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Microsoft Surface 2 Review
by Jamison Cush -  10/29/2013

[click to view image]Whereas the iPad and Android tablets are scaled up smartphones at their core, the Surface 2 is a peculiar combination of tablet hardware and innards with a notebook twist, running an oddly familiar version of Windows that seems just a bit off.

As such, it's tough to properly review the Surface 2, as it's comparable to both Windows notebooks and other ARM-based devices like the iPad. At times and in certain instances, it's stronger than both, but it has noticeable weaknesses as well.

Would you take in lieu of an iPad as a travel companion on a long flight? How about as a notebook replacement for a business trip? Is it suited for checking email and Twitter on the couch, or as a second screen during primetime?

Microsoft would likely answer "yes." The Microsoft Surface 2 is all those things and more. Its maker believes it's the perfect lean-in and lean-back machine, built for both productivity and content consumption. Read on to find out if the experts at TabletPCReview agree.

Build and Design

This is an excellent piece of hardware. In fact, there are no other tablets that come close to matching it. It's not the thinnest, nor is it the lightest. But, it's certainly the best built, compared against the mainstream competition.

[click to view image]It measures 10.81 x 6.79 x .35 inches and weighs about 1.5 pounds, with a 10.6-inch 1920x1080 display (208 pixels per inch) with five touch inputs. Again, those aren't the most impressive specs, as the new iPad Air weighs a pound and measures just .29 inches thick, complete with a 263 pixel-per-inch resolution. But, it's likely that the Surface 2 would win in a drop test. In fact, it's one of the few devices TPCR would carry without a full case offering corner protection.

That's because of its magnesium alloy build, which trumps aluminum and plastic in feel, fingerprint resistance, and durability, no doubt. The entire Surface 2 body consists of just two pieces (three, if counting the kickstand), and is near seamless.

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Kickstand

The Surface kickstand kicks out from about halfway out the back, revealing a microSD card slot. On top are the 5-megapixel rear camera, and another ambient light sensor and microphone.

[click to view image]In a new design feature, the kickstand now kicks out at two positions, prospering the screen up at about the traditional 100 degrees, and also about 120 degrees. The latter of which is purposefully designed for literal lap use, making the Surface 2 more stable when resting on a user's thighs. It sounds silly, but it actually works quite well. And in fact, this paragraph was typed from this TPCR reviewer's lap.

Other Buttons and Ports

Holding the Surface 2 in landscape mode head on, the volume rocker, 3.5mm headphone jack, and one speaker are on the left side. Another speaker, micro HDMI port, full-sized USB 3.0 port, and a proprietary magnetic charger, reside on the right.

There is a power button on the top, and a magnetic Touch Cover and Type Cover receptacle on the bottom.

There is a Windows softkey on the front bottom of the relatively thick black display bezel, and a 3.5-megapixel camera on the top center, next to an ambient light sensor and microphone.

As for ports and inputs, it's very tough to complain as the Surface 2 has both a full-sized USB and microSD card slot. But, the proprietary charger is a drag, even if it's very nice and suggests a premium device. It can be connected upside down or right-side up, but TPCR would much rather have the convenience and ubiquity of a microUSB charging input. The micro HDMI input is also frustrating, as many monitors don't have an HDMI input. Dual-screen works great with HDTVs, and Microsoft offers a micro HDMI-to-VGA adapter for more traditional desktop displays, but accessory is not included and runs $40 at the time of review. The Surface 2 also supports wireless displays.

Display and Speakers

Despite the fact that it was still a pretty decent display, many complained about the Surface RT and it's 1366x768 resolution. Microsoft upped to full HD for the Surface 2, and the results are particularly pleasing.

Everything looks great, and text appears especially smooth. Colors are precise, with the slightest hint of a warm tone. Touch is accurate. Viewing angles are superb, and the brightness, well, that's just OK. Glare can be a problem, as it is with most tablets, and the Surface 2 display does not get bright enough to cut through it.

Microsoft calls the glass a "durable display," so that probably means it is scratch resistant. Still, it's not indestructible, and a screen cover is always recommended.

Microsoft placed the speakers toward the top ends of the device, which is good because they less likely be covered there than if they were placed on the bottom edge. Still, front-facing speakers are always the best, and these shoot sound out of the sides.

