Hands-On Preview: Microsoft Surface 2 Windows 8.1 RT Tablet

Microsoft's Surface 2 became available for purchase at retail earlier this week and we've had an eval unit in-hand for testing since the day before launch. Powered by NVIDIA's new quad-core Tegra 4 SoC, and driven by Windows 8.1 RT, the Surface 2 offers stiff competition to the recently announced iPad Air. From a total package perspective, Microsoft throws in a 200GB of SkyDrive cloud storage, free Skype landline calling for 2 years and 1 year of all you can eat Skype WiFi at available hot spots. So you get all that, for $150 less (comparable 32GB Surface 2 pricing at $449) than an iPad Air at $599. The new iPad has its super high res Retina display (and a 64-bit A7 processor), which no doubt packs the pixels versus the Surface 2's 1920X1080 ClearType HD panel, but in a 10-inch tablet are you really going to notice it that much?  Regardless, between Surface 2, the Nexus 7 and the new iPad Air, there are a plethora of great tablet options available this Q4 shopping season.

Surface 2 has a page up on Amazon but where's the buy button?

We are feverishly working on our full evaluation of the Microsoft Surface 2 but felt it might be nice to offer you a taste and a tease of the device, here with our hands-on video review, some high res beauty shots, camera samples and of course a few benchmark numbers. Have a gander...

As you can see, Surface 2 has a premium build quality, it performs very well, Windows 8.1 is a very slick UI and there's a fair bit of critical mass now in the Windows Store. After living with Surface 2 for a week, I can personally say I like it very much and would certainly consider it for use beyond just straight consumption, but for casual work and possibly content creation as well. 

It's a subtle change but the extra swing of Surface 2's kickstand is a welcomed design tweak.  I'm the type of user that will often take a device like this into the kitchen, which is my favorite room in the house really.  While I'm making dinner, a device like this will often sit on the counter, piping in email, offering some quick web browsing and streaming music to a wireless Bluetooth speaker system. That little extra tilt upwards of the screen allows you to stand directly over the device and still have an optimal viewing angle from typical counter top heights.

Type Cover 2 is super thin, with a comfortable felt feel and good tactility with its key caps.

Microsoft hid the microSD card slot underneath Surface 2's kickstand...

It makes no sense to me at all but Apple's brand spanking new iPad Air still doesn't have a microSD card slot. It's a very simple addition and mechanically it's more than feasible, even for the 1lb iPad Air.  Microsoft tucked the Surface 2's microSD card slot right behind the kickstand.  Look at how thin the actual port is.  Shame on you Apple.  There's a reason we all have to go through the Lightning Connector and it's likely Apple's need to control the experience.  At least Apple offers you a Nano SIM card slot for LTE-enabled devices but then you tack almost another $200 on to the price tag. A Surface 2 with LTE would definitely serve the niche' well.

Left: 5MP Rear-Facing Camera Sample - Right: Low Light 3.5MP Front Web Camera Sample

Microsoft absolutely nailed the front facing 3.5MP camera on Surface 2, with great low light performance for Skype video chats, Google hangouts or what have you.  The rear-facing 5MP camera, however, not so much. Performance indoors is pretty grainy and there's some shutter lag. Then again, I don't take a lot of high res photos with a 10-inch slate. Do you?

Let's take a quick look at the numbers...

Surface 2 demonstrates strong standard compute performance and class-leading graphics/gaming performance here. Though we're still stepping through the numbers, it feels like NVIDIA's Tegra 4 that's clocked up to as fast as 1.71GHz in Surface 2, falls in slightly behind Intel's Bay Trail at its full 2.4GHz clock speed, in terms of general compute workloads. In gaming, nothing can touch Surface 2 from what we've seen thus far, save for NVIDIA's higher clocked (1.9GHz) SHIELD Android gaming device, which is also actively cooled. It will be interesting to see how Apple's iPad Air performs. Apple could very well set the performance bar with the A7 in the new iPad Air but then again, it certainly doesn't feel like Surface 2 is want for performance.

Surface 2's type cover really is a well-engineered and valuable accessory that adds significantly to the total solution, though it comes at an additional $129 cost. Competition does exist now from the likes of ASUS and others as well that will be offering lower cost Windows 8 solutions with detachable keyboards like the new Transformer Book T100TA.

Make sure you stay tuned for our full review on both devices in the coming weeks as we continue our in-depth tablet coverage in the Q4 home stretch.