With Surface 2, everything has changed: This device offers significantly better performance and better battery life in a package that is better looking, thinner and lighter than that of its predecessor. But questions about the Windows RT platform remain. Is Surface 2 good enough to jumpstart Microsoft's Windows devices vision?
If you've been paying attention to my reviews about the second-generation Surface devices and accessories, you know that this one was a long time coming. I didn't review the first generation Surface RT because I didn't see the point. But Surface 2 is such a huge and eye-opening improvement over the original. I wanted to get this one right.
Be sure to check out Microsoft Surface 2: First Impressions and Photos for my photos of the device. This review is all business.
How much of an improvement is Surface 2 over Surface RT? This much: There is not a single area in which this device falls short of its predecessor. For example, Microsoft didn't have to sacrifice a bit of battery life to get a huge increase in performance. In fact, even the battery life is better. So it's not a net win. It's a win across the board.
Key features of this release include:
Magnesium color. While the original Surface RT and the Surface Pro and Pro 2 all come in a professional-looking dark titanium (read: almost black) color, Surface 2 sports a new medium gray color that Microsoft says is the natural color of the magnesium body material. Opinions vary, of course, but I think the new color is more attractive and provides a visual hint that Surface 2 doesn't take itself too seriously. Microsoft should offer this color as an option on Surface Pro 2, too.
Thinner and lighter. Weight and thickness were not among the laundry list of issues I had with the original Surface RT. Indeed, I felt that that device presented a near-perfect form factor for a full-sized Windows tablet. And then I got my hands on Surface 2. This bad boy is actually slightly thinner and lighter than its predecessor. And while the differences may not seem like much on paper—a mere 0.2 inches in thickness and .01 pounds of weight less—when you combine them with the new color, it just seems lighter and airier somehow. It's kind of strange.
Dual-position kickstand. Microsoft is justifiably proud of the kickstand that's built into its Surface devices and Surface 2, like Surface Pro 2, offers a new dual-position unit that should provide an ideal viewing experience in far more conditions than before. Many complain that no Surface device works well on a lap, but I've found that Surface 2 with Type Cover 2 works just fine in this configuration, and the additional kickstand angle really helps there.
1080p screen. I've been spending a lot of time lately with the Surface RT and Surface 2 in front of me, side by side, doing various tests. And while I've always asserted that the 1366 x 768 resolution of the original RT device was perfectly adequate—still do, really—even for text, you can really see the difference when you look at the same screens on both devices next to each other. Surface 2 offers the same 1080p (1920 x 1080) screen as the Surface Pro 2, with the same 10.6-inch size. As with that unit, colors are markedly richer than on Surface RT. But the touch digitizer supports just 5 multi-touch points, as did that of Surface RT. (You get 10 with Surface Pro and Pro 2.) Put simply, this screen is absolutely gorgeous.
Processor. Surface 2 comes with a 1.7 GHz TEGRA 4 processor, which isn't just an improvement over the lowly TEGRA 3 in Surface RT, it's a revelation. The performance of this device is so dramatically better than that of Surface RT that I've broken it out into its own section below. Night and day.
RAM. As with Surface RT, Surface 2 comes with 2 GB of RAM. This can't be expanded, and there's no version of Surface 2 with more RAM. But contrary to what you may be thinking, 2 GB is in fact perfectly adequate for Windows RT. No issues at all.
Storage. And as with Surface RT, Surface can be had in versions with 32 GB or 64 GB of solid-state storage. That may seem limiting, but I think most users will get by just fine with 32 GB, and those that need to upgrade later can do so via the included micro-SD slot. Best of all, that slot is now far more conveniently located. (It was next to impossible to find on Surface RT unless you really knew what you were looking for.)
Battery life. I was really impressed by the battery life of Surface RT, and it was so good in fact that I probably spent more time trying to adapt to that device's terrible performance than I might have otherwise. But Surface 2 amazingly provides even better battery life than does Surface RT: up to 10 hours, according to Microsoft. (Versus 8 hours for Surface RT.) Because this is such an important aspect of this device, I discuss battery more below.