About that sound, it's not great. There is little to no bass, resulting in tinny output. Unfortunately, this describes just about every tablet not made by Apple (iPad output is still the most robust). The volume is sufficient for Skype calls, but don't expect to fill the room with music.

Camera

The Surface 2 has two cameras, a 3.5-megapixel front and 5-megapixel rear. By comparison, the iPad Air shooters are 1.2 and 5 megapixels respectively. Neither will replace your point and shoot, as picture quality is mediocre at best. However, it's obvious that Microsoft designed the Surface 2 with Skype in mind. Both cameras are angled perfectly for chatting when the Surface 2 is in kickstand mode.

The cameras also do an admirable job in low light, and dynamically adjust to changing light conditions. Of course, the image becomes grainy in low light, but the camera is able to pick up much more than the human eye when the lights begin to severely dim. This works especially well with Skype chats.
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Performance

The Surface 2 sports an Nvidia Tegra 4 quad-core processor, running at 1.7 GHz. The first Tegra 4 tablets rolled out in the early summer of 2013, so the Surface 2 is reasonable future proof at launch, especially considering the original Surface RT sported a Tegra 3, which first launched in late 2011, and it still offers acceptable performance.

[click to view image]As expected, the Surface 2 operates smoothly, and it is an impressively stable tablet, considering it's running the relatively demanding Windows RT 8.1. Multitasking and switching between apps in the Start Screen presented no issues, or noticeable lag. Things slowed down just a bit with the Office applications in the Desktop, and it's easy to imagine heavy Excel work taxing the Surface 2. That said, this review was written entirely on the Surface 2 in Word without any issues or frustrations. It's safe to say the Surface 2 offers the best and most productive Office experience of any other ARM tablet by far, thanks largely to the robust versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook.

The Surface 2 takes about 18 to 20 seconds to start up from the second one hits the power button in a cold boot, which is a bit slower than some of the other flagship ARM tablets, but nothing to complain about. Logging in and shutting down take mere seconds.

The Surface 2 sports 2GB of RAM and comes with either 32GB or 64GB of onboard storage, not to mention Skydrive support. Windows RT and the preinstalled apps take up about 14GB.

Update: The Surface 2 scored 9210 on the 3D Mark Ice Storm Extreme test, which is a 1080p graphics test designed for device to device comparisons. That puts it above the latest Nexus 7 (6988) and the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1 with the Exynos 5 octa chipset (8637), but below the NVIDIA Shield, Kindle Fire HDX 7 and Galaxy Note 3, which all maxed out the test. In short, the benchmarks back up the perceived strong performance.

Battery

What makes the performance all the more impressive, is the Surface 2's long battery life. Microsoft promises up to 10 hours of video playback, 7 to 15 days of idle time, and a charging time of 2 to 4 hours. For once, a manufacturer's battery spec might actually be accurate. We'll be updating this review with after an official battery test, but anecdotally, TPCR was able to moderately use the Surface 2 from Thursday night to Monday morning without charging the device, and still had 20% of the battery remaining. This included keeping the display at about 55% brightness and checking fantasy football scores every 3 minutes during Sunday's NFL games.

Update: The Microsoft Surface 2 lasted 8 hours and 30 minutes streaming Netflix over Wi-Fi with no other programs running, the power set to "Balanced," and the screen set to 50% brightness. Even though it didn't hit the 10-hour mark (which doesn't seem out of reach, with local content and a dimmer screen), it's still very impressive.

Windows RT 8.1

All the goodies that came with Windows 8.1 can also be found in Windows RT 8.1, including the Start button and other desktop enhancements. Said enhancements are kind of useless on the Surface 2, as the only thing most users will do on the Desktop are Office tasks and maybe apply some deep settings tweaks, but we won't complain too loudly.

[click to view image]Just as it applies to the x86 version of Windows 8, the 8.1 update brings a bunch of small but meaningful improvements to Windows RT and the Surface 2. Unfortunately, Windows RT 8.1 still falls short of being a world-class OS for a reason that can be described in three words: lack of apps.

With the Surface Pro and other x86 Windows 8.1 tablets, users can always fall back on legacy apps, which don't work with Windows RT. So Surface 2 users are stuck with the Windows app store, which is missing not only high profile apps, but also the variety of small and unique offerings that make browsing the Apple App Store and Google Play Store so much fun.

