Tuesday, November 5, 2013

[Rant] What is a Surface 2 Pro?

Is it a tablet? Or is it a laptop? Or is it both? Or is it neither? 

When Microsoft released the original Surface (non Pro), people were let down by its crappy performance. The design is very modern looking, but it was very slow. Sure, it is not a desktop class device. It had an ARM SoC inside it. But iPad too had an ARM SoC inside it but it performs brilliantly fast. Why couldn't Surface do that? Was the hardware too slow? (i.e should we blame NVidia for the Tegra 3 chip in there) Or, was the OS not optimized for ARM? I think it is both, but the latter seems to have had a bigger hand in it. 

So, people were waiting for the Surface Pro, which was supposed to have a true and proven Intel CPU in it. It's still an ultra low power (ULP) CPU, never the less, a proper x86 CPU. The performance issue was resolved but it lost a lot of other things in the process. It became a heavy (bigger heatsinks) and noisy (fans) tablet with about half the battery life of a similarly priced UltraBook. Nevertheless, people still considered it over the Surface (non Pro) because the Surface was too slow. 

Intel had another CPU that could bring the Surface like weight but better performance than it and legacy app support. The Atom CPU. This time it was code-named Clovertrail. While the Atom has come a long way from the original Netbook days, it was still an in-order CPU that performed far slower than a Core series CPU. I bought one; the one made by Dell called the Latitude 10 Essentials, and it is SLOW! It is not just the CPU that is slow, but the entire thing is very sluggish. The storage is eMMC, which is about 10 times slower than modern SSDs. The network speed is slow, even slower than my iPhone 4S which was released a year before. The graphics is slow as well, but I didn't really use it for anything graphically intensive. Just wanted to stream stuff from the desktop and watch YouTube, listen to Podcasts and browse the internet. Clovertrail, while seemed to be a viable tablet SoC, was NOT good for a Windows tablet! Even with Windows 8.1. I'm thinking of replacing my tablet actually.

Turn the clock 1 year forward, and now there are new Surfaces and new SoCs from Intel. The Surface 2 (non Pro) has improved massively. It is way faster than the old one it replaces. It's quite a big deal. It could be improved drivers, improved ARM support in Windows 8.1 and the improved performance in the SoC (NVidia Tegra 4) itself. But it is still ARM, which means you won't get support for legacy apps. But to be honest, using the legacy apps with a touch screen is not a pleasant experience. 

Surface Pro 2 on the other hand, has got the Haswell treatment. It means, only one thing: improved battery life. The CPU performance didn't improve noticeably with Haswell. It's all about battery life - to be precise, idle battery life. But even then, it still gets only 5.5Hrs of up time in a single charge. (Couple of days ago, Microsoft released a new firmware that could extend that by another hour, which is a big deal.) Ah I forgot. The GPU performance also got better with the new CPU. Other than that, the actual form factor hasn't changed a bit. That means, it is still heavy and loud. Not good to be used as a tablet at all. 

In fact, it is not suitable to be used as a laptop either. The thing that makes it stand up is the kick stand. While the Surface Pro 2 comes with two position kick stand compared to just one position in the original Surface Pro, it is still not as steady as a conventional tablet to be used on your lap. It's fine if you only use it on a desk though. And then there are the touch covers and the type covers. They are expensive, but they deliver much less than comfortable typing experience compared to an UltraBook. 

The only reason to get the Surface Pro 2 over an UltraBook is its ability to be used as a tablet. But, if it is too heavy to be used as a tablet, then there is no real reason for its existence.

But there is only thing they could have done. Use the Atom BayTrail SoC in the Surface Pro. Sure, it will be slower than the original Surface Pro, but it won't be THAT noticeable. I don't think people game on it. They could have used the fastest BayTrail CPU. Perhaps ask Intel to make a faster BayTrail CPU with a little bit higher TDP? It will still be using way less power than a Haswell, right? But it will get all the other features of a proper tablet right. Weight and no noise. BayTrail isn't that slow compared to a Core i5 CPU. The 1.33GHz BayTrail CPU is slightly faster than half the performance of the CPU that's inside the Surface Pro 2. Graphics maybe slower, but not far off, as BayTrail is using HD4000 graphics from the IvyBridge era. 

So to conclude, I think Surface Pro 2 is still a failure, because it is ergonomically not suitable to be used as a tablet nor gives the experience of a proper laptop. Microsoft should have gone with BayTrail for the Surface Pro 2. However, they would definitely have to lower the price to $500-600 range if they did that.
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