USB. Where Surface RT provided a lowly USB 2.0 port, Surface 2 offers a full-sized USB 3.0 port, which offers dramatically better performance, especially for file transfers. This is a great addition and it continues to be a huge differentiator between Surface and the iPad/Android competition.
Cameras. I didn't spend a lot of time testing the dual cameras on Surface 2, but I can tell you that they are improved since Surface RT with a 5 megapixel 1080p unit in the back and a 3.5 megapixel 1080p version in the front. (Surface RT had two 720p cameras.) The rear camera enables the neat new panorama feature that's provided by the Windows 8.1 Camera app too.
Sound. I didn't cover this in my Surface Pro 2 review, but that unit offers richer sound than its predecessor. So, too, does Surface 2, but the audio coming out of this device's stereo speakers is even better than that of Surface Pro 2. The reason is Dolby Digital Sound, Microsoft says, which provides a fuller sound. And sure enough, you can really hear the difference.
Video out. As with Surface RT, Surface 2 offers a micro-HDMI port so you can connect the device to an external display or HDTV. Microsoft sells both HDMI and VGA adapters for this purpose, but a normal micro-HDMI converter cable works fine in a pinch too.
Windows RT 8.1 and Office Home & Student 2013 RT. Surface 2 benefits greatly from the software advances in Windows RT 8.1 (the ARM-based version of Windows 8.1), and as before it comes with Office Home & Student 2013 RT, which includes full-featured (desktop-based) versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, and, now, Outlook too. This is a tremendous value, since most people need Office, and it's free for the lifetime of the device and is not tied to a subscription in any way.
Power connector. While Surface 2 still uses a short, single piece power cord like that of Surface RT, the magnetic connector that latches onto the tablet is vastly improved with a large and easily-seen ring of light that indicates a solid connection. This is a meaningful and appreciated upgrade.
Heat and fan noise. Like Surface RT, Surface 2 is absolutely silent and doesn't run particularly hot, regardless of what you do. This is a big benefit of the ARM platform, which is more efficient than high-end Intel processors.
Pricing. Surface 2 starts at $449 for the 32 GB version (and $549 for the 64 GB version), which is $50 less than the original starting prices of comparable Surface RT units a year ago. (By comparison, Microsoft didn't lower the price of Surface Pro 2 relative to its predecessor at all.) But that price doesn't include a typing cover--$119 for Touch Cover 2 or $129 for Type Cover 2—which are arguably required. I appreciate the small price drop, but these devices are still quite an investment: $570 and up, basically.
Useful extras. As with Surface Pro 2, each Surface 2 ships with codes to provide 200 GB of free SkyDrive storage for two years—a $200 value—and one year of free voice calling over Skype in over 60 countries, a value of $30 or so. If you need such things, that's a nice savings that can help mitigate the relatively high prices of the devices.
OK, this is all good news for the most part. But this device doesn't exist in a vacuum, and its predecessor was completely unacceptable on a number of levels. So when it comes to Surface 2, we have some additional criteria to explore. And how Surface 2 ultimately rates—whether I can feel comfortable recommending it to anyone, really—depends on how well this device deals with what I feel are perhaps the three most crucial areas: Performance, battery life and ecosystem.
A few Surface RT stalwarts still get bristly when I state the obvious, but here we go again: Surface RT performance sucks. So I'm happy to report that with Surface 2, performance is no longer an issue. Indeed, the snappiness of this device is one of its strong points. This is a stunning turnaround.
I don't run—or care about—traditional benchmark tests. And in this case, I can confidently claim that it doesn't matter anyway. Surface 2 is a like a race car. It performs consistently fast, across the board, in all possible situations. In the real world, hands on keyboard.