Sure, there are plenty of workarounds available. For example, HBO Go, while not available in app form, runs well through Internet Explorer, and can be bookmarked and pinned to the start screen just like any app. But users shouldn't have to resort to simple hacks to get by, especially with premium product from an iconic tech company.

Of course, it's worth repeating that neither Android or iOS can even begin to compete with Windows RT in terms of true multitasking? that is, having to apps open and running concurrently side by side. The Samsung Galaxy Note devices come close, but Windows RT is still better at it, partly because Windows RT also features the excellent Alt+Tab task switching. Windows RT also supports user profiles, and while Android is starting to roll that particular feature out to devices, Windows RT offers the same full features found in the traditional version of Windows. The full-sized USB input also brings with it all kinds of accessories, including mice, keyboards, printers, gamepads, USB-to-Ethernet adapters, and external storage to name a few. Again, Android has limited USB accessory support, typically with a micro-to-full adapter, while iOS is even more limited, and only then through a 30-pin or Lightning adapter. 

In short, Windows RT forces compromises because of its limited app selection, but they aren't so severe when compared against its numerous strengths.

Type Cover 2 and Touch Cover 2

All that productivity praise comes with this caveat: you need a keyboard, and the Type Cover 2 is the best. Both the Type Cover 2 and Touch Cover 2 magnetically attach on the bottom tablet edge, and do so with a satisfying click. They are easily pried off, but are strong enough to support the Surface 2 when held both sideways and upside down. They also both screen covers with Smart Cover-like functionality whereby they connect to the display via magnets, turning it off and on when removed and attached. They can also bend all the way back behind the Surface 2 for tablet use, which disables the keys and touchpad.

[click to view image]Both full QWERTY keyboards come with function keys and a small, but oddly effective touchpad. Both are also backlit, and will turn off after a few minutes of nonactivity. The Touch Cover 2 is a bit thinner and less expensive, but has pressure sensitive tiles that double as keys, which are supposed to be able to discern an intentional key press from mere finger resting.

The Type Cover is more traditional, with actual keys that travel a millimeter or two. Microsoft calls this a silent keyboard, and while it's very quiet, they keys still make and audible click. It's a great little keyboard, however, and certainly better than any Bluetooth Android tablet or iPad keyboard TPCR has ever tested.

The Touch Cover 2 is $120 at the time or review, and the Type Cover 2 is $10 more. Their predecessors, which are thicker and not backlit, are $80 and $90, respectively. The Type Covers are worth the extra scratch, but both are great investments for anyone considering a Surface 2 tablet.
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Conclusion

Compared separately against the iPad and Android tablets, and well as other Windows 8.1 machines, the Microsoft Surface 2 has plenty of strengths, and one glaring weakness.

[click to view image]It's probably the best piece of mainstream hardware, tablet or otherwise, available at the time of this review. This is the type of device you want to use simply because it's so well put together, and that includes the Type and Touch Cover accessories. Having a full-sized USB input, with nearly full peripheral support, is also a revelation, and serves as a constant reminder of the compromises iPad and some Android tablet users have to make. Finally, the Surface 2 battery life, performance, and display are all top-notch.

Even Windows RT 8.1 is a well-designed operating environment. While the Desktop makes things a bit more cumbersome and confusing than they should be, it's a small price to pay for robust versions of Outlook, Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. While having Word, PowerPoint and Excel probably benefit most, Outlook really shines, especially compared to the iOS, Android, and even Windows 8 Start Screen mail clients.

But even with all that, it's impossible to look past the Surface 2's limitations, which are predominately related to the lack of Windows 8 Start Screen apps. Yes, there are workarounds for HBO Go, and TPCR was even able to get Slingbox working in IE with a simple hack despite the fact that the Surface 2 browser doesn't support the Slingbox plugin. But users of a premium device shouldn't have to resort to hacks and workarounds. And there is no workaround for the lack of Chromecast support at the time of review, and Chrome or Firefox browser users looking to sync histories and bookmarks are completely out of luck, as the Surface 2 only runs IE.

It was much the same story with Android in 2011. And while Apple still has the app advantage, it shouldn't be enough to sway a buying decision between Android and iOS. The smart money says Microsoft also catches up and closes the app gap to the point where it's easy to recommend the Surface 2 over the competition.

But that's not now. Right now, the Surface 2 is an excellent piece of hardware suited to a specific type of user that values the productivity it offers more than the apps it doesn't.


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