|Introduction and Specifications|
|The first generation of Microsoft’s homegrown Surface RT tablet delivered mixed results. The hardware was solid and well built, but the OS and software ecosystem left a little something to be desired. Many thought pricing was a bit on the high side as well. Finally, competition at the time was also quite fierce, to say the least and still is, of course.
Undaunted and still hungry for a chunk of the tablet market, Microsoft recently revealed its second generation of Surface tablets, the Surface 2 Pro, which runs the full version of Windows 8.1, and the Surface 2 (that we’re reviewing here today), which runs Windows RT 8.1.
Microsoft really needs its Surface 2 tablets to do brisk business, because other manufacturers have been bailing, or at least souring, on the Windows RT platform. And not without good reason; Windows RT didn't quite live up to expectations. In this case, though, slightly missing the mark is not like falling short and ending up with something that’s still pretty great. It’s more like jumping between two cliffs and not quite making it.
So yes, there’s been a software problem, but things haven’t been all bad by any means. The Surface hardware was good from the get go. The touch UI was built specifically for tablets and touchscreens and it’s nice having the option to pop over to a more familiar desktop environment when you need it. There are (free) Microsoft Office 2013 RT apps (as well as built-in Skype and SkyDrive), which are a huge value-adds. And for what it’s worth, the look and feel of the original Surface was pleasing as well, including the handy kickstand.
But let's take a look at the new Surface 2 and see how Microsoft has advanced the platform and offering.
The second-gen specs inside the Surface 2 are appropriate for a generational bump, including the NVIDIA Tegra 4 chip (with 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4), an impressive hi-res (1920x1080) 10.6-inch display with 5-point multitouch, and rear 5MP and front 3.5MP 1080p HD cameras, all of which are notable improvements over the Surface’s Tegra 3 processor, 1366x768 screen resolution, and 720p HD front and rear cameras. There’s still a full-size USB port on the tablet itself, but this one is USB 3.0 instead of USB 2.0, and the Surface 2 is slightly taller than its predecessor (6.81 inches to 6.77) and a hair thinner (0.35 inches to 0.37 inches).
The Surface 2 also features 2GB of RAM, 32GB or 64GB of storage, two microphones, stereo speakers, a headphone jack, HD video out, a microSDXC reader, and a Cover port (for accessories), and the list of sensors includes an ambient light sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, and a magnetometer. We should also note that the Surface Pen is not supported on the Surface 2.
Windows RT 8.1 is on board, and Microsoft includes its spate of Office 2013 RT apps--Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, and now Outlook--as well as Skype with unlimited minutes to landlines and free calls over WiFi for a year and 200GB of free SkyDrive storage for two years.
|Tablets tend to be built in a certain way--glossy screen, smooth edges, unimaginative body--but the Surface 2 is quite different. True, the display is a glossy affair with a thick black bezel around the edge, but the rest of the chassis is pure industrial sexiness.
The casing has the same excellent VaporMg back that we saw on the original Surface, and the molten magnesium alloy is gorgeous. The look pops even more with our Magnesium-colored (read: light gray) edition. When you look closely, you can see that the finish actually sparkles, and it resists fingerprints with the best of them.
The edges are angled slightly toward the back with crisp, sharp edges that actually contribute to the grip of the device when the kickstand is engaged because the angle of the edges follows the angle of the device when it’s propped up.
The top edge of the tablet is bare save for the power button, and down the back is a camera and microphone. Hiding behind the kickstand is the microSDXC slot, and the bottom edge of the Surface 2 has the Cover Port you use to connect Cover peripherals and accessories. There’s a speaker apiece on the upper right and left edges, and the second camera and mic are at the top middle of the display.
The right side also hosts the HD video out port, USB 3.0 port, and the four-pin 24W power supply connector; the headphone jack and volume rocker are on the left.
You can actually use the kickstand in two different orientations, one where the display is propped up at a steeper angle, not unlike how you’d position a laptop screen, and one where the kickstand is at a 90-degree angle to the body for more gently-angled use.
The design isn’t perfect, though. We’re not the first to note the substantial heft of the Surface 2, and at 1.49 lbs it’s not very comfortable to hold in one hand for extended periods. That’s what the kickstand’s for in part, but opening up the kickstand can also be an awkward experience. There’s a little notch on the left side of the device designed to give you a way to grab the stand when you want to flip it out, but our largish fingers struggled to catch it every time.
