Surface 2 Review – A Bold New Take On Tablets

Surface 2 is a compelling upgrade over its predecessor…Surface RT.  This device offers a significant improvement in performance.  It also offers longer battery life, a beautiful sharper looking display with more natural colors, in a thinner and lighter overall package compared to the original Surface.

Hardware

WP_20140125_14_59_36_ProSurface 2 comes in a silvery gray magnesium color body, or what Microsoft refers to VaporMAG.  The Magnesium casing has a matte finish and feels very solid,   the design is gorgeous with its crisp edges and solid construction.  Surface 2 is only 0.35” thick and weighs 1.49lbs.  In comparison to the iPad air, which weighs about a pound, the difference in weight is only noticeable if held for a prolonged period of time.  Nevertheless, Surface 2 has a better sense of quality and premium feel when held due to the magnesium casing, we prefer that over the aluminum casing of the iPad, both tablets are at top in terms of build quality. The integrated kickstand, which I believe to be a very innovative feature, now supports 2 positions. The first position angles the device to about 20 degrees while the second position angles the machine to 45 degrees, which is very helpful when working from your lap.The kickstand blends beautifully well and looks almost invisible when not engaged, it doesn’t compromise the seamless design of the Surface 2 in any way. When the kickstand is in use it feels very natural, sturdy and strong despite it being very thin.  It offers a satisfying “click” when opening and closing and by simply engaging the kickstand, and connecting the keyboard, Surface 2 instantly transforms from a tablet to a productivity machine. We absolutely love how productive this machine can be, it feels like a complete PC at times.

The Volume keys are situated on the upper left hand side of the device just under the 3.5mm audio output slot, and the power button sits on the top right corner.  The Stereo speakers sound decent but they lack bass, however this is a drastic improvement from the Surface RT’s muted speakers.WP_20140125_14_55_59_Pro (2)

User Interface

At first glance, the user interface is very eye catching, and beautiful to look at because of its colorful design, and moving/updating live personalized tiles.   The user interface is truly unique and synonymous with all of the user interfaces Microsoft provides in its lineup of products.   The “New Start Screen” is made up of different apps that look like colorful squares and rectangles which are displaying information in real time.  Microsoft refers to these as “Live Tiles”.  The shape and size of the live tiles are customizable depending on how much live information one would like them to display at a first glance.  For instance, on the weather app, if you’d like to see the weather forecast for more than just today, by resizing the live tile to be bigger, automatically starts displaying more live information, like the weather for the next 3-5 days.  By clicking on the live tile, you can access the full app.  The Live tiles really feel like a great innovation in UI design, they give the new Windows a very modern look and feel, that belongs in in 2013 and make IOS and Android look completely outdated.

Apps are not the only thing you are able to pin to this new start screen, you can pin almost anything and make it truly customized to your preference.  You are able to pin your friend’s contacts card, or a person you’re following on Twitter from a hub/ app called “People,” which is the main contacts application integrated with  your Microsoft account This app aggregates all of the contact information from your Outlook, Hotmail, or even Gmail account and various social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Skype.  For example any updates posted by your contacts/friends from any of your accounts that you linked, will display in the live tile whether it’s a Facebook status or a photo they’ve posted and more.  This makes keeping updated with people you care about easy and really feels personal.

Pinching the start screen with two fingers, takes you to a zoomed out view which allow you to see all of your pinned apps, it also gives you the ability to move columns of apps around to different areas on your start screen.  A swipe up from the Start Screen brings you to a list of all of your apps from both desktop and modern touchscreen apps, and they are all arranged in alphabetical order.

Windows 8.1 is heavily gesture based, with its swipes from the left, right, top and bottom bezels having a unique and important function.  Swiping down from the top bezel of the screen to almost the bottom, closes an app you are running.   Swiping in from the left bezel slides in apps that you have previously opened, and that are still running.  Swiping your finger in from the left bezel slightly and back out, shows the list of apps that are running in the background in a vertical windows, and from there, you are able to select which app you want to bring to the full screen, or to bring in side by side to the app you are already using.  Swiping up from the bottom bezel shows menus of the app you are currently running, this brings up all of the hidden menus in an app.

