Despite featuring an original design and gathering good reviews, including from our own team, the first Surface (RT) had a hard time finding a market. As a result, Microsoft had to write down a substantial amount of money, but has decided to soldier on because abandoning the tablet market is just not an option. Microsoft needs Surface to show the way for other OEMs, and to do just that, Surface 2 has arrived.
This second edition still runs on an ARM platform: the NVIDIA Tegra 4 to be precise (the original Surface RT had a Tegra 3 chip). This hardware update and potential optimizations in Windows 8.1 bring a much faster machine, to the market, and that translates directly into a better user experience. At the same time, the Windows Store apps quality has risen, especially for “top apps” from companies that have the engineering resources to handle many platforms. So, how is it to use the Microsoft Surface 2 in the real world? Read on…
Before we jump into the Surface 2 detail, Let me explain what I do with my tablets. Since we all use those devices differently, it’s better if you know where I come from so that you can extrapolate how your own experience may be.
I normally use tablets for simple things like limited email, media consumption (Netflix, Hulu, videos rentals…). In some ways, I would do more with it, but the typically limited capabilities of those devices make it difficult to get some “real work” done comfortably.
For instance, my iPad cannot really deal with random file attachments, and while the Android ones are doing a bit better in that respect, but they don’t fare that much better in terms of productivity. That’s all fine, but it’s also why the Surface tablet concept is so attractive.
The original Surface was quite a breakthrough in terms of industrial design. To this day, it is still the best integration of kickstand+keyboard in a tablet (both of which I hold dear). Actually, I’m surprised that no-one else has imitated this, since it is so efficient. I suppose that the fear of legal retaliation from Microsoft and the commercial difficulties of the first batch of Surface tablets may have something to do with it. Yet, this is a great design and I’m glad that Microsoft is sticking to its gun on this one. Sometime, I find it ridiculous when I see ultra-thin tablets (or phones) encased into a very thick case…
On the outside, the Surface 2 body has not changed much. I like the new silver color more much than the original “dark brown”, but I don’t think that many people complained about that anyway. The most visible change is the two-step kickstand that now provide a maximum rear incline of near 45 degrees. That should make the surface more comfortable to use in a plane or a coffee table. The original design work great when properly seated on a table, but any lower position was less conformable.
On the right side, there are the volume controls, the 3.5mm audio jack and one speaker. The right side hosts the other speaker, a display port, a USB port and the power connector. By the way, the power connector is still a bit difficult to snap on at times, which is something that we pointed out in our initial review. The Power button is the only control at the top, and the bottom only features the accessory connect, which is mainly used to attach the keyboard. I hope that Microsoft makes the power connector as good as the keyboard connector in the future.
Type Cover 2 Keyboard (new)
Talking about the keyboard, Microsoft has improved upon keyboard designs that were already excellent. The new one is called Type Cover 2 and is a little more rigid to avoid as much “flex” as possible during typing. It is backlit, which is really great for all the reasons that you can imagine (especially during a long flight). The keyboard is the best (relative to its thinness) that I have used on a tablet format, and it does not add much bulk to the overall device – this is one of the best features of the Surface 2, and I think that every Surface user should get one. I know that it is expensive and I would really like to see Microsoft bundle a keyboard with every Surface to ensure the best possible user experience.
As usual, the keyboard is extremely easy to snap on and off and the magnet is strong enough to hold the weight of the tablet (I wouldn’t run with it however). Finally, keep in mind that the keyboard has a wired connection with the Surface 2, so there is no need to pair it, set it up or charge it, which is a definite advantage over all wireless keyboards. The less things you need to charge and the better off you are.
One of the cool things with the whole “touch screen” evolution is how good the displays have become. This is true for tablets obviously, but the whole computer industry has benefited from this. My latest touch laptop has an amazing screen that a near 4K display.
In any case, the Surface 2 does not have a QHD resolution (2560×1440), but 1080p (1920×1080) is still very nice and looks very crisp. I would probably not refuse a resolution upgrade, but I’m very happy with 1080p on a 13” laptop, so I am more than OK with it on a 10” device. In my opinion 1080p on a 10″ is already great as far as text goes, and it is only when looking at high-resolution photos that a QHD (or higher) screen is very perceptibly different.
