Review: Microsoft Surface 2
March 3, 2014
The slow sales of the original Microsoft Surface may have made it an easy target for snarky comments (including some from yours truly), but we also think there's a lot to love about Microsoft's series of hybrid PCs. Let's take a look at the latest version of the Windows RT model, as Gizmag reviews the Microsoft Surface 2.
In case you're late to the Surface party, let's do a quick rundown of the different models. On one hand we have the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2, which run full-blown Windows 8.1 – including the desktop. They're thicker and heavier than their siblings, and they also include a stylus for navigating those desktop apps that weren't designed for touch. You can think of the Surface Pros as touchscreen laptops living in tablet bodies.
Then we have the Surface RT and Surface 2. They run the more limited Windows RT 8.1, which is only compatible with Start Screen apps from the Windows Store. So why bother at all when your app selection is so limited? Well, you could argue that the RT Surfaces' longer battery life, cheaper prices, and lighter and thinner builds help to make up for their lack of a proper desktop. And though they look a lot like the Surface Pros on the outside, including kickstand and keyboard covers, their guts are more like other "media tablets" such as the iPad.
Which brings us to the Surface 2. It has the same basic construction and design as the first Surfaces, with a chassis made of Microsoft's "VaporMg" (magnesium alloy) build. It still looks slick and feels great in hand. The Surface 2 is ever-so-slightly lighter and thinner than the Surface RT. And though it's a little bigger and beefier than rivals like the iPad Air, I don't think anything about its exterior gives you any reason to pause. Its look and feel screams "premium".
The Surface 2's first big upgrade comes in its display. Its predecessor had a 1366 x 768 screen, which came out to a mere 148 pixels per inch. I found that old model's screen to be too pixelated, not nearly sharp enough to use as my main computing device. The Surface 2, though, gets an upgrade to the same 1080p resolution as the Surface Pro – and it really shows. This sucker is gorgeous and sharp, with bright and vivid colors. No worries here.
Another big improvement is the Surface 2's new dual-position kickstand. The original Surface RT and Surface Pro could only be propped up in one 22 degree position, but now a new 55 degree angle joins the party. It makes a world of difference. In fact, I find the new 55 degree position so ideal that I use it almost exclusively – whether on lap, table, or desk.
Combine the improved kickstand with the outstanding Type Cover 2, and the Surface 2 is now a device that works much better as a faux laptop. The original Type Cover had a flimsy feel to it. When I tried to use it on my lap, simple typing or trackpad scrolling would often bend the whole damn keyboard, sometimes making the cursor jump around to random spots mid-sentence. Annoyances like that were part of why I thought the first Surfaces were a bit too compromised to truly serve as full-fledged laptop replacements.
The Type Cover 2, however, is much firmer, so that pesky problem goes out the window. Its keys also have a much shorter travel distance, making typing much more responsive. The feeling is now much closer to the snappy laptop keyboards you'd find on MacBooks or Lenovo devices. And did I mention the new backlit keys? They work just like you'd expect them to, with the standard brighter/dimmer controls living on the top row of function keys. On the whole, the Type Cover 2 is an excellent keyboard for any Surface. Best of all, it's compatible with all four models, so you can pick one up even for a first-gen Surface RT or Pro.
I also tested the Touch Cover 2. It's much improved over the original Touch Cover, with improved sensors, a firmer build, and backlit keys of its own. But to say the Type Cover 2 is going to be the better choice for most customers would be a massive understatement. The lack of moving keys on the Touch Cover makes typing too much of a chore. The more I use it, the more I get used to it – to the point where I could type on it regularly if I had to. But I've yet to shake the feeling that the Touch Cover makes me focus more on my typing and less on whatever it is I'm writing. If you're planning on typing anything longer than a few emails, then you'll probably want to skip the Touch and go with the Type.
