Less than a year after the launch of its first Surface RT and Surface Pro tablets, Microsoft has launched the next iteration of its tablet family: the Windows 8.1-based Surface 2 and Surface 2 Pro.
Don’t be confused by the slight change in naming conventions: the Surface 2 is essentially the new Surface RT, running Windows 8.1 RT atop an NVIDIA Tegra processor, and compatible only with Windows Store apps. The Surface 2 Pro is [unsurprisingly] the new Pro, running full-blown Windows 8.1 on Intel hardware and compatible with the entire back-catalogue of Windows applications.
Here we’ll be concentrating on the Surface 2. That’s the device I’m typing this review on, after all.
Design and build
At first glance, the Surface 2 looks like an even-more-polished version of the Surface RT. Looks like that at second and third glance, too, because that’s exactly what it is. Given that the RT was a well-built and attractive tablet, I’m not complaining in the least.
Its angular sides and dead-flat rear are a nice change from the gently rounded edges common among the competition – the Surface 2 looks businesslike in a way Lenovo would appreciate, and has the slightest hint of retro-PC charm.
The Surface 2 isn’t the thinnest device in the world, but it doesn’t raise too high a profile at 8.9mm. It weighs 680g, about average for a 10.6-inch tablet. Microsoft’s beautiful Touch and Type Cover keyboard accessories are both far lighter than the Surface itself, meaning the complete keyboard-equipped package weighs in at much less than a similar-sized Apple or Android tablet with a keyboard attached.
Touch and type
The covers have also received an update – I tested the Surface 2 with the cardboard-thin Touch Cover 2, which has grown a very useful backlight function, some added durability, and a massive increase in the number of touch sensors used to capture keystrokes.
The original Touch Cover was amazing – something that looked like it came out of Cupertino rather than Redmond. However, I’m a high-speed touch-typist: I far preferred the Type Cover which sports physical keys. I still mistype a bit on the new Touch Cover, but the improved sensors have made the typing experience much less clunky and more responsive – particularly with all of the multi-key keyboard shortcuts I use to get around Windows.
Facilitating those thin, flip-cover keyboards is the Surface 2’s built in kickstand. One of my complaints regarding the original Surface RT and Pro alike was that the kickstand only allowed for one viewing angle. The new stand offers two angles, which nicely covered usage anywhere from desk to bar to tray-table. It balances surprisingly well on the lap with a keyboard attached – it’s not as stable as a bottom-heavy, rigid-hinged laptop, but I hardly ever felt like it was going to pitch off of my lap as I was typing (and it hasn't done so to date).
Display and cameras
Resolution has taken a boost from the original Surface RT’s, with the Surface 2 running at 1920x1080 ‘Full HD’. That’s not as high-res as Apple’s Retina-equipped iPads, but it’s higher than many competing tablets in the same size and price range. The display looks beautifully crisp, and I found myself using the Surface as a laptop more often than as a handheld tablet – with it further from my eyes that I’d hold, say, an iPad, 1080p looks sharp as cats’ claws.
On the ‘image capture’ side of the equation, the Surface 2 has a 3.5MP front-facing and 5MP rear-facing camera. Both will capture video at up to 1080p, good for high-definition video calling or conferencing. Microsoft are playing the ‘communications device’ angle with a free year’s worth of Skype calling to landlines in 60 countries, and a year’s subscription to the Skype Wi-Fi service. Skype is one of the apps pre-loaded on the device and pre-pinned to the start screen. Yes, Microsoft, we all remember that you bought Skype.
Both cameras worked as well as we’d expect of any premium tablet – nothing revolutionary like we’ve seen in smartphones such as the Nokia Lumia 1020, but completely fine for video calling or updating your Facebook profile pic.
Windows 8.1 and Microsoft Office RT
Before we can get into the specs, connections and storage, we have to stop and look at what the Surface 2 offers in terms of operating system and apps. Without software to provide some context, those hardware specs are meaningless.
So what does the Surface 2 offer? Probably a lot more than you’d think.
Out of the box, at no additional cost, and with no download or setup required, every Surface 2 includes Microsoft Office 2013 RT. That means fully functional versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote and Outlook. These are not cut-down versions designed for a simplified tablet experience. These are Microsoft’s premium, hardcore, almost excessively feature-packed productivity programs in all their glory.
When you use Office, it’s via the familiar Windows Desktop experience that resembles Windows 7 – not the new ‘Modern UI’ used for fullscreen Windows 8 apps. It’s not really optimised for touch, and is hard to navigate by-finger due to the Surface 2’s high resolution and consequently small on-screen controls. Plug in a mouse or use a cheap third-party capacitive stylus, and that problem is solved. The Touch and Type covers both have a small but functional touchpad, which also does the trick.
There are a great number of productivity suites for iOS and Android. None of them offer even close to the complete functionality with Microsoft Office. If you’re just writing emails or working with simple spreadsheets, that might not matter. If you’re working with complex, richly-formatted documents and presentations, or doing data analysis in Excel, the Surface 2 offers productivity that you simply can not get from an Android or iOS tablet with the apps available today. Simple as that.
Outside of Office, Windows 8.1 ships with much the same suite of standard apps as Windows 8 did – simple mail, calendar and contact apps, weather, news and sports, all the usual. Personally I deleted most of them after the first day of testing, as that’s the sort of thing I use my smartphone for. They’re all pretty much functional if a little simpler than their iOS or Android counterparts, though I did have a lot of trouble getting my mail set up via the ‘mail’ app. This appears to be due to a peculiarity of my existing Windows Live account, though the mail app in my Windows Phone 7 device handles it without issue.
