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Microsoft Surface 2 review

It's business time

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Microsoft Surface 2 hero (1024px)
Microsoft Surface 2 hero (1024px)

“At the office” has become a nebulous term in my life. I’ve been “at the office” in coffeeshops, libraries, planes, taxis, bars, and one time from my seat during the third quarter of the Super Bowl. Work takes place at random hours, in random places; I spend a lot of time on Saturday nights looking for somewhere in a bar to stash my MacBook Air in case something crazy happens. I’m also stashing my iPad, too, because it also goes everywhere with me — it’s how I pass the time waiting for people, how I play Ridiculous Fishing during commercials, how I get any reading done at all.

Microsoft’s Surface 2 turns the entire contents of my backpack into one device. It’s mostly a tablet, a light and slim device that’s great for reading, watching movies, or surfing the web. But when it’s business time, the Surface 2 steps up. With a keyboard attachment, a full version of Office, and everything else Windows 8.1 offers, it’s equally suited to watching Scandal and taking over the world.

That’s what last year’s Surface promised too, though, and it ran into some serious issues. It didn’t work well on your lap, it had serious performance problems, and it turns out tablets and laptops are more different than we thought.

But that’s all beside the point. The point is this: it’s Thursday night, I’m sitting in a bar, and there’s both a football game I want to watch and a review I have to write. Surface 2, let’s do this.


A beautiful mashup

Even on its first try, Microsoft showed impressive aptitude for hardware design. The Surface 2 continues the trend, a beautiful, beveled rectangle made of Microsoft’s aluminum-like VaporMg material. It’s light yet sturdy, attractive yet unassuming — there’s one ugly seam across the top of the rear, where the unibody shell meets the plastic stripe containing the device’s wireless radios, but this is otherwise a flawlessly machined device.

Its new, gun-metal gray color makes the Surface 2 look like something you'd find on a spaceship. Otherwise the device is mostly unchanged: at 0.35 inches thick and just under a pound and a half, it’s a little smaller and a little lighter than the previous model, but it doesn’t feel very different.

The Surface 2: super lappable Img_4330-590

It does feel slightly more balanced, more comfortable to hold, though like any large 16:9 tablet it’s still awkward in my hands. It’s too wide in landscape — my thumbs can only comfortably reach about 60 percent of the screen — and hilariously, comically tall in portrait mode. There’s no great way to hold it one hand, either; this is a device for your desk or your lap, not for standing on a crowded subway. I tried reading in bed with the Surface 2, and my arm gave out after about five minutes. (I also dropped it on my face once, but that's beside the point.)

As soon as I learned to prop the Surface 2 up next to me in bed instead, it worked better. It’s all in the kickstand, the flap that folds out from the bottom half of the device’s back, and all it took was adding another angle. The original angle was too upright — you couldn’t quite look at the screen properly unless you slouched down into your chair, and the tablet would perch precariously on your lap ready to fall in a gentle breeze. The second, wider angle (55 degrees instead of 22) just happens to be exactly where I instinctively open my laptop. Now you can look slightly down at the screen, and the kickstand provides a wide, sturdy base that never once toppled over on my knees. It’s still more comfortable and usable on a table than on your lap, but it’s far more versatile now.


The display is the most significant upgrade on the Surface 2, and it needed to be. Its 10.6-inch screen was once a low-end-laptop-grade 1366 x 768, but has been upgraded to the same panel as the Surface Pro and Pro 2 — a 1920 x 1080 display with beautiful colors, phenomenal viewing angles, and fantastic touch recognition. It’s still not quite as high-res as a device like the Nexus 10 or the Galaxy Note 10.1, but more pixels might be a bad idea; though most Windows 8.1 apps scale beautifully to high resolutions, some elements of Windows and the desktop are already ridiculously small on the 1080p display.

It doesn't need more pixels to be a great display, either. Deep blacks make movies look great, vibrant colors make photos pop off the display. Add in the surprisingly loud (if occasionally distorted) stereo speakers pumping sound out the sides of the device, and the Surface 2 is a solid device for all things Netflix and Hulu. And with great new high-def front and rear cameras, it's a pretty great video chat device too.

But there are plenty of great Netflix and Skype devices, plenty of better ones than the Surface 2. And Microsoft has higher ambitions than that, anyway.


Software and performance

All work and all play

Surfaces were never designed for people who just want to kick back and watch a movie, or listen to music. They're designed for People Who Get Things Done. Microsoft seems to have watched as we started to replace our laptops with iPads, and figured it could offer something better. It's a tablet, but everything about the Surface is designed to make you more powerful and more productive.

The Touch and Type Covers are remarkable accessories for any tablet


Take the Touch Cover and Type Cover, the most innovative parts of the entire Surface lineup. These keyboards dock into the bottom of the Surface 2, turning your tablet into something vaguely resembling a laptop. Neither has keys as good as a laptop, though the clicky Type Cover comes close; the Touch Cover is thinner and lighter, but even with the addition of hundreds of new sensors in the device itself it's not as comfortable or as accurate as the accessory with actual keys.

Both covers are now backlit, which is hugely helpful, and both are a little more rigid and thus easier to use on your lap. Neither feels as good, as sturdy, or as usable as an actual laptop, though. This is a tablet with a keyboard attachment, not a detachable laptop.

