Microsoft Surface 2 deep-dive review: Better hardware, but still with Windows RT

Microsoft's upgraded tablet offers some nifty new hardware features, but is any Windows RT device worth $449?

By Preston Gralla, Computerworld |  Mobile & Wireless, Microsoft Surface, Microsoft Surface 2

Microsoft has plenty riding on its second-generation Windows RT tablet, the Surface 2. Its first iteration, the Surface RT, not only met with a fair amount of critical scorn, but sold so poorly that Microsoft was forced to take a $900 million write-off on unsold inventory -- an action that some observers believe contributed to Steve Ballmer's resignation.

So the revamped Surface 2 carries a great weight of expectations on its thin, 1.49-lb. frame. Does it live up to those expectations and -- more importantly -- is it something you should buy? Read on to find the verdict, both for Microsoft and for you.

Well-built new frame and kickstand

At first glance, the Surface 2 bears a great deal of similarity to the original Surface RT. Both have 10.6-in. screens set in a black surrounding frame; both devices have rounded corners and kickstands. But take more than a moment to look, and you'll see that Microsoft has made some improvements.

Microsoft Surface 2

While the front bezel is still black, the rest of the Surface 2 case is now silver, made from a matte magnesium alloy that not only has a pleasant feel, but didn't pick up dirt and smudges in all the time I used it. The Surface 2 weighs the same but is slightly -- very slightly -- smaller than the Surface RT: It measures 10.81 x 6.81 x 0.35 in., compared to the Surface's 10.81 x 6.77 x 0.37 inches.

The kickstand has been redesigned: It now has two settings -- the original, upright one, and a second one in which the screen tilts back more. At first, that seemed a subtle difference, but after considerable use, I found it more important than it first seemed. The second setting is ideal for when you have the tablet perched on your lap or beside you in bed. At this position I found it more solid and stable than the upright position. It also has a wider viewing angle. On a practical, day-to-day level, this made a big difference for me, particularly when watching Netflix and other videos.

Cameras and the display

The Surface 2's cameras and display have been considerably upgraded. The original Surface had underwhelming 720p front and rear cameras; the Surface 2 now has a 3.5-megapixel front-facing webcam and a 5-megapixel rear camera, which can both capture video at 1080p. In use, both performed well in low-light situations.

Even bigger news is the better display. The full HD screen can display video in 1080p even though its 1920 x 1080 resolution (up from 1366 x 768 on the original Surface) may not sound stellar. But specs are one thing, and actual experience is another, and I can vouch that the display is a beauty. Whether you're running apps, browsing the Web or doing anything else, the colors are bright and vivid.

And it really shines when it comes to watching videos. I'm a Johnny-come-lately to the TV series Breaking Bad, and the quality of the display fed my fervor for binge-watching. The new display is, in fact, one of the best things about the new tablet.

The Surface 2 also has stereo speakers on each side of the frame: When I was watching movies, they delivered surprisingly vivid, realistic sound.

Keyboard/covers

Microsoft has also introduced new keyboard/covers that work with both the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2: the Touch Cover 2 for $120 and the Type Cover 2 for $130. Both do double duty as covers and keyboards.

The Touch Cover 2 is a pressure-sensitive keyboard like the original Touch Cover, which is still available for $80. It is thinner and lighter than the original; it also adds backlighting, a nice touch.

The Type Cover 2 is a follow-up to the original Type Cover, which is no longer being sold. The Type Cover 2 improves on the original with the addition of backlighting, but aside from that is essentially the same mechanical keyboard.

I tried out the Type Cover 2, and it's a surprisingly good keyboard despite how thin it is, with good tactile feedback. It's slightly more cramped than most laptop keyboards, but that didn't affect my typing much. I found the illuminated keys helpful in low-light situations.

Microsoft is working on other keyboard/covers, including the Power Cover, which will be available in early 2014 and which combines a touch keyboard with a battery. And there's also a Surface Music Kit for DJs to remix music. It's not for sale yet, although Microsoft is running a contest to give some away.

Under the hood

A new hardware release usually means new power and more capabilities, and that's certainly true of the Surface 2. It's got an Nvidia Tegra 4 1.7GHz ARM quad-core processor with 72 graphics cores, and comes with 2GB of RAM. That processor makes a difference. It's speedier than the original Surface RT and comparable in power to the original Surface Pro. I ran the Surface 2 side by side with the original Surface Pro, and found the Surface 2 to be generally comparable to it in performance, albeit a tiny bit slower when launching and running apps and games.

