Dabe Alan

The Surface Pro 2 is an impressively capable gaming box, if you have the right expectations

The Surface Pro 2 is an impressively capable gaming box, if you have the right expectations

The Surface Pro 2 is an odd beast. Is it a laptop? Should we treat it like a tablet? It’s hard to find any kind of metric to use when judging the hardware, and thankfully I don’t have to do so for this story. I’m not really interested in giving you a score for the concept of the device, or to convince you that you should or shouldn’t buy it. Ars Technica does a wonderful job with their deep dive into the new revision of Microsoft's grand experiment.

I’m here to fill in an important blank that Microsoft barely mentions when promoting the Surface line of products: How the hell does it handle games?

The basics

The Surface Pro 2 is a fully functional Windows 8.1-based PC crammed into the tablet form factor. You can play a few games using the touch screen, Hearthstone in particular is delightful to play in his manner, but most games are going to require a physical controller of some kind, or a variety of them. The wired Xbox 360 controller works perfectly on the system, to the shock of absolutely no one, so console-style games were a snap.

If you want to play something that feels more like a PC game, on the other hand, you’re going to need one of the Type Covers that clicks to the bottom of the system via some very strong magnets. The Type Cover has physical keys and a small touchpad, and I was able to get used to touch-typing on the somewhat smaller than standard keyboard configuration in a matter of minutes. Keep in mind that you can always just use a standard USB keyboard, but doing so is much more awkward than the official solution and takes up the tablet's single USB port.

One the other hand, the Type Covers introduce their own issues with gaming.

The problem was the touchpad, while functional for basic computing in addition to the touch screen, was simply not precise enough for any kind of real gaming. This meant I had to attach an external USB mouse, and use the Type Cover and the standard mouse as if I were playing on a regular mouse and keyboard. It worked well, but we’re already to the point where I’m bringing multiple accessories if I want to do any decent gaming. If you want to use your own keyboard, you're going to need to attach a USB hub. Things are getting awfully hair, awfully quickly.

There is also the small fact that the latest Type Cover costs a staggering $129.99, while being just about mandatory for any laptop-like activities on the hardware. I'm not the first writer to suggest this, but including one of those things with the hardware would go a long way to addressing the issue of value.

So we have the optimal control methods all figured out: You’ll need the hardware itself, the Type Cover, a wired 360 controller, and an external mouse. It sounds like a lot, and it is, but I was able to pack everything into a relatively small amount of space. Many games you'll want to play support controllers anyway, so you can get away with just the tablet and a controller in many cases.

Also, people have different reactions when you set up the Surface Pro 2 on its little kickstand on your tray table on a plane, hook up a controller, and start playing some Tony Hawk HD. Most people don’t know what exactly they’re looking at, and I received a ton of questions about what the hardware is, how well it plays games, and how often I travel with it. Seeing a tablet that can play so many PC games with a console-style controller is new to most people, and I find it fascinating that Microsoft has yet to really capitalize on this in their advertising.

Just how powerful is the hardware?

That’s a good question, and I hate relying on stats or even benchmarks to get to the heart of the answer. I’d much rather just play games and see if conditions are tolerable.

The Surface Pro 2 has a 1920×1080 10.6” 10-point capacitive touchscreen, which gives it a pixel density of 207 pixels per inch. Our review unit had 8GB of RAM, while the base unit comes with 4GB, and the Surface Pro 2 runs a Intel Core i5-4200U processor with integrated graphics. This hardware is no slouch when it comes to productivity, but it’s definitely not something that’s aimed at gaming, so we have to be realistic about what we can expect the hardware to do.

There is also the fact that we’re over $1,400 worth of equipment with this configuration and a Type Cover, and you can get a lot of gaming for that amount of money from a dedicated gaming laptop. Gaming on the Surface Pro 2 is definitely going to be a value add, something that you can also do in addition to the tablet and laptop-like performance of the system. The form factor is going to be the draw for people here, and gaming is going to be a secondary addition. If you want a gaming system first there are better ways to go.

That being said, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found with the hardware.

Real-world tests

There’s something pretty magical about futzing around with a tablet, installing Steam, and going to town by installing a bunch of standard Windows games. I was able to get around 40 FPS out of Tony Hawk HD, and games like Assault Android Cactus ran flawlessly. I played Spelunky for a bit, and Jamestown, and everything worked well. That’s to be expected, these games don’t exactly stress the hardware.

What this did prove is that there are a wide variety of smaller games that can run on the hardware perfectly. I downloaded Typing of the Dead: Overkill while traveling and had a great time killing zombies with my touch typing skills. To my delight, Telltale’s Wolf Among Us ran perfectly on the system, looked beautiful on the screen, and responded to touch commands flawlessly.

