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First look at Microsoft’s Surface 2: Improved, but is it enough?

One year ago today, I shared some early impressions on Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet. I liked the hardware well enough, but saw room for improvement, and wasn’t too impressed with the available software choices. Fast forward to the present and Microsoft(s msft) has dropped RT from the name, created new Surface 2 hardware and courted more mobile app developers.

Surface 2

Does Microsoft have a hit on its hands with this new model? Given that the company wrote down $900 million of Surface inventory earlier this year, Microsoft’s tablet aspirations can likely only go up from here. However, I was curious to see how this second generation device has grown up, so I’ve spent the last two days with a review unit from Microsoft.

Much improved hardware

Overall, my first impressions are positive and I wish Microsoft had been able to release this device a year ago. On the outside, the hardware looks similar to the previous model, which isn’t a bad thing. Different is the kickstand, which features two fixed angles instead of just one. The device is much easier to use on a lap now.

The two biggest hardware boosts in my opinion? Jumping up to a full HD display and the new 1.7 GHz Nvidia(s nvda) Tegra 4 chip inside.

At 10.6-inches, the Surface 2 screen has a pixel density of 208 pixels per inch (PPI), making for much clearer text, images and videos. By comparison, the original Surface RT display resolution is 1366 x 768 with 148 PPI; acceptable, but not great. The Surface 2 screen is a joy to look at it for hours and from any angle.

Surface 2 Windows

Moving from last year’s Tegra 3 to this year’s Tegra 4 brings a noticeable increase in overall performance for the device as well. The difference in chips isn’t just a model number; the Tegra 4 is built on the more powerful ARM Cortex-A15 architecture, while Tegra 3 used Cortex-A9, a now older generation chip.

Everything is faster on the new Surface 2 as a result, with far less lag when loading apps and instantaneous app switching. I’ve only performed a few benchmark tests to compare, but so far, I’d say the overall performance of Surface 2 is at least twice as fast as Surface RT; perhaps even a little faster. If you want to see a number of benchmark scores of the Surface 2 compared to several other devices, AnandTech has a great set of graphs here.

Microsoft also included its new Type Cover with my review unit and it’s quite good. I can easily type on the keyboard all day although the trackpad area is a bit small for my tastes. With a touchscreen, however, that’s an easy issue to mitigate. This new Type Cover also has backlit keys that intelligently turn on or off as required; a great new feature.

Better software but still not on par

Where Surface RT fell down the most last year was on the software side. That’s less of an issue one year later. Windows 8.1 RT brings several user interface improvements and Microsoft has been successful in getting additional top-tier apps to the platform. Facebook(s fb) is here, for example, and Facebook notifications are well-integrated. But the official Twitter app is visually unchanged and doesn’t take full advantage of the device’s screen size. Some other apps aren’t here are at all, still requiring you to use a web app, if one exists; see Instagram for an example of that.

Surface 2 multitasking

On the other hand, Microsoft has beefed up its Office suite of products for Surface 2 by adding Microsoft Outlook. Like the other Office apps, it runs on the less touch-friendly Desktop but the experience isn’t as jarring as it was last year. Skype too is here; a given since Microsoft bought the company. And of course, there’s Internet Explorer pre-installed both in the Metro and Desktop environments. I’m finding IE to be a little better than before at rendering sites in general and using Google+ — is much improved.

I still think there is an “app gap” of sorts when it comes to third-party software though. Why? Because Windows RT isn’t the first or second choice for new apps. And sometimes, it’s not even the third one, meaning that some developers will still choose to program for iOS and/or Android and that’s it.

That’s still a challenge that Microsoft has to overcome, and to do so, it’s going to take more time. New, more capable hardware isn’t going to fix that problem; sales of the Surface 2 will.

Low-cost Windows 8.1 tablets still present a challenge

There’s one other aspect to consider if you’re interested in a Surface 2 and its the same one I noted in January of this year. Do you want to pay $450 for a Surface 2 — without the keyboard option — for Windows RT and roughly 8 hours of battery life, or do you want full Windows 8.1 with similar battery life and an included keyboard for about the same price? That’s what many Intel-powered(s intc) tablets offer, and a perfect example is the $349 Asus Transformer T100. It uses a new Intel Bay Trail processor, includes a keyboard as well as Microsoft Office, although it does have a lower resolution display than Surface 2.