Performance is good on the Surface 2, as you might expect from its solid quad core Tegra 4 processor and 2 GB of RAM. Although I did notice a bit of lag in a few places. Nothing deal-breaking, but just enough to notice. I tweaked a few advanced settings that cut down on touchscreen lag and pretty much killed the problem. But if you aren't looking to roll up your sleeves and engage in risky business like editing the Windows registry, then you might get the feeling that the Surface 2 is, in places, just a hair less responsive than you'd like it to be.
The Surface 2 has excellent battery life, and is one of the longest-lasting tablets around. On a typical day, I use it pretty heavily, with the screen on for a good portion of the day, but I've never run out of juice by nighttime. And in our formal test, where we stream video with brightness set at 75 percent, the Surface 2 chugged along for a terrific eight hours and 45 minutes. No concerns there.
So the Surface 2 is much improved over its predecessor, the Surface RT. Better screen, better kickstand, better keyboard. But is it worth buying?
I'd say yes, but with one caveat. The Windows Store's app selection is a lot better than it used to be, but its library is still trailing far behind the App Store and even Google Play. If you only need basics like Netflix, Facebook, Twitter, Kindle, Flipboard, and Angry Birds, then it covers all those bases. But if you want, say, Instagram, YouTube, or Pocket, then your only options are third-party apps that tap into their APIs. That's a common theme with apps in the Windows Store: lots of good options, but, in some cases, be prepared to hunt for alternatives.
On the brighter side of the software situation, the Surface 2 gives you Microsoft Office for free with your purchase (it's one of the few Windows RT apps that actually runs on the desktop). Office 2013 RT isn't technically the same as desktop Office, but on the user end it's essentially the same thing – with macros as the most noticeable missing piece. So if you spend a lot of time in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, or OneNote, then that's going to be a very nice perk you get with the Surface 2.
As for choosing between the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, well, you'll want to ask yourself how badly you want those desktop apps. The Pro can run alternate web browsers, like Chrome or Firefox, as well as popular apps like iTunes, Spotify, Photoshop, and any other classic Windows apps you want to throw into the mix. Hell, you can even install Steam and play full-blown PC games on it. The RT-running Surface 2 does none of the above. You will, however, have to pay for the Pro's extra perks. Not only does the entry-level Pro 2 cost twice as much as the Surface 2, but it's also much thicker and heavier, and its battery life isn't quite as good. It also doesn't include free Office. Maybe the question, then, is which set of compromises better fits your workflow and playflow.
If you're considering the Surface 2, know that you're going to get a terrific piece of hardware that now much better lives up to the promise of serving as both tablet and laptop. But you'll also want to take a close look at its app library before throwing down at least US$450 (plus the extra $130 for a keyboard cover). Hop on a Windows 8-running PC, browse the Windows Store, and make sure you see your favorite and most important apps: the ones you use all the time and can't live without. For any you don't see, make sure there are quality alternatives that you can work with. Again, the Windows Store's app selection isn't terrible anymore, but it's still enough of a yellow flag that you'll want to do your homework first.
If the Windows Store's library does fit the bill for you, then you'll probably be extremely happy with the Surface 2. I never thought I'd want to use a Windows RT tablet for any extended period, but I can now see myself using the Surface 2 as my main tablet. The kickstand and Type Cover 2 are great for shifting from consuming content to creating content and back again. And while you can buy third-party keyboard covers for the iPad and Android tablets, they typically add more bulk, don't have trackpads, and aren't nearly as tightly-integrated into the overall experience as the Surfaces' covers are.
The Surface 2 might not be a full laptop replacement, but it's a terrific full-on-tablet/almost-laptop convergent device. If that's what you're looking for, then it's easily one of your best options. Definitely worth a look.
The Surface 2 is available now, starting at $450 for 32 GB (expandable via microSD card) from the product page below. Just remember that there's little point in buying any Surface without also adding a Touch Cover or Type Cover. The latest and greatest versions of those add an extra $120 or $130, respectively.
Product page: Microsoft