Microsoft Surface 2 Windows RT 8.1 Tablet Review

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.

One example is that the the cursor placement in Google Drive is maddeningly inaccurate, making the typing experience frustrating. The whole Compatibility View nonsense with the built-in Internet Explorer that makes it so certain websites don't load correctly is a huge pain, too. Windows RT users will find these occasional unpleasant little easter eggs scattered throughout the system.

There are other annoying considerations that can crop up; for example, if you have an external hard drive with password protection software, guess what? The Surface 2 won’t recognize the drive, because it can’t run the software--unless you can get an app for that, which you most likely can’t. The issue of being unable to use legacy software can be a major turnoff for users, and that’s just not a problem that will go away.

The biggest complaint about Windows RT, though, has been the lack of critical mass in available apps. Early on, it was only fair to give Microsoft a mulligan because of how new the platform was; surely, most of us reasoned, the population of apps would grow quickly. Yet until recently, close to a year after we first looked at the original Surface, there are some still glaring app omissions.  That said, the new, recently released Facebook app is pretty slick actually.

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.

Windows RT also includes Skype, with a special deal for unlimited minutes for calls to landlines and free calls over WiFi for a year. SkyDrive, long an underrated service, is on board as well, and Microsoft is offering 200GB of free cloud storage for a year.

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.

Old standbys such as (the original) Paint and the Snipping Tool are still baked in to Windows RT 8.1, too.

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.)

There are small tweaks as well, such as the ability to use your desktop wallpaper as your Start Menu background, more detailed search results, and a smoother experience when moving or resizing tiles.

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.

If you want sound of out the Surface 2, you’d better either wear headphones or connect an external Bluetooth speaker.

And now what we’ve all been waiting for: Benchmark scores. Let’s get dangerous.

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