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.
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.
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.
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.
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.