It’s the second coming of Microsoft’s hybrid tablet for the masses, but has it improved at all from the last model? Sure it’s brilliant hardware, but it seems to have been made impotent by Windows RT.
What Is It?
The Surface 2 is a 10.6-inch tablet, built by Microsoft and running Windows RT 8.1. It’s packing a brand-spanking new quad-core NVIDIA Tegra 4 processor clocked at 1.7GHz, complete with 2GB of RAM, either 32GB or 64GB storage options and an expandable MicroSD card slot. There’s also a USB 3.0 port on the side to supercharge your peripheral experience.
It’s not only more powerful than the old Surface RT (Microsoft has officially dropped the RT designation from the hardware this time around), it’s also better to look at. The new Surface 2 sports a bright and beautiful 1080p (1920x1080) panel, a gorgeous new silver matte finish and the same great 16:9 widescreen aspect ratio for viewing your content.
First of all, the Surface 2 now looks better than ever. It's not much thinner or lighter, but it feels like a more premium product. The black gloss finish has been ditched for a handsome silver matte look, with dark grey accents and the big SURFACE logo emblazoned on the kickstand. It still retains that subtle angle on the edges to make the whole thing feel like a handsome book when you're carrying it.
Speaking of that kickstand, Microsoft has added an extra angle to it so that you can actually use this thing on your lap. Success! It's a fantastic addition that means you can effectively use your device with a Touch or Type Cover in transit, and it's so simple. It's not without a few qualms, but we'll get to those later.
The new Surface 2 is powered by the super-fast quad-core Tegra 4 brain, which means that games, graphics and even just day-to-day tasks are fast, fluid and beautiful. The Surface 2 blitzed the 720p graphics tests on 3DMark's new Windows RT benchmark app, while scoring a 14,402 on 3dMark's "Ice Storm Unlimited" graphics and physics engine tests. It doesn't come anywhere close to topping the charts, but for a $500 tablet, this thing can certainly hold its own on the Xbox and Windows Marketplace games you're likely to download. To put it in perspective, the NVIDIA Shield — a dedicated Tegra 4 gaming device running Android — clocks in at 15,186 on the benchmark tests.
The Tegra 4 really is blazingly fast: this device has no input lag and loves running multiple apps at once. Despite the power output, however, you're going to have battery for literally days. You'll comfortably get a day of use out of it in an office/productivity scenario (roughly 8 hours) and still have a bit of juice left for the commute home.
Surface 2 is also packing a new 1080p screen: a spec that was once reserved for the more premium Surface Pro. It's gorgeous to look at, and makes you wonder why the entry-level Surface didn't always have a screen this good.
The new accessories from Microsoft show a lot of promise. The new Touch Cover has more sensors than ever so you don't have to jam your fingers down on the buttons as you type. Instead, you can just gently glide over the keys as you would on a normal keyboard. It's still kind of cramped and the feedback is still paltry, and that takes a bit of getting used to.
The Type Cover has also been improved, with more travel on the keys and a more robust construction. There's even a Type Cover with built-in batteries now to give your Surface an extra bit of juice while you work.
The best part about both of these new keyboard covers is the backlight Microsoft has managed to squeeze in. An ambient light sensor at the top of the keyboard decides when your backlight should be activated, and it gently fades out when you're not using it. You're wowed, however, when you rest your wrists back on the front of the keyboard to find that the keys gently illuminate again, ready for use. That's a quality touch.
Windows 8.1 is also a welcome addition to the new Surface, because it finally feels like more customisable experience now. There are a bunch of changes in 8.1, but our favourite is the improved window-snapping that lets you infinitely adjust the amount of space each window takes up. We still wish it was a full-version of Windows 8.1, but we'll get to that.
As we mentioned earlier, the new Touch and Type Cover keyboards are still a little cramped, but you get used to them easily enough. The worst part is the fact that the matte finish on the tablet carries over to the keys. Prepare to see fingerprints galore, especially if you’re grabbing a bite to eat whilst using your device. Gross.
The keyboard covers also picks up a bunch of gunk on the outside from whatever you’re putting it down on. Make sure the desk is clean before you whack it down, because those stains will be particularly hard to shift from the felt-like fabric.
The extended stand is great, but combined with the use of the new keyboard covers the whole thing gets pretty long. That means you had better have pretty lengthy thighs to get this thing comfortably positioned on your lap so it won't not going to fall off and kill itself. Don't try to cross your legs and use it, either. It's not a rigid device, so you'll be awkwardly folding yourself to match the position of your folding tablet.
The worst part of the Surface 2, however, is Windows RT.
There are a lot of things that Windows RT can’t do when compared to Windows 8. You won’t be able to install legacy Windows applications (Chrome or Firefox for example), nor will you be able to choose from the range of apps you might get on the iOS or Android store. The Marketplace has burgeoned from 1000 apps up to 100,000, but they're all still largely consumption-based apps rather than decent pieces of productivity software.
Using the Surface 2 with Windows 8.1 RT is like being told to complete your daily workload while holding both arms behind your back. It’s impossible. You’re forced to come up with new ways to get stuff done in difficult circumstances. The tablet is a locked-in Microsoft-experience in a cross-platform world.
It's not meant for people who don't want to spend all their time in Microsoft. Don’t like Internet Explorer? Tough. Not a fan of Xbox Music? Deal with it. Want to use anything other than Outlook or Microsoft Mail. Sorry. It’s an ecosystem begging you to love it while offering nothing in return.
Sadly, the best way to get along with the Surface 2 is to stop struggling against it and port all your crap – we’re talking documents, music streaming, email accounts and default apps – over into the Microsoft way of doing things. Unless you’re a full-on Microsoft devotee, the RT-based Surface 2 is going to annoy you endlessly.
The interesting thing about the Surface 2 is that none of the flaws are the fault of the hardware. The hardware speaks to an incredible consumption device that’s great for watching, listening to, reading and enjoying content. The problem comes from the cut-down version of Windows that moves you unnaturally away from the desktop into the app vacuum of Metro.
Windows RT is a failed dream; a patchwork, cut-down operating system designed for a bygone era when tablets were merely considered to be consumption devices. It was built to compete with devices like the iPad and Android tablets, but instead it has ended up on what was meant to represent the future of hybrid computing: the Surface 2. Thanks to Windows RT, the Surface 2 is two-dimensional and poor as a do-everything device.
We know the Surface 2 Pro, with its full-version of Windows 8.1, is going to be great for just that reason. Sadly, the Surface 2 is an unrealised dream.
Hopefully store employees are good at explaining the difference between these two devices, otherwise the return rate is going to be massive.
The potential saving grace of this thing as a productivity tool is the Office suite designed for Windows 8.1 RT. All you're old friends are here, including the long-awaited return of Outlook. There are folks who feel that Office is the gold-standard of productivity, but with competitors out there like Evernote, Google Docs and Polaris Office, cross-platform compatibility problems continue to rear their ugly heads.
Should You Buy It?
If you want a Windows-based consumption device on the larger, better spec-ed end of the spectrum, buy the Surface 2. It's a device that eats up reading, watching and playing. If you want something you can actually be productive with, however, skip this in favour of a Surface 2 Pro, or even just an Ultrabook.