The Surface 2 uses an LCD IPS display that provides excellent color rendering and view angles. Even when looking at it from a shallow angle (170 degrees), the color and brightness remain virtually unchanged: it’s pretty impressive. I measured the maximum brightness of the screen at 370 LUX: at that level, it’s already too bright indoors, but the higher brightness can be very useful outdoors. Other 10” tablets can go in the 400 LUX range, which is a bit better but not fundamentally different in terms of visual perception.
Performance (very good+)
I usually keep the performance bit for later in the review, but in the case of the Surface 2, it is an essential improvement, so let’s take a look now. When the first Surface RT launched, the concept was pretty sound since the idea of an ultra-light Microsoft-Office capable device with 8 to 10 hours of battery life was highly desirable since average laptops were in the 4-5hrs range in real situations. I believe that the idea still attractive for many people. There were two issues with the initial device however:
1/ The performance was too low to be truly comfortable to use. Casual usage was fine, but app loading and disk I/O needed improvements
2/ There were not enough quality apps compatible with Windows RT and basic things like using Facebook or web browsing were slow. MS Office however worked OK with regular files.
Surface 2 uses an NVIDIA Tegra 4 chip, which is much faster than the previous Tegra 3 processor. The additional speed makes Surface 2 much more natural to use, and most of the time, there is no particular impatience around how fast things happen. It’s obviously never fast enough, but this is more inline with the general experience that people expect from tablets.
Things don’t reach “Ultrabook speed”, but interaction with apps like the browser now feel completely normal. We don’t have many benchmarks on Windows RT, but we do have GLBenchmark 2.7 and 3DMark, which will do for now:
I was expecting a higher score than 16FPS (offscreen) on GLBenchmarj 2.7 since the SHIELD game console powered by the same chip gets 24FPS on Android. It may be a driver issue or a Benchmark problem, but for now I just could not get anything beyond that. 3DMark IceStorm results are more inline with what we’re seeing on Android.
In terms of graphics and gaming, the Surface 2 is many times faster than its predecessor. I’ve been playing games like HALO: Spartan Assault and it ran at a solid 60FPS. It is not really the most demanding game, but it shows that you can get some pretty good gaming going on the Surface 2 – if you find titles that you like.
Overall, the Surface 2 has a very smooth user interface. This is really true of nearly any Windows and Windows Phone device since the Metro interface was introduced. When they happen, slowdowns mainly hit on things like network access or data loading in general. Depending of what app you use, your mileage may vary, but overall, there is some real progress on that front as well.
At the moment, the only performance issue that I bumped into that remains is when heavy a download is being performed in the background. Typically, when I was synchronizing a huge outlook data file in outlook, the rest of the system became much slower to respond. This is an issue that I sometime get on Android tablets as well, but not so much on iOS since apps have limited background processing abilities.
Windows RT 8.1
The Surface 2 tablet comes with Windows RT 8.1, which is the ARM version of Windows 8.1 that runs on Qualcomm, NVIDIA and possibly other chips. It provides a similar user experience to Windows 8.1 with some restrictions: only Store apps can be installed by the user. Windows RT does not include the following apps:
- Windows Media Player
- Windows Media Center
- HomeGroup creation (you can join an existing HomeGroup but you can’t create a new one)
- The ability to connect to your Windows RT 8.1 PC from another PC using Remote Desktop
- Domain join
Windows RT 8.1 works with a large number of 3rd party peripherals (printers…), but have a smaller selection than Windows 8.1, which is arguably enormous. Also, Internet explorer does not support add-ons, so Flash support is absent, although that is also true for other ARM tablets. For the full list of RT restrictions when compared to the regular Windows, check the official disclaimer page and the Windows RT FAQ.
If you need a real file manager, the file explorer on the Surface 2 is excellent. It works just like a regular Windows machine, so it’s very easy to find your mark. Heck, you won’t even have to search for them, it’s just like the way you know it. It is also possible to pop a USB key, so if you want to quickly edit a presentation or work on your tablet without going through a cloud sync, it’s easy.
