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Microsoft’s latest iteration of the Surface tablet is an improvement from the previous generation, but still leaves much to be desired when it comes to Windows RT.  As I wrote a few weeks ago, I was impressed with Microsoft’s latest device offerings after leaving the Surface event in NYC — that’s still true.  In terms of hardware and design the Surface 2 is absolutely faster, more powerful, and sleeker than its predecessor (Surface RT) and Microsoft seems to have a real vision for where this device is heading, which is always reassuring.

So let’s dive into the review shall we?

Hardware

Kickstand

Perhaps one of the biggest features that Microsoft promotes with its Surface tablets is the kickstand, which has been significantly improved on the Surface 2 (and also Surface Pro 2). The new Surface kickstand has two different usage angles, one angle (24-degree opening angle) is ideal for when it’s sitting on a desk, the other angle (40-degrees) is designed for lap-usage and helps prevent neck strain.  One thing I’m disappointed about with the kickstand is the lack of *click* sound I hear when I open it — I don’t know what’s going on but it doesn’t sound like the commercials.  Maybe it’s just my review unit though.

CPU/RAM/Storage/WiFi

Courtesy of AnandTech.
Spec wars: Surface 2 vs Surface RT. Courtesy of AnandTech.

The Surface 2 comes stock with a fast  Tegra 4 processor clocked at 1.7Ghz, 2GB of RAM, 802.11n, and a choice of 32GB or 64GB for storage.  By the way, the new Tegra 4 processor definitely makes marked improvements in speed and performance of the device — it’s fairly snappy.  When I booted up my Surface 2 for the first time and checked the storage capacity, there was a little over 20GB available (out of 32GB) which is a bit better than the reported 16GB available on the original Surface RT.  So good work Microsoft.

Cameras and Ports

The Surface 2 sports a much improved camera system, including an upgraded front and rear facing camera.  The 3.5MP front facing and 5MP rear facing are definite improvements from the previous generations 1.2MP front/rear cameras.  Plus, Microsoft has worked some magic and made the front facing camera excellent in low light conditions.  This is actually a really huge deal, as was made clear by the live demo at the NYC Surface event where Microsoft VP Panos Panay showed off just how incredible the Surface 2 front facing camera was in a Skype call to his daughter in a pretty much completely dark room.  In my front facing camera tests with the Surface 2, people and objects looked great in various different lighting conditions.  This is definitely one aspect of the device I’m impressed with.

In terms of ports, the Surface 2 has a full-sized USB 3 port, charging port, microSD card reader, headphone jack, HD video out port, and Cover port (for a TouchCover 2 or TypeCover 2).

Display

The display on the Surface 2 is another huge improvement over its predecessor.  The new 10.6-inch 1920 x 1080 (1080p) display weighs in at just over 207 pixels per inch, which isn’t too far off Retina MacBook Pro standards although still shy of the iPad with Retina Display (iPad Air). That being said, it’s still a nice display.  Color accuracy is pretty good and the display is laminated to cover the glass which is done to help reduce reflections.  In my testing, I can say that this does in fact help improve the overall experience while using the device. It’s also worth noting the Surface 2 works much better in portrait mode than it’s predecessor.

surface-2-screen-issue
A random issue with the Surface 2 display.

One issue worth noting is a rather weird occurrence I experienced with the display, on the first day of testing out the Surface 2, I turned the screen back on after a period of not using it and noticed a strange square cluster of pixels towards the middle of the screen.  At first I thought the screen malfunctioned somehow, but after turning the device off and then back on the screen went back to normal and has continued to function as expected since then.

Speakers

The speakers on the Surface 2 were probably my biggest disappointment on the hardware side of things.  Microsoft says they’re powered by Dolby technology so I expected them to sound [pretty] great — they don’t.  I mean, they are alright, but there is definitely room for improvement when it comes to audio on the Surface 2.  Even with my Koss Porta Pro and Bowers & Wilkins P5 headphones plugged in, it wasn’t much better, so I think it definitely has something to do with the sound card hardware as opposed to the speakers themselves.

