Microsoft’s (MSFT) Surface tablets promise a lot.
They promise to give you the best of both worlds: a touch-friendly content consumption device like the iPad and a work machine (Office included!) like a regular laptop if you need it.
And that promise sounds really good. When Apple (AAPL) introduced the iPad in 2010, it famously showed a graphic of the tablet as an in-between device, not quite a laptop, and not quite a smartphone. In Apple’s world, you need three separate devices.
Microsoft thinks differently. Why have a smartphone, tablet, and laptop, when you can get one device for just $449 that can do everything your laptop and tablet can do? Not a bad deal, right? On paper, I sure think it is.
That’s exactly what Microsoft’s second-generation Windows 8 tablet, the Surface 2, wants to be. Unfortunately, the Surface 2 only does a so-so job at being a tablet and a very bad job at being a laptop.
How It Works
The Surface 2 experience is nearly identical to the one we got last year. This year’s hardware is thinner, lighter, faster, and comes with a high-resolution screen. All that is powered by Windows 8.1, the new update to Windows 8 with a bunch of tweaks and fixes that address several complaints users had with the original 8.0 version last year. Despite the improvements though, Microsoft still has a lot of work to do with Windows 8.1. The reviews have been lukewarm so far.
To get the most out the Surface 2, you’ll need to spend at least an extra $80 for one of Microsoft’s snap-on keyboard covers. The $80 “touch” cover doesn’t have physical keys you can press down. Instead, the keys are flat and covered in felt. It feels like typing on a pool table. I like the $130 type cover a lot better. It has physical keys and feels much more natural to use. There’s a kickstand on the back of the device, so you can prop it up to look like a touchscreen laptop.
The Surface 2 runs a special version of Windows 8.1 called Windows 8.1 RT. This version is designed to run on fast and light tablets that have the same kind of processors as Apple’s iPads and most Android tablets. That means you get a lot of power and great battery life for less money than a regular laptop that runs one of Intel or AMD’s power-hungry chips. It also means the Surface 2 can only run apps designed specifically for Windows 8. If you want to run older Windows 7 apps, you’ll need a machine like the new Surface Pro 2, which can run just about any app ever designed for Windows.
As an extra bonus, the Surface 2 comes pre-loaded with the latest version of Microsoft Office. That means you’ll have Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint, etc. right out of the box. That’s more than $200 worth of free software with your purchase of a $449 tablet. Not bad!
Got all that? Sounds like a sweet deal, right?
Now for a heavy dose of reality.
From a hardware perspective, the Surface 2 is a nice machine. Microsoft improved everything that matters. It’s noticeably thinner and lighter than last year’s model, it’s cameras take much better photos, and the screen resolution is finally up to par with other sharp displays like Apple’s Retina display on iPads. Battery life was pretty good, I got about 9 hours per charge, an hour less than the 10 hours Microsoft claims.
The kickstand has been improved too. Now you can adjust it to a higher angle, which is nice when working on a coffee table or other lower surface like seat back tray on an airplane. And the new keyboard cover now has backlit keys, making it easy to work in the dark.
But that’s where the magic ends.
Windows 8 has gotten better with the new 8.1 update — it’s pre-loaded apps for basic stuff like email and calendar have been redesigned and are much easier to use now. But the operating system still largely suffers from the same problems it did last year. Specifically, Windows 8.1 forces you to live in two worlds. There’s the touch-friendly Start menu that’s full of Microsoft’s iconic Live Tiles that update in real time with information from your favorite apps. Then there’s Desktop mode, which looks like a traditional Windows desktop from Windows 7 and earlier.
I think it’s best to pick apart the Surface by looking at it two ways. The first is the Surface as a work machine. The second is the Surface as a content consumption tablet like the iPad.
Let’s tackle the work machine first.
The biggest problem with the Surface 2 (and other Windows 8 devices) is bouncing between the old-fashioned desktop mode and the new tile-based Start menu.
This is the most obvious with Microsoft Office. When you tap to open an Office app like Word, you’re kicked into desktop mode. And Office is really tough to use on a tablet because it was originally designed for regular laptops and desktops with a traditional keyboard/mouse combination. If you don’t have one of the Surface’s keyboard covers, Office becomes tedious and frustrating to use. And even with the keyboard, typing and navigating didn’t feel as efficient as it would have if I had a regular PC setup. The real answer would be for Microsoft to design a touch-friendly version of Office, not force you to use programs designed for old-school computers.
The Surface 2’s design also gets in the way of doing anything productive. Yes, the kickstand is adjustable now, but you can only view the screen at two angles, not a variety of positions like you can with regular laptops held together with a hinge. Plus, the design makes it tough to use the tablet/keyboard cover combo on your lap. The keyboard just kind hangs loosely, held to the tablet by magnets, which means it’s not very stable on your lap.
And as for the Surface 2 as a content consumption tablet…
In theory, the Surface 2 should make a great 10-inch tablet. But even after a year since Windows 8’s launch, Microsoft’s app store is missing a lot. It only has a bit more than 100,000 apps, compared to the 475,000 apps optimized for Apple’s iPad. Even then, a lot of the apps for the Surface 2 are junk. There are at least a dozen Facebook clones. A fake Instagram app. A slew of games that you’ll likely never want to play. And that’s just the stuff that showed up in the featured sections when I launched the app store.
Yes, things have gotten better. You’ll find popular apps like Facebook (which launched this month), Netflix, Hulu, and CNN. But developers are still wary to make apps for the Surface 2 and other Windows 8 devices. The iPad gets the best tablet apps first.
Some Good Stuff
It really isn’t all bad though. I like how Windows 8 lets you run multiple apps side by side in a split screen mode. With all the power Apple’s iPad has, it’s really annoying that I can’t watch a Netflix video while browsing Facebook or quickly copy and paste content from the Web into an email I’m writing like I can with the Surface 2.
I also like the keyboard new backlit keyboard cover. Apple has yet to create such an accessory for its iPad line, even though it could come in handy in a pinch. The Surface 2 keyboard isn’t the best for long-term productivity, but it’s definitely useful for firing off a quick email or browsing the Web.
I also like how well the Surface 2/Windows 8 integrates with other Microsoft services. With one login, I get access to my Xbox gaming stats, an online file storage service called SkyDrive (which gives you 7 GB of free data when you buy a Surface), and other goodies like Bing search, which now lets you explore all the files and apps on your tablet, not just stuff on the Web.
But the problem with the Surface 2 is that Microsoft changed very little in how the tablet fundamentally works. Last year, Microsoft fans defended the original Surface’s failings by calling it a first-generation product. It’d get better in time, they promised. The Surface 2 did get better, but not in the way it needed to. It’s still largely the same curious experience, just in a thinner and lighter package.
I’ll make this easy for you. If you’re thinking about buying the Surface 2, you only need to ask yourself one question: Do you need Microsoft Office on your tablet?
If the answer is yes, then the Surface 2 is simply the best device you can buy. You’re getting hundreds of dollars worth of Office software included with your purchase. That’s a really good deal, and Office users will love it.
But if you don’t care about using Office on your tablet, there’s no reason to buy the Surface. Between the confusing Windows 8.1 interface and its lack of apps, you’re much better off with the iPad, Nexus 7, or just about any other Android tablet.