The Surface 2 also has a micro HDMI port for connecting to a TV or other device and a full-sized USB 3.0 port, along with Wi-Fi and low-energy Bluetooth 4.0. Depending on the price, it comes with either 32GB ($449) or 64GB ($549) of SSD storage. Nothing startling here, but that's a solid number of ports and reasonable storage for a tablet.

Apps and software

The Surface 2 runs Windows RT 8.1, not Windows 8.1, so you won't get the full-blown Windows experience. That means no Desktop apps (the Desktop is the interface for more traditional Windows apps), which can be a serious problem because the Modern apps (or Metro apps or whatever Microsoft is calling its touch-friendly interface these days) that you get from the Windows Store are limited. As a general rule, Modern apps are less useful than their Desktop counterparts.

The app gap between Windows 8.1 and its iOS and Android competitors is still a serious one. Buy a Surface 2 and you simply don't have access to the same vast library of apps that you do when you buy a tablet with a competing operating system. When I reviewed Windows 8 when it first came out, I likened the Windows Store to having the barren shelves of a grocery store in Romania under the Ceauescu regime. Things have certainly improved since then, but there is still plenty missing.

There's still no official YouTube app in the Windows Store and no Chrome, Instagram, Vine, WatchESPN, Pandora, Spotify, Angry Birds Star Wars II or many others. Windows 8 had only 54% of the most popular mainstream iOS apps as of August, according to Nick Landry, product manager at Infragistics, which makes user interface development tools. (However, fans of the game Halo: Spartan Assault will be interested to know that it is available only for Windows 8 devices and won't run on iOS or Android.)

As with the Surface RT, the Surface 2 comes with Microsoft Office RT 2013, which now includes not just Word, PowerPoint and Excel, but Outlook and OneNote as well. That's a considerable bonus and a big savings, given that a subscription to Office Home and Business, which is comparable to the version you get on the Surface 2, runs $220 a year. I found no difference between the RT version of Office and the normal Windows version of Office. If you want to use your tablet for work, getting Office for free is a very big deal indeed, especially if you've shelled out an extra hundred-odd dollars for a Touch Cover 2 or Type Cover 2 combination cover/keyboard.

At a Glance

Surface 2

MicrosoftPrice: $449Pros: Excellent screen, well designedCons: Cannot run Desktop apps other than Office, expensive, runs Windows RT

When you buy a Surface 2, you also get 200GB of free storage on Microsoft's SkyDrive cloud service, one free year of unlimited Skype calling and free use of Skype Wi-Fi hotspots for a year. (Microsoft says there are one million Skype Wi-Fi hotspots available around the globe.)

As for the operating system itself, you get Windows RT 8.1. It's essentially the same as Windows 8.1, except that you can't run Desktop apps. Oddly enough, there is a Desktop, but it's only there so that you can run Office, because there is no Modern version of Office. As a result, when you run Office and minimize an Office application like Word or PowerPoint, you find yourself on the Desktop (even if you didn't start there) so that you can run another Office program and switch between them. You can also run Internet Explorer from the Desktop, but not any other Desktop apps.

Bottom line

The Surface 2 doesn't come cheap, especially if you want to use it as a productivity tablet with a keyboard. Take its base price of $449, add a Type Cover 2 with its $130 price tag, and you come up with a price of $579. That's a lot to pay for a machine that doesn't run full-blown Windows 8.1 or any desktop applications other than Office. For those who want a tablet that can really double as an Ultrabook, there is the more expensive (it starts at an impressive $899) and more powerful Surface Pro 2 from Microsoft, or any of the many convertible devices that are coming onto the market in time for the holiday season.

In addition, at $449, it will be difficult for the Surface 2 to compete with the just-announced iPad Air which starts at $499 and is a lighter tablet with a potentially more powerful processor and a higher-resolution screen -- not to mention access to the vast universe of iOS apps. The Surface 2 also has to contend with the many bargain Android tablets available.

The upshot of this is that the Surface 2 is no winner. And that's too bad, because it's a well-designed tablet with solid hardware and an improvement over the original Surface RT -- but it's doomed by a problematic underlying operating system and a too-high price. It's not likely to save the Windows RT operating system for Microsoft by itself.

This article, Microsoft Surface 2 deep-dive review: Better hardware, but still with Windows RT, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 45 books, including Windows 8 Hacks (O'Reilly, 2012). See more by Preston Gralla on Computerworld.com.

Read more about tablets in Computerworld's Tablets Topic Center.

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