Screenshot (6)Swiping in from the right bezel unveils the “Charms Menu,” this menu has system wide functionality.Here you will see symbols for the search, share, devices, settings and the start (home) button.  This is where you can access your settings, print, use the new Bing Smart search, enter the system settings menu, or an individual app menu and also shut down the device. Sliding in the charms menu and selecting the settings symbol will also allow you to enter the settings of the app you are running. Getting used to the gestures may have a slight learning curve, due to them not being obvious gestures for a new user, but it is a powerful tool and itmakes using the device feel natural.

With the improvements in Windows 8.1 the new mobile interface is able to duplicate much more of the traditional desktop functionality.  Although the mobile interface is becoming more advanced with every update, it is still fairly new and requires ongoing testing, and updating to make it the perfect desktop replacement. Let’s not forget that the familiar desktop environment that we know has been around since Windows 95, and it has taken nineteen years of testing, tweaks and innovations to get to where we are today.  Microsoft’s ultimate goal is to introduce its 1.5 billion PC user base to this new mobile/ touch screen computing environment.

Software

Surface 2 comes preinstalled with Windows 8.1RT.    Microsoft’s newest version of its flagship operating system which launched on October 26, 2013.  Windows 8.1 RT ads significant improvements to the OS compared to Windows 8RT.  It also comes with a free copy of Microsoft Office 2013.

Screen

Surface 2 comes with a 1080P clear type display compared to the original Surface RT’s 720P screen. The screen measures in at 10.6” diagonally with an aspect ratio of 16:9 which makes it great for watching movies and running two apps side by side.  On the other hand the screen makes it very awkward to use in portrait mode due to it being very tall.  It’s meant to be used in landscape mode where it benefits greatly by being able to run web pages in their traditional format and being productive with using Office 2013.

Performance and Specifications

Surface 2 has exceptional overall performance.  It packs 2GB of Ram, with a 1.7GHz Quad-Core NVIDIA Tegra 4 processor.  Navigating, opening and closing different apps does not stutter or lag and is very quick and smooth.   Opening and using Office 2013 feels the way it should on a traditional modern PC, despite the fact that Surface 2 is running on a mobile processor. Running two apps side by side on Surface 2 is smooth even when there are tasks running in the background, unlike the Surface RT that stuttered with its TEGRA 3 processor.  Bluetooth 4.0 is supported along with 802.11n Wi-Fi.  The current models do not come with LTE.  LTE models are to be released in the first half of 2014

Battery Life

Batter life was not an issue with the original Surface RT.  In fact the battery life was great.  With Surface 2 the battery life is even better allowing a more enjoyable and reliable user experience.   In my tests I got 9-10 hours of battery life, and in some cases even more, while browsing the web, or doing  file management (one of my hobbies), photo editing and watching Netflix. The long lasting battery life and fast charging time make this product very reliable, and desirable especially for the users that are on the go, as they can easily and quickly charge the device in their car or at their local coffee shop if needed.

Cameras

The Surface 2 has a significantly improved camera.  The rear facing camera is 5MP and the front is 3.5MP capable of recording 1080P.  One feature that I am really impressed with is the camera’s ability to see my face in the dark room while on the Skype call.   Microsoft has engineered a unique lens capability that is able to filter light through the camera and focus on the image/person facing the camera in the low light.   This feature makes Skype calls more enjoyable especially if both users are using the Surface 2.   If there’s one thing I hate while using Skype it is when I’m not able to see the persons’ face during the call.

ssI’ve taken a few photos with rear facing camera as a basic test in different lighting conditions. Even though the camera performed decently, I would not recommend taking photos you would want to develop or care about. In the camera mode application you can directly edit any of your photos. There is surprisingly great built-in photo editing capabilities which go beyond the standard mobile touchscreen apps.

Differentiating Factors of the Surface 2 compared to other tablets

Surface 2 is different than other tablets on the market for the following reasons:

Differentiating factors in Hardware

Integrated kickstand

By having an integrated kickstand, Surface 2 can now look and provide the comfort  of  a PC by standing upright, as it does not require to be held in the hands at all times or lying flat on a table.  There are 3rd party peripherals and cases that provide the same capabilities to other tablets, but Surface 2 already comes with these built in capabilities which make it a more valuable out of the box experience.

