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Microsoft Surface 2: Hands-On Review

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

As Microsoft points out in its current ad campaign, the Surface 2 isn't just a tablet; it's also a small laptop. I'll grant that some people will overlook the device's good-but-not-great tablet experience because of this versatility, but if they don't have their expectations in check, I suspect some of them will be disappointed. The Surface 2 can fill in for a laptop in a pinch, but it's not a true replacement.

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The Surface is neither laptop nor tablet but a balanced compromise of both.

I'm not talking about Windows RT 8.1's incompatibility with desktop apps. Most people use their laptops primarily to access the Internet, send email, run Microsoft Office, consume media, and play games -- so unless you need a specific desktop application, the Surface 2 has more or less all the OS and software functionality a general-use laptop needs.

Rather, when I say it can't replace a laptop, I'm talking about its form factor. A 10.6-inch screen is just barely big enough for laptop-style productivity tasks, and the Touch Cover 2 provides just enough spaciousness and key travel for moderately fast error-free typing. But if you buy the Surface 2 and intend to spend all day pounding on the keyboard, you might want to reconsider. Microsoft's tablet is much easier to carry around than most laptops, but once you're actually sitting down to work, you might miss the extra screen and keyboard real estate of a proper laptop.

The takeaway? The Surface 2 is s a decent tablet and a decent -- albeit Microsoft Office-oriented -- laptop, but it's not excellent in either role. Convergence is a convenience, but it's also still a compromise. If you're not on board with that, the Surface 2 is not the device for you.

And even if tablet-laptop hybridity is exactly what you're looking for, the Surface 2 is one of many options. Dell's Venue 11 Pro and Nokia's Lumia 2520 are comparably priced and offer many of the same appeals, including attachable keyboards, for example. Dell's tablet also runs the full version of Windows 8.1, meaning it can run desktop apps.

So if the Surface 2 isn't for everyone, who is it for?

If you're constantly moving between meetings, the Surface 2 is quite useful. That's where I've used it most. It's easier to type quick notes on a Surface 2 than on an iPad. I've used the Sound Recorder apps to document interviews, and I've been able to pull documents easily from SkyDrive when I've needed them on the fly. Microsoft will release an LTE-equipped Surface 2 in 2014. That should only make SkyDrive more convenient and powerful.

Otherwise, I wouldn't be surprised to see more Surface 2 enterprise deployments like the one Microsoft and Delta recently announced. For users who need on-the-go access to certain apps and resources but also need to do light typing, it's a great option -- though, as mentioned above, the same can be said of other devices. I can't see many knowledge workers or programmers using the Surface 2 as a standalone tool.

Students are another obvious group of potential Surface 2 users. Compared to the Chromebooks in which some schools are investing, the Surface 2 offers not only nicer build quality but also a wider range of use cases, thanks to education-oriented touch apps. Many educators will likely continue using iPads, but some have already shifted to Windows devices because of their higher productivity potential. The Surface 2 is more elegant than most of the Windows devices schools have so far deployed, and they should see even more attention.

If budget isn't an issue, I also like the Surface 2 as a companion device. After the initial novelty wore off, I found myself using the tablet mostly as a second screen to complement a traditional PC, or for those moments when I needed to type but didn't want to haul around a heavier laptop. I've ended up using an iPad more for content consumption, and I head to my work-issued laptop or aging desktop when I need to buckle down for real work. But hammers don't become useless just because you sometimes also use wrenches, and I think the Surface 2 can similarly carve out a niche as one tool among many.

Unfortunately, you'll need to spend nearly $600 for a Surface 2 and keyboard, at minimum. At that price, most people won't be looking for a secondary device. Microsoft improved its tablet concept in many ways, but I suspect the company would be poised for greater success if it had forced in just one additional improvement: a lower price.

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