Everything runs faster, often much faster. The Office 2013 desktop applications and all of the bundled Metro-style apps snap onto the screen with an alacrity that will astonish Surface RT users. I mentioned side-by-side tests before, and I'll provide a video to back this up: There is a not a single app that doesn't run faster on Surface 2, and in many cases it's much faster.
But there's another bar that Surface 2 has crossed, and it's worth exploring. Obviously, when I'm confronted by a machine as thin and light as a Surface RT/2, my mind turns towards whether it could ever make sense to use this machine as a daily driver on trips. With Surface RT, this was a pipedream, as the machine was just too slow to do anything—everything—including such basics as load Word 2013, navigate to a SkyDrive location, and then actually open and edit a Word document. It was just a non-starter.
The performance in Surface 2 is such that my mind is tingling again. Could it be? Could this machine actually satisfy this need?
Amazingly, the answer is yes. Last weekend, my family traveled to Stowe, Vermont for a bit of down time and while I brought a few PCs just in case, I spent hours each day working on the recently completed Xbox Music chapter for "Windows 8.1 Book" using only Surface 2. And it didn't just "work" or "work well," it worked in a way that was indistinguishable from a real PC. Excellent performance. (And I didn't charge it once all weekend; it ran on battery the whole time.)
Now, my normal workday involves more than Word and Paint, which is all I needed this past weekend. I'm on Twitter for the duration, I use Photoshop for image editing for this site, and I use other apps, and prefer some that aren't available on Windows RT at all. But where Surface RT was so embarrassingly terrible, Surface 2 is something altogether different. Something very positive indeed.
Surface 2 is so speedy, so spritely, that it's caused me to rethink my approach to Windows RT. Suddenly, this OS could work.
Verdict: Surface 2 performance is a game changer for Windows RT.
I spent much of last week running my own kinds of battery life tests: Streaming HD video. SD video off of a USB device. SD video off of the internal storage. And so on.
On Surface Pro 2, the results were all over the map, and were sometimes surprisingly lower than expected. But Surface 2 has been amazingly consistent, and I've always gotten over 10 hours of battery life. Every time.
Measuring real-world battery life is a bit tougher. Windows RT doesn't provide battery life predictions, as does Windows 8, and before last weekend my day-to-day use with the device consisted largely of night-time web browsing and email and Facebook checking. But the results I'm seeing here are truly impressive. This is a very real advantage for this device, and in an area that was frankly already a win for Surface RT.
Verdict: Amazingly, Surface 2 delivers even better battery life than its predecessor.
It may seem a bit unfair to ding Surface 2 because of its supporting ecosystem—the apps, games, services, accessories and other stuff that make the device truly useful and irreplaceable. But it's inevitable, perhaps, that we would need to turn our attention to the platform's Achilles Heel. And while I can report some improvements here in the past year—more apps, of course, including some key apps like Facebook—this is still very much an issue.
Whether it's a deal breaker will depend on your own needs. For the masses who wish to read and reply to email, post to Facebook, browse the web, play light games and read the news, Surface 2 is of course an excellent choice, and doubly so if you've either invested in the PC world over time or have really bought into the Microsoft ecosystem (SkyDrive, Xbox Live, Xbox Music Pass, Outlook.com and so on).
For others, Surface 2 is a bit of a wash. It is absolutely lacking in key apps, and you will most likely never see such crucial solutions as full Photoshop, iTunes, or Google Chrome on this platform. But if we're being honest with ourselves here, as we must, these apps are, for better or worse, important. (The addition of Chrome alone would be a huge win for both Windows RT and Surface 2.) And what's also missing are a ton of little apps that millions of people rely on every day on other mobile platforms like iPad. Instagram. Google Maps. JetBlue. Costco. Whatever.
Those latter mobile-type apps are a tough nut to solve because the list of what's needed varies so much from person to person, and the lack of one even important app is enough to sink a purchase decision for many people. This is an issue facing Windows Phone too, not coincidentally.
Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? Maybe. Microsoft has announced vague plans to combine the Windows RT and Windows Phone platforms, and just bringing Windows Phone 8's excellent collection of Xbox Live games to Windows RT/Surface 2 would make a huge difference. (So much so I'm curious why this hasn't already happened.)