USB 3.0 Port

Another unique capability of Surface 2 is the presence of a USB 3.0 port.  This is a huge differentiator between the Surface and its Android/iPad competition.  It comes with one USB 3.0 port, but it could be a very useful tool depending on one’s needs.  USB 3.0 offers a significant increase in data transfer speed from the previous Surface RT with USB 2.0. Surface 2’s USB port is also helpful as it enables the user to connect any one of the peripherals like mice, keyboards, printers and external HDD’s.  In addition, it gives the user the capability to plug in a camera for transferring photos or even charging a smartphone.

Micro SD expansion and Micro HDMI

Surface 2 also offers a micro HDMI output slot for connecting to monitors, TV’s and projectors.  It offers expandable memory via a micro SD card for up to 64GB of extra storage.  The micro SD card slot is located underneath the kickstand. iPad has an adapter (lightning AV digital adapter) available for purchase for HDMI output capabilities, but it is an expensive add on that costs $49 which uses up its charging port.

Touch/Type Cover Keyboards

WP_20140125_15_26_45_ProSurface 2 has integrated keyboard functionality, and when it comes to this feature, very few tablets on the market can compare, and the ones that do are primarily windows tablets with the exception of few Android based tablets. However none of these tablets integrate their respective keyboards in such an elegant, seamless and innovative way, while providing such innovative features to the keyboard as well.

Connecting the keyboard starts with the six contacts hidden at the bottom of the tablet, directly below the Windows logo. The Type or Touch cover keyboards, which also act as covers, have their own dedicated contacts.  When the keyboard contacts are brought in close proximity to the surface contacts they click in easily, in a satisfying, accurate magnetic connection.  In comparison, trying to achieve similar functionality on Apple’s iPad forces you to use 3rd party keyboards/cases, which in turn compromise the look and feel of such an elegant device. The iPad IOS does not support a cursor function and therefore the keyboards do not have a track pad, which some users may find inconvenient.

aThe second generation Surface Touch and Type cover keyboards are thinner than the first generation versions, while offering backlit keys and also coming in a wider range of color choices.  Touch cover is Microsoft’s pressure sensitive keyboard in which the keys do not press in.   As a result, the touch cover keyboard is super thin (2.5mm) and extremely light.

WP_20140121_21_29_00_ProI found that the Type Cover offers the more traditional typing experience, since it has keys that press in, and have a clicking sound similar to the traditional PC keyboard.  Touch cover 2 has significantly improved over the first generation model, and it is more sensitive and accurate. The Touch Cover 2 has a high resolution sensor which picks up presses in between keys and based on the proximity of your finger determines which key your finger was the closes to.

Having said that, I still prefer the Type Cover 2, compared to the touch covers.  I’m convinced more people will feel the same way just because it behaves as a traditional keyboard and there is less adjustment required on the user who is already used to the traditional keyboard.   All of these keyboards have an integrated track pad with the Windows 8.1 gesture support.  The track pads are small and take some time getting used to.   Gesture support is very well implemented for such a small track pad, swiping in from the right, and left along with pinch and zoom work just as you would expect.  I recommend, for a real productivity experience, connecting a traditional mouse to the Surface.

Differentiating factors in software

Multi user Support

I am personally a big fan of the Surface 2’s multi user support, as it provides true personalization for every user.  This software capability is only unique to the Microsoft. When you first set up the Surface, you are required to sign into your Microsoft account (Hotmail, Outlook). Once you are is signed in, and upon your authorization, the Surface will sync and populate the device with all of your contacts, emails, photos, videos, and documents associated with the Microsoft account via OneDrive.  Surface would even sync your Xbox Live info and gamer tag.  Surface is also able to sync some of the functions from your Gmail account, such as your contacts, email and calendar. Nevertheless, since the Surface 2 runs on Windows 8.1, it supports multiple user accounts, guest accounts and even child accounts. The multi user account functionality is great for sharing the device, while having lockdown/restricting capabilities to users of your choice.  These user accounts are separate from one another and it gives users the ability to customize their account settings and enjoy the device to its fullest potential.

