Microsoft Surface 2 review: Nice tablet, more apps please

Summary:The Windows RT 8.1-based Surface 2 is a fine tablet for home and work, but the recommendation comes with some sizeable caveats.

As a device aiming to usurp your laptop and your tablet, the Surface 2 almost succeeds. After several weeks using the tablet I found myself choosing the Surface 2 over my old Acer Timeline laptop for much of my screen time.

The pros are many, including good performance and battery life, and a solid but stylish design. However, the machine is dragged down from greatness by some niggling cons.

Outside the office the tablet succeeds in many important ways. Browsing the web is pretty much a cinch: Internet Explorer sits smack in the middle of the Window 8 Start screen and loads just about instantly. Navigating web pages feels fast and responsive and, coming from Chrome and being unfamiliar with IE, I found it pretty straightforward to switch between tabs, bring up frequently visited sites and other bread-and-butter browsing tasks.

surface-2-main
The Surface 2 now has a dual-position kickstand that angles the display at either 24 degrees or 40 degrees. Image: Microsoft

Videos look vibrant and crisp on the 10.6-inch, 1,920-by-1,080 screen, while the stereo speakers are loud enough to be audible in moderately noisy environments without distorting at high volume. Front and rear video cameras make the Surface 2 a good choice for video calls and shooting the occasional video or photo. The screen's clarity also made the tablet a decent choice for reading lengthy documents — although for books I imagine the matte display of an e-reader would be preferable.

Performance in general is very good. The machine's combination of 1.7GHz quad-core ARM-based Nvidia Tegra 4 processor, 2GB of memory and Flash storage allows it to switch between multiple apps, and between the Start menu and the desktop, without slowing down. Here's how the Surface 2 compares to the original Surface RT, and also to the two Core i5/Windows 8.x-based Surface Pro tablets, on the Sunspider JavaScript benchmark (shorter bars are better):

surface2-sunspider

The Surface 2's increased nippiness doesn't come at the expense of the battery life. Anecdotally, I managed about nine hours of work — a mix of word processing and web browsing — before the battery died, which was enough to last through the morning commute and working day. This was borne out when we estimated battery life by measuring the (fully charged) system's power draw under different conditions (screen brightness and load), dividing the resulting wattages into the battery's 31.5Wh capacity (Wh/W=h). Our estimates ranged between 16.4h (idling at 25% brightness) and 2.6h (running a demanding load at 100% brightness), giving a mid-point of 9.5h.

Where laptop meets tablet

Having never sat down with a Windows 8 machine, and being aware of the antipathy for the UI in some quarters, I was ready to be deeply unimpressed, but that wasn't my experience of the OS.

I found Windows 8's tile-based Start menu straightforward to navigate and rapidly picked up the various touch gestures that allow you to swap between applications and the Start menu.

Unsurprisingly touch works less effectively on the desktop. This wouldn't be a problem if use of the desktop was optional. Unfortunately it's not if you want to get work done, as the desktop is home to Microsoft Office (2013 RT).

After using Office on the desktop for a prolonged period with only the on-screen keyboard and touch, I found the typing cumbersome and menu navigation fiddly, particularly when clicking on tiny icons.

surface-2-type-cover
A snap-on Type Cover 2 keyboard will cost you an extra £109.99 (inc. VAT). Image: Microsoft

Desktop apps were far more usable with the Type Cover, a super-slim keyboard that doubles as a cover for the tablet's screen. Writing with a Type Cover isn't as easy or comfortable as using a decent laptop keyboard, but it's good enough that after a while you stop noticing the difference. The cover's integrated touchpad isn't as responsive as I'd like, but that complaint is diminished, for Windows Store apps at least, by the ability to use touch.

The downside is that the Type Cover isn't included in the Surface 2's asking price of £359 (inc. VAT; £299 ex. VAT): a Type Cover 2 costs an additional £109.99 (inc. VAT; £91.66 ex. VAT), while the slimmer, pressure-sensitive Touch Cover 2 costs £99.99 (inc. VAT; £83.32 ex. VAT). The cheapest add-on keyboard you can get is the first-generation (non-backlit) Touch Cover, which costs £64.99 (inc. VAT; £54.16 ex. VAT)

With Office being integral to using the Surface for work, it's arguable that a Touch or Type Cover should ship with the Surface if Microsoft wants the Surface 2 to be a truly credible work machine. In the long run, however, the need for a physical keyboard may become less pressing when Microsoft releases a Windows Store Office suite this year .

Rugged but handsome

The Surface is a sturdy device, whose magnesium alloy casing feels robust enough to withstand the knocks of the daily commute, while the Type Cover protects a Gorilla Glass screen that already feels solid.

The Surface 2's heavy-duty frame doesn't come at the expense of its looks. It's an attractive piece of hardware, with unsightly ports and buttons tucked away on the sloping edges of the trapezoid case.

While the Surface 2 is light and thin enough to hold while reading or watching a video for short periods, I imagine it would become uncomfortable to clasp it for the duration of a movie, or while reading several chapters of a meaty book. Fortunately the dual-angle kickstand does a good job of positioning the screen to pretty closely recreate the viewing angle of a laptop.

Ports are restricted to a single USB 3.0 port, an HD video-out port, a headphone jack, a MicroSD card reader and a port for a magnetic power connector that attaches reasonably easily.

