Surface 2 review: Cautious upgrades don't help a tablet in desperate need of relevance

Surface 2 review: Cautious upgrades don't help a tablet in desperate need of relevance

Microsoft needed to bring the razzle-dazzle. Instead we got a 40-degree angle and higher resolution screen.

In Windows RT 8.1, you can snap only two apps (here we see Weather and Internet Explorer), but the width of each app can be dynamically adjusted to your liking.

In Windows RT 8.1, you can snap only two apps (here we see Weather and Internet Explorer), but the width of each app can be dynamically adjusted to your liking.

Microsoft could have impressed the world with the update to its entry-level Surface tablet, but instead it released the Surface 2. The new tablet's price tag might be $50 less than the original, introductory cost of the Surface RT, but no price reduction can mitigate the Surface 2's fundamental problems--most of which stem from Microsoft's operating system and apps ecosystem.

Indeed, what we have in the Surface 2 is a classy-looking, VaporMg-clad container of missed opportunity. The new tablet benefits from some spec bumps, but it simply doesn't do enough to breathe relevance into Microsoft's unpopular ARM-based tablet platform.

Precisely when Microsoft needed to make a bold move--like removing the desktop from its Windows RT 8.1 tablet once and for all--it released a cautious, tepid, half-step advancement. It's almost as if Microsoft is telling the world that its RT effort is a hobby. Or maybe even a distraction. Or maybe just a product line it can't bear to let die.

Let's not quibble over 1/100th of an inch

On its website, Microsoft makes a big deal about how the Surface 2 is "thinner, faster, and lighter than before." Yes, technically the new tablet is thinner and lighter, but let's moderate our Kool-Aid intake before this party gets out of hand. Compared to the model it replaces, the Surface 2 is just two one-hundredths of an inch thinner, and one one-hundredth of a pound lighter. If you can notice the difference, you're a piece of scientific measuring equipment, and not a human being.

In terms of raw dimensions, the Surface 2 measures 10.81 by 6.81 by 0.35 inches. This makes it relatively large in an age when tablets are trending smaller, but I'm a fan of screen real estate, so the size doesn't faze me. The Surface 2's weight, on the other hand, is more disappointing. At 1.5 pounds, the slate is a full half-pound heavier than the just-announced iPad Air. Mass reduction is a headline feature in 2013, yet Microsoft did nothing to reduce the weight of its entry-level tablet.

In fact, from an industrial design perspective, the Surface 2 is near identical to the Surface RT save two features. The rear chassis is now dressed in a lighter shade of magnesium (it looks as snazzy as the original color), and the much-celebrated kickstand can now be set at a 40-degree angle in addition to the original 24-degree incline.

Touted as a marquee feature, the broader kickstand angle is designed to add stability when you use the tablet and one of its keyboard covers on your lap. Yeah, the new approach does add stability--to the tablet. But during testing, I still found that the Type Cover flopped around on my lap too much. It's flimsy, and it allows too much give and flex, resulting in a typing surface that never feels reliably solid when perched on my legs.

Yep, it's faster--clap, clap, clap

Just like the Surface RT, the new Surface 2 comes with 2GB of RAM, but the processor has been upgraded from a 1.3GHz Nvidia Tegra 3 to a 1.7GHz Tegra 4. CPU upgrades are always welcome, and relative to the Surface RT, the new tablet performed more than 100 percent better in our two browser benchmarks, Peacekeeper and Sunspider. But I never noticed a palpable performance boost during real-world use.

Because the Surface 2 runs Windows RT 8.1, and because this system doesn't support any desktop applications save the RT version of Office, and because the Windows Store apps it does support aren't particularly numerous or compelling, I never found opportunity to challenge the tablet with apps I frequently use on Android and iOS devices. Much of my testing time was spent in the Windows Store version of Twitter, along with the mobile app version of Internet Explorer. All ran with zip and fluidity, as did video, both streaming and local.

The Office RT version of Word performed just fine as well, and documents seemed to load faster than they did on the original Surface RT hardware. But none of this warrants a ticker tape parade in Microsoft's honor. Generational CPU upgrades are a way of mobile hardware life, and gone are the days when adopting new state-of-the-art silicon really means anything.

And that goes for Apple's tablets too. Silicon happens. It's really not a cause for celebration.

Great battery life, great display

To this extent, the Surface 2's improved battery life is much more interesting. Microsoft says the Surface RT can last for 8 hours of "mixed activity" use, while the Surface 2 is rated to provide 10 hours of pure video playback--a longer duration for a more demanding use case. Our own tests backed up Microsoft's claims that battery life is demonstrably better. The original RT tablet lasted 9 hours, 5 minutes in our own video rundown test, while the Surface 2 endured for 12 hours, 5 minutes before giving up the ghost.