Office 2013

Every Surface 2 comes with a free copy of Microsoft Office 2013 Home and Student RT.  This copy of Office is not tied to a subscription in any way and comes with a full featured versions of Word, PowerPoint, Excel, OneNote and Outlook.  For users of Microsoft Office this is a great value for the money. Unlike the Google Docs and Apples iWork, which are also included on their respective tablets, they are severely stripped down version of office, and do not provide the same level of productivity. In addition they do not offer support for a mouse pointer.  Google Docs is also completely cloud based which requires internet connectivity in order to be used.

Multitasking

Screenshot (1)Multitasking is another differentiating factor between the Surface 2 and the iPad. Unlike the iPad, Surface 2 offers true multitasking capability by allowing two apps to be open side by side.  The user is also given the ability to adjust how much screen space each app uses.  Watching a movie on Netflix while responding to an email is seamless and does not cause any interruptions in the movie being displayed. Once the email app is closed, the movie app window will automatically expand to fill in your screen again.

Live tiles

As mentioned earlier in this review, live tiles are Microsoft’s new mobile operating system’s version of icons.  Live tiles can be resized and offer glanceable information that updates in real time depending on the app.  The weather app will show you the current weather, or even the trend for the next few days.  The email app will show you your unread emails, and so on.  Something icons cannot provide.

Desktop Environment

Surface 2 also comes with the familiar Windows desktop environment. However it offers many advantages, such as the familiar set up of printers and other devices using the USB port, transferring data to and from other devices, such as a camera, or an external Hard Drive, the ability to do detailed file management, or even some fine tuning in the control panel menu. Nevertheless, this is Windows RT and even though the desktop version can provide all of the above, it does not allow the user to add any additional software or applications.  Only the applications that are already included with the Surface, such as the Office Suite, file explorer and the desktop version of Internet Explorer 11, will work on the desktop version. All other applications that are not included can be installed and used fully on the metro version.

Internet Explorer

Internet Explorer 11 (IE11) is the first browser to be designed specifically for touch.  It comes with built in Flash support, and modern browser standards such as WebGL and SVG, which the iPad is not designed to support.  IE11 is very touch friendly, it offers a full screen experience, pulling up the tabs and going forward and backward are all done with swipes.  There is no need to touch the X to close the browser as closing is just a swipe down.  IE11 is a full-fledged browser which can be used to access any web page, and it is especially useful if the app for that web page is not already available in the Windows Store for download.  For example, clicking on a YouTube link your friends posted on Facebook will automatically open with no issues. The user on an iPad, for example, would have to take an extra step and separately launch the mobile version of YouTube or launch the YouTube app to view the content.

Microsoft’s Ecosystem

Microsoft has the largest Ecosystem of first party software and services.   Surface 2 represents Microsoft’s vision for Windows.  Surface 2 does an incredible job of consolidating the apps and leveraging these services by spreading them into the Operating System (OS ) where they make the most sense.  For example, whether it is a cloud offering, email service, music service, video service, video chat, browser, search engine or a productivity suite, Microsoft has you covered with their amazing high quality collection of services such as; Microsoft Office 2013, Outlook, SkyDrive, Skype, Bing, Xbox Video, Xbox Music and Internet Explorer.  IOS or Android cannot provide such vast and rich first party software from their respective Ecosystems.  If you are a user of these services you’ll get the best experience with them on Surface 2device compared to its iPad/Android counterparts.

Bing Search is also significantly more useful with Windows 8.1 and is now system wide.  Documents, whether across SkyDrive or on the device, apps, and media are presented in an easy to navigate results page.  Searching the web or the device is simply done by just typing away and then hitting enter while in the start screen.  No need to open an app or browser to search.  Microsoft also bundles their collection of Bing Apps which include, Bing News, Sports, Fitness, Travel, and Bing Food & Drink, these apps are of very high quality and have you covered in most of these areas.