Microsoft’s Windows 8 app Store has nowhere near the same catalogue as Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play Store. That’s a simple fact, with many causes – simplest of all being how much of a head start Apple and Google gave themselves in the app-store arms race. If you want an app to do something in particular – tell you how to mix cocktails, or keep your to-do list, you’re sure to find something good in there. Yes, there might only be ten apps to choose from where iOS has a hundred, but that old adage regarding quantity vs. quality largely holds true.
The really obvious gaps are companion apps that ship with fancy ‘smart’ gadgets like watches, lighting systems or fitness trackers; and service apps from banks, taxi companies, and the like.
Faced with the question of which platforms to develop for, iOS is almost universally chosen as the first, and Android as the first-equal or second. Windows 8 and Windows Phone are often afterthoughts, if thought of at all. As a full-time tester of gadgets, this has bitten me many times – I ended up buying an iPad mini just to have something to test all those iOS-only gadgets with.
As a productivity tool in an environment set up for laptops and desktops, the Surface 2 is a winner.
If you want a tablet that will fit with your own complex ecosystem of tech gadgets, do check for such compatibility issues before splashing out on a Surface 2. An iOS or Android tablet may be the better choice, or simply a necessity. On the other hand, remember the Surface 2’s USB port and operating system give it great support for office gadgets such as printers, cameras and USB storage devices. As a productivity tool in an environment set up for laptops and desktops, the Surface 2 is a winner.
Processor and connectivity
This being a Windows RT device, there’s no Intel Core or Atom chip behind the kickstand. A quad-core, 1.7GHz NVIDIA Tegra 4 processor does the heavy lifting, along with 2GB of RAM. I never had a single ‘why is this taking so long’ moment whilst using the Surface 2 as my primary work PC, even when cropping and resizing a batch of high-res product photos with Adobe’s free Photoshop Express app.
Battery life was reasonable, with an eight-hour workday whilst using the Touch Cover keyboard, Wi-Fi connection and Microsoft Office.
Unlike the Surface RT, which had only USB 2.0, the Surface 2 includes a USB 3.0 port which allows you to connect up high-speed external storage or other peripherals. Windows RT limits your options to devices which don’t require companion software or drivers beyond those built into Windows. Still, you can plug in pretty much anything you’d find on the average desk – keyboard, mouse, DVD drive, hard drive, flash drive, most modern printers, digital cameras, the list goes on. If you want to connect multiple devices at once, USB 3.0 and 2.0 hubs work fine, too.
Other connectivity includes a standard 3.5mm headphone socket, microSDXC card slot, and a proprietary video output port that gives you either VGA or HDMI output via optional adapters (NZ$50/AU$60 each). Wirelessly there’s Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0.
Though the Surface 2 has an accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer (compass), it does not include GPS. This is a bit of a disappointment, with GPS available on the iPad and the majority of Android tablets in its price range.
Storage, free SkyDrive and the art of lock-in
Internal storage is either 32 or 64GB. Note that Windows 8.1 RT, Microsoft Office 2013 RT and the pre-installed apps take up around 7.5GB, of the 25GB available, on the 32GB version. So, the 32GB version has about 17.5GB of user-accessible storage. Personally I found that perfectly sufficient, as I really don’t store a great deal of anything on my tablets, laptops or other devices. All of my data is in the cloud, or on my NAS at home. If you wanted to load the Surface 2 up with music or movies, don’t forget the microSDXC card slot gives you external storage, as does the USB port.
Microsoft has tried to address any concerns around storage capacity, and promote its own cloud storage service, by including 200GB of storage on SkyDrive, free for two years. That applies to purchases before 31 December 2014, so it’s no short-term introductory offer. Given that 100GB of SkyDrive storage costs NZ$66/AU$50 per year (you can’t even buy 200GB in one hit), that’s free online storage to the value of NZ$264/AU$200 in total.
Though a couple of hundred bucks worth of free cloud storage looks great, do beware the lock-in effect. Microsoft is giving its customers a good deal here, yes, but it’s also being very shrewd: if you put 200GB of your photos, backups and other files in the cloud over a two-year period, it’s going to take a fairly long time to get all of that data back out again, if you decide you don’t want to start paying once your free time is done.
If you already pay for SkyDrive or a similar service, then by all means, let Microsoft pay for a while instead. If you’re new to personal cloud storage, however, do consider the ongoing costs of using all that space once the two years is up.
I expected the Surface 2 to be a good tablet, but I did not expect to find it nearly as useful as I did. I have nothing against tablets as toys, entertainment devices, or productivity tools in very specific capacities. I did not, however, think that I could take a Windows 8.1 RT device and get through even a single workday without gravitating back to my laptop. “I’ll need something that I can only do on ‘real’ Windows” I reasoned. For the most part, I was wrong.
The only place the Surface 2 really failed for me was Internet Explorer, which wouldn't correctly run a business-critical web app for me. As neither Mozilla Firefox nor Google Chrome are available as Windows 8 apps, IE was my only choice. That dropped the rating from 4.5 to 4, as websites that don't support Internet Explorer are no rarity, especially in the IT world.
It’s not going to work for everyone. As a lifestyle-gadget, the limited app range is… limiting. As a laptop… well, it’s not one, and can’t run the applications that a laptop could. But as a serious-business productivity tablet, I haven’t seen anything else that even comes close. Just make sure your IT department is happy to support Internet Explorer.
Price: NZ$649/AU$529 (32GB), NZ$799/AU$639 (64GB) Touch Cover 2: NZ$185/AU$140 Type Cover 2: NZ$200/AU$150
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