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Microsoft Surface 2 REVIEW: Better, But Still Not Best

by Brandon Russell | October 29, 2013October 29, 2013 8:30 am PDT
Tablets are loved by many because they make consuming content incredibly simple, and eliminate the complications of traditional laptop and desktop PCs. Between Google, Apple and Amazon, the sheer amount of movies, TV shows and applications at our fingerprints is staggering. Not only that, but these tablets are becoming increasingly easy to use, making them more accessible to kids, parents and grandparents than ever before. For a large majority of people, however, tablets still don’t offer enough power and flexibility to completely replace a computer. That changed, ever so slightly, when Microsoft introduced its Surface RT late last year. It was a device with aspirations to be much more than an iPad or Nexus 7, but still had tablet DNA. Unfortunately for Microsoft, the device tanked, marred by unforgivable performance issues and confusing software. Nobody wanted it. The Surface 2, which is just hitting the market, is the Redmond company’s chance at redemption. Where last year’s Surface RT failed to fulfill its potential, Microsoft’s newest tablet promises to actually deliver. With a more refined design, more powerful guts and more robust app ecosystem, the Surface 2 has all the ingredients to go beyond devices used solely for devouring Netflix and Angry Birds. Microsoft’s newest recipe is definitely better. But it still leaves an unpleasant aftertaste.

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Surface 2 Video Review

Still Beautiful

Microsoft Surface Pro 2-Lock Screen
One of Microsoft’s more impressive accomplishments with the Surface RT was its solid design, and the second iteration is even better. Made from the same aluminum-like VaporMg material, the Surface 2 is slightly thinner and a bit lighter, too. It’s still in Microsoft’s preferred 16:9 orientation, which isn’t all that surprising given the company’s approach to productivity. At 0.35 inches thick and under a pound and a half, the Surface 2 feels better than the previous generation, a little less cumbersome. However, the rectangular design still makes it awkward to actually use as a tablet—as you would use an iPad, anyway—and it just flat out doesn’t work in portrait. That very same issue existed in the first device, and Microsoft has done nothing to address it—or just chose to ignore it altogether. This is, after all, very clearly meant to rest on a table or lap, hence the two-stage kickstand, which is new to the Surface 2. Also new is the gun-metal gray, which actually looks really nice. Microsoft’s decision to implement a two-stage kickstand surprisingly makes a big difference, especially when the device is on your lap. On a table, I preferred the second, wider angle as well, though the first angle (22 degrees) was still usable. (Incidentally, I’m drafting up my review on the Surface 2 as I type this with the first Touch Cover, and I’ve been bouncing back and forth between the two angles, just to see how they change the experience. Both angles work out just fine on a table, but that changes completely when you put the tablet in your lap, as the first angle doesn’t work out so well.) Because the Surface 2 is so wide (or tall, depending on how you’re holding it), usability does sometimes become an issue, and holding it with one hand is nigh impossible. If you want to read a magazine, or a book, or even a website, be prepared to have both hands free, otherwise your arm will wear out pretty quickly. That itself doesn’t make a break the design, but it changes the way you use a tablet, more closely resembling a laptop experience (assuming you bought one of the fancy keyboard covers).
Surface 2 Standing Surface 2 Surface Logo Surface 2 Volume, Closeup
The most noticeable change to the design is the slate’s higher resolution screen, which is now Full HD. The upgraded display, quite frankly, looks phenomenal, and videos, pictures, and text are all incredibly sharp, even at odd angles. The colorful look of Windows really lends itself to the better display, too; bright colors pop, while blacks are deep and dark. Merely browsing the Web is very easy on the eyes, while services such as YouTube and Netflix look absolutely terrific. Colorful games, too, such as Fruit Ninja, look wonderful. Some things do look a little cramped thanks to the bumped up resolution, but it doesn’t detract much from the screen’s overall quality. Though, it must be said, it still doesn’t quite match the ppi of a Nexus 10. Given that the Surface 2 isn’t necessarily a consume-first device, it sure makes content look great. That being said, many of today’s top tablets already boast wonderful displays, so this merely brings Microsoft’s device up to par.