It’s an impressively powerful tablet, though. With a quad-core Tegra 4 processor and 2GB of RAM, it runs Windows RT 8.1 beautifully; it’s a notably better experience than iOS 7 on my iPad mini at the moment. Apps open quickly and resume even faster, the device boots and resumes in only a few seconds. It does it all for most of the day, if not quite all: I got six hours, 43 minutes on the Verge Battery Test, and somewhere between six and seven hours of typical use before the Surface 2 gave up. That's lower than the Surface Pro 2, and notably lower than a tablet like the iPad, but still plenty to last a day or two for most people. Its standby stamina is great, too, so I was able to leave the tablet unplugged on my coffee table and not worry about it.


Windows 8.1 certainly deserves some of the credit, too: in addition to being a faster and more stable operating system, it comes with a bunch of new features. Integrated, system-wide Bing Search was my favorite thing about the new OS; being able to search anything, from anywhere, and get sorted and clever visual results page was great. So was being able to have two apps side by side, and control the size of each app. Windows 8.1 has a better browser, a much better Mail app, and a lot of improvements across the board.

Whatever the reason, the many frustrating problems that once plagued the old Surface — slow multitasking, bizarre and unpredictable app crashes, odd lag across the operating system — are gone. There were moments where I was reminded that I was using essentially smartphone hardware, like when high-def YouTube videos would occasionally stutter or when even rudimentary games would drop frames, but for virtually every situation the Surface 2 comes with plenty of power. As a result, it’s fun to use in a way the last model wasn’t; I really enjoy using the Surface 2. But there’s a problem: there’s not nearly enough to do here.

Why does the desktop still exist on Windows RT?


People Who Get Things Done tend to use Office, so Microsoft bundles it on every Surface 2 — Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and now Outlook come included. It’s a great inclusion, but Microsoft didn’t think it through. They’re desktop apps, not Windows 8-style; if Microsoft would just build better, touch-friendly versions of the apps, it could ditch the barren desktop mode entirely. As is, you get a jarringly different version of Internet Explorer from the one you’ll use in the Metro interface, access to the Windows 7-style Windows Explorer, and a Start Button. And that’s it. I get why Windows 8.1 still feels like two operating systems – the desktop, and the tiles — but the desktop ought to be completely unnecessary here.


Since Office isn’t touch-optimized, you’ll still want a mouse and keyboard to really get work done on the Surface 2. And when you have a mouse and keyboard, why do you have a tablet? Microsoft might be able to make a lot of money selling an inexpensive, long-lasting device that is a killer Office machine — Microsoft’s version of the Chromebook, in a way. But the Surface 2 is not a killer Office machine.

Using a Surface 2 is quiet, and lonely


For all its limitations, though, at least Office is available on the Surface 2. There are dozens of other apps I wanted to use that I simply couldn’t. Unlike the Surface Pro 2, the Surface 2 doesn’t run legacy apps or desktop apps. You’re limited to what’s in the Windows Store, and even as it grows, it’s still obviously and problematically behind Android and iOS. I wanted to read on the subway, but there was no Instapaper or Pocket to be found; my to-do list is hopelessly out of date without Wunderlist.

There’s no Rdio, no Chrome, no 1Password, no HBO Go, no WatchESPN, no Candy Crush. There are few good photo editing apps or good text editors, and an incredible dearth of games. If you look around, there are some great apps, and the list is growing — the new Facebook app is nice, and Flipboard is coming soon — but I can’t use a tablet that doesn’t have the apps I want. That’s why Lenovo’s A10, though it runs an operating system in Android that is suited neither to mouse and keyboard nor large screens, might be a better bet than the Surface 2. Without the apps, nothing else really matters.

It’s lonely using a Surface 2. I can’t play all the games my friends are playing, or test out all the apps they’re downloading. Trying to use apps in IE tabs is a clunky, messy process, and no one should have to do it. Microsoft needs to convince developers to make things for the Windows Store, but for most Windows 8.1 devices, companies can just build desktop apps — that’s what people are used to, that’s what will work on virtually every PC out there. Windows RT devices are a rare and endangered breed with a brutal track record; I don’t blame Rdio or Simplenote for not making apps. But until they do, I can’t tell anyone to buy a Surface 2.

Jack of all trades, master of none

There’s good news and bad news with the Surface 2. The good news: Microsoft made almost everything about the device better. Gorgeous screen, fast performance, usable kickstand, useful new software. It’s a better Surface than last year’s Surface, by a long shot.

The bad news: a good Surface still isn’t a great device. Not right now, anyway. It’s not a great tablet — it’s too big, too tall in portrait mode, and missing way too many crucial apps. It’s not a great laptop, either, not unless you’re willing to tote around a mouse and keyboard. I still hope that Microsoft is right, that it will eventually figure out how to combine tablet and laptop in a way that doesn’t just come with new, frustrating compromises. (Combining the power of the Surface Pro with the design of the Surface 2 would be a good start.)

I want the device the Surface 2 promises to be. I hope someday Microsoft builds it — and there’s a lot here to work with. But there are still two devices in my backpack: my laptop and my tablet. Neither one is a Surface 2.

Photography by Michael Shane