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Surface Pro vs. PC gaming: We torture test the tablet's gaming prowess

We take a look at just how well it handle itself when put through a few days of the average gaming machine.

Microsoft is marketing its Surface Pro tablet as a productivity machine, but I'm a hopelessly addicted PC gamer, and have less, well, conventional plans for the hardware.

Recent Internet hubbub says Surface Pro holds its own as a gaming device, so I had to validate the claims for myself. $1000 is an expensive entry fee for playing Portal 2 on the bus, so as soon as I could pry the Surface Pro from the other editors' hands, I put it through a battery of real-world gaming tests.

Ultrabook-caliber specs suggest Surface Pro might have potential. A current-gen Core i5 processor and SSD could deliver a nice gaming experience, but RAM is capped at 4GB, and the tablet's integrated Intel HD Graphics 4000 would seem destined to disappoint anyone who wants to play anything more graphically challenging than Angry Birds. 

But enough speculation. Let's look at Surface Pro's real-world frame rates in legitimate PC games. I'll also evaluate how the tablet performs as a touch device in turn-based games, and whether battery life cripples the machine as a mobile gaming platform.

Number don't lie

First, I crammed a few of my favorite games--each varying in resource requirements and gameplay style--onto the tablet's teeny-tiny SSD. Next I used the free version of FRAPS to benchmark each game for a period of one minute on different graphics settings. FRAPS will report the real-time frame rate of any game, as well as set up custom benchmarks to record the average frame rate over a given period.

If a game offered preset high, medium and low settings, I used them. If not, I manually adjusted the settings to meet those basic standards. I also disabled anti-aliasing except for the high-performance tests (in which cases I set anti-aliasing to 2x). In the chart below, you'll see the maximum, minimum and average frame rates that the Surface Pro delivered for XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Portal 2, Minecraft and Civilization 5 (click the image for an exploded view).

I was surprised by some of the results. Sure, I won't be maxing out Portal 2 settings, but Surface Pro did get close to 50 frames per second on medium settings. This indicates there's wiggle room to adjust some of your favorite settings to high, and still have Portal 2 run comfortably--unless, of course, anything less than 60 frames per second leaves you unfulfilled.

Minecraft ran exceptionally well. For this, we can thank the game's heavy reliance on CPU processing rather than GPU processing. The Core i5 processor rendered the Minecraft environment quite well, and everything ran smoothly near 40 frames per second, even with all the fancy graphics settings enabled.

The two Firaxis games--XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Civilization 5--mostly chugged along below 30 frames per second, and ended up being pretty choppy but arguably playable. Because these games are basically super-charged board games, their slower turn-based gameplay allowed Surface Pro to catch up, and make up for the frames it dropped. In effect, the hardware's performance deficits were only an issue during cut-scenes, when scrolling around maps, and when processing my opponent's turn.

A port battle royale

But enough about the small handful of games I put under the benchmarking microscope. My primary objective for this Surface Pro exercise was to find a quality way to play Steam games on my big-screen TV without running a crazy-long HDMI cord from my current desktop behemoth. With the help of Surface Pro's HDMI adapter, I was hoping to play my PC games on the big screen, taking advantage of Steam's new Big Picture interface.

PCWorld's Surface Pro is mated to Microsoft's Type Cover, but the touchpad on that keyboard accessory is hopeless for navigating gaming interfaces, so I grabbed a USB mouse along with my Xbox 360 controller. Just one problem, though: The tablet boasts only one USB port. 

Shoot, and I was planning to use a gaming keyboard and a USB headset too.

Desktop gaming machines come with tons of USB ports for a reason, and without them, the basic gaming experience can be crippled. I grabbed a USB hub and finally managed to hook everything up, but the Surface Pro was now an over-tethered mess with all those cables attached.

To test out Xbox 360 controller support, I turned to Super Meat Boy, an indie-developed side-scroller that offers console friendly gameplay. I set the game to Surface Pro's native 1920-by-1080 pixel resolution, and it ran at a stable 30 frames per second, which was a bit too choppy for my tastes due to the fast-paced action intrinsic to the game. There weren't any other graphical options to adjust, so the resolution was all that could be addressed.

Regardless, the controller worked well, and I concluded that Surface Pro can be an able platform for playing simple console-style games via Steam. Likewise, loading a few console emulators would be easy and convenient.