App Ecosystem

Windows 8 was launched in October 2012 along with the Windows Store.  The App collection pales in comparison to its iPad/Android competition.  When Windows 8 first launched it came with 10 000 Apps in the Windows Store.  An important factor worth mentioning is that when windows 8 first launched, there were an extremely limited amount of touchscreen PC’s available on the market.  The touchscreen PS that were available were mostly limited to Microsoft Stores.  Most retailers were only selling non touch based PC’s for a long while after the launch of Windows 8. As a result the customers that bought the non-touch screen PCs with the Windows 8 were not able to use their computer to its full potential as intended. However, close to the launch of Windows 8.1 more touchscreen PCs were available on the market.

Today most PCs available for sale on the market are touch based.  As more people use this new modern touchscreen environment, The Windows app store is expected to grow significantly faster. Today the Window Apps Store has somewhere around 150 000 apps available, and is rapidly growing.  All major and popular apps such as Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, and Hulu are available in the Windows Apps store.   There are also a lot of great Xbox live arcade games such as the newly Launched “Halo Spartan Assault”.  Some of the apps that are currently being developed and not available in the Window’s Apps Store are the official Instagram or Tumblr apps.   Even though the Windows App Store is growing at a healthy pace, it does not compare to the IOS and Android counterparts volume and selection of apps.

Nevertheless, luckily the modern version of Internet Explorer compensates for the lack of the apps available, and provides full internet accessibility including its touch friendly UI and Flash support. The only downside to using the IE to access the websites is that not all websites are touchscreen friendly and the user may have to resort to using the keyboard functionality.

Verdict

Surface 2 is the truest expression of Microsoft’s vision for a multifunctional, integrated and a very user friendly ecosystem.  If you are a user of Microsoft’s services, you’ll get the best experience out of any tablet on the Surface 2.  To summarize, the Surface 2 has a dedicated keyboard type and touch cover, an integrated kickstand, comes with a free copy of Office 2013, offers a full sized USB port, a micro HDMI output port, and is running Windows 8.1RT, it is in my opinion the best productivity tablet on the market by far.  In addition to everything above mentioned, it also comes in a beautifully designed magnesium casing, making a real standout amongst other tablets with its modern but unique PC like design.

Apps can still be a problem with the Windows Store Since currently, not all games and apps are released simultaneously on all platforms. For example,   in many cases apps and games come to the Windows Store only after they have already been launched in Apple’s App Store and the Google Play store. Microsoft recognizes that this is an issue and is currently planning to merge the Windows Store with the Windows Phone Store.  This is rumored to be happening with the next iteration of Windows, which will be called Windows 9 and also rumored to launch April 2015.  Currently the Windows Phone Store already has over 250 000 apps, many of which aren’t available in the Windows Store.

If you are planning on running desktop applications such as Photoshop, ITunes or Chrome, I suggest considering buying Surface Pro 2.  Surface 2 cannot run these applications due to it running on the Windows RT platform.  In addition, if you are a heavy user of services from Google’s ecosystem and are looking for touch friendly apps, Surface 2 may not be right for you.  Most of Google’s apps are not available in the Window’s App Store and you would be forced to use the browser to access these services which may compromise your touch experience, unless you don’t mind using the trackpad or mouse. You’ll be better off with a Nexus device or a Galaxy tab. However if you are buying a tablet to  exclusively browse the web, download the latest apps and play the latest touchscreen games, Apple’s iPad may be a better choice.

Overall, Surface 2 is an amazing productivity tablet, which can truly feel like an all in one PC at times when you are using the Office Suite.  It is also a fantastic media consumption device while being great for playing games and browsing the web.  Surface 2 also has support for an Xbox 360 controller which can be great for games like “Halo Spartan Assault”.    I would strongly recommend purchasing the keyboard accessory with Surface 2, the keyboard is an essential part of the device and really contributes to the all in one experience.

Value/Price

Surface 2 retails for $449 for the 32GB model and $549 for the 64GB model.  Touch Cover will set you back $119.99 and $129.99 for the Type Cover 2.  Surface 1 is available at $299 for the 32GB and $379.99 for the 64GB models.  I would recommend spending the extra amount and getting the Surface 2 just because it’ll be more worth it in the long run with its much stronger processor and sharper screen, amongst many other improvements.  Surface can be a tremendous value if you are familiar with Windows RT and are looking for a tablet which can be a great productivity device.  A copy of Office 2013 retails for $219.99 and is included on Surface 2 for free.