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11/21/2013
09:06 AM
Michael Endler
Michael Endler
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Microsoft Surface 2: Hands-On Review

Microsoft's Surface 2 is a big improvement, but it's not for everyone.

I've been using Microsoft's Surface 2 for nearly a month, and it improves in literally every way over its misbegotten predecessor, the Surface RT. That's not necessarily saying much, given the low bar set by the original, but the Surface 2 is actually a pretty satisfying device.

I'm consequently disappointed that I can't wholeheartedly recommend the Surface 2. It's a terrific device for specific groups of users, but given its cost and limitations, many people will probably be better served by other options.

The Surface 2 is fun to use, but with a $449 base price, it might be too compromised for most users.
The Surface 2 is fun to use, but with a $449 base price, it might be too compromised for most users.

Still, progress is progress. The Surface RT, which Microsoft still sells for $349, doesn't warrant even a qualified endorsement -- its sales have been awful for a reason. Windows RT 8.1 adds some polish to the device's OS, but the RT is still hampered by a laggy processor and a subpar 1,366x768-pixel display. Even if you buy into some of the device's strengths, such as ultra-mobile access to Microsoft Office, you'll probably be discouraged by its cost-to-performance ratio.

[ How does the Surface 2 match up against the iPad Air? Read iPad Air vs. Surface 2: 9 Considerations. ]

The Surface 2 is far less aggravating. In fact, it's actually pretty fun to use. I'll discuss its drawbacks on the next page, but first, here are the things I liked:

Better performance
The Surface 2's NVIDIA Tegra 4 ARM processor is much zippier than the Surface RT's Tegra 3, and Windows RT 8.1 is far more fluid and intuitive than the original OS version. The device starts up in seconds, wakes up from sleep even faster, and is generally pretty responsive -- as long as you remember that it's not packing full PC power beneath the hood.

Improved core apps
The inclusion of Outlook and other Office titles is still a big part of the Surface 2's appeal. If you're happy using Word, Excel, and the others on a 10.6-inch screen, Microsoft's new tablet is an elegant option. But Windows RT 8.1's core Modern UI apps are much richer than those in the original version. The new Mail app is so much better than its bare-bones predecessor, for example, that some people might actually use it instead of Outlook.

Light and luxurious hardware
The Surface 2 is astonishingly light. Microsoft's spec sheet will tell you the device weighs less than 1.5 pounds and is only 8.9 mm thick, but those are just numbers on a page. They don't prepare you for how light yet sturdy the Surface 2's magnesium chassis really is. The fact that Microsoft managed to fit a USB 3.0 port is both impressive and useful.

The device's two-position kickstand is also a surprisingly important addition that not only provides more viewing angles but also makes the device easier to balance on a user's lap. The Surface 2's 1,080p screen is substantially sharper and more vibrant than the RT's, making the new device great for surfing the web, firing up Office, watching movies, and using Skype. Video chats are further enabled by a light-sensitive 3.5 MP front-facing camera. Microsoft also throws in a year of free Skype WiFi, accessible at more than 2 million hotspots.

Rapid update cycles
Traditionally, Windows updates arrive in discrete chunks, meaning users sometimes have to wait months or even years for performance enhancements and bug fixes. With Microsoft's newest OS, that's no longer the case; updates can be deployed and automatically installed on a continual basis. Microsoft has already released a few updates for Windows RT 8.1, and those updates have noticeably improved the Surface 2's performance. Internet Explorer 11 (IE 11) was prone to crashing at first but has since stabilized, for example.

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Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
11/22/2013 | 8:35:55 PM
Re: Surface 2 Price Point
IHS iSuppli said the Surface RT cost $271 in components. The Surface 2 has a nicer screen, which was probably more expensive, but other components have probably come down in cost in the last year, so I'm gonna assume we're not talking more than $300, if that.

iSupplie also said the original Touch Cover was only $16 in materials, so Microsoft is (or at least was) evidently trying to squeeze margins out of the keyboards.
anon9387990004
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anon9387990004,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/22/2013 | 2:21:23 PM
Re: Anyone else?
I have the Surface Pro 2 and absolutely love it. I was at a meeting a couple of days ago and around me were a number of participants with their iPads. I had to laugh as I watched them try and bang out notes using the on-screen keyboard. I could type in an entire sentence in the time it took them to key in a couple of words. I kept up with my notetaking and presentation while I watched them continually lag so far behind that they rarely complete what they started before they were so far behind that they left each topic note unfinished.

I know third party keyboards are available with the iPads but it seems iPad users generally insist on running it "native" (without any add on devices). I guess better to look good than be efficient which reminds me of the Billy Crystal character Fernando on Saturday night live who would proclaim "You look marvelous" and then follow with "better to look good than feel good". That was the reality for the iPad users... not to say that I have anything to apologize about with my slick looking Surface - in my case I look good and feel good!
Curtis Quick
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Curtis Quick,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/22/2013 | 1:11:36 AM
For Some a Surface is the Perfect Device
I know it is for me! I have a Surface RT and it has made my life so much easier. I used to carry my laptop around with me everywhere just in case I needed to access work documents and other information. I cannot tell you how much easier it is now carrying just my Surface RT around. It's so much lighter, almost like I am not carrying anything at all. The Surface RT is also very durable and of high quality. I have no cover for it (other than a touch cover) and it has no scratches after nearly a year of use. Who among you uses your iPad with no protective cover? Add the cost of the cover and the iPad costs even more than a Surface and weighs more as well.  