Battery Life

Microsoft promises 10-hours of video playback from the battery in the Surface 2, which is good because that’s pretty much right on target.  The Surface 2 battery life isn’t the best you will find on the market, but it’s certainly not terrible.  With the Surface 2 you should be able to make it through [most of] the day on a single charge.

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Software

Windows RT 8.1

I’m just going to come out and say it: Windows RT isn’t for everyone.  If you want to (or feel like you may have the slightest urge to) run traditional Windows apps, then the Surface 2 isn’t for you.  Windows RT 8.1 isn’t a terrible operating system, and with the Surface 2 you get Windows RT 8.1 and Microsoft Office 2013 RT bundled in, but it can be limiting for more advanced Windows users which may be frustrating.

If you’re unfamiliar with the difference between Windows 8.1 and Windows RT 8.1 (which is what runs on the Surface 2) it’s the fact that Windows RT cannot run traditional Windows applications, in order to use an app on Windows RT it must be designed and programmed specifically for Windows RT.  To install apps on Windows RT you use the Windows App Store and while there are several big name apps like Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, foursquare, and Angry Birds there is still a ton missing.  That being said, if all you need a tablet for is to edit documents, create presentations, surf the web, and watch Netflix then the Surface 2 may be perfect for you.

But as I said, if you’re expecting the Surface 2 to replace your desktop Windows computer then you are better off looking at the Surface Pro 2 (which runs Windows 8.1 and can run traditional Windows apps) because it is a tablet that acts more like a desktop/laptop replacement.

One of the major things missing from the Windows RT app ecosystem is alternative web browsers, you will not find browsers such as Google Chrome or Firefox on Windows RT, which means you are stuck with using Internet Explorer on the Surface 2 currently. Before you freak out, the latest version of Internet Explorer isn’t too bad, in my tests many websites looked and function correctly.  Though, you will be missing out on things like browser syncing and the plethora of extensions you can find for Google Chrome and Firefox. Another thing I noticed that didn’t sit well with me is the fact that many of the apps (usually the ones created by independent developers) in the Windows App Store have terrible user interfaces, like just flat out bad.  I hope that changes in the near future.

I did manage to find a decent instant messaging app in IM+ that supports several different chat protocols and I also found a nice reddit app called Reddit to Go.  The Windows App Store also offers something that isn’t found on other app stores: the ability to try out an app before you commit to buying it.  Yes, they have trials, a nice addition.  Developers who have paid apps can choose to allow users to download the app for a specified trial period just like you can do for most paid desktop software.

Accessories

TypeCover 2 and TouchCover 2

surface-2-6I was sent the TypeCover 2 which is an actual keyboard built into the cover and it works well.  It does take a bit of getting used to due to the smaller size, but it’s nice (and thinner than you would think), especially with the addition of the backlit keyboard.  The TouchCover 2 is also supposed to be a huge improvement, unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to test it out, but if you compare the TouchCover 1 (which had only 80 sensors) to the new TouchCover 2 (which has 1092 sensors), it seems this would mean much less dropped keys. If you’re interested in a TouchCover 2 I would definitely recommend checking one out in person prior to dropping the dough.

Conclusion

Should you buy the Surface 2?

Boy, that’s a loaded question.  As with most cases: it depends.  If you’re in the Windows ecosystem, want to stay there, and don’t want to spend (or have) the cash for a Surface Pro 2 it’s not a terrible option.  Just keep in mind the limitation when it comes to apps.  Of course, if more people end buying the Surface 2, more developers will see the value in creating apps for it.  And just so we’re clear, had you asked me whether or not you should buy the original Surface [RT] I would have said no.

The Surface 2 isn’t perfect, but it’s definitely better.  I still experienced a few issues with the device hanging on me occasionally, but overall, it works as it’s designed to and at the end of the day that’s all you can ask.  The Surface 2 starts at $449 for the 32GB model and $549 for the 64GB model.


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