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.
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.
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:
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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