Microsoft's original Surface with Windows RT tried to bridge the work-and-play gap by combining a dynamic Live Tile interface with a free copy of Office and an optional keyboard. However, a meager app selection and confusion around what Windows RT could and couldn't do versus full Windows 8 caused this tablet to fall flat. The new Surface 2 (starting at $449) loses "RT" from the product name but runs the improved Windows RT 8.1. Potential buyers also get a more colorful display, a more powerful Tegra 4 processor and improved kickstand. Is this sequel improved enough?
The biggest change to the Surface 2's design is its new two-stage kickstand. While the RT's built-in stand was helpful, its single position made it difficult to use the slate in your lap. The Surface 2's kickstand, however, can be positioned to make the slate lean back at wide or shallow angles, making using the tablet in your lap easier.
The second-generation Surface shrinks by the most minuscule of margins. Measuring 10.81 x 6.79 x 0.35 inches, the Surface 2 is a hair thinner, though a bit wider, than the Surface RT, which measures 10.81 x 6.77 x 0.37 inches. The weight is essentially the same, with the Surface 2 coming in at 1.49 lbs. compared with the original's 1.5 lbs.
Apple's 9.7-inch iPad Air is significantly smaller and lighter than the Surface 2, measuring a scant 9.4 x 6.6 x 0.29 inches and weighing just 1 lb. The ASUS Transformer Book T100, a full Windows 8 tablet, measures 10.4 x 6.7 x 0.41 inches and weighs 1.2 lbs.
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With the Touch Cover 2 attached, the Surface 2 weighs 1.89 lbs., and that goes up to 2.05 lbs. with the Type Cover 2. By contrast, the Asus T100 weighs 2.4 lbs. with its keyboard dock.
On the tablet's left edge are a volume rocker and headphone jack, while the right edge is home to a microUSB port, magnetic power slot and full-size USB 3.0 port, an upgrade from the Surface RT's USB 2.0 port. A microSD card is located underneath the slate's kickstand.
The Surface 2 gets a significant upgrade in the display department with a new 1920 x 1080 ClearType display with 5-point touch recognition, compared with the Surface RT's 1366 x 768 resolution screen. When placed side by side with the original Surface RT, the Surface 2's screen was not only sharper, but brighter and far more colorful than its predecessor's.
While watching the trailer for "Ender's Game," reds looked warmer and blues cooler. A close-up of the titular character's face was much more impressive when viewed on the Surface 2, with fine details such as moles and freckles easily visible. The slate also offers exceptionally wide viewing angles, making images and videos easy to see from 90 degrees to either side.
We were also impressed with the brightness of the Surface 2's display. At 364 lux, the screen is far brighter than the ASUS Transformer Book T100's 204 lux, and well above the tablet category average of 358 lux.
Microsoft says the Surface 2 features digitally enhanced speakers for fuller-sounding audio. And while that's true, overall volume was a bit lower than the Surface RT. On the LAPTOP Audio Test, the Surface 2 registered a low 71 decibels. That's well off the tablet category average of 80 dB.
Katy Perry's "Hot N Cold" sounded fuller on the Surface 2 than on the Surface RT, but bass was less present. That said, audio on either device was still fairly muddled. If you're going to be listening to music on your Surface 2 and want a solid audio experience, you're going to want to get a pair of headphones.
With the new Surface comes a new set of backlit keyboard covers, which include the Touch Cover 2, Type Cover 2 and Power Cover. We typed portions of this review using both the Touch and Type Cover keyboards and found them to be responsive and easy to use.
Priced at $119, the Touch Cover 2 features no physical keys, which feels strange at first. Thankfully, Microsoft included audible cues that produce a clicking noise whenever you press a key. We liked that the pressure-sensitive buttons allowed us to rest our fingers on the board without accidentally pressing a key. The keyboard cover's function row conveniently features buttons for the Search, Share, Devices and Settings options found in the Windows 8 Charms menu. Overall, we found the keyboard to be accurate and responsive. Microsoft has also added gestures to the keyboard itself. Two-finger Swiping across the Touch Cover 2 lets you move the cursor around the screen, while two-finger swiping in from Backspace lets you quickly delete large blocks of text. The gestures worked well, though required a bit of force to activate.
