The Surface 2 is everything the original Surface should have been. It’s fast, versatile (it can finally sit on your lap!), and at $449, it’s priced to compete with other big tablets.
Perhaps most intriguing, it shows that Microsoft’s initial bet on hybrid computing devices, one that sits between a laptop and tablet, is beginning to pay off.
But even though the Surface 2 is a great piece of hardware, the lack of killer Windows 8 apps holds it back. Since it runs Windows RT 8.1, a special version of Windows 8 for mobile processors, the Surface 2 can’t run older Windows software like Lotus Notes or your favorite games — just the more modern, tablet-oriented Windows apps sold through the Windows App Store. That means the Surface’s prospects are entirely tied to the health of the Windows 8 ecosystem.
With over 120,000 apps, the Windows 8 ecosystem is certainly much healthier than it was last year, but it’s not out of the recovery room just yet. Until Microsoft brings it to full strength, with better quality apps and popular titles, the Surface 2 going to be an imperfect device.
That being said, I found the tablet to be a far better when it comes to pure productivity than anything from the Android and Apple camp thanks to the inclusion of full Office apps and decent multitasking. And as more Windows 8 apps appear, it will only get better.
Last year, Microsoft launched both Windows 8 and the first Surface around the same time. Bugs, annoyances, and glaring feature omissions were par for the course. Now, it’s clear that Microsoft has learned from most of its past mistakes.
The good: Improvements all around
I wrote this entire review on the Surface 2 using the Type Cover (the one with physical keys) – and, sad as it may be, that’s more than I can say for the first Surface. After spending 30 minutes struggling to string a few sentences together on that device, I ran back to my trusty desktop to pound out a scathing review.
But the Surface 2 does more than just get the basics right: Its screen is the same 10-inch 1080p resolution beauty as the Surface Pro, not a low-res clunker like the first Surface. The display is bright and sharp, even in direct sunlight, and it’s viewable from wide angles (so anyone joining you for an impromptu TV marathon won’t just see mushy colors).
While its design appears the same as the first Surface, it’s actually slightly lighter, weighing less than 1.5 pounds. Most people likely won’t notice the difference — though judging from what I remember about the Surface RT, the Surface 2 is slightly easier to hold with one hand. (You can also add on between 0.4 pounds an 0.55 pounds with the additional keyboard covers.)
It’s hard to be too impressed with the Surface 2’s weight, though, when the iPad Air now weighs in close to 1 pound.
The Surface 2 is also powered by a significantly faster Nvidia Tegra 4 processor and 2GB RAM, so it can juggle several apps at once more easily than the Surface 1 could (which often had trouble running even a single app). I was able to run several Windows 8 apps, Office apps, and several tabs on the desktop version of Internet Explorer before the Surface 2 began to slow down.
You’ll likely feel limited by the Surface 2 if you try to use it as a complete replacement for your laptop, but when compared to the latest iPads and Android tablets, it’s more than speedy enough.
Microsoft claims that the Surface 2 can play video for 10 hours straight, a 25 percent improvement over the first model. Using it as my primary computer for a few days, the Surface 2 managed to survive for an entire day. Some days, it even had a decent chunk of battery life left over from the previous day. Overall, its battery life seemed on-par with what I’ve seen from most big tablets.
The Surface 2 can also finally fit on your lap thanks to an improved kickstand that supports two positions. Judging from my chats with several Microsoft representatives, the company’s initial testing led it to believe that people would mainly use the Surface on flat surfaces for typing. That limitation ended up being one of the most glaring flaws of the first Surface (and it made Microsoft seem particularly out of touch, as if it didn’t know people actually used laptops on their laps).
Microsoft also upgraded both of the Surface’s keyboard covers to make typing a far better experience this time around. The touch-enabled Touch Cover 2 ($120) is even thinner than the original and has 10 times as many touch sensors (which means it’s better equipped to survive the onslaught of fast typists). The Type Cover 2 ($130), which sports physical keys, is also thinner and has backlit keys. Both covers are massive improvements over Microsoft’s original Surface covers (and they’re also compatible with older Surfaces as well).
And an entirely new entry, the Power Cover, offers up to a 50 percent battery boost and has physical keys. But it’ll cost you: The Power Cover costs $200 when it’s available next year, and it’s slightly heavier than the other cases.
