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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
11/21/2013 | 1:49:36 PM
Re: Good for Students
@fjrangel1, thanks for the comments. You bring up a number of good points.


Regarding the screen's aspect ratio-- you're right: the Surface 2 is a terrific media tablet. It doesn't have the iTunes ecosystem behind it, which will matter to some people, but everything else is great. I've watched a ton of Netflix on the Surface 2.

If you like to watch videos with your tablet in a static position, rather than held in your hands, the Surface 2's kickstand is an asset. For the purposes you describe, I can definitely see someone preferring the Surface 2 over an iPad. But tablets have many purposes, and I don't think the Surface 2 stacks up as well with some of the other tasks. It's clearly subjective, but for handheld use, I find the iPad Mini and the iPad Air to be much more user-friendly, for example.

The screen-size issue is a bit ironic. The iPad has a reputation as a consumer device, but its aspect ratio is actually perfect for reviewing documents-- a trait that's helped iPads to become popular in the workplace. At the same time, the boxier aspect ratio can detract from on the device's alleged core strengths-- media consumption. With an iPad, you're sometimes forced to choose between viewing content at the desired resolution, the desired size, or the desired aspect ratio.

The Surface 2, meanwhile, has a reputation as a "productivity" tablet, but its screen is arguably better suited to watching movies than the iPad's, , as noted above. So in a small but noteworthy way, both devices defy their reputations.

I'm a little surprised to hear you don't find the keyboard cramped-- but again, it's subjective. I have medium-sized hands, and it's my job to produce a couple thousand words worth of content daily, so my relationship with keyboards is going to be different than those of many IW readers. As noted in the article, I think the Type Cover is perfectly usable, but I wouldn't recommend relying on it if heavy typing is part of your routine.

Ultimately, I think your positive experience with the Surface reaffirms that it can be a terrific device depending on your needs. For certain use cases, it's clearly better than other options, from small laptops to iPads. I still suspect the Surface will attract only a niche audience, as the areas in which it excels don't necessarily offset the ways in which other options are more desirable. But it's always possible I'm underestimating things.
fjrangel1
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fjrangel1,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/21/2013 | 11:52:11 AM
Good for Students
I have to disagree with the author regarding the 16:10 form factor (I assumed it was 16:9, but I digress). Watching videos on the iPad is mediocre, at best. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's ever watched YouTube and Netflix videos on his tablet. It's probably why so many Android tablets are at a 16:9 ratio. Besides, I don't hold tablets one handed for more than a minute. Usually it's resting on a table top, the ground, or my knees (I watch a lot of video on it).

 

The surface is bigger than your average tablet, but there's a reason for that. It also acts as a laptop. How tiny would the keyboard be to fit the width of an iPad? I've typed on the Surface 2's keypad, and it's no less comfortable than my laptop (except there is no space for a number pad).
Texas888
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Texas888,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/21/2013 | 11:12:21 AM
Surface Pro 2
The Surface Pro 2 runs the full version of Win 8.1. Judging by the comments so far they all appear to be apple fan boys/girls.
sfreeves
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sfreeves,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/21/2013 | 10:39:32 AM
Surface 2 vs. iPad
Thanks for the review! I have been going back and forth between what to get, either an iPad of a Surface 2.  I know all tablets have their flaws but I have heard more flaws about the Surface 2 than I have for the iPad.  I will be using the device for personal use and maybe down the road work use when traveling, so from the other reviews that I have read and this it seems that an iPad for me is a sure-fire way to go!
Marilyn Cohodas
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Marilyn Cohodas,
User Rank: Author
11/21/2013 | 10:22:07 AM
Re: Microsoft Surface 2
I find it interesting that you have reservations about bringing Surface into the business environment, Li. If experienced IT professionals like you have doubts about Surface's place in the enterprise, that doesn't bode well for Microsoft. 
Li Tan
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Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
11/21/2013 | 10:09:28 AM
Re: Microsoft Surface 2
I am a little bit reluctant to take it into use for business use. It's an innovation for consumer electronics but may not be suitable for full-fledge business use. Its functionality is still limited and there are restrictions as was mentioned in the post. So I would keep watching out instead of trying by myself.:-)
Susan Fogarty
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Susan Fogarty,
User Rank: Author
11/21/2013 | 9:55:09 AM
Re: Microsoft Surface 2
To most businesses, I think Microsoft is pretty relevant. But that's part of the problem. They market the Surface as a consumer device, when they should be trying to sell it to businesses that need the application integration and security it can provide. Some of that is happening, but in isolated cases.
loudidonato
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loudidonato,
User Rank: Apprentice
11/21/2013 | 9:29:33 AM
Microsoft Surface 2
Why does Microsoft think they are relevant anymore? Who do they appeal to?

The many things they are into that the majority of the public does not know or even see, that is what they should keep focusing on.
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
11/21/2013 | 9:13:21 AM
Anyone else?
Are any of you using the new Surface yet? Tell us what you think.
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