Take two: we return to the Surface - a world where Microsoft tries to blend the conventional tablet with desktop computing tropes to stand out from the crowd. Does it make a better impression second time around?
Microsoft Surface 2 design: Standing innovation
As tablets go Microsoft’s Surface 2 is pretty distinctive. It’s a nice contrast to the likes of Apple’s iPad, swapping out rounded, featureless aluminium for the strong lines and hard edges of its VaporMg casing. This time it’s rendered in bare-metal magnesium, as opposed to the black powder coat of the original Surface RT.
Hardware controls are limited to the power/lock key and volume rocker, but there are all sorts of ports as you explore the Surface 2’s surfaces. With the desktop-like experience Windows RT offers, you can get a more familiar computing experience by making use of the video-out port on the right side. There’s also a full-sized USB 3.0 port for charging external devices and inputting storage drives too.
The kickstand itself has undergone a small, but significant change since the previous generation Surface tablets in that it now locks into one of two positions, the new, secondary stage placing the tablet at a more extreme angle. As well as making it easy to see in certain conditions or for different input methods, it also makes it significantly more stable and coincidentally more usable on, say, your lap.
Microsoft Surface 2 screen: Sharp and colourful
This second round of Surfaces has one key element in common, killer displays. The sharp 10.6-inch screen on the Surface 2 boasts full HD resolution, and excellent, vivid colours.
Viewing angles are pretty strong too and the touch layer is extremely receptive when picking up gestures, making it effortless to zip around the on-screen interface.
Microsoft Surface 2 OS: Two-faced
Windows RT 8.1 is a complicated beast, so lets start with the lows and build up to the highlights.
The duality of the latest Windows Start screen and the more conventional desktop will undoubtedly lead to confusion. The latter may look like full Windows but don’t expect to install fully-fledged applications here, that’s off limits on Windows RT.
Instead you have to turn your attention to the Windows app store and whilst it’s certainly better than we previously experienced on the original Surface RT, it still falls short of the mark for the same reason as before: a severe lack of apps. Titles like Asphalt 8 can now be picked up, which is great, but finding more high-quality experiences amidst the sea of non-descript, unknowns is a chore that you won’t want to repeat.
The on-screen typing experience also still needs work, with little room for error in the way of typing accuracy and very lax word correction, mistakes happen frequently and force you to slow down or go back and correct manually.
Now onto the highlights. The on-screen keyboard may lack something, but connect the new backlit Type Cover keyboard and you’ll have no problems punching out a few thousand words in one go (this review was written on a Surface 2, complete with a Type Cover). It’s a pleasure to type on and serves as an easy way to sleep/wake your Surface in a moment.
The primary tiled Windows Start screen is also easy to navigate and customise, with more tile sizes than previously, similarly to Windows Phone and more settings to tweak and access such as updates for the OS and applications, without having to dip into Control Panel.
New Bing apps covering travel, food and health are also on offer to enrich your Start screen further, all working towards making Windows RT 8.1 feel that little bit richer.
Microsoft Surface 2 performance & battery: No complaints here
The user experience may still need work, but the hardware underneath the hood feels far more complete. Booting up Windows RT takes just a few seconds and although some apps like Skype may take a few moments to open to begin with, the overall user experience is snappy and fluid, which is reassuring on a device that in part runs more of a desktop computing experience alongside its main tablet responsibilities.
The fluidity of the Surface 2 comes courtesy of a powerful Nvidia Tegra 4 quad-core processor and 2GB of RAM. It handles Windows RT with aplomb and although doesn’t handle power efficiency as well as Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 chip, like the one found in the Lumia 2520, you’ll still see standby times of several days.
On the storage front, there are two flavours of Microsoft Surface 2: a 32GB or a 64GB version. We’d recommend one of two things here. Windows takes up over a third of the internal storage from the off, which stings, so either fork out the extra cash for the larger 64GB model and/or flip the kickstand out. Underneath you’ll find a microSD card slot happy to accept SDXC cards of up to an additional 64GB. This might be the best place to store local content, leaving your C: drive free to breathe.
Microsoft Surface 2 camera: It has two
The 3.5-megapixel and 5-megapixel front and rear cameras are well suited to the occasional Skype call or snap, but don’t let us catch you using your tablet as a camera out in public, we’ll scowl at you and you’ll look very silly.
Picture quality is respectable on both fronts, but images can look flat and there’s fairly narrow dynamic range, both can record Full HD video however. Let’s say they’re as expected and although we’d like to see them get better in future revisions, there are bigger fish to fry first.
Microsoft Surface 2 conclusion: Coming into focus
When it comes to any Microsoft Surfaces device, progress is slow. The Surface 2 is a clear improvement over the first-generation, but it suffers from the same shortcomings, almost all of which are software-based. The user experience is responsive and in places, very slick, but it can get convoluted really easily and leaves us wanting more (maybe just full Windows?).
Time has helped the Windows app store grow, but it’s still nowhere near big enough, leaving us with some great hardware that can’t be used to its fullest. The strangest part of all this is that Microsoft’s forté – the software leaves us wanting more, whilst the hardware, an area Microsoft has in the past been less hands-on with, is great.
The Surface 2 will cover all the bases when it comes to fundamental computing needs: email, Skype, YouTube, web browsing, social networking, light office work and so on, but that skill set is available from any number of tablets, including some significantly cheaper ones. For twice the price you can get the more useful Surface Pro 2 or for around than £60 extra you could pick up a powerful Android offering like the Asus Transformer Book TF701T.