Windows RT and Surface 2: What Will It Take?

Windows RT and Surface 2: What Will It Take?

Surface 2 edges much closer to being the ideal road companion

At an impromptu get-together after the Surface 2 launch event this week, the conversation inevitably turned to Windows RT, and what it would take for this system to become a truly useful and no-compromises road companion. I've often written and spoken generally about Windows RT's limitations, but the truth is that everyone's needs are different.

Today, of course, some insist that Windows RT is perfect as-is and that the system is an ideal match for their needs. I find this claim to be almost laughable, a sort of justification for spending several hundred dollars. But whatever. To each his own.

Looking at Surface 2—which runs Windows RT 8.1, the latest and much improved version of the mobile OS—I see a system that is indeed improved in important ways. I'll need to spend more time with the device and actually review it formally to come to a concrete conclusion. But my hands-on time with Surface 2 showed a device with some interesting changes from v1:

Thinner, lighter. While I felt that the original Surface RT was a great size and shape for a media tablet, or what Panos Panay called a personal tablet, Surface 2 is even thinner and lighter. It's a great form factor and, unlike with Surface Pro/Pro 2, the single USB port isn't an issue at all. (In fact, it's a huge advantage, and a differentiator from iPad and various Android tablets.)

Color/feel. Where the Surface RT was (and Surface Pro 2 still is) a kind of dark gray color, the Surface 2 is light gray, a color Microsoft describes as the natural color of the magnesium process used to make the VaporMg exterior. Oddly, this new device feels like plastic, where Surface RT feels like metal. Some have asked whether it feels "cheaper," though I'm not sure I can answer that. It feels different. More pliable, sort of.

Usability. The Surface 2's two-position kickstand is vastly preferable to the one-position unit on the Surface RT, and not just for lap use: I suspect that second position will come in handy in other situations as well, including those times when you get that odd glare on airline flights. This is important because the Surface 2 is too big to hold in one hand. You need hands-free operation when watching a movie or whatever.

Performance. This will be the biggest factor outside of app compatibility. Again, I'll need more time to be sure, but Surface 2 appears to significantly outperform Surface RT, not in pointless benchmark tests but in real world use. Since performance is a key issue with Surface RT—a fact I'm reminded of in using it almost every single day—this is a major area of concern. This one is looking good.

Screen. While I still feel that the 1366 x 768 screen on Surface RT is more than adequate for the tasks one might accomplish with this device—in fact, it's a just a great screen—the new 1080p screen in Surface 2 is indeed vastly superior. It's not just about the resolution, though that will be a nice change for HD movies, it's also the lessened reflectivity and dramatically better color reproduction. This is an important and happy change, and to be fair it was completely unnecessary. Good for them.

Screen size. I separate this out because while I feel that 10.6 inches is inadequate for a productivity device (I'm looking at you, Surface Pro/Pro 2), it is absolutely acceptable for a consumption device (which, in Microsoft's words, is also occasionally productive). Yes, the world is also moving on to mini tablets, but Microsoft will be fielding one of those in the weeks/months ahead too, so no worries. Hitting the full-sized tablet market is still a wise option. Surface 2 accomplishes that goal.

Battery. An almost pointless change, given that Surface RT already provided all-day battery life, but what the heck: Surface 2 offers all day battery life plus 25 percent. So depending on which Microsoftie you choose to believe, that's 10 or 12 hours of battery life, absolutely enough to put it in the same rough category with the best of the best, tablet-wise.

OK, so a lot of pluses there. And to be honest, I'm curiously interested in Surface 2, despite my warnings over the past year that most people should skip out on Surface RT. I still do believe that, by the way: Surface RT is just too slow to recommend. Still.

But speed isn't the only issue with Windows RT, which is the underlying platform for both of these devices. I've cited this system's incompatibility with Windows desktop applications as a key barrier to entry, especially during this transitionary period in which the Windows Store app market is still so small. Yes, there are 100,000 apps now. But they're not the apps I need.

With the understanding that I will never be able to use Surface 2 as my only PC, I do recognize two interesting possibilities. Yes, it could be the only PC for many people, giving them the benefit of a tablet and PC in one device. And yes, I could use this device on the road as a lightweight and ultra-mobile companion, instead of traveling with a PC and a media tablet, as I do now.

The issue in both cases is apps.

Which apps would you need to make this workable? Which apps would put Windows RT—and Surface 2—over the top?

Here's what I need to get work done on the go:

Word, OneNote, Skype. These are included with Windows RT, so no worries there.

Photo importing. Windows RT's Photos app or File Explorer can both do very basic photo acquisition from a camera or related device, but I prefer something more sophisticated. I could get by with the basics on the road, of course.

Image editor. I use Photoshop Elements for very specific photo and image editing tasks to create graphics for this site. These include specific cropping needs and the ability to batch resize a folder of photos to a specific horizontal width. I can get by with Paint.Net, which is free, but is a desktop application. I've never found a Metro-based app that meets my needs, so this is a real blocker.

Chrome. I use and prefer Google's browser, though I do use both IE and Chrome throughout the day.

Twitter. I use and prefer the desktop version of MetroTwit. I could use the Metro version of this app (or the official Twitter app) on the go.

So as you can see, it's really close. Sucking it up, all I really need is a sophisticated image editor. I would prefer a few other things, but I could live with just that one change.

It's so close.

So what about you? What would it take, app-wise, to put Windows RT and Surface 2 over the top for you?

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