Further, the only good way to hold the Surface 2 when you want to flip out the stand is by gripping the top right corner with one hand and using your left thumb to pop it out. Otherwise, your right hand is in the way of the extending kickstand; or, as we kept doing much to our annoyance, your left hand keeps bumping the volume rocker. (Now if you’ll excuse us, that minute level of nitpicking has given us a headache.)
All that said, the construction feels beautifully solid, and we’re still amazed that the fingernail-thin kickstand and it’s commensurately small hinge is so solid and stable. With the kickstand out and the Touch Cover attached, you’d swear you were using an ultrathin laptop, which is exactly what Microsoft was hoping for.
The Surface 2’s 1920x1080 display is a significant upgrade from the Surface’s 1366x768, which is saying something because we found the original to offer strong contrast, saturation, and sharpness as well as responsive touch. We’ll go ahead and repeat ourselves for the Surface 2's display, which also boasts terrific viewing angles and a brightness level that’s almost uncomfortable to behold at full blast.
|Microsoft Surface Accessories|
|We need to give Microsoft some serious props on its burgeoning lineup of accessories. There are several new items available now and coming soon that look top-notch (although a couple are only for the Surface 2 Pro) including the Touch Cover 2, Type Cover 2, Power Cover, Docking Station, Wireless Adapter for Typing Covers, Car Charger with USB, and the Arc Touch Mouse Surface Edition. These are in addition to a variety of handy styli, screen protectors, cases, and more.
Additionally, Microsoft is experimenting with the idea of so-called “blades”, or special peripherals that extend the usefulness of a Surface tablet in specific and powerful ways, such as the Surface Remix Touch Cover.
In other words, Microsoft is killing it with the accessories.
For this review, Microsoft included a Type Cover 2 for us, which seems to have taken the best from both of the original Touch and Type Covers. The first-gen Touch Cover had a rubbery felt-like material that was quite pleasing to the touch, but it didn’t have any moving parts, whereas the Type Cover was much better for typing with its physical keys. The Type Cover 2 now has that same soft, pretty felt-like finish, and it actually covers the touchpad portion of the keyboard.
I was a bit apprehensive about the touchpad, between the fabric-like covering, the overall thinness of the Type Cover 2, and plenty of poor experiences with touchpads on mobile devices, but I was pleasantly surprised at both how comfortable the fabric-like material felt under my fingertips and also how responsive the input was. It also resists fingerprints and smudges as well as anything I’ve seen.
You can scroll the cursor around, of course, but you can also tap to click, and the two-finger scrolling both up and down or left to right is incredibly smooth. The two-finger zoom in/zoom out is just as good.
For such a thin typing surface, the key travel is certainly satisfactory, with good responsiveness and large keys that are comfortable to use. The keys are all backlit, so you can type easily even in the dark, and the layout is simple and uncluttered. Microsoft gave the Function keys double duty for things like media playback controls, brightness adjustment controls, quick keys to settings and search as well as page up/down and End (and more), but that’s as complex as they got with it.
Although the Type Cover 2 is stiff, it’s also a bit flexible, but not so much so that you can't use the device in your lap on a plane or in bed. The thing snaps magnetically into place well, too; if you hover the tablet anywhere near the Type Cover 2, it will nearly jump up into place, and once it’s locked in, it won’t ever fall out accidentally.
One other advantage of the Type Cover that we stumbled across is that because the pivot point on the hinge is so flexible, you have more orientations for the keyboard. For example, if you need to lay the whole thing, screen and keyboard, flat on your lap, you easily can.
Microsoft sells this excellent accessory for $129.99. That’s a lot of scratch for a keyboard, but it’s worth it if you plan to use the Surface 2 for any sort of typing beyond sending an occasional email.
In fact, in any head-to-head comparisons of tablets, Microsoft can lean on its strong accessories. This Type Cover 2 looks great, is easy to use, and it’s incredibly thin. It’s hard to overstate how important a great keyboard accessory is to a tablet like this one that wants to be taken seriously as both a consumption device and a productivity device.
