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Microsoft Surface 2

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What's Hot: Excellent hardware quality, good looking, sharp full HD display, responsive performance.

What's Not: It's Windows RT: you can't run traditional 3rd party Windows programs like iTunes or Photoshop.

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Reviewed November 4, 2013 by , Editor in Chief (twitter: @lisagade)

It's no secret that the press has done their best to declare the original Microsoft Surface RT a dead on arrival product. Some users have too. Why? Not because of the elegant and high quality hardware, but because the RT version of Windows 8 doesn't run exe programs like Adobe Photoshop CS or CC, Battlefield 3 or anything else designed for Windows 7 or the Windows 8 desktop environment. The Windows Store has come a long way in the year since Surface RT launched, and now we have 100,000 Metro apps to choose from, improving RT's chances. You see, Windows RT 8.1 looks and acts just like Windows 8.1 but it only runs third party apps from the Windows Store. That means you can't download programs from websites (no iTunes, no desktop version of Evernote, no Skyrim); they must come from the Windows Store.

Microsoft Surface 2

The new Microsoft Surface 2 is the company's second effort at a Windows RT tablet, though somewhat confusingly, they've dropped the RT from the product name. It has the same cool design, VaporMg casing and optional magnetic keyboard covers as the first generation, but there are some significant improvements inside. The tablet runs on the new quad core NVIDIA Tegra 4 CPU (the last gen ran on the Tegra 3) and that makes for more spritely performance with no slowdowns or hiccups. It has a full HD 1920 x 1080 IPS display rather than 1366 x 768, so everything looks downright sharp and pleasing. The lone USB port is 3.0 and there's a micro HDMI port for an external display, HD TV or projector.

Microsoft Surface 2

Outside the color has changed to silver and the tablet has gotten a little lighter at 1.4 lbs., though the just announced 1 lb. iPad Air makes it seem heavy (imagine, the iPad used to be the heavyweight tablet among 10" products). It's slim at 0.35" and the back kickstand now offers two positions, 24 and 40 degrees, so it's easier to use on your lap or on a low table. As ever, just like its big brothers the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2, it's what we call aspirational hardware: it looks so stunning, modern, well made and unique that you feel gadget lust at first sight. The updated Touch and Type covers are still innovative and a great way to protect the display while adding a full keyboard and trackpad with little weight.

Microsoft Surface 2

In sum the Surface 2 gets you best in class mobile OS (not laptop) hardware and design for the price, but you lose the ability to run Windows desktop apps. Is the tradeoff worth it? If you simply want to browse the web using IE, do email, social networking, Skype video chat and work in the included MS Office suite, then yes. You can edit photos using the Metro app Photoshop Express with limited features compared to the desktop version and you can play games from the Windows Store, but not games meant for Windows 7 or anything that comes on DVD installation discs. If that's a deal breaker for you, consider Windows 8 Intel Atom tablets in this price range like the Asus Transformer Book T100, Dell Venue Pro tablets and the Acer Iconia W510.

 

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Display

This is a lovely display, and it knocks the socks off of many similarly priced Windows 8 Intel Atom tablets like the Asus Transformer Book T100. First it has higher resolution, and it's full HD 1920 x 1080 just like the Surface Pro models and higher end Ultrabooks. It's also very bright, has high contrast and pin sharp text with no jaggies. Colors are pleasing and life like, though like the Surface Pro 2, color gamut isn't as wide as the iPad Air or the very best full HD Ultrabook displays from Sony and Samsung. Most folks won't notice the difference in color gamut, but those who work with digital image manipulation probably will. We're nitpicking though, for a mobile OS family tablet, this is a great display and it's better than laptop displays in the $450 to $700 price range.

The display supports 5 points of capacitive multi-touch but it does not have an active digitizer like tablets with Wacom or N-Trig inside. You can use a capacitive stylus (not very accurate and you won't get palm rejection to prevent inking when you rest your hand on the screen).

Performance

This isn't an easy thing to measure in terms of the benchmarks everyone loves. That's because we can't install Windows benchmark programs like PCMark or wPrime. But we did install 3DMark since that's available for Windows RT in the Windows Store and we ran Sunspider where we got a hearty 402 result, matching the iPad Air and beating most Android phones and tablets. The 3DMark Ice Storm test garnered a very respectable 14,221 in the Unlimited test.

More important, how does the tablet feel? Very quick thanks to the new quad core 1.7GHz Tegra 4 CPU with faster graphics and improvements in Windows RT (which had growing pains when the first Surface RT came out). The tablet is quicker and more responsive than many Intel Atom Windows 8 tablets and convertibles, though it's limited to the same 2 gigs of DDR3 RAM and eMMC storage rather than faster SATA storage. That storage technology is standard for Android tablets, so we won't complain when it comes to Surface 2 that competes with Android more than full Windows machines with SATA SSDs that cost twice as much.

Type Cover 2 and Touch Cover 2

Microsoft revised both the Touch and Type covers, and the first generation keyboards and second generation are interchangeable in terms of compatibility with all Surface and Surface Pro models. The Type Cover 2 has traditional moving keys, as did the Type Cover, but the new model adds multi-level backlighting with a proximity sensor (put your hands above the keys and they light up). It switches from a hard surface trackpad with clickers to a fabric style trackpad with no mechanical buttons. Key travel is slightly deeper on the Type Cover 2 and I'd pick it over the first gen model unless you're tempted by a great clearance sale on the original Type Cover. It's available in black and colors like purple.

The Touch Cover 2 is a huge improvement over the original Touch Cover. It's much more sensitive so you can type more naturally without working hard to activate each pressure sensitive key. This is a fabric surface keyboard (it feels something like short nap suede) and the keys have ridges around the edges for tactile feel but they don't move. The Touch Cover 2 is a few ounces lighter than the Type Cover 2, but both are quite light. Like the new Type Cover 2, the Touch Cover 2 has multi-stage backlighting and a proximity sensor. The Touch Cover 2 is actually very usable and I haven't run back to the Type Cover 2 when I need to type a few emails or enter URLs. I'd definitely buy the Touch Cover 2 rather than the original Touch Cover, even if you find the old model on clearance.

Cameras and Sound

The webcams built into laptops are generally mediocre 720p models that make for dim and grainy Skype chats. Since Surface 2 competes with the iPad and Android tablets that have better cameras, Microsoft upgraded the Surface 2 with a 3.5MP front camera and a 5MP rear camera. The front camera is very good: video chats look bright and colorful with more detail than usual. There's enough detail that your chat partner will notice if you have food crumbs on your face, so be sure to clean up first. The rear camera is comparable to myriad 10" tablets with rear 5MP cameras. In good light, photos and full HD video are sharp with good color saturation and light balance. In a dim room, photos and videos show a healthy helping of noise.

For the audio portion of your video chat experience, the Surface 2 has two microphones and you can use a headset if you prefer. Sound through the built-in stereo speakers is Dolby enhanced it and the stereo separation is effective. Bass is better than expected for a 10" tablet and volume is adequate (not screaming loud and not meek). It's fine for use in a fairly quiet room.

Ports and Wireless

The micro HDMI