You get knocked down, but you get up again. You’re Microsoft.
Did you give in when buyers decided that the Surface RT, your iPad killer, was a flop? No. Did you faint at the sight of the $900m crater in your finances dug by the RT’s underwhelming sales? No. You’re made of tougher stuff than that.
You dig deep. You go back to the drawing board. And you emerge brandishing a new, improved Surface. The Surface 2. It’s better in every way, you announce. It has a 1080p display. It’ll last a working day without rejuicing. It’s faster. And it has a two-stage kickstand.
The world listens. You’re the underdog now. And there was always something about the Surface and Windows 8 that was charmingly brave. And people like brave.
You’ve priced your new Surface 2 at £360 for the 32GB model, with an extra £100 for the Touch Cover 2 keyboard (so £460 all in). That makes the tablet alone £40 cheaper than a 16GB iPad Air. Snap on the Touch Cover 2, and it’s priced head on with a cluster of talented laptops and tablets.
Admit it: Microsoft has your curiosity again.
Design and Build: The Business End of Beautiful
The Surface 2 is lovely. There, we said it. ‘Solidly built’ doesn’t do it justice - the magnesium casing’s fit and finish is as near to flawless as you have any right to expect from a product wearing a £360 price tag.
As a tablet, the 8.9mm-thick Surface is a pleasure to hold in landscape mode, even single handed. However, twist that 10.6in screen to portrait mode, and the 16:9 frame suddenly looks slightly gawky (an issue if you’re a heavy ebook reader - the iPad still offers a more natural experience).
The tablet Surface 2 is only half of the story. We can't imagine why you'd buy one without the keyboard (it's the point of the product in many ways), and it’s as an ad hoc laptop that Microsoft has given the Surface the smartest upgrades. But more on that later.
Giving the kickstand two settings (one at 20 degrees, and another at 40) doesn't sound radical, but it transforms the Surface. The original's single setting was a pain: if you were over five foot two (or sat on the floor with the RT on your desk), you were forced to stare down at the screen from a really odd viewing angle. Now, it works: click the stand out to the 40-degree setting, and you can work for hours without neck or eye strain.
The Surface 2 has enough ports and connections to work for most of us most of the time. You can boost storage by up to 64GB with a microSD card, and hitch up an external drive via a single USB 3.0 port (with transfer speeds up to 4x faster than the original). There’s Bluetooth 4.0 to beam tunes to compatible headphones or external speakers. And if you want to make your Surface a TV source, just plumb it from the HD video-out port.
The only other interruptions to the Surface’s edges are the volume rocker, power button, and pins on the base for the famous snap-on keyboard and right-hand edge for the power supply. The ‘thunk’ of the keyboard attaching itself to the Surface is one of the wonders of the engineering world, not least because it manages to latch on regardless of how thoughtless you are.
PERFORMANCE: NOW THAT’S MORE LIKE IT
If you owned or had chance to play with the RT, you’ll know that it was haunted by lag, especially in its early days (updates went some way to relieving the pain over time). Launching or switching apps was punctuated by freezes and stutters - not a trivial problem, when the whole appeal of Windows 8 was the variety of cool ways you could interact with it.
The good news is that the Surface 2 has banished the stutters. Microsoft claims that the 1.7GHz Nvidia Tegra 4 behind the Surface 2’s screen is up to four times faster than the Tegra 3 that tried - but often failed - to push along the Surface RT.
We deliberately tried to murder the device by opening every installed app (the entire Office suite, every installed Modern app plus Halo Spartan Assault), then switched quickly between them over and over again. The Surface didn’t flinch.
It’s quick to boot into Windows 8.1, and - once you’re logged in - everything is responsive to the touch. In most scenarios, you’ll find it an easy and pleasurable tablet performance, whether you’re scanning through emails and appointments, or hitting a quick play of Jetpack Joyride.
One small complaint. The Surface 2 does have a ceiling in the number of apps that it will allow to run in the background.
Microsoft’s solution (a pop-up, warning you to close a background app before it will allow the the new one to run) works, for sure, but it’s an irritant that we can’t believe was impossible to engineer away.
Still, that niggle aside, it runs smoothly all day. Microsoft claims up to 10 hours from a full charge: we managed between six and eight hours a day, which is still an impressively improved battery life.
The Surface 2 is transformed from the original, and offers plenty of power for most uses. If that’s still not enough for you, you could make the jump to the Intel i5-equipped Surface Pro 2, although you should ready yourself for a shock - it starts at £720.