It's an impressive feat, and it underscores both the Surface 2's improved power efficiency and its value as an all-day productivity tool (assuming you're fine working in Office and don't need to venture into serious applications like Photoshop--which, of course, it cannot run).

Microsoft also scores a major win by upgrading the tablet's screen resolution from a chintzy 1366 by 768 pixels to a robust, modern 1920 by 1080. Now this is something Microsoft can be proud about. And, yes, the new display looks fantastic. Pixel density is a not-quite-Retina-level 208 pixels per inch, but don't get bogged down in the specs. Text looks incredible, and high-res images render in super-sharp detail.

Bouncy, bouncy, backlit keys

Beyond the CPU, battery life, and display, there's not much new in the way of specs and features. The single USB port has been upgraded from 2.0 to 3.0, and the front and rear cameras have been upgraded from a rather comical 1.2 megapixels on each side to 3.5 megapixels on the front and 5 megapixels on the rear. I firmly believe that only psychopaths and grandparents use tablets to shoot photos and video, but the upgrade to the front camera does make sense for Skype video calls, especially because Microsoft owns the service and is offering a special deal for Surface owners.

Moving beyond the tablet itself, Microsoft has also upgraded its two keyboard covers. Both receive backlit key layouts, which are wonderful additions. The remarkably thin (and keyless) Touch Cover 2 gets a monumental upgrade in sensitivity as well, thanks to a total touch-sensor allotment of 1092 (the original version has only 80 sensors). I have always preferred the Type Cover to the Touch Cover, but I can attest that the new Touch Cover 2 does yield more-accurate typing than the original Touch Cover.

As for the new Type Cover 2, it's thinner than its mechanical-key predecessor, but it loses a bit of key travel, which I count as a negative. That said, at least it offers an illuminated space bar, which isn't the case with Touch Cover 2--a problem I found significantly annoying during testing.

The bottom line

The sum total of all these spec and feature changes is that the Surface 2 feels remarkably similar to the Surface RT--and that's unacceptable when the world is swimming in better Windows hardware, including the original Surface Pro and just-released Surface Pro 2.

The overarching promise of the entire Surface gestalt is that a Surface tablet can provide content-consumption features when you need a tablet, and content-production features when you need a PC. Well, the two Pro versions of the Surface do this so much better than the Surface 2--precisely because they run the unabridged version of Windows 8.1 and therefore support the entire universe of Windows desktop applications, from triple-A PC games to content-creation tools, and everything in between.

Yes, the Surface Pro tablets might cost a lot more than the Surface 2, but the price increase is worth the money when you consider the limitations of Windows 8.1 RT. Not only is the Surface 2's OS incapable of running desktop apps, but its selection of Windows Store apps remains somewhat heartbreaking.

On my iPad, I use the following apps almost every day: the official apps from Twitter, IMDb, and Gmail, along with Dropcam, UP by Jawbone, iHealth, HipChat, YouTube, Pinball Arcade, and Candy Crush Saga. Only one of these apps--one!--is available in the Windows Store. I won't even get into the basic problem of "low information density" in Windows Store apps, but it's an issue Twitter suffers as well. No, the bigger issue is that the Surface RT runs neither my favorite desktop apps nor nine-tenths of my favorite tablet apps. So you can see why I'm so bullish on the Surface Pro, and so thoroughly over Microsoft's Windows RT vision.

In terms of its hardware, the Surface 2 isn't a bad $450 tablet. This is why I'm giving it a three-star review verdict. And it's not inconceivable that its operating system will someday be updated with something more elegant. Hopefully, Microsoft will kill the vestigial desktop once and for all, eliminating the sheer weirdness of something that looks like traditional Windows, but doesn't do much of anything beside run Office programs.

But this is really a move Microsoft should have coordinated with the Surface 2 launch. The company needed to introduce the tablet with a killer software story, but instead all we got was a limp handshake. The company could have killed the desktop and introduced Windows Store versions of all the Office apps. Hell, it could have shown the world Windows Store versions of Halo, Fable, or even Viva Pinata to coordinate with the Xbox One launch. It could have even used its impossibly deep war chest to roll out a digital assistant feature like Siri or Google Now.

Something. Anything. Give consumers a real reason to care, and not reach straight for a Surface Pro 2. But instead? We got a Surface RT redux, plus a couple of TV commercials that try to pass off a 40-degree kickstand angle as a major innovation.

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Tags Microsofttabletshardware systemstablet PCsSurfaceWindows 8.1

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