Tech Revival: Creating a Surface Pro 2 “Ubuntu Edition”
The Surface Pro 2 is a respectably spec’d machine, even at seven years old. Sporting 4 to 8gb of RAM and a perky i5 or beefy i7processor, it can handle workloads akin to many mid-range to high-end laptops and 2-in-1’s. With it’s all metal construction, and bright display it still gives off that premium vibe, even though they can be bought on Ebay for a song nowadays.
But, if you’re like me, you are running your Pro 2 with Windows 10, and probably aren’t all to happy with the performance or battery life.
On Windows 8 and 8.1, I imagine this device was nice and zippy. But 10 has a funny way of tanking anything not built in the past three or four years.
Until this year, your options for modifying Surface devices in general were fairly small. Microsoft wants you in the MS ecosystem of Windows, OneDrive, Office 365.
But for the Pro 2, there is now another option that breathes new life into these seven year old machines: Linux!
Benefits of Linux
It’s free. I’m sure you’ve heard this already. You’ve probably heard it so much that now it’s cliché. That doesn’t change the fact that it is true. Linux operating systems (called Distros) can be downloaded and installed without a fee. No more $100+ license fee.
The Distros are lighter than Windows,too. They demand less of your computer’s processor, graphics card, and battery. This all means you get a smoother experience and improved battery life, even on machines that generally are considered unusable on Windows 10.
Unlike Windows, Linux Distros all offer a host of software for free. Many of them come pre-installed. There is also the Software Center which behaves much like the AppStore or Google Play, minus the charges.
A lot of the programs offered work just as well, if not better, than their MS counterparts. Some others lack the billion dollar polish. Either way, you won’t be missing much, especially if you are a general computer user like myself — working on email, writing papers, surfing the web.
Please note: I am talking about the Surface Pro 2 only. I am not rich enough, nor do I have enough friends (or any), that I can obtain and test all Surface devices. Also, make a special note that I in no way am talking about the Surface RT or RT 2. These run ARM processors, and do not work with Linux at the time of writing.
Before You Get Started
PLUG IN YOUR MACHINE. I don’t know how many times I’ve screwed up an install or an update because I forgot to plug in. Actually, I do. It was twice. I am forever ashamed.
Also, back up your copy of Windows. It never hurts to back up in the event you need it in the future. Instructions can be found here.
Choosing Your OS
Linux offers a wide variety of Distros to choose from. From the elegant Linux Mint, the cool KDE Neon, to the many, many flavors of Ubuntu, you won’t find yourself lacking in variety. I encourage you to try as many as you like. However, for the Surface Pro 2, I recommend mainline Ubuntu with its GNOME desktop.
I was recommended Ubuntu by a Linux user. He claimed it handles touchscreens better than the rest. After testing, I agree. GNOME comes the closest to replicating Windows touch interface than any of the others.
Also, I recommend choosing the Long Term Support (LTS) version. Currently this is 18.04.4, which will be supported until 2023. LTS versions tend to be less cutting edge than the short term versions like 19.10. But 19.10 support runs out July 2020, and it is reportedly less stable than the LTS.
See the latest releases here.
There is another LTS due out in April called 20.04 LTS. While I’ve tried the test build, I cannot recommend it until the final product has gone live. So, use at your own discretion if you’re reading this after the April release.
If you are reading prior to the release, DO NOT INSTALL THE TEST BUILD ON YOUR DEVICE!
Mouse drivers can be finicky on the best devices from time to time. For the majority of the time it works as intended on the Pro 2, but — let’s be honest — the fuzzy felt touch pad on the Pro 2’s keyboard was hot garbage when it debuted. Seven years has not improved it in any way. Save yourself the trouble and buy a wireless mouse.
I am currently using a Logitech mouse that came free with a Bluetooth keyboard. In all, I paid $22 on Amazon. It is possibly the best purchase I’ve ever made.
Post-Install — Tweaking Your Experience
If you like the GNOME Desktop out of the box, then skip this step. This is for people who want to customize. If you’re not that person, that is fine. For many GNOME is perfect as is. For me, I like tweaking it.
For that, I recommend installing two things right after you install and setup Ubuntu: Gnome Tweaks and Gnome FireFox Extension.
Tweaks is available in the Software Center. Once installed, you will be able to switch between light and dark mode in Ubuntu. You’ll also have the ablility to change the icon packs for Ubuntu.
For instructions on how to install icon packs, see here. While this tutorial is for a previous version of the LTS, it still applies to 18.04.
The Gnome Firefox Extension, adds great customization to your Tweaks tool. Adding this extension allows for you to change shell themes, customize your dock, and add things like weather to your system clock.
Instructions for Gnome Extension can be found here.
The Zoom Factor
Firefox is your default browser in Ubuntu, and the best Chrome/Edge/IE alternative. But it will think your tablet screen is larger than what it really is. This makes the font a lot smaller. For some this will be no big deal. Good eyes won’t have an issue. But, if you are like me, you’ll find the small font almost unreadable. There two paths here.
You can tinker with the display settings and find a larger resolution that is more to you liking.
What I recommend is to go into Firefox’s settings and change your default zoom to between 133% and 150%. This gives you a tablet-esque font size that is much easier on the eyes.
Also, while you’re at it, check out Firefox extensions, and get the Dark Theme and Dark Reader. These are must haves for anyone who likes to read white font, black background.
For the Office suite, called LibreOffice, I find 200% zoom is the ideal for typing, but that is just me. Play around with it, and find a size that works for you.
As with anything, when you retrofit a device there will inevitably be compromises. The Pro 2 is no different.
When it comes to the tablet portion of the Surface, Windows 10 really does shine. Its touch interface and pen integration has come a long way, and I found it very enjoyable on the Surface.
The Ubuntu Interface will allow finger scrolls in the software and settings menus. However, when web browsing in Firefox or working in the LibreOffice suite, you’ll find these features missing.
However, an easy workaround is to install Opera web browser from the Software Center. It is my second favorite browser, and offers multi-touch gestures. Just make sure you hit Control+Plus to zoom it to 130% to 150% for ideal viewing.
As far as the office suite goes, you probably won’t miss them. I know I don’t.
That is it. If you followed the above steps and links, you should have a new, zippy Surface Pro 2. Enjoy you newly old device, and the Linux ecosystem.
And don’t forget: nothing is truly free. Behind the systems on your Surface are people who work very hard. Many of them volunteer as members of the Free and Open Source Software community (FOSS). If possible, donate to their cause. Whether that is in the form of feedback, money, or time, it will be appreciated.
That is all.
Signing off on a Ubuntu Surface Pro 2 running:
Ubuntu 18.04.4 LTS
Gnome Tweaks and Gnome Extension
Adwait Dark Theme for Apps
Transparent Shell Theme 3.7
Zafiro Icons Blue