Transformer T100 Book

I’ll have more to comment on about the Surface 2 after some additional usage, but for now, I can say the overall device experience is much better than the initial Surface RT on all fronts. Is that enough for Microsoft to get a bigger foothold in the tablet market? The jury is still out on that in my mind due to a relative lack of developer interest and similar Windows 8.1 products that are more capable.

12 Responses to “First look at Microsoft’s Surface 2: Improved, but is it enough?”

  1. Can you give me one single compelling reason why I should buy a microsoft Surface tablet? Any product hoping to take more than a nibble of the market for truly portable devices needs to have a strong USP. For apple its style, design, hip and truly integrated apps; For android its choice and value and an unrestricted platform.

    I just don’t see where the surface is going to impact. Its not a great laptop and its not a memorable tablet. It uses another os, so users and developers need to adjust. its not cheap and the marketing is weak. So it has a USB port… tell me it lets you play your x-box library on the move, tell me it has 3G or 4G built in or a TV Tuner… tell me something good

    But don’t forget to tell me the metal kick-stand will scratch my table or that you can’t balance it on your lap

  2. Teagan Lewis

    Not that this is adding to the article much, but anyone with a .edu can get %10 the surface 2 on microsoft so website with a coupon code. This also works with accessories. Brining Surface 2 + Type Cover 2 from $580 before tax down to $522, making it a more attractive buy. (For those it appeals to anyways.)

  3. Bobby Charlton

    This is a really tough sell next to the iPad Air (as a tablet) and a whole bunch of powerful, portable laptops. It’s not the best tablet, and it’s not the best laptop. It probably IS the best cross between a tablet and a laptop, but this means that you’re constantly compromising in some way. People always defend the Surface by saying how much easier it is to carry one device instead of two, but this logic is ridiculous and reminds us of the famous toaster-refrigerator analogy. Most people can handle carrying both a laptop and a tablet in their bag, especially as tablets get lighter and laptops get faster with SSD etc. I honestly don’t think this product will ever go much further than its core market of MSFT fans who dearly want it to succeed.

    • Agree 100%.

      “It’s not the best tablet, and it’s not the best laptop.” It also doesn’t have a competitive selection of Apps.

      I’m really not a fan of compromise devices. When I NEED a laptop, I want a laptop, not a tablet with a keyboard. When I don’t need a laptop, I want the best tablet. I recently travelled to Europe and carried my iPad and MBA with me. Not a problem at all. For Android fans, it could just as easily have been a Nexus tablet + ultralight laptop.

      Despite MY preferences, I think there might be a decent size market for what the Surface is. It’s a tablet for people who like the idea of a tablet but are still stuck in a laptop mindset. Based on what I read in many different tech blogs, I think a lot of people fit into that category.

    • Curtis Quick

      I used to carry around my laptop. With a Surface RT I don’t. It’s just that simple. It really matters to me (and others) that I don’t need to lug around two devices when one will do just fine. And Surface RT is not a compromise for me. If I need extra on-screen precision, I just pull out my trusty wireless MS wedge-mouse and go at it. The Surface is a fine laptop and a fine tablet. With MS Office I have the one app I always needed, but it’s nice to know that there are over 100,000 more apps out there after less than one year, and that the number grows every day. I have no complaints.

  4. savagemike

    The problem is that for the Surface with type cover you are heading well toward $600 and that is getting quite snug into iPad territory.
    Of the two I think the new iPad Air is more than the obvious choice. The only selling point for RT really is that some people need and perhaps a few people badly enough want MS Office.
    But overall I think MS severely overvalues the cache and draw of Office. Business people who require Office for work are probably going to be using a more powerful machine. Students who need Office are probably going to take advantage of the great pricing MS gives students for Office 365 so they don’t really need to buy a machine with installed Office on it either.

    • Agreed; Surface 2 *with* a cover at $450 would be very different. The big differentiator is Office and based on more than 155 million iPad sales (without Office), I think you’re right MSFT values it more than tablet buyers do.

    • I think the reason for the existence of “RT” is twofold: a tablet with near-PC functionality, and a “safer” platform for the masses. Many friends and relatives are frequently plagued by computer viruses and driver/configuration issues. One of RT’s selling points is that you don’t have to worry about these things. The device is much more secure and the OS is wedded to the hardware. A Windows “Pro” tablet is much less secure against malicious code and “PC” headaches.

  5. Part of the reason for the “app gap” is not just the chicken-and-egg problem of target audience size, but something more challenging. The programming model and APIs are completely different from “legacy” Windows. This means that app developers have to learn how to program the new system (not trivial) and can’t re-use their old Windows code.