Microsoft hasn’t exactly had a big foothold in the tablet market, not like Apple, but the company is trying, and this year it hopes its Surface 2 tablet has the goods to impress. Designed to look and feel different from any other tablet out there, it certainly stands out, but is it any good?
The second of Microsoft’s own tablet range, the Surface 2 is a machine designed to let you get on the web, doing work, and having fun.
Designed by Microsoft, this slate grey tablet comes with its own kickstand, as well as some interesting innards to make it a decent competitor in today’s highly competitive tablet world.
We’ll start with the screen, and just like on the first generation Surface, Microsoft has gone with a 10 inch screen, though had upgraded the panel considerably, bringing it into Full HD (1920×1080), up from the regular HD displays Microsoft used in the original Surface.
Microsoft’s original design built in magnesium (a special kind called “VaporMg”) is mostly unchanged, though the colour is different and now grey, and the hinge has been modified so that two positions can be set: either at 24 or 40 degrees.
Under the screen, the technology has changed, with Microsoft moving to the Nvidia Tegra 4 quad-core processor, one clocked at 1.7GHz. This is paired with 2GB RAM, which is the safe minimum for Windows operating systems, while the storage is set to 32GB, and can be upgraded using a microSD card slot found under the kickstand.
A 64GB model can also be found, though our review model was 32GB.
There’s also the operating system, and on the Surface 2 it’s Windows RT 8.1. This is the latest update to Windows, but not the full fledged edition of Windows 8 that you get on other computers. Rather, Windows RT is a special version of Windows 8 designed to run on the different style of processor used for tablets, instead of the Intel or AMD chips used in other machines.
Windows RT looks like Windows 8, and runs just like it, with the exception that it cannot run any apps designed and compiled for the other chips. In essence, this means any application designed for Windows 7, Vista, XP, and even some of the Windows 8 pieces of software cannot be installed here, and the only apps that can will be found through the Windows Store found in the menu of the Surface 2 tablet.
Connectivity on the Surface 2 comes in the form of WiFi 802.11 a/b /g/n and Bluetooth 4.0 — no built in 4G here, sadly — while Microsoft has also upgraded the USB port on the tablet to be USB 3.0 and included a microHDMI port.
Cameras seem to be a common inclusion on tablets these days, and the Surface 2 is no exception here, with a 5 megapixel rear camera and a 3.5 megapixel front-facing camera, easily good enough for Full HD Skype video conferencing if you ever need to. Two microphones are also included, as are two speakers supporting Dolby sound.
While tablets generally don’t have many buttons these days, the Surface 2 has a few, with a volume rocker on the left side, power button up top, and a Windows soft button on the front that will both switch on the machine and bring you back to the main Windows menu screen.
A power pack charges the tablet through a proprietary five pin magnetic port, with the charge time taking between two and four hours depending on how full the battery was to begin with.
No keyboard is included with the Surface 2 — it’s a tablet, after all — but Microsoft makes a range of keyboard case accessories which can be plugged in using a six pin magnetic port on the bottom of the tablet.
Earlier in the year, we checked out the Surface Pro, a Microsoft tablet modelled on the original Surface that used proper PC parts to make a Microsoft-engineered Windows 8 tablet experience. But that’s not the same as the Surface unit we have in front of us today.
No, this Surface is a new edition of the Surface 2 tablet that comes with Windows RT, the special edition of Windows designed for the ARM-based processors users in smartphones and tablets, instead of the chips you find in typical computers from either Intel or AMD.
This Surface is designed to be relatively thin, easy on the eyes, lightweight, and capable of taking on tablets like the iPad.
Picking up the Surface 2, it’s easy to acknowledge that this is a good looking device that doesn’t really take any design cues from anything that isn’t a Surface.
It’s not the same as the Surface Pro we looked at earlier in the year, but the look sure isn’t far off, with a colour change from dark grey to a much lighter grey, and with edges that slant and make the Surface look like a tablet from tomorrow, rather than a device of today.
There’s not a whole lot of weight to the device, though it’s certainly not as light as some of its competitors, with 676 grams to its name. That said, it’s well distributed, and the Surface 2 never feels like it’s too heavy in specific areas.
Overall, it’s a comfortable hold, and Microsoft’s included kickstand is still a nice touch, just like it was in the Surface Pro, only now it can be set up at two distinct angles, perfect if you like the screen to fall back just a little more, like that of a laptop.
Microsoft’s choice of screen is also an excellent one, with a very clear Full HD screen that looks fantastic from every angle, and while it’s glossy, it doesn’t appear overly reflective during most of the activities we were trying it with.
In regards to system performance, the Surface 2 seems to handle its own, which is hardly surprising since the Tegra 4 chip is a very capable piece of hardware. The tablet switches on very quickly, with a second or two from standby, though it’s not the speediest when turned on from cold and off, taking just under 20 seconds to be completely on.
We can put it through some benchmarks, with 3D Mark telling us that this machine really does fly, and should be able to handle a lot of what you send its way. The applications have to be found on the Windows Store, so you might be waiting for games and apps for a while there, but like the top tier tablets we’re seeing from other manufacturers, the Surface 2 definitely looks like it can hold its own, and take on many of the tasks its owners will have for it.
Over in the battery department, the Surface 2 handles quite well. Microsoft quotes up to 10 hours of battery life for video playback, and we had around eight hours working while we were writing, surfing the web, tweeting, and trying to find apps to install.
That’s not bad at all, and with up to two weeks of standby time, it’s easy to see that the Surface 2 is one of those devices you don’t have to constantly keep charged to use, a positive thing since the power pack takes a couple of hours minimum to give the Surface 2 tablet a decent boost.