It’s not just the hardware that makes a difference with the Surface 2: Windows RT 8.1, the first major update for Windows RT, also seems to have fixed many of the stability issues that I had with the first Surface. The new version of RT includes most of the features of the full version of Windows 8.1, like better Start screen customization and more flexibility in multitasking. Unfortunately, it still can’t run older Windows applications — a shortcoming that Microsoft is extremely unlikely to ever fix, given that Windows RT is designed for a different class of processors. Another big plus: It crashes far less than Windows RT on the original Surface.
For people whose lives revolve around Microsoft Office documents, the Surface 2 is their dream tablet. No other tablet platform offers full Office apps, nor do they multitask as well as the Surface (just try juggling a document with multiple windows of emails, web pages, and more – it can’t be done on the iPad or Android). The Surface 2 tackled every Word, Excel, and PowerPoint document I threw at it.
The bad: App ecosystem issues remain
More so than a standard Windows 8 laptop, the Surface 2 relies on Microsoft’s new crop of Windows 8 apps. And for many, that alone could be a deal-breaker.
Even though the number of apps has risen dramatically over the past year (from 8,000 at launch to more than 120,000 last month), and Microsoft is also working on filling in the gaps with popular apps, Windows 8 lacks any knockouts to prove that the OS is actually a viable tablet platform. And many of the apps that are there aren’t nearly as useful as those on Android or iOS. The official Windows 8 Twitter app, for example, is fairly basic and doesn’t lend itself to multitasking. It just feels like a big-screen Twitter feed.
If you’re the sort of person who mainly browses the web and needs a few Office apps, this may not bother you at first. But it’ll definitely come into play if you ever want to do more with your Surface.
Is the Surface 2 enough to save the Surface line?
It’s no surprise that most manufacturers have given up on developing their own Windows RT devices at this point. It’s better for them to wait until Windows 8 apps fully mature. (Nokia, ever the trooper, is sticking with Windows RT with its new Lumia 2520 tablet — but then, most of Nokia is about to be acquired by Microsoft, so that’s probably prudent.) And as hardware gets cheaper and faster, there’s a chance that there won’t be much of a need for Windows RT down the line.
The Surface Pro 2, for example, is only a half-pound heavier than the Surface 2, but it’s significantly faster and sports the full version of Windows 8, so it can actually run your existing Windows applications. It’s a full-fledged computer, and not just a productivity tablet. But of course, it’s also twice the price of the Surface 2 right now at $899 and has a shorter battery life (by a few hours). Still, it’s not hard to imagine the gulf between those two devices being erased over time.
The biggest difference between the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 right now are the two chip architectures they’re based on: The Surface 2 runs an ARM-based processor, which is power efficient and built with mobile devices in mind, but doesn’t run old Windows apps. The Surface Pro 2 runs an x86-based processor, which is what Windows built its legacy on, but eats up much more battery life than ARM processors.
With every new Surface model, Microsoft is inching toward the ideal computer of the future – one that’s an easy to use tablet on the couch as well as a productivity workhorse in the office. But the company’s own branding is also making it difficult for consumers to understand what exactly it’s offering with the Surface line.
Who else but tech geeks will realize the limitations of the Surface 2 (no older Windows software for you!) before buying it? And the fact that the traditional desktop is still there for running Office and Internet Explorer makes things all the more confusing.
The verdict: An improvement in every way
Last year, it was clear Microsoft was hedging its bets on two visions of the future of computing: a cheaper hybrid with a low-power CPU, and a more expensive one with a traditional Intel chip. Today, it still seems like Microsoft is waiting to see which Surface vision is ideal.
But at least this time around the low-end Surface doesn’t just feel like an ill-conceived afterthought.
The Surface 2 proves that all of Microsoft’s latest moves aren’t completely crazy. It shows that there’s a need for a touch-enabled operating system and multifunctional hybrid computers. And even if the apps aren’t there yet, it’s still plenty capable on its own.
At the same time, it’s not a device that I would unabashedly recommend to anyone. But for those of you dreaming of an ideal productivity tablet, it’s functional enough to be useful without wanting to throw it out the window like the first Surface.
For Microsoft, that’s progress.
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