Feeling un-'appy

The main issue I had with the Surface 2 was the selection of software on offer. The Surface 2 runs on Windows RT 8.1, a version of Windows 8 customised to run on an ARM-based processor.

Legacy Windows software won't run on the device and the only applications you can install, short of sideloading apps onto the device , are from the Windows Store — an app store whose cupboard isn't necessarily bare, but that too often offers a poor-man's version of apps on other platforms.

Take the file-sharing service Dropbox. On every other Windows and Linux machine I use, the Dropbox app creates a desktop folder that's visible to applications for opening and saving documents, and for dragging and dropping files. The Windows Store version of Dropbox doesn't deliver this level of integration, and files have to be manually uploaded and downloaded via the Dropbox app.

It's not necessarily that the tablet is lacking functionality. The Start menu comes loaded with a video and audio player, Skype, as well as news, weather, photos, sports and finance apps. However, it didn't have the apps I wanted: it has Xbox video and audio player rather than VLC, SkyDrive (now OneDrive) rather than full Dropbox, and Spotlite instead of Spotify, for example. The quality of these alternatives vary, but the Surface 2 is at a disadvantage when it's competing against platforms that already have many of these apps.

The Windows Store is a relative newcomer compared to the app stores for Android and iOS, so the breadth of apps will likely improve, so long as developers see a suitably large user base.

Whether that user base will flourish is less certain, as the Windows RT platform has enjoyed a rather chequered history. Last year Microsoft had to take a $900m inventory writedown  for Surface RT devices as a result of sitting on millions of unsold machines. Since then it has been running special offers aimed at reducing this excess inventory. And while some of Microsoft's hardware partners initially offered RT devices, now only Microsoft and Nokia (soon to be part of Microsoft) remain. However, the release of Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 did bump up sales of Surface devices , with revenue generated by Surface tablets increasing to $893m in Q2 2014 from $400m the previous quarter.

Another way Microsoft could increase the market for Microsoft Store apps, and make Windows RT more attractive to developers, is by proceeding with rumoured plans to merge the Windows Phone and Windows RT app stores. The company has yet to spell out how it might carry out such a merger, though.

And while the Surface 2 (and its more powerful Core i5/Windows 8.1-based sibling Surface Pro 2) address many of the early criticisms of the devices, the tablet still faces an uphill struggle against the  dominance of Android and iOS .

Another annoyance was the technical issues I suffered. After browsing for a while, there were times when the touchscreen would not recognise a keypress until the page was reloaded. YouTube also suffered from a recurring problem where the video picture would melt into an impressionist-painting-like blur of colours. Again a simple reload fixed it.

The bug that caused me the greatest stress, though, was trying to get the App Store to load. On numerous occasions it would just dump me back to the Start Menu after about 30 seconds of loading. Not ideal when the Store is the tablet's principal source of software.

That said, it could just be that I was unlucky, and these issues were one-offs: you may well have a flawless Surface 2 experience.

Conclusion

The Surface 2 is a good tablet that's easier to use on the move than a similarly priced laptop, and equally capable as a device for use in the home or the office.

It's worth stressing that some people just can't get along with Windows 8 as an OS, although that was not my experience. Perhaps a more pressing concern is that, while we wait for Microsoft to release a touch-optimised version of Office, you'll need to spend at least another £65 on one of the keyboard covers to properly use Office on the desktop.

It's only really the Windows Store with its somewhat lacklustre selection of apps, and the uncertainty over whether the Windows RT user base will grow rapidly enough to attract developers to the platform, that makes me hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend the Surface 2.

Alternatives

Two obvious alternatives for anyone looking for a powerful 10-inch tablet would be the Apple iPad Air and the Google Nexus 10.

Pros

  • Sturdy design
  • Great screen quality
  • Decent performance and battery life
  • Good at work and home (with an add-on keyboard cover)

Cons

  • Need to buy an add-on keyboard to use Office comfortably
  • Some major omissions in the app store

Specifications

Processor  quad-core 1.7GHz Nvidia Tegra 4 (T40) 
Storage  32GB or 64GB
Memory  2GB
Screen  10.6in. 1,920 x 1,080, 16:9 aspect ratio, 5-point multi-touch
OS & software  Windows RT 8.1, Microsoft Office 2013 RT2
Dimensions  275mm (10.81in.) x 173mm (6.79in.) x  8.9mm (0.35in.)
Weight  Less than 676g (1.49lbs)
Casing  VaporMg (silver)
Integrated kickstand  dual-position (display angled to 24 degrees or 40 degrees)
Physical buttons  volume up/down, power
Wireless  wi-fi (802.11a/b/g/n), Bluetooth 4.0
Cameras  3.5-megapixel front-facing camera, 5-megapixel rear-facing camera
Speakers  stereo with Dolby sound
Ports  Full-size USB 3.0, Micro-SD card reader, headphone jack, HD video out port, cover port
Battery  31.5Wh; up to 10 hours of video playback, 7-15 days idle life; charges in 2-4 hours with included power supply

Prices

32GB: £359 (inc. VAT; £299 ex. VAT)
64GB: £439 (inc. VAT; £366 ex. VAT)

Verdict

7.5/10

 

Topics: Tablets, Hardware, Mobility, Reviews, Windows 8

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

Contact Disclosure

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.