March 02, 2013, 6:58 AM — 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.