And Now it’s Fast, Too

Microsoft Surface Pro 2-Screen
Not only has the screen been upgraded, but the device’s internals have also been given a boost. Now equipped with a powerful Tegra 4 processor and 2GB of RAM, the Surface 2 soars in places the first iteration simply didn’t. For example, whereas Microsoft’s first device struggled to handle something like video in one screen and email in the other, the Surface 2 is much more capable, and therefore more enjoyable to use. Opening apps is incredibly smooth; multitasking and overall speed across the new operating system is lag-free, which couldn’t be said for Microsoft’s first attempt. That alone makes it feel miles ahead of the Surface RT. That’s also due to the release of Windows 8.1, which is new and improved, and shouldn’t be overlooked. But despite it feeling quicker and more stable, the RT ecosystem is still severely lacking; it’s a nagging issue that’s really holding Microsoft’s tablet ambitions back. You get the power and flexibility with Microsoft’s own Office suite, but third-party developer support just isn’t here. You won’t get Spotify, Chrome, or HBO Go, and often the latest games are only available for iOS and Android. Windows RT is catching up, but it still isn’t there-like always being a few laps behind. Nobody likes to get picked last, but unfortunately that’s the problem Microsoft is currently facing.
Surface 2 Kick Stand Surface 2 Kickstand Groove

Still The Same Issues

Microsoft Surface Pro 2-Desktop
Not long ago, a Microsoft executive admitted the Surface RT caused quite a bit of confusion among consumers, and I don’t see this year’s version making any concerted effort to change that. The software, its capabilities, and the approach are still the same. What’s different is the Surface 2 name-Microsoft dropped RT completely. But the desktop, for whatever reason, is still present, even though the experience obviously isn’t meant to exist there-that same issue transferred over from last year’s model. Having access to the desktop is still jarring in that it gives the impression this is just a regular old computer, but it’s not. The Surface 2 can’t run legacy apps, nor can it run desktop apps, unlike the Surface Pro 2. Perhaps the problem lies with Microsoft’s treatment of Office, which is still more suited to the desktop environment; each application in the company’s famous productivity suite still doesn’t feel optimized for touch, and the experience can often be frustrating without familiar desktop tools, such as a mouse and keyboard. When you do find yourself in the desktop, there’s very little you can do—the disconnect is compounded by Microsoft’s inclusion of Internet Explorer, which feels completely different from the Metro-style app. There doesn’t seem to be an obvious need for the desktop to exist in a tablet environment, yet it’s there. With Office, the non-touch-optimized experience does improve with a keyboard cover, but it almost makes such an accessory feel more like a forced necessity rather than an additional option. Without the Touch Cover (first generation), I had a heck of a time getting work done, especially with half of the screen real estate being taken up by the onscreen keyboard. It isn’t so bad that you absolutely need one, but it sure makes life easier, especially when the Surface 2 is trying so hard to fulfill its promise as more than a simple tablet.
Surface 2 Standing Front

Buy/wait

The Surface 2 is an improvement, but it still doesn’t achieve the lofty heights Microsoft has promised.

With the Surface 2, Microsoft clearly has a defined user in mind: someone that wants a device that rests in that fabled Goldilocks Zone between tablet and laptop. Unfortunately, the overall experience itself is less defined, and therefore the Surface 2 doesn’t quite live up to Microsoft’s own ambitions. The app experience is definitely improving, but it still can’t compete with what’s available for Android and iOS. With so few Windows RT devices available (and none that are particularly successful), it’s hard to see that changing anytime soon—that’s a shame, really, because the Surface 2 is a powerful and capable device with bundles of potential, and a battery that more than lasts a full day.

For a company that has made its living on building great software and productivity apps, it’s ironic seeing Microsoft’s hardware outshine the operating system that runs it. Microsoft so badly wants the Surface 2 to be that perfect synthesis of tablet and laptop, but it gets neither aspect completely right. The updated screen and improved guts does indeed make a difference. But with other, more complete options out there with more established ecosystems, it becomes difficult to recommend Microsoft’s vision of what a tablet should be. Right now, it still isn’t on par with an iPad, or even a Nexus 7, so the future isn’t here just yet.

There’s great potential, and beautiful, capable hardware. But until Microsoft actually delivers on its promise to make a device that’s meant for consuming and getting things done, the Surface 2 is still glass half empty.

Jon used the Surface 2 for five days, and Brandon used the Surface 2 for four. Microsoft sent TechnoBuffalo a review unit, which will be returned back after further testing.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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