Other than the Type Cover, all that Microsoft sent along was the power supply, which has a small brick design that’s a bit larger than the average phone charger and has a cord that’s about five feet long for those times you need to charge up at your desk or the coffee shop.
|Windows RT 8.1 and Overall Experience|
Let’s not mince words: Windows RT is a struggling platform. Enough people don’t like Windows 8, but Windows RT is a reduced feature version of Windows 8 that doesn’t support legacy applications (by dint of running on ARM and not x86 processors) and there are cloying aspects to the user experience.
It looked to me that a lot of developers were not convinced that Windows RT was worth the effort, in the beginning. The good news is that is appears as though some developers were perhaps waiting for Windows RT 8.1 to roll out, and the Windows Store does appear to be sprouting more numerous and quality apps.
All that said, Windows RT does offer an attractive selection of built-in apps, most notably the Office 2013 RT lineup that includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, and--new to Windows RT 8.1--Outlook. When you’re calculating the cost of a Surface 2 tablet, don’t forget to account for the fact that you’re getting Office, and these are by no means skimpy little versions of the real thing. You can get serious work done with these apps.
Less dazzling but still quite convenient and handy, Windows RT 8.1 comes with an assortment of tools such as a calendar, maps, the camera app, email, contacts, video player, Bing, and access to Xbox Music and Xbox Games. There’s also an app called Fresh Paint that lets you create original artwork or import camera shots or other images and toy with them. There are plenty of “packs” you can buy or download for free, too; for example, the Fun Packs offer coloring book-style drawing for your kids to “paint”. The digital paint is remarkable; it replicates texture, so your brush strokes look 3D.
Windows RT 8.1 brought back the Start button (although it doesn’t actually function as the old Start button did), and you can still enjoy split-screen functionality wherein you can have two apps running simultaneously side-by-side, although now it will work in halves, as well, instead of just in thirds. (It’s another of Windows RT’s underrated features.)
The gaming experience on the Surface 2 is a joy. We fired up “Halo: Spartan Assault”, and the graphics were crisp and beautifully detailed. Gameplay was smooth as butter while also offering quick response and action so fluid that it was easy to forget that we were gaming on a tablet. The new higher-res display definitely contributes to that experience. One negative on gaming, though, is that the Surface 2 got pretty warm; after just 5-10 minutes, it was noticeably warm in our hands.
On the downside, you never expect too much out of a mobile device’s audio performance, but we were dismayed by the Surface 2’s speakers. Microsoft mounted them on the left and right sides of the tablet, which is good placement, but they produced a quality that we’d peg as mediocre even for normally-disappointing tablet speakers. The sound is small and tinny, with zero bass response, and even cranked all the way up, the volume just isn't there. Worse, at full volume there was a good bit of crackling and popping, too.
|SunSpider and Rightware BrowserMark Tests|
The Surface 2 smoked the competition in SunSpider, posting a score of 395.5ms. Only the NVIDIA SHIELD (524.8) and Intel Atom Z3770 tablet (577.6) were within screaming distance of the Surface 2, and most mobile devices in our test bank weren’t even close--including the original Surface tablet, which was way more than twice as slow at 1044ms.
Although its performance in Rightware’s BrowserMark wasn’t as dominant as in SunSpider, the Surface 2 scored solidly in fourth place. Again, it beat the first-gen Surface, although not by as dramatic a delta.
|Next up we've got some tests that focus solely on graphics performance--namely, Futuremark's 3DMark Ice Storm benchmark.
Although the Surface 2 performed solidly in the 3DMark Ice Storm tests, it couldn’t outpace all of the competition. In the overall score and in the Graphics test it came in second only to the NVIDIA SHIELD, and the story was the same on the GT1 and GT2 tests. However, the Surface 2 struggled a little in the Physics test, coming up short against the SHIELD, Intel Atom Z3770 reference tablet, and the ASUS T100TA.
|Camera Performance, Battery Life|
The two cameras on the first Surface were serviceable though not particularly impressive; both offered no more than 720p HD resolution. Howver, Microsoft has significantly upgraded the Surface 2 with a rear 5MP camera and a front 3.5MP camera, both of which offer 1080p HD resolution. The front camera is very impressive, offering surprising clarity and relatively strong low-light performance.