So let’s raise the stakes a bit. I wanted to try a Source Engine game, and Portal 2 was the natural choice. The Surface Pro 2 gave me around 50 to 60 frames per second running the game at 1280 by 720, although once again you’ll really want to be using an external mouse. The Type Cover just can’t keep up with a first-person game.

Things are looking up! Let’s try something a little bit different: How well does Diablo 3 run?

Once again I was pleasantly surprised. I ran the game at 1360 by 768, and turned texture quality and shadow quality to low while also turning off anti-aliasing. This allowed me to keep the game running between 30 to 50 frames per second, depending on the amount of monsters on the screen. You can experiment with raising the effects or resolution, but you’ll lose framerate, and I’m not sure if that’s a trade off you’re willing to make. I played very comfortably for an hour or so, although the text could be hard to see on the relatively small screen.

It’s time to play one of my current addictions: League of Legends. I had recently started playing seriously, and LoL is one of those games you can play damned near forever without getting bored. I set the game to 1920 by 1080, with all the other settings set to medium, and enjoyed around 40 to 50 frames per second during the match. The text was easy to read, I played a few rounds, and really enjoyed the experience. League of Legends is another game that’s not entirely taxing, but it looked and played very well on the hardware.

Oddly enough there were no touch commands that worked; I couldn’t use my fingers to move the view in the map, nor to attack enemies. This wouldn’t exactly be the best way to play against other players anyway, but I’m not quite sure why it didn’t work at all. Playing with the Type Cover and a USB mouse was a dream, however.

It was time to be a bit more ambitious, and to play Bioshock Infinite. I knew this was a game that was going to tax the system, and I wasn’t wrong; I had to take the resolution down to 1280 by 720 and dump all the graphical options down to low to get between 20 to 30 fps in the game. The fans kicked in almost immediately, and the Surface Pro 2 grew very hot, although not uncomfortably so. The battery was also taking a beating, and it’s doubtful that you’d be able to get much past 90 minutes or so of battery life playing a game that’s this graphically intensive.

Here’s the thing, though: The game was playable. It wasn’t ideal, sure, but I was able to play just fine, and Infinite also showed off just how well the hardware handles audio. Even without headphones the sound was loud and crisp, and I stopped and listened to that wonderful cover of “God Only Knows” all the way through, just as I always do when I play this game.

That’s one of the secrets of playing these games on a 10” screen. The lack of screen real estate can hide many, many sins. I played StarCraft 2 at 1280 by 720 with everything set to low, and enjoyed 40 to 60 fps during most of the game. I murdered the frame rate by increasing the resolution and turning up the graphical bells and whistles, but it was interesting to see how little a difference this made on a screen of this size.

You can really see when anti-aliasing is turned off on your 24” monitor or 50” television at home, but playing on a 10” screen with your face a foot or two away? It’s very easy to cut things down to the bone without killing your enjoyment of the game.

Summing it up

I need to say this again: You’re insane if you’re buying a Surface Pro 2 just to game. There are better solutions out there for the money, and you’re going to need to do some tweaking and graphical management if you hope to play graphically intensive games at all, much less with a high frame rate. This is not a gaming machine, nor was it designed to be.

On the other hand, the form factor has much going for it, and the fact that Microsoft almost never mentions the fact that the Surface Pro 2 is a reasonably capable gaming machine is kind of odd. Knowing that you’re going to be able to use a single piece of hardware as a tablet, as a laptop replacement, and for moderate gaming helps to make the price tag a little bit easier to deal with.

In fact, the portability of the hardware and the use of the kickstand make for some interesting usage cases. It’s fun to set the hardware up on a plane, hook up a USB controller, and play some console-style games. I can’t think of any other windows-based device that offers a screen small enough to be this portable, large enough that most text is legible, but powerful enough to run so many different games.

I did run into some oddities with the video drivers, however. I tried playing Saints Row IV, but when I adjusted the resolution the image shrank and was surrounded by black borders. The only way to fix this was to adjust the resolution on the desktop, and this caused many of the Metro apps to give me errors. I found myself running the Surface at 1280 by 720 when I planned to game, and then bumping it back up to its native resolution when I wanted to do any general computing.

The other downside is that the hardware isn’t very self-contained. You’ll need the optional Type Cover if you’re playing anything that requires a keyboard, you’ll need to bring a USB controller if you’re playing anything that was designed for those controls, and unless you’re plugged into the wall you can expect to run down that battery rather quickly.

The Surface Pro 2 exceeded my expectations as a gaming system, although I'll admit that my expectations were rather low. I could see this operating as a halfway decent LAN box, or just to keep you busy with League of Legends or a TellTale adventure game while you're traveling. I also even able to get vanilla Skyrim running at around 40 fps with a little tweaking, and happily spent some time levelling up my character.

Now if you'd be so kind as to excuse me, I'm off to play touchscreen Hearthstone in bed.