Display: 10.4in, 1920x1080px
Processor: Nvidia Tegra 4 1.7GHz quad core
Storage: 32/64GB (microSD up to 64GB)
Cameras: 5.0MP rear, 3.5MP front
Operating system: Windows RT 8.1
Connectivity: Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, USB 3.0
SOFTWARE: WINDOWS 8.1… BUT STILL RT
It’s called a Surface 2. But really, this is a Surface RT 2 - it runs Windows 8.1 RT, so you can't install third party desktop applications (for that, you’ll need to pay a hefty premium - starting at a whole £360 more for the base 64GB Pro).
For many, this will be a deal breaker. And for the life of us, we can’t understand why Microsoft continues to reject its own strengths. For years, developers have made impressive Windows applications for a worldwide audience. So why make something that still has a desktop mode that can’t enjoy the fruits of that legacy? Maybe the aim is to coax those developers into building apps for the new Modern UI - but more on apps later.
On the upside, your new Surface 2 comes with the full desktop Office suite ready installed, including Word, Excel, PowerPoint and, now, Outlook. If you’re locked into Microsoft’s ecosystem at work, this is excuse enough to take a Surface seriously.
In contrast, Google fans will struggle. Gmail and Google Contacts sync with the native Mail and People apps well enough, but there’s no way to sync Google Calendar with the W8 Calendar app.
The Surface 2 comes with the freshly released (but RT version of) Windows 8.1. This is no paltry point release: many of Windows 8's flaws are fixed, with transformational changes to search and multi-tasking. Even the Start button’s back (albeit with a brand new job), and you can now boot into desktop mode (a little gift for those driven insane by continually having to bypass the Start screen).
8.1 vanquishes Windows 8's most illogical excesses, but it isn’t a complete cure. With no obvious rhyme or reason, there are still two Internet Explorers (desktop and app), and settings that you may never find. Ever. Somewhere in Windows 8, there’s brilliance: it bundles mobile and desktop in a way that Apple may never match, and the new Bing-powered search is stunning. But for all of 8.1’s good work, Microsoft still has a way to go in forcing out all of the compromises.
There's around 425 million GMail account holders in the world, many of whom live in Google Calendar. And they'll find the new Surface 2 a frustrating experience.
The original Surface RT's Modern Calendar app would sync with GCal. Then Windows 8.1 came along, and declared the party over. Sure, your GMail and Google Contacts will push and pull happily enough, but your Calendar will remain stubbornly empty. Microsoft's only official 'solution' is to suggest that you switch to Outlook.com.
There is a hack, but it's flawed: you can get the desktop Outlook 2013 RT to show your Google Calendar.
But before you rush to the shops to pick up your new Surface, beware: this is no two-way sync. Any change you make in Outlook will not show in your Google Calendar. Which is next to useless. Of course, you can always load Google Calendar through Internet Explorer, but it's hardly the optimium experience on a 10.6in screen (and especially if you're switching between the Modern Mail app and desktop IE).
THE DISPLAY: NOW IN FULL HD
The Surface 2’s display is a beauty. You can banish any memories of the original RT’s slightly fuzzy 1366x768 view on the world - there’s now a sharp, 1920x1080, 207ppi screen that makes photos, movies and app icons zing. It may not quite match a Retina, but it’s bright, sharp and has great viewing angles.
Microsoft claims almost double the pixel count of the Surface RT, with 46% greater colour accuracy – claims that we’re happy to believe. If we wanted to pick a fight, it would be with the screen’s love of fingerprints, a shame when the tablet package as a whole oozes such class. And it’s an annoyance we couldn’t shake during our entire time with the device - the tablet / keyboard combo looks great, but for the grease-caked glass.
THE CAMERAS: TWO OF THEM, BUT ONLY ONE WAS NEEDED
There are few, if any, Tablet Photography Associations in the UK. It should stay that way. It’s a perverse pastime, as evidenced the fact that 100% of tablet owners pack smartphones with 10MP+ cameras. Be honest, people - there’s no excuse for waving a 10.6in slab in the air while yelling ‘cheese’.
On that basis, we’ll politely mention that there’s a 5MP camera on the rear of the Surface 2 that takes photographs and videos. They’re decent photographs and videos, too, even if they degrade quite noticeably in low light. Let’s leave it at that.
The front 3.5MP camera is a different story, however.
Microsoft has built Skype right into Windows 8 on the Surface (it would do: it owns the company), and claims that much effort has gone into tweaking the camera to make video calls as good as possible, even in low light conditions (where, by a twist of fate, most calls are made). The Skype calls we made during the week suggest that it was time well spent: you’ll look glorious to callers, even by candlelight.
TYPE COVER 2: NOT AN OPTION
The Surface 2 is half a product without its keyboard - working the desktop with your fingers is awkward, and the kickstand loses all logic without the keyboard attached. Oh, and of course it doubles as a screen protector. So you can buy a Surface 2 for just £360, but we can only ever imagine it as a £460 product, keyboard included.