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We're not fans of the Touch Cover 2's touchpad due to its extremely small 2.5 x 1.5-inch size. Like the original Touch Cover, the Touch Cover 2 supports gestures such as two-finger scrolling, tap to click and two-finger tap. This time around, however, pinch-to-zoom has been added, along with Windows 8 gestures. Gestures worked rather well, requiring a single motion to activate despite the touchpad's small size.
The $129 Type Cover 2 trades the Touch Cover 2's soft-touch keys for physical ones that offer decent feedback and a good amount of travel. Typing on the Type Cover 2 felt more comfortable, as we could easily feel our way around the keyboard. The Type Cover 2's touchpad, however, is just as uncomfortably small as the Touch Cover 2's. The backlighting on both keyboards was subtle enough to not be distracting during regular use, but bright enough to be effective in a dark room.
If you're still torn between the two keyboard covers, it might help to know that the Type Cover 2 is 0.21 inches thick, while the Touch Cover 2 is just 0.11 inches thick, making the latter nearly twice as thick as the former. Both keyboards are available in a variety of colors.
Microsoft's Power Cover, which, like the Type Cover 2, offers backlit, mechanical keys, features a built-in battery pack that Redmond says will give you 50 percent more battery life. But at $199, it's also considerably more than the Type Cover 2 or Touch Cover 2.
Microsoft is also charging $59.99 for a wireless adapter that lets you use the keyboard away from the Surface.
Thanks to its 1.7-GHz quad-core Nvidia Tegra 4 processor and 2GB of RAM, the Surface 2 is an absolute speed demon. We didn't notice a single instance of slowdown while using the slate, even with multiple windows open in Internet Explorer and several apps running in the background. Apps opened in the blink of an eye, and the camera fired off photos instantaneously.
The Surface 2 booted in just 17 seconds, on a par with the ASUS Transformer Book T100 and its 1.3-GHz quad-core Atom Z3740 processor and 2GB of RAM. That's faster than the category average of 20 seconds.
On the LAPTOP File Transfer test, the Surface 2's 32GB eMMC storage drive transferred 4.97GB of mixed media files in 2 minutes and 56 seconds or a rate of 40.4 MBps. That's faster than the Surface RT's 14 MBps, as well as the Transformer Book T100's 25 MBps, but below the tablet category average of 61 MBps.
From a graphics standpoint, the Nvidia Tegra 4 chip helped the Surface 2 crush the 3DMark Ice Storm graphics benchmark, maxing out the test. The Transformer Book T100, on the other hand, topped out at 15,879, behind the Surface 2, but higher than the category average of 6,382. On the 3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited test, the Surface 2 notched 13,777. That's better than the Exynos 5420-powered Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1's (2014 Edition) score of 13,539, as well as the 4th-generation iPad's 10,934.
The Surface 2, like the Surface RT, is available with 32GB or 64GB of onboard storage. The problem is, Windows RT 8.1 takes up a good chunk of that space. Our 32GB Surface 2 included 25.3GB of total storage, of which only 17.4GB was available for use. Fortunately, you can use the 64GB microSD card slot situated behind the Surface 2's kickstand for extra capacity.
Camera and Camcorder
The Surface 2 features greatly improved 5-megapixel rear and 3.5-MP front shooters, compared with the Surface RT's 1-MP rear and 0.9-MP front cameras. In general, images taken with the Surface 2's rear camera looked crisp and vibrant, with colors looking relatively cool. In a photo of a group of flowers, violets and blues popped, while reds looked somewhat soft.
Microsoft touts that the Surface 2's camera has improved low-light photo performance. But while it's certainly better than the Surface RT's, it's still not great. A photo of a young woman taken with the Surface 2 looked like a spotlight was shining on her face, but the image still looked grainy.
The 3.5-MP front camera on the Surface 2 offered very good performance in our testing. The individual hairs in our beard were easily visible, and skin tones were spot on. The same couldn't be said for the Surface RT's camera, which made images look too dark and blotchy.
Windows RT 8.1
The Surface 2 comes with Microsoft's Windows RT 8.1 operating system. Like the full version Windows 8.1, RT 8.1 offers a slew of enhancements, including the new Bing Smart Search, a high-powered universal search that lets you look for information on your device and the Web in one shot. Results are displayed on "Hero Pages" that include anything found on your device and whatever Bing finds.
