This fall, Microsoft (MSFT) released a follow-up to the Surface RT: the Microsoft Surface 2. It dropped the RT in the name, but Microsoft Windows 8.1 RT still powers the tablet.
Microsoft sent me one to try out and I’ve been putting it through its paces for the past week. My Surface 2 review follows on the next few pages.
MSFT caught everyone off-guard with the announcement it was getting into the tablet game — not only building its own hardware, but introducing a new mobile version of Windows (RT) to power its consumer model. Reviews were mixed and the Surface RT turned out to be a disappointment for Microsoft. The device was largely ignored by consumers (despite deep discounts), while Windows RT as a platform was shunned by Microsoft’s manufacturing partners.
As a result, Microsoft took a $900 million write-down on unsold Surface RT inventory.
Our Surface 2 review shows that things may be looking up for MSFT’s entry level tablet, but Windows RT is still going to confuse potential buyers.
Surface 2 Review: Not Great for Casual Use
This is not an unattractive tablet, even if it’s not one of the best tablets. I don’t think I’ve seen a Surface 2 review that complains about the visual appeal.
The back fooled me — it feels like plastic, but is actually a magnesium alloy. It’s not as flashy as the aluminum treatment Apple’s (AAPL) iPads get, but it definitely doesn’t come off as cheap.
The 16:9 aspect ratio Microsoft chose for the Surface 2 is a bit odd, though. The tablet is happiest in landscape mode where HD movies look great and don’t have the letterboxing you’ll see on an iPad; working in Office gives you a full page width. The flip stand only works in this mode, so clearly that was what Microsoft had in mind.
But landscape mode means the tablet is too wide to comfortably hold in one hand for casual use like web browsing and casual gaming. Hold it in portrait mode instead (as most people naturally do), and it seems too tall and narrow.
Windows RT 8.1 has a few improvements over the initial release as well. As a result, the Surface 2 is easy to pick up and interact with, even for someone who’s accustomed to iPads or tablets running Google’s (GOOG) Android. When I received the Surface 2 review unit from Microsoft, I was up and running within minutes.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Story has been corrected to reflect Surface’s magnesium back. We apologize for the error.
Surface 2 Review: Snappy Performance, Useful Accessories
The Surface 2 was a snappy performer too. Web pages loaded almost instantly — some faster than on my PC or laptop. This caught me a bit off-guard. The Surface 2 has handled everything I’ve tried, from HD movies to games, web browsing and running Office apps without any lag, hesitation or crashes.
One of the advantages MSFT has over its tablet competitors is the line of Surface-branded accessories it offers. Not all of them are available for the Surface 2 (the Docking Station is Surface Pro only, for example), but the Surface Touch Cover 2 Microsoft sent along with the tablet really makes it shine as a productivity tool.
I’ve tried using the Apple iPad and Android tablets as on-the-road laptop replacements, but even with Bluetooth wireless keyboards, I’ve quickly thrown in the towel. However, I was able to write my entire Microsoft Surface 2 review using the Surface 2 itself (making use of the Surface Touch Cover 2 and Word for Windows RT 2013). And it didn’t feel like I was just “making it work.” To me that’s a first, and it’s impressive.
Battery life for the Surface 2 did seem a bit on the low side at 7 or so hours … but I was often using the Bluetooth keyboard cover which may have had a negative impact.
Surface 2 Review: Specs
Microsoft included the usual spec bumps for its second-generation RT tablet (including a boost in display resolution) and shaved it down slightly. As early Surface 2 reviews posted after the September launch showed, it largely left the form factor alone.
- 10.6-inch 1920 x 1080 full HD display in 16:9 aspect ratio (see comparison to iPad Air in photo at right)
- Nvidia (NVDA) Tegra 4 quad-core processor at 1.7 GHz, with 2GB RAM
- 32 GB storage
- Stereo speakers
- Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0
- USB 3.0 port, microSD card slot
- Dual position kickstand
- 1.49 lbs
- Price as tested in Surface 2 review: $449 (including Office 2013 RT)
Surface 2 Review: Conclusion
Microsoft hasn’t given up on selling a consumer tablet and, during the course of the Surface 2 review, I came to like a lot about this device. If you’re look for the best tablet to use as a mobile productivity tool, but find the Surface Pro 2 is either too big or too expensive, the Surface 2 is worth considering — but with some major caveats.
If you are buying a tablet for games or casual use, you’re still better off with an Apple iPad or an Android tablet, particularly the smaller form factor versions that are more affordable. Microsoft’s app store still pales in comparison to Apple’s or Google Play.
You can’t install full-blown Windows software on it (the way you can with the Surface Pro), but if you prefer operating in a Windows environment (even if it is RT) or plan to use the tablet frequently for work-related tasks that call upon Office apps, then the Microsoft Surface 2 is worth considering. But only if a Surface Pro 2 isn’t in the cards.
Pros on the Surface 2: Good performance, well-designed Surface 2 accessories, well-suited to light productivity use, built-in kickstand is useful.
Cons on the Surface 2: Limited app selection, Windows RT does not run Windows Pro software (limiting appeal to business users), 16:9 aspect ratio and size combine to make it awkward to hold, relatively heavy.
Surface 2 Overall Rating: 6/10
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.