I typically don’t do anything crazy with Windows in general, but I use the “Pro” version on my desktop machine. In general, I don’t really mind having Windows Home on a laptop, and the drive encryption is probably the only thing that I *may* want, although I haven’t used it either. I recommend others to do so, however…
While using the Surface 2, there were no obvious feature that were missing for my usage, besides not being able to install stuff like the desktop version of Skype, or random tools that I have gotten used to, like an old version of ACDSEE, or Photoshop 7 (yep, I’m still using that). Of course, if I was to dig a little, I could find apps that would do something similar, but I mainly do a few tasks on the Surface 2: Office (Word, Excel, Powerpoint and Outlook), Netflix, Hulu, One Note and a few other apps.
The takeaway: although it looks and feels like Windows for most common tasks, this not to a full-fledged Windows. RT is better suited for ARM-based devices and seems more power-efficient than its regular counterpart. However, it’s best to think of it as a tablet that mostly runs with fullscreen apps from the store.
Since apps and overall performance were the main weaknesses of the first Surface, I was anxious to see how the app ecosystem had evolved since then. I have to admit that I don’t use many Store apps on my regular laptop, but as they get better, I am warming up to it. For instance, I now favor the Store App version of Netflix, Hulu and most of the video services instead of going to the website. For other things like Evernote or Skype I prefer the desktop version since I tend to use several windows simultaneously.
Microsoft has confirmed to me that Surface 2 tablets come with a free installation of Microsoft office for Windows RT, so that’s an additional bonus since you have to buy it on PC (or use the online version for free). For what I do with it, Office for Windows RT works great and I haven’t found something that I need and that wasn’t there. I’m sure that “power users” will be able to dig something up, but I don’t think that anyone I know would run into a big “missing feature” (I know a lot of lawyers who are hardcore Office users), so it’s reassuring – if you can think of something, please drop a comment since others may care deeply.
If you use Skydrive, the integration with Office is just great. For example, I was able to just fire Word on the Surface 2 and continue writing this review right from there. Keep in mind that Skydrive still needs you to “save” files and doesn’t work like Google Docs which literally saves as you type.
Excel also looks just like the PC version, and on a tablet, this is hands-down the best spreadsheet app that I have used. There are obviously other options, but given how popular Excel is, it’s hard not to like having the exact same experience on the Surface 2. The extra resolution (1080p) really helps here because you can zoom out and see a bunch of cells if you need to. You have as much, or more pixel space than most laptops.
Powerpoint and Outlook will also make you feel at home. Honestly, my Powerpoint files are too primitive to create any compatibility issues with 3rd party apps, but if you live off Powerpoint and don’t want the slightest compatibility problems on a tablet, this is most likely your best bet.
As for Outlook, it too looks the same as the PC version. The main advantage of using Outlook on the Surface when compared to an iPad for an Android tablet is the ease with which you can handle email attachments. Try attaching an arbitrary file to an email on iPad and you will quickly realize that it can be very difficult if you want it to be your only computer.
"IN THE TABLET WORLD, THERE IS NO EQUIVALENT TO THIS" Even my low-tech friends would complain about that particular issue on iPad. On Android, it may be a little better, but with Surface 2 you can drag and drop files to/from emails to any folder open in the explorer. In the tablet world, there is no equivalent to this. Note: when I first synced to my Outlook Exchange server, I noticed that the system was slower during the sync.
Obviously, there are a number of Office-compatible options on both iOS and Android, so is Office for RT really a big deal? I would say yes. Although non-Microsoft apps do a good job, none of them is actually as good as the original one (that’s unfortunate). Maybe they are cheaper, or free – but assuming that you are an MS Office user, and if you really want to maximize your productivity, I don’t see a better alternative to using MS Office. If you know one, please tell me and I’ll try it, because right now, I am paying for an Office 360 subscription – and I’d rather spend $100/yr on cupcakes… but Office is a work tool that is largely worth that price for me.
Netflix and Hulu have come a long way – and that is true of other video services as well. I really like the Netflix Metro App on the Surface 2. It’s clean, pretty fast and the video quality is great. On the original Surface, the app was much slower to react and the buffering was too long. I’m still using the exact same WiFi network, so it’s all Surface 2.
I’m sad to report that the Windows Store version of Skype is still not good enough: I find the app user interface to be clunky (the space is poorly used), and it is slower than other apps that I use. The incoming call video quality is not great and while “it works” but I can’t wait to switch to my PC to make a video call, which is not a good sign. If you only place audio calls, things are fine and the sound is great, so that’s a good point.
