has happened is that the games of the past five years have been broadly built to work on seven-eight year old technology. Even integrated graphics can outpace the GPU and CPU of an Xbox. Meanwhile, Intel have gradually been improving the graphics performance of their processors, as certain hardware manufacturers demand very, very high resolution screens in laptops. 

So, we’ve reached a kind of sweet-spot, where the Haswell line within the Surface Pro 2 is powerful enough to deliver pretty great gaming performance most of the games you’d want to play. Meanwhile the graphics requirements for the most popular games: League of Legends, WoW, Dota 2, Counter-Strike and TF2, don’t even bother to stretch integrated GPUs. 

There are caveats: the native resolution of the screen on the Surface Pro 2 is set at 1920x1080. But that’s 1920x1080 in a tiny 10” frame. In cases where games are running a little bit choppy, I’ve knocked them down to 720p to get more than acceptable results. There’s occasionally a little weirdness associated with that high resolution screen: there’s some trickery with scaling going on in Windows to make a 1080p desktop work at 10” that can occasionally throw some games into a panic. 

But mostly, it just works. 

And that opens some fun possibilities. 

I’ve been using the Surface as a pre/proto PC for the living room: an HDMI lead into the back of the television lets me play quite a chunk of my Steam library from a sofa, helped by Big Picture Mode and an Xbox joypad adaptor. I’ve taken my Rome campaign to bed: using Steam’s cloud saving to invisibly replicate my saves from my desktop to the Surface. I’ve completed an entire Civ V campaign from the sofa, using the (excellent) touch controls Firaxis built into the game to tap and prod my way to a British victory. 

I adore this sense of liberation: that PC games are slowly, quietly becoming portable. That I can fit The Banner Saga and Blur and Kerbal Space Program and Left 4 Dead 2 and Prison Architect and the vast and unmatched back catalogue of the PC into a tiny bag. I can play them anywhere. 

It’s a weird time to be a PC gamer and user. There is a near constant background hum about how the PC’s core functions will eventually be replaced by a tablet. That iOS and Android will eat into and maybe supplant Windows. The Surface Pro is a brilliant, tiny, spectacular riposte.

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Shriven avatarDog Pants avatarTim Edwards avataricheyne avataralan_peery avatar
icheyne Avatar
4 Years ago

I had a go on a Windows 8 tablet with a keyboard about a year ago. I was very impressed for business use, but it's great to hear it can play games too.

alan_peery Avatar
4 Years ago

Tim, thanks very much for mentioning Rome Total War (presumably RTW-2) on the Surface Pro. This is exactly the configuration I am considering picking up, as battery life is good enough to cover my long train commute and the pen would let me use OneNote again.

Specific questions:

1) Where's the promised RTW picture? ;-)

2) What settings are you using when running on the tablet's display? You mention 720p, what graphics options?

3) What is the maximum you've been able to get out of the slab when driving an external screen?

4) Is the video trickery mentioned hitting RTW 2, or other games?

5) Is your Surface Pro one of the recently shipping 1.9GHz versions, or is it the earlier 1.6GHz processor? Microsoft hasn't made a big deal of this upgrade, but it would be useful to know if your results are on the faster one.

I am also hoping to run a virtual reality bike trainer (yes. ;-)) with some reasonably high hardware reqs, but if RTW 2 runs the latest TacX software should.

Tim Edwards Avatar
4 Years ago

1) I'll post some pictures when I'm back at home and have tidied up a bit. No way I'm letting people see the state of my office :)

2/3) Rome 2 runs at 1920x1080 at medium settings. I haven't benchmarked the tablet, but the frame rates are more than playable. For an idea of how playable, here's a video of Shogun 2 running on the Surface 1: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6GEC-v2Te5E. That channel is incredibly useful, btw - if you're serious about a Surface, spend some time looking at his videos. Rome is weird in that the frame rate in the battle-map is better than that in the campaign. I think that the fog of war is probably quite hard on the GPU.

3) Same resolution, basically: my desktop monitors are 1920x1200.

4) Doesn't affect Rome at all. Prison Architect was where I first noticed it, and it's cropped up in a few smaller indie games. What the Surface does is use Window's desktop scaling to increase the size of interface elements to 150% of normal. I think that if a game references that option, then you will run into issues. However, there have been a few background firmware updates and Prison Architect now runs flawlessly - I don't know if that fix has come from Introversion or MS.

5) Mine is a 1.6Ghz Surface Pro 2. Would love to compare notes with someone who has one of the latest versions.

6) Is that using a VR headset or just a screen tied to a pedometer? Sounds fun.

alan_peery Avatar
4 Years ago

It's a screen (the living room TV) tied to a turbo trainer my road bike is strapped into. It can be like

-- a VR game (where you steer along a mountain bike track), or

-- a movie of riding up an alpine pass scrolls appropriately for how much effort you're putting in, or

-- a pure technical readout where you watch your heart rate soar as you push harder to drive the output wattage up or

-- a multi-rider remote competition

http://www.tacx.com/experience has the details.

The PC currently hosting the software is only capable of running version 3 of the software, so an upgrade is required to get the visuals shown at the link above.

Tim Edwards Avatar
4 Years ago

A couple of extra points: you'll want to buy a bluetooth mouse if you're playing Rome on the move. The trackpad doesn't cut it.

Be aware, too, that 3D games really hammer the battery life. In normal web/work use I get about 7-8 hours of battery, but if I'm going to be playing something on the train, I've always plugged in. It's handy that around here, all the train seats have power sockets.

Shriven Avatar
4 Years ago

Paid for review!!!!one

Dog Pants Avatar
4 Years ago

Harsh. I put it down to some variation of Stockholm Syndrome.

Just kidding Tim. I can see the appeal of a device which is as portable as a tablet without losing the functionality of a laptop. Every time I try to write more than two words on my iPad I get frustrated (which incidentally why, as an enterprise user, I don't think Android and iOS are a threat to Microsoft, even if MS don't seem to realise that). Having a real desktop operating system on it is a bonus. However, for £1200 I could buy a gaming PC and a laptop and probably a cheap Android tablet.

I'm interested in how you can play games like Left 4 Dead or Dota 2 without a mouse though. Do you plug one in or make do with a pad and touchscreen?

Tim Edwards Avatar
4 Years ago

Couple of different ways. I've got a tiny bluetooth mouse that I keep in the bag for when I'm out and about. I've got a pad, too, that I occasionally take out with me, although it's wired and feels a bit chunky toting that about. Only really taken it if I'm staying in a hotel.

But! At home I've just taken to using one of my monitors as a docking station - it's got my keyboard and mouse plugged in already via the USB hub- stick the display-port out and suddenly this thing is a fully functional PC. Never even bothered to turn on my desktop.