Gaming on the go

I love Angry Birds as much as the next commuter, but it would be great to play some hardcore PC games on the long bus ride to work, if only to make the sad sack sitting next to me incredibly jealous.

Unfortunately, a lot of games and services are beginning to adopt an "always connected" requirement, which is a challenging proposition even though public Wi-Fi is becoming more commonplace. It's just not that easy to find a free, open, stable connection in the wild, and it's definitely not an amenity offered by my local public transit.

Nonetheless, putting aside the fact that I can't play Diablo 3 or the upcoming SimCity because of their reliance on Internet connection, Surface Pro is still a decent hardware option for mobile gaming, and I would pack it away in my travel bag--accessories and all--before touching any other tablet.

Touchy Feely

One of Surface Pro's big benefits is Windows 8 touch control, so I challenged myself to play games without the benefit of an external mouse or one of Microsoft's optional keyboard covers. Obviously, touch gestures won't offer any benefits in real-time action games or first-person shooters, but turn-based games such as XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Civilization V would seem perfectly suited for Microsoft's touchy-feely new world order.

My results? Quite mixed, actually. Everything was dependent on the Windows 8 gesture support built into individual games.

When booting into Civilization V, there's an option to enter into a Windows 8 touch-enabled overlay that makes the game gesture-friendly. A splash screen (shown below) pops up as a quick guide on how to use the gestures. After a few practice minutes, the game became much more intuitive and easy to navigate and play.

XCOM: Enemy Unknown, on the other hand, was clunky when using touch controls, which is to be expected as there's no dedicated touch option. In a game where a simple miss-click could easily ruin your strategy, I found myself struggling past the point of frustration.

The game uses right-clicking to confirm many actions, but this was the toughest gesture to perform. You must touch and hold for an undetermined amount of time to register between a left and right click, and this resulted in many botched attempts as the screen panned in response to any slight movement. In practice, it meant the difference between hiding in cover and becoming an easy target for a duck hunt.

Though the touch controls for Civilization 5 weren't bad, per se, I still found mouse and keyboard control to be better. The bottom line is that turn-based games without custom touch control need some developer loving, and games with custom touch control need refinement.

Tied to a wall

The Surface Pro's battery life is already quite poor, so you'll probably be searching for a wall outlet before you get halfway through a level. Indeed, games tax battery life much more than, say, word processing or web browsing, and this leaves the already battery-challenged Surface Pro at a distinct disadvantage.

In our lab tests, Surface Pro managed to last a little over five hours, but that was just under the rigors of video playback. My real-world gaming results were worse, and after each session I could see significant hits to battery life.

In just under an hour of playing XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the battery dropped from a full charge to right around the 50 percent mark. And after two hours of game play, the system was dead. At this point, I connected the magnetic power cord, booted the machine back up, and was pleased to find my game still intact, just where I had left it when it died. So, all its battery deficits notwithstanding, It's nice to know that not all is lost if you run the machine into the power-hungry ground.

Fill 'er up

Besides needing electricity, games also require a lot of storage space. It's great that the Surface Pro comes with a beyond-speedy SSD to satisfy impatient gamers who hate loading times, but the technology is expensive for the amount of space Microsoft delivers.

There are two versions of Surface Pro--a 64GB model for $900, and a 128GB machine for $1000. If you're even remotely thinking of loading any games onto it, walk right past the 64GB version, as it's simply too small. In fact, reports show that only 23GB of the 64GB version is usable, and even the 128GB version only comes with 83GB of usable space.

Once you account for the storage footprint of Windows 8 itself, a few necessary programs, and a few decent games, your 128GB SSD will be pushing its limits--and that doesn't include any other media like videos and a music collection. And the situation gets even more dire if you love games that require a lot of patching, which includes basically anything with a multiplayer component.

Moral of the story: Be prepared to evict old titles for new ones. There's just not enough room for a large number of games.

Game on?

The Surface Pro can deliver smooth frame rates most of the time--if you're willing to sacrifice various visual settings. But a dearth of USB ports, crappy battery life, and poor touch support show us that Surface Pro really isn't ideal for hardcore gaming on the go.

Nonetheless, the tablet still makes for an awesome emulator machine, and it's great for playing less intensive games on the big screen, and old single-player titles that you haven't touched in years. Beware if you're a neat freak, though, as the collection of cords running to and from the Surface Pro will be enough to make your brain melt.

You can read the full review of the Surface Pro here.


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