Another thing that can be annoying is that when Skype rings on multiple computers, answering on one doesn’t stop the ringing on the others immediately. I think that it is a “Skype problem” (and not a Surface 2 problem) in general, but this is pretty irritating and distracting when you start a conversation while the same call continues to ring on the other computers. Given that Skype belongs to Microsoft, I’m fairly disappointed that my Skype experience on iPad is better than on the Surface 2.
The Facebook website is quite heavy in terms of HTTP (web) requests and it’s never been a good solution for tablets. I made me go nuts on the iPad until the app came out and it was very annoying to use on first Surface. Fortunately, Facebook has changed its ways and is now offering an app for Windows 8.1 users. I immediately loaded it, and I have to say that it works quite well.
The FB app is much better to use than the web site because it only sends web requests for the actual data and not for CSS or other visual elements. I like it very much. Right now, I feel like it’s not as fast as it could be but things will certainly evolve for the better. The important thing is that Facebook is now completely viable on Surface. Like other “mobile” devices it doesn’t seem possible to create an album from the app, it’s typically not an issue for me, but it would have been nice since the File Explorer is so good.
Cameras (very good+ as webcams)
During the video calls, I was agreeably surprised by how much light the front camera could pick up. It’s actually as good as, or better, than a lot of laptops that I have played with, so I’m really happy about that. For some reason, I couldn’t get the rear camera focus to work , or maybe it is set to “infinity” at all times. In any case, I think that both cameras are setup to be “webcams” and not “cameras” in the photographic sense.
I’ve shot some photos with the front and the back camera. The bright lighting tests have been shot with an ambient light of 1450LUX, while the low-light test have been done with only 22LUX of light. The bright shot comes up a bit dark because the camera auto-mode tries to settle things to a “medium gray”, which is very typical for cameras. The low-light shot is very good and I’m fair impressed by it. It is great for Skype, which makes it even more frustrating that Skype isn’t as good as it should be.
Microsoft seems to have used the same camera modules in the front and the back, so you can expect the same level of quality on both. This is a little unusual, but since I mainly use it for video calls, I’m PK with that – but I expect the next Surface to have a rear camera that I can use to take good photos with. At the moment, if you want to take pretty photos, a Samsung or Apple tablet will do better.
Battery Life (good+)
In our video test, we have been able to get about 10 hours of video playback (audio OFF, WiFi ON, 150 LUX display brightness), which is considered to be very good for a 10” tablet, even if others do get better scores. The iPad 4 for example gets about 13 hours in a similar test. Since this is not a cellular device, the standby time is very long and you can leave the tablet unattended for more than a week without any problem.
This is the kind of battery performance that you may expect from a 10” tablet and it gets a Good+, but not a “very good” or “excellent” since this the 10” category has become extremely competitive in that particular area.
Conclusion (very good)
I really like the Surface 2. It still has an excellent design and the Kickstand+keyboard improvements only reinforce my impression that the Surface 2 is a monster in terms of productivity. The high-resolution screen makes Excel that much better, and Office looks and feels like what you already have on the PC, and IE is nearly a desktop browser. If your life revolves around MS Office and Outlook this is one great option."THE SURFACE 2 IS A PRODUCTIVITY MONSTER"
That said, Surface 2 bumps into the same issues than its predecessor had, namely the relative weakness of the app eco-system. On average, the iOS and Android apps are better and there are more of them. The good news is that Windows Metro Apps have gotten much better since Windows 8 launched, and I think that this will continue to improve steadily as companies optimize those apps for tablets, but also for “touch laptops”. However, today, it’s fair to say that this is still an uphill battle.
Surface 2 delivers critical improvements over the original Surface RT. The performance feels very good – not Ultrabook fast – but it’s nice, and the battery life is reliably long. Surface 2 is very different from other tablets: it is really the soul of a PC living in a tablet body. If you understand its strengths and make sure that the Apps you want are available, you will be very happy with it.
I believe that thin Windows tablets with a long battery life are here to stay, and I really wonder what would have happened if Microsoft had decided to build Surface 2 with an Intel Bay Trail processor with a full version of Windows instead. The answer to that may come next year.