There are also a few accessories designed for the Surface 2 that are optional, though we suspect the typing cover is one most owners will want to have.
Two typing covers exist, one with a flat travel-less touch keys, while the other has a full fledged keyboard inside. Both have a small trackpad complimenting the tablet underneath the keyboard, and both have a felt back that folds over the front, protecting the screen from knocks.
We reviewed the Surface 2 with one of the touch keyboard covers, typing the review on it, and finding it a necessary accessory, especially since the on-screen keyboard is only so good. If a Surface tablet is going to be used for typing, these keyboard cover accessories don’t rely on Bluetooth and offer a much faster and more accurate typing experience than relying on the on-screen keyboard of Windows RT.
While Microsoft has certainly made some strides in the Surface 2 — better screen, faster innards, much better hinge design — the Surface 2 still comes with the same problem that every Windows RT device comes with: a lack of apps.
It’s a problem that Microsoft’s other mobile platform also shares, with Windows Phone only now beginning to get some of the more popular social apps that have graced other platforms previously. Similarly, Windows RT lacks much of the popular release software that your regular Windows 8 machine can run, especially noted because Windows RT — which is a special version of Windows 8 (now 8.1) designed for the low power ARM processors used in many tablets and phones — cannot run the regular executables that will run on Windows 8.
That means no Photoshop, no Steam, no Chrome, and none of the apps you might normally rely on with a Windows 8 laptop or desktop, and it even means we can’t run our regular battery testing tool for Windows.
Indeed, Windows RT’s software limitation still means relying on the travesty that is the Windows Store. That’s not to say the organisation of the Windows Store is terrible, as it’s certainly gotten a lot better under the Windows 8.1 update. Rather, the collection of apps that you can get still doesn’t quite have the same level of quality we expect out of regular Windows apps that we can buy or regularly rely on.
For instance, if you want to game and you have a Steam account with plenty of titles on it, you’re stuck. There is no Steam version for Windows RT on the Windows Store.
If you want a different browser outside of Internet Explorer, you get a few choices on the Windows Store, but they don’t include either the popular Google Chrome or Mozilla’s Firefox, and there isn’t even the opportunity to install Opera. With fairness to Microsoft, the latest version of Internet Explorer is actually a relatively decent browser, but if you’re trying to sync over passwords and bookmarks through the cloud like you can with another browser, it just won’t happen here, as RT lacks the goods.
And if you want to edit photos, the full version of Photoshop doesn’t exist either. The full versions of InDesign, Illustrator, and just about every Adobe program are missing too, and there’s no support for the Adobe Cloud, so if you’re a creative type, this isn’t really the tablet for you, beyond the basics of Photoshop Express and Autodesk’s Sketchbook program.
To its credit, Microsoft does provide you with the full version of Office, complete with Outlook, PowerPoint, Excel, and everyone’s favourite, Word.
But outside of the popular productivity suite, your app selection is one built from whatever people are creating for release on the Windows Store, and while that includes some cute little games and decent little productivity tools — we use the Australian developed MetroTwit for tweeting and Notesphere for writing — many of the apps are condensed versions of websites, aimed at bringing these experiences into the grid design that Microsoft has made useful for itself under the Windows 8/RT design.
There’s Quickflix, Network Ten, Domain, and of course there are tablet-style apps that the iPad and Android tablets get too, such as Flipboard, Skype, Dropbox, and Amazon’s Kindle app, but in general, it’s not the portable computer experience you think you’re getting.
And really, that’s the biggest problem the Surface still suffers: it’s one giant tease.
Looking at it, and picking it up, the Surface 2 feels like it could be a truly portable Windows machine. The kickstand is well designed in the second incarnation, the keyboard accessory — especially the proper full keyboard one with backlit keys — is comfortable and offers surprisingly decent travel, and for many, it feels like it could be that perfect middle ground tablet with Windows on it.
But it’s not full Windows, and you can’t really do any of the things you might normally do on a Windows machine.
Hence the tease.
There’s a Windows button on the front, and it feels like you’re using Windows, but your app selection doesn’t exactly extend very far, and while you have a Desktop mode like Windows 7 and 8, it doesn’t let you do much, unless you feel like fiddling about with the Control Panel or running those Office apps.
That’s the problem with this tease. While we love the idea of a properly portable Windows machine that has been designed this well, being told that we can only take notes with it, surf the web, tweet, check our calendar and mail, use Office applications, and play the odd game just seems a bit limiting, especially since this is supposed to be a Windows tablet, not a Windows Phone. We’ll freely acknowledge you need to sacrifice some things with a phone — it’s a phone — but you should be able to use a computer and tablet the way you want to.
Android and iOS both make up for this in their tablets not just because the app selection is freaking massive, but also because these are custom developed operating systems that never really looked like their desktop counterparts.
Unfortunately, Windows RT looks exactly like its desktop and laptop counterpart, and that separation — its inability to run anything you would normally do anywhere else — still makes the Surface a limited machine.
Microsoft’s sequel to its first tablet isn’t a bad one, and certainly has a lot of things going for it. It’s good looking, well designed, and comes with a very nice screen. It even looks like it should be able to handle a lot of apps, but there’s the catch: there just aren’t that many apps available.
If Microsoft manages to persuade more developers to craft apps for the Windows Store, we might just see excellence in this tablet, with more things you can run than a handful of games, social networking applications, and productivity tools.
Sadly, right now, it’s really best served as a web, email, and Microsoft Office tablet, because that’s what it does best.