Surface 2: Thinking different about my device experience

Product review: Will this first-generation Surface RT user shell out to upgrade to the new Microsoft Surface 2?
Written by Mary Jo Foley, Senior Contributing Editor

I admit it. I was one of those crazies who stood in line to buy a first-generation Surface RT in the first hour it was available. And I did so without having had a chance to test drive a device for more than a few minutes beforehand.


This time around (given the fact I was moved from the "banned" to the "approved" Surface tester list) I decided to wait to decide whether to buy the Surface 2 until I had a chance to test Microsoft's second version of its ARM tablet. 

After using a Surface 2 tablet loaned to me by Microsoft for the past week, I've come to realize that many of the features I like about it have nothing to do with the new core device itself.

Yes, the new Tegra 4 ARM chip, a step up from the current Surface RT's Tegra 3 core, allows apps and Web sites to open more quickly. And the new higher-resolution screen makes colors really pop. I like the new dual-position kickstand better than the single-position one on the Surface RT. Like Peter Bright at Ars Technica, I still wouldn't call the new Surfaces truly "lapable," as they are still less stable on my lap than any laptop I've ever used.

The Surface 2's magnesium colored body shows fingerprints less than the original black. And the new "ring of light" power cord is easier to connect correctly than the original Surface power cord. (Microsoft is bundling this new cord with new Surface 2s, but not with Surface Pro 2s -- at least for now. So be warned.)

But, in the end, what I really like most about the Surface 2 is the new, backlit Type keyboard. In fact, I am pretty sure I am going to spring for a replacement for my existing Type Cover, at $129.99. The new Type 2 keyboard/cover makes typing on ARM-based Surfaces even nicer/easier than the original Type keyboard. Though I also received a Touch 2 keyboard for review, I didn't put it through its paces. I want and need something that allows me to type accurately and at full speed, and to me, the Touch covers are more novelty than useful peripherals. (Your mileage may vary.)

After a week with the Surface 2, I'll say I also like Windows RT 8.1. I'm reserving judgment about IE11.

I hesitate about the browser here because my experience with IE11 for the majority of the past week was non-optimal. And as ARM-based Surface users know, this is a problem, since our only browser choice on these devices, due to their locked-down nature, is IE.

IE11 for me has been, in Microsoft parlance, "non-performant." It's been crashing, hanging and randomly restarting for most of the past seven days I've used it. There seemed little rhyme or reason as to which sites or circumstances were causing problems. The one site I use frequently that's bombed on IE11 the most for me has been web.tweetdeck.com -- the Web version of Twitter's official client. (This was true in both the Windows RT 8.1 preview and the RTM version.)

I've received a lot of reader and colleague advice about IE11 over the past few days. I've gotten suggestions about disabling syncing of tabs. And I've learned when all else fails, the best way to try to "fix" the Metro-Style version of IE is to open the Desktop complement, go to Internet Options and do a reset. (Thanks to ZDNet's Ed Bott, for that one.)

The past day or so, however, I've noticed improvements to my IE11 browsing experience. I've been applying nearly daily the various updates (this IE11 reliability update, among them) that Microsoft has been pushing to us Windows 8.1 users. So maybe something has finally helped.

The other piece of my Surface 2 experience which has improved noticeably in the past week is around battery life. When I received my Surface 2 tablet loaner a week ago, it came in a cloth bag inside of bubble rap in a delivery box. (Microsoft provided some reviewers with Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 devices in retail packaging; others of us got just the Surface 2 in a cloth bag.) Somehow, the loaner device I received wasn't powered completely down before shipping, so when I received it, the outer box was actually warm to the touch. When I opened the box, the device was hot. Not warm. Hot.

After letting the device cool for about an hour, I plugged it in and repowered. On that first charge, the battery lasted six hours, max. I know some other reviewers claimed to have seen battery life ranging from 14 hours to 10 hours to 6 hours. I was definitely at the low end of this range and right around where I've been with my Surface RT prior to upgrading to Windows RT 8.1. (Anyone with excessive batery drain who upgraded their first-generation Surface RT to the Windows 8.1 preview may want to apply this quietly-released Microsoft battery-life update to their RTM version and see if that helps.)

After powering up the Surface 2 loaner  for a second time, I got better battery life out of it. I have a theory which I can't prove: I think those touting Surface 2 battery times above Microsoft's own claims of 10 hours (for video playback specifically, if you look at Microsoft's fine print) are using these devices more or less continuously. When I've turned the device back on after multiple hours of non-use, my battery had drained considerably. Is this a Connected Standby issue? I am not sure.

As I am using the ARM-based version of Surface, I can't make use of the Surface docking station (for sale in limited quantities in the U.S. and coming to the rest of the world by early next year). A $200 Power Cover, which adds some extra number of hours of battery life to Microsoft's Surface 2, Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 devices, won't be available for purchase until early 2014.

I would be interested in purchasing an Ethernet adapter for a Surface device and supposedly support for these kinds of adapters is on its way. Earlier this week, Microsoft updated its Surface Support page indicating that users running a Windows 8.1 or Windows RT 8.1 device could now use Ethernet adapters with them. Microsoft has subsequently removed the Ethernet-support wording from its Support site, but supposedly workarounds are allowing some users to nonetheless connect Ethernet adapters to their Surface RTs and Surface 2s. I've heard Microsoft does plan to support Ethernet adapters with its ARM-based Surfaces at some point.

So am I all in?

There's a lot to like about the Surface 2. But price isn't one of those things. A new 32 GB Surface 2, without a cover, costs $449. It's difficult to get any significant trade-in value for a current Surface RT from Microsoft's own stores or its U.S. retail partners like Best Buy or Staples. (Of these three, Best Buy is probably the most generous. If  I mail in my Surface RT, plus power cord, I might be able to get a store credit of $150 for a Surface RT in very good condition.)


Are a nicer finish, kickstand and somewhat better CPU worth a few hundred bucks to me? Given that I use my Surface RT as a companion device to my primary work PCs -- for browsing, checking mail, and some light writing/editing -- probably not. I'm leaning toward keeping my current generation Surface RT, but updating it with a new Type 2 keyboard.

My biggest takeaway, after a week of use of the new Surface 2, is I/we need to rethink how we think about mobile devices.

Microsoft is building and deploying Windows and IE a lot differently than it used to, even as recently as with Windows 7. RTM doesn't mean it's done and won't be updated for a year or so. Microsoft already has pushed a bunch of updates for Windows 8.1 and IE 11 since the official RTM in late August -- and even since general availability on October 22. This concept takes some getting used to for those of us who grew up expecting RTM to mean a new Windows variant was well-tested and stable enough for everyday use for months if not a year until the next update from Microsoft.

The breakneck release pace of new devices from Microsoft, its OEM partners and its competitors also means users have to just take a leap into the new product stream at some point, knowing there could be something better/faster and maybe cheaper literally just around the corner.

Nokia announced its own ARM-based tablet a week ago, which is supposedly due to ship in mid-November. Microsoft is rumored to be releasing its first "Surface Mini" 8-inch tablet in the spring of 2014. It's also readying an LTE-enabled, ARM-based Surface 2 tablet for spring 2014. (There's no word if the Mini also gets LTE, or if it's only the Surface 2.) And for the vendor-agnostic, new shiny iPads are going on sale tomorrow. It's always been the case that buying a new gadget may mean immediately having to say you're sorry. But these days, that's more of a risk than ever.

Who else out there has been kicking the new Surface tires? Do the new devices offer enough of an incentive for you to jump on the bandwagon? If not, why not?


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