You have a choice between the £100 Touch Cover and £110 Type Cover, then. The clues as to the differences between the two are in the names: the super-skinny Touch has keys that are flat to their base, while those on the Type are raised.
Our Surface came with a Touch Cover 2, which manages to be 2mm thinner than its predecessor while also adding backlighting. Once we’d got over the initial strangeness of tapping on a flat board, the Touch cover actually proves a brilliant companion to the Surface, though the drumming noise can be distractingly loud and the swipe to delete gestures are hit and miss.
After a day or two, the error count dropped, and we found ourselves typing accurately and fluidly. And aside from being useful, the backlighting is beautifully done (you’ll get what we mean when you see it). There’s also a Bluetooth adaptor coming in the New Year that will let you use the Touch Cover without snapping it to the Surface.
APPS: TIME FOR MORE THAN THE ESSENTIALS
It’s still a problem. Sorry, Microsoft. You’ve redesigned the Store. That’s good. It’s easier to use, and prettier. You’ve fixed details in the UI to make it more logical. More essential apps have also landed since you launched Windows 8, not least Facebook.
But try spending 10 minutes switching between the Windows Store and Google Play or the iTunes App Store, and there’s just no comparison. Microsoft may now have the essentials for the social, surfing and storage set, but who’s going to be happy with utility?
The reason that we all fell in love with Apple’s App Store was the choice of jaw-slackening brilliant gems from some of the world’s best developers. And after years trapped in Fugly Town, Android’s army of attractive, useful apps is catching up with iOS fast (in fact, there are quite a few Android apps that are superior to their Apple counterparts). So why would you be happy with the basics that Microsoft’s Store has on offer?
That said, your view of the Surface’s flexibility will change based on your the rest of your ecosystem. If your world is already embedded in Microsoft, life with a Surface will be a thousand times more rewarding straight out of the box. Xbox fans will grin at the default Music app that syncs with the tunes on your console, and the Games app that plays nice with your Xbox profile, while Office addicts (yep, they exist) will glow at the sight of Mail and Calendar.
Tap anything into an Evernote note, and it instantly syncs to the cloud. And since Evernote has a client for just about every OS, you’re be able to review your ramblings on your smartphone and desktop. While some W8 apps pale in comparison to their iOS and Android counterparts, Evernote’s is handsome and useful.
Google’s ever-expanding Drive may have given Dropbox a bruise or two recently – and Microsoft has its own SkyDrive plans – but one of the original cloud file storage services is still one of the best. The Windows 8 app is a must, and comes with such smart additions as instant camera upload to your Dropbox account.
Yes, yes, we know: this is the native W8 app, not some third party adventure. But top marks to Microsoft: the default app is easy on the eye (in a rather austere, business-like way), and very functional. Easy to set up with your Outlook or Gmail accounts in seconds.
Make a playlist with at least eight tracks, and share your bad taste with the world. Or go exploring the baffling playlists of others. And you won’t be locked into Windows: anything you follow or create in the very polished W8 app will sync over to the 8tracks iOS and Android apps.
Feeds: Nextgen Reader
The best Windows 8 feed reader app by a mile, in our humble opinion. And now that Google Reader is resting six feet under, the good news is that Nextgen happily syncs with Feedly, the RSS service that’s winning friends the world over.
SkyScanner couldn’t be simpler: tell it where in the world you want to go and when, and it’ll rummage through thousands of flights to find the best price. And it’ll look good while it’s doing it, too.
Video calls: Skype
Microsoft buys the original internet calling company, then builds it right into Windows 8. The app fits right in with the Modern look, and the front-facing 3.5MP Surface 2 camera does a grand job of showing your every blemish to friends, even in low light.
The Surface 2 is impressive. It’s fast enough for most jobs. The screen’s great, and so is the case that surrounds it. It’s now a very usable ad hoc laptop, thanks to the two-step kickstand and the fixes in Windows 8.1. There are even enough apps in the Windows Store to make life liveable, albeit on an app diet.
We could understand you splashing £470 for the Surface 2 plus Touch Cover 2, and being a happy bunny. Us? We’d be happy. Well, happy-ish. But the odd doubt may creep in.
We’d know that for roughly the same money, you can get a fully fledged Windows laptop with a 1TB drive that would let us install any damn Windows applications we wanted to, without a warning screen. And we’d know that the Sony Xperia Tablet Z or Apple iPad would have meant more happy hours trawling through better apps.
The doubts about the original Surface RT were damning and entirely justified. But the Surface 2 is good enough to make it a respectable choice that will suit some of you more than a tablet alone ever could.