So now, when I am in transit or waiting in a coffee shop I turn on Internet sharing on my phone and just pull out my Surface and connect to the Internet. I open up PowerPoint presentation files I was working on in SkyDrive and get to it. I have no probem typing on my lap and if a table is handy sometimes I even get my tiny wireless wedge mouse out of my bag when I want extra fine control. I love the fact that I don't need to purchase a cover with a kickstand. My Surface just stands up on its own. When I get home, I can plug my Surface into a 32" monitor and use my wireless full size keyboard to work as if on a desktop. My Surface might not be a complete laptop replacement, but it comes awefully close.

If you use MS Office, a Surface may well be the perfect device for you as well.

Click here if you want to see some of the more exciting ways the Surface RT works better than other tablets.

 
rradina
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rradina,
User Rank: Ninja
11/21/2013 | 9:05:46 PM
Re: Surface 2 Price Point
Has anyone done a tear down and price estimate of what the Surface 2 costs to build?
thinkingdifferent
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thinkingdifferent,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/21/2013 | 7:47:37 PM
Re: Surface 2 Price Point
Easily...and I used to be an all Apple person.  A couple of the things that I immediately noticed about the Surface 2 that are not readily apparent from the specs.  (1) User accounts.  Multiple members of your family can share the tablet and keep emails, files, and settings separate; (2) Multitasking.  Just being able to have IE open while reviewing your email is convenient.  You can have any two apps snap to the screen at the same time.  There are actually a litany of stuff but only if you intend to actually use a tablet as hybrid device and not solely as an Angry Birds/iTunes player.  
thinkingdifferent
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thinkingdifferent,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/21/2013 | 7:37:53 PM
Satifisfied Surface 2 owner
I use the device primarily as a laptop replacement for my trips.  In reality, most people do not need legacy apps any longer.  The fact that the Surface comes with Office and enables me to shed my laptop for most business trips is pretty amazing.

Second, the dearth of apps is not as much of an issue any longer.  There are still some key apps missing, but IE is a full browser, and I can essentially replace most any app that may be missing.  Frankly, I haven't really had to since there isn't much that I find lacking for my needs.

However, I do agree that given the cost that I wouldn't wholeheartedly recommend the Surface 2 to everyone.  At the same time, I still think the Surface 2 can be the hybrid device that satisfies a broad section of people from students to mobile professionals.  
Thomas Claburn
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Thomas Claburn,
User Rank: Author
11/21/2013 | 6:25:51 PM
Re: Surface 2 Price Point
Does it do anything that would make a user of Apple products switch?
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
11/21/2013 | 5:38:45 PM
Re: Surface 2 Price Point
If they dropped the cost to $299, there would be a waiting list of schools waiting to sign up-- or at least there'd better be. That would be a great deal.

But at that price, I assume Microsoft would also be losing money on every unit, in which case they'd need to compensate with a lot of app growth. I don't think that's a terrible strategy, at least relative to what they've been doing, but Microsoft seems disinclined to go that route.

Anyhow, it's a good question. $349 or $399 would have been better, obviously, but how many extra units would Microsoft ship with those lower prices? If a $349 base price would have boosted sales by 50%, then Microsoft is foolish and stubborn to have gone with $449. If the lower price would have boosted sales by only 5%, I can see why Microsoft is sticking to its guns with premium pricing.

Regarding the ideal price, I'm not where the tipping point is, and Microsoft has given no indication it wants to treat the Surface as a loss leader in order to stimulate the Windows Store. It's the problem, as I suggested in the article, with basing your entire device line around niche differentiation points.
rradina
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rradina,
User Rank: Ninja
11/21/2013 | 5:13:33 PM
Surface 2 Price Point
I agree the price is an issue.  The Microsoft side of personal computing has always had a price advantage when pitted against Apple's products even though it's had the application ecosystem advantage.  Now we have a device that's priced the same if not more (including keyboard) than the iPad but it doesn't have a comparable application ecosystem.  

Curious -- what price would make this a home run?  Would they have to knock $100 off?  $200 off?

What if the device was $299 and the type cover was $49?
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
11/21/2013 | 4:20:45 PM
The little Surface that could?
As someone who's written harshly about the Surface in the past, I must say the improvements here are not trivial. You can see that Microsoft is getting better at packaging and marketing the Surface. The lighter hardware, faster  Tegra 4 chips and improved battery life were all needed. The more flexible kickstand is important too -- I can say from experience that the original Surface kickstand is not comfortable. The free Skype Wi-Fi and the 200GB of free SkyDrive storage are seriously sweet perks.

I think eventually people will engage better with the Windows 8 tile-based UI. Microsoft may have been ahead of it's time releasing a tablet/laptop hybrid and the price of the Surface 2 is still troubling at $450, but I think the Surface will be the little engine that could.
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