The other alternative is the web, and this is where Internet Explorer 11 plays such a crucial role. While many tier-one online services—Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Cloud Player and Prime Video, and so on—are lacking native Windows RT aps, the web interfaces (should) work fine, and IE 11 is evolving into a full-featured web app platform that should present a reasonable compromise for those users. I wish that the Metro version of IE 11, however, offered a pinning feature like that on the desktop where pinned apps ran "outside" of the normal browser and didn't have all the heavy IE user interface bits. That would make a huge difference too.
In the meantime, the situation here hasn't really changed much since last year: Surface 2 can't be everything to all users because of huge ecosystem holes, only some of which I've highlighted here. So potential customers will need to evaluate this issue on their own and make a decision based on their needs. That's a lot of work when an iPad, frankly, is kind of a no-brainer.
Verdict: The Windows RT ecosystem remains the Surface 2 Achilles Heel, though it may not be an issue for some users.
Surface 2 is a significant advance over the previous Surface RT device, one that offers dramatically better performance and better battery life in a form factor that is better looking, thinner and lighter. Whether I can recommend this device to you, however, depends on your needs. But to be fair, that statement alone is a huge improvement over last year's Surface RT, which I still cannot recommend to anyone at any price.
Should you buy one?
If you are an existing Surface RT owner, my advice is simple: Trade in the device wherever you can get the best price and upgrade. Your existing typing cover (and micro-SD) card will just work and you can save money there as well. You will find the performance improvements in Surface 2 to be staggering.
If you are a PC- or Microsoft-centric user with a years-long investment in these ecosystems, Surface is an excellent companion device, assuming you want a full-sized tablet. But it's a bit expensive, and you will want to compare it to competition such as the Google Nexus 10 (which should be refreshed soon), the Amazon Kindle Fire HDX 8.9 and Apple's iPad Air.
If you absolutely must use some desktop/Win32 app—Photoshop, iTunes, whatever—Surface 2 is not for you, unless you're buying it as a secondary device. You should consider Surface Pro, of course, though a coming generation of Haswell-based (and even lower-end Bay Trail-based) PC hybrids could complicate the decision.
If you're looking for a device you may use in portrait mode, Surface 2 is not for you. The 16:9 aspect ratio looks absolutely ludicrous in portrait mode—it's too tall—and you're better off with an 8-inch Windows tablet or any mini-tablet for that matter (Google Nexus 7, which is excellent, Amazon Kindle Fire HDX, Apple iPad mini, whatever).
So why would one choose a Surface 2 over the competition?
Office, for one. Having a full-featured Office suite is huge, though I expect this to be replaced by a slightly less full-featured Metro version over time.
Some of Surface 2's PC-like qualities are going to be a big deal for those making the transition from traditional PCs to PC devices. For example, the USB port works like it does on PCs, and you can cart around terabytes of video files if you want to.
Some people, justifiably, aren't interested in the lock-in Amazon, Apple or Google ecosystems, and Surface 2 is certainly a great solution for them, assuming some of the other conditions don't apply.
And as amazing as this may be to some people, there is an audience out there who personally prefers Microsoft. I'm among that crowd, of course, and after years of high quality experiences with such things as Media Center, Zune, and Windows Phone, I know the advantages of sticking with Microsoft. I like Surface 2 quite a bit. And it is making its way into my regular rotation of devices: This is a device I will keep using.
Put simply, Surface 2 is vastly improved but it also faces an improved collection of competitors, each of which offers its own advantages too. I'll be reviewing competing devices inside and outside of the Windows camp in the weeks ahead—including the Kindle Fire HDX, the new iPads, the expected Nexus 10 refresh, and the Dell Venue Pro 8, among others—but for now I can say this: Surface 2 has single-handily resurrected Windows RT and positioned Microsoft's devices business for success.
Recommended, depending on your needs.