Will Microsoft's new Surface 2 redeem both Windows RT and the software giant's PC maker aspirations? A full telling needs to wait for a later date, but I can say this much after less than a week of use: Surface 2 offers significant advantages over its predecessor and provides the best argument yet for Microsoft's forward-leaning devices and services strategy.
At the Surface 2 launch event last month, I was most struck by two things. First, Microsoft was really serious about adhering to its original vision for the Surface product line, which it sees as the vanguard for a new type of PC that bridges the gap between the old and the new. And second, Surface 2—the follow-up to the controversial Surface RT—was much more refined than expected, with a slightly more svelte form factor and much improved performance.
(Actually, I was also surprised that the Surface 2 was a light gray color and not the white I thought I was seeing in leaked photos. But let's not dwell on that little misunderstanding.)
Before getting too far into the woods with Surface 2, let's pause for a moment and remember what Microsoft got right with Surface RT. I was quick to caution users against purchasing that device because of its lackluster performance and incompatibility with desktop applications, utilities and drivers, but it wasn't all bad. To my mind, Surface RT did in fact advance what users should expect from tablets by offering unique features like support for multiple users, a full-sized USB port, micro-SD expansion, Microsoft Office, optional keyboard covers and more. And of course, it also provided features we do expect from competing tablets like killer battery life and a small, thin and light form factor. It wasn't all bad of course.
For Surface 2, the good qualities of Surface RT carry forward and are amplified. It still supports multiple users, of course, but thanks to advances in Windows 8.1, you no longer need to visit the desktop to fully manage them, and there's a new Child user type. That full-sized USB port is now USB 3.0. The micro-SD port is still there, but it's much easier to access now. Microsoft Office now includes Outlook RT. Those keyboard covers now feature back-lighting. That killer battery life? It's even better: 10 hours vs. 8. And the small, thin and light form factor is somehow, miraculously, even thinner and lighter. I didn't think that was even possible.
(Incidentally, further improvements in the device's thinness are not, in fact possible: With Surface 2, Microsoft has reached the logical limit on thinness due to the full-sized USB port requirement.)
But there are many other improvements.
The screen is now 1080p, or 1920 x 1080, a huge improvement over the original device's 1366 x 768 offering. But it's not just about more pixels, though that always helps: The Surface 2 screen also offers superior color reproduction, and while I never had any issues with the Surface RT screen, now that I can view them side-by-side, I can report that Surface 2 offers major improvements.
The performance is absolutely stellar. I'll provide some side-by-side comparisons in my coming review, but everything happens more quickly on Surface 2. Everything. And while I've been a proponent of Atom-type Windows tablets and hybrids, I'll at least provide this shout out to Surface 2 and its Windows RT and TEGRA4-based innards: Unlike the Intel systems you'll find this fall, Surface 2 will never slow down over time as can happen with traditional Windows-based PCs.
The cameras are better. Where Surface RT shipped with dual 720p cameras, Surface 2 features 1080p HD video capabilities, with the front camera offering 3.5 megapixels and the rear offering 5 megapixels. And both work better in low light.
Aesthetically, Surface 2 is now a light gray color, what Microsoft calls the natural color of the Magnesium casing, and I like it quite a bit. The dual-position kickstand isn't just useful, it's freeing, and while some will still complain that the magnetic-based connection between the device and its typing covers still makes it less than ideal for lap work, I think it works great.
There are a few improvements that surprised me as well. I didn't notice this at the launch, but Microsoft has improved the power adapter so that the power light that indicates it is connected correctly is no longer a pin-prick on the very end of the cord but is rather a much bigger light that rings around the entire tip. Now, it doesn't matter which way you connect it; you can always see that it's connected properly and working.
And of course it ships with Windows RT 8.1, which offers a plethora of improvements over its predecessor. In day to day use, Surface 2 evokes impressions I never had with Surface RT. It's snappy, fast even. Apps and the Office desktop applications open quickly and run well, with none of the pauses that exemplify its predecessor. The biggest indication of improvement for me, so far, however, is IE 11: Where Surface RT would choke on the complex "configurator" web sites offered by automobile manufacturers, Surface 2 sails through. Maybe they're on to something here.
We'll see soon enough, and I won't jump to any conclusions here. After I've used this device for a few weeks, I'll publish a more comprehensive review.