Search for Kanye West, for example, and Smart Search will show you any Kanye West songs on your Surface 2, stream songs through the new Xbox Radio Music feature and display recent news articles or websites that mention him. Search for a location such as London, and you'll get the city's weather forecast, local attractions, websites that mention the metropolis and more. There's even an autocomplete button that will begin searching as you type, similar to Bing's search bar.
Windows RT's Desktop app brings back the popular Windows Start button. Just don't expect it to be the same kind of Start button found on Windows 7. Left clicking takes you back to the Windows Start screen, which can also be accomplished by pressing the Windows key on your keyboard. Right clicking on this button pulls up a pseudo Start menu from which you can browse programs and features, the Task Manager, Control Panel or shut down your device.
Microsoft has greatly improved multitasking in Windows RT 8.1. A new 50/50 split screen view lets you view two apps on the screen at once. Windows 8 offered only 25/75 or 75/25 split-screen views. Similarly, you can now open two windows from the same app side by side. It's a welcome improvement, and one that should make many Windows RT 8.1 users quite happy.
Microsoft also added the ability to open the Camera app directly from the Surface 2's lock screen by swiping down from the top of the display. Just because the camera app is open, though, doesn't mean the Surface 2 is unlocked. You'll still have to tap the unlock button in the bottom left corner of the screen.
At more than 100,000 apps, the Windows Store is slowly but steadily improving. There's finally a version of Facebook, and there are enhanced versions of such favorites as Netflix and Nook. Microsoft is also helping to build out its ecosystem with such homegrown apps as the new Bing Food & Drink (recipes, shopping lists, tips) and Health & Fitness (exercise plans, fitness videos nutrition info and more).
As with the Surface RT, the Surface 2 also includes Microsoft's Office Home and Student Edition. A major value proposition for the slate, the software includes everything from Word and Excel to PowerPoint and OneNote. Microsoft has thrown in Outlook with the Surface 2, something that wasn't included with the Surface RT. That said, Apple and Google now offer their iWork and QuickOffice productivity suites for free.
Unfortunately, the Windows Store still trails the iPad and Android by a mile. In fact, according to our estimate, we found that Microsoft's store lacked roughly 75 percent of the most popular apps found in Apple's App Store and Google's Play Store. Among the missing favorites are Instagram, Pandora, Spotify, Snapchat and YouTube, among others. We also didn't see popular games such as "Candy Crush Saga," "Angry Birds Star Wars II" and "Minecraft."
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Microsoft promised a drastic improvement in battery life for the Surface 2, and the company delivered. On the LAPTOP Battery Test, which involves continuous Web surfing with the display brightness set to 40 percent, the Surface 2 lasted an impressive 9 hours and 19 minutes. That's short of Microsoft's claimed 10 hours of battery life, but far better than the tablet category average of 7:17, not to mention the Surface RT's time of 7:43. Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 ran for 7:44, while Apple's 4th-generation iPad lasted 12:22. Still, ASUS' Transformer Book T100 bested all comers with a time of 12:28.
Configurations and Value
The Surface 2 comes in two versions. The 32GB model starts at $449, while the 64GB version costs $549. Microsoft's two keyboard accessories, the Touch Cover 2 and Type Cover 2, cost an extra $119 and $129, respectively. Buy the 32GB Surface 2 with the Type Cover 2 keyboard case and you'll end up spending $578. Throw in the $59.99 wireless adapter for the keyboard and end up forking over more than $600.
The Surface 2 improves upon Microsoft's original with a more colorful and sharper display, snappier performance and longer battery life. We also appreciate the multitasking improvements in Windows RT 8.1 and its enhanced search capabilities. Having both Office and Outlook on board certainly gives this slate some productivity chops. Although we wish it were included, we like that the Touch Cover 2 keyboard is backlit. We still prefer the more tactile Type Cover 2.
Unfortunately, the Surface 2 can't run desktop apps like less expensive Windows 8 hybrids and tablets, nor does it have as extensive an apps library as Apple's App Store or Google's Play Store. And although Microsoft's new tablet is slightly sleeker than its predecessor, the Surface 2 is bulkier than the iPad Air and the sleekest 10-inch Android slates.
For $50 less, you can get the 64GB ASUS T100, which offers a full keyboard, longer battery life and the ability to run desktop apps. The iPad Air is $50 more, but it features a thinner design, a higher resolution display and access to Apple's massive apps library. That puts the Surface 2 in a tricky position. If you don't want or need legacy apps, this tablet is certainly a solid choice, but it's not the best value in its class.