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Surface take 2: how Microsoft's powerful new tablets compare to the competition

Surface take 2: how Microsoft's powerful new tablets compare to the competition

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Gallery Photo: Surface 2 hands-on photos
Gallery Photo: Surface 2 hands-on photos

Microsoft has just unveiled the first-ever hardware refresh of its pair of Surface tablets. The Surface RT has been transformed into the Surface 2, and the Surface Pro has been replaced by the Surface Pro 2. Microsoft wasn’t shy when it came to talking up either tablet — it says that both are snappy performers that should bring about incredible productivity. But once again, the tablets come in at steep prices that put them side-by-side with the best performers out there. We’re taking a look at how the latest Surface tablets will look out in the field.

Surface 2

Though the Surface 2 has trimmed down just a bit from the Surface RT, its build is largely the same. Most of its bigger changes come on the inside: it now includes a 1080p display, a Tegra 4 processor, and has a quoted 10 hours of battery life, up from just eight on its predecessor. It’ll be running Windows 8.1, but once again, it'll be the RT version — meaning it won’t able to run traditional Windows apps.

Surface 2's high price gives it some capable competitors

Like the Surface RT, the Surface 2’s high introductory price puts it up against some strong competitors. At $449, it’s $50 more than the Nexus 10 and $50 less than the latest iPad, both of which have much more established app ecosystems. Neither of those competing tablets is much of a slouch in the speed department either, and both trounce the Surface 2 when it comes to display sharpness.

Microsoft says that the Surface 2 is a powerful performer nonetheless, and that "there's nothing that slows it down." Should it hold its own when it comes to performance, then the real decision in tablets is still going to come down to how you want to use one. Even though the Surface 2 is aiming to provide a more tablet-like experience than its more-expensive sibling, it still has traditional Windows environments — for better or for worse. It’s not a conceit that did the original Surface particularly well either, but with tweaks all around, it’s possible that the updated tablet won’t be brushed off the same way that its predecessor often was.

Surface Pro 2

The Surface Pro 2 is a very different story, however. Microsoft says that it has real power, and it really seems to mean it. "This is power," Panos Panay, Microsoft's VP of Surface, says of it. "This thing's a beast." So what’s changed? It has one Intel’s Haswell processors inside, which generally translates into some combination of better performance and improved battery life. Microsoft says it’s getting both, with a 20 percent overall performance bump and a 60 percent battery life bump over its predecessor.

Surface Pro 2 is hardly just a tablet

At a base price of $899 and running the full version of Windows 8.1, however, there’s no hiding the fact that the Surface Pro 2 isn’t really a tablet. At its heart, it's a convertible tablet that can transform into a full laptop, even if it does include some of the slimmest and least obtrusive keyboard attachments out there.

That may well be among the Surface Pro 2’s biggest advantages though. The options are there for it to lean more toward functioning as a tablet or a laptop depending on your liking, and as a tablet alone, it’s filled with parts that should be as strong — if not stronger — than its nearest competitors. We’ve rounded up some of the latest Windows 8 convertibles tablets above, and most of them still aren’t running on Haswell processors, giving the Surface Pro 2 a big advantage over the field.

And while Microsoft hasn’t increased the resolution on the Surface Pro 2’s display, at 1080p, it still stands out above those around it. Many other convertible machines remain closer to 720p, with displays toting WXGA resolutions.

Storage will cost you if you don't trust the cloud

The big question on the Surface Pro 2 will be how much you're willing to spend on its internal upgrades. At $899 it includes 4GB of RAM and a slim 64GB of storage, but its price runs as high as $1,799 for a model with double the RAM and eight times the storage. Buyers hoping to use the Surface Pro 2 as a dedicated laptop will almost certainly want to bump that up to at least 128GB — though for those comfortable with relying on cloud storage, Microsoft is including 200GB of SkyDrive space free for two years to fill the gap. For those who don't, better deals may be elsewhere when it comes to Haswell machines.

Microsoft may well have made the first great Windows 8.1 convertible with the Surface Pro 2. Now, we just have to wait and see what everyone else brings to the table.