The rear camera is another story; the sharpness leaves something to be desired (almost every image looks slightly pixelated), and it seems to offer similar results to the lower-end front camera, which is to say that if it was a front-facing webcam it would be an excellent camera, but just about any smartphone camera these days can shoot better pics. Saturation and contrast are decent but not great.
I like that the Camera app has a modest amount of features; if I really want to sit down and seriously edit my photos and video, I’ll use dedicated software, but if I just want to polish them up a bit before uploading or emailing them, this app does the trick nicely.
In-camera, there are a few settings you can adjust, too. You get a slider to adjust the exposure, and you can also spot adjust. There’s also a timer that offers a 3- or 10-second delay.
One nifty tool lets you shoot a panorama, and the app does a good job of helping you know where you are in the shot and how to align the next frame. You can essentially capture a 360-degree spread, and when you’re done the app will stitch everything together for you. Then you can scroll around the image or use the gyroscope to manipulate it, although the results can be kind of funky.
The camera can also actually snap a series of photos when you click the shutter (i.e., tap the screen), and for a few minutes, you can pull up the photo you just took and use a dial to scroll through the 15 images taken of the shot and pick your favorite. It’s a boon to anyone who’s trying to, for example, capture someone’s facial expression but isn’t necessarily quick enough on the draw.
The Surface 2 hung on for a best-in-field 756 minutes, which is over 12 hours. Microsoft advertises the Surface 2 as having 10 hours of juice, although at the launch event, the word was 12 hours. Regardless of what the PR says, though, we found that this tablet has seriously all-day battery life.
|Summary and Conclusion|
The hardware is only part of the story, though, as the long-awaited Windows RT 8.1 update certainly hasn’t hurt anything. If you weren’t keen on the look and feel of Windows 8 before, the 8.1 update isn’t going to sway you, but those already using the new OS (and particularly in this case, Windows RT) will be pleased by what they find. The changes aren’t earth-shattering, but they add up to a better user experience overall.
Microsoft's included applications and services, such as Skype, SkyDrive, and others, bring a huge value to the Surface 2 offering, and in addition to the Office apps present in the first generation of Surface RT tablets, Microsoft threw in Outlook for this go-around. We were also pleased to see that the app count in the Windows Store is growing, and we’re starting to be able to find more of the apps we want.
The tablet itself is a fine piece of hardware, with excellent build quality and a fetching industrial design, but Microsoft also deserves accolades for the Type Cover 2. The accessory is a superb bit of engineering, somehow balancing thinness and strength and also offering a pleasant typing experience, considering that you're on a 10-inch device. While the $129.99 price tag is sure to make some people wince, especially when you add it to the $449 you’re already paying ($549 for the 64GB variant) for the Surface 2 itself, if you’re planning to be productive on the tablet, you'll want it.
This brings us to another point about Microsoft’s strategy in the tablet space. Most manufacturers make a sharp distinction between tablets and notebooks, but Microsoft seems to view the Surface 2 and Surface 2 Pro as something in between. Sure, you can buy one of these with no accessories and have yourself a very nice tablet, but that’s probably really not what Microsoft wants you to do. Microsoft wants you to replace your tablet and your notebook with a Surface.
Effectively, the Surface 2 Pro can be a full-on laptop replacement, and that’s part of why they’re priced so high and why the accessories cost so much. The Surface 2 is less of a direct laptop replacement, but it can certainly function as one to an extent. The main issue you’ll have to overcome with either is the smaller size, but that’s not a criticism of the Surface 2 or Surface 2 Pro; it’s just the cost of doing business with a ultra mobile device that comes in a tablet size.
The big question here is whether or not Microsoft improved on its homegrown OS and hardware platform, and the answer is a definite yes. Microsoft has a firm grasp on how to make a great tablet, and the company is starting to understand how to build a good mobile operating system and ecosystem that still offers desktop-like capabilities.
How much was your last laptop? Because the Surface 2 (32GB) with the Type Cover 2 will run you $579, and you get a suite of Office apps and the option for a standalone tablet for your dollar. That’s by no means cheap, and anyone just looking for a cool tablet plus some attractive extras may balk at the price. The limitations of the Windows RT platform are what they are, and there’s no doubt that the Surface 2 Pro running full Windows 8.1 will offer a better flexibility, but for all that comes with it, the Surface 2 should insert itself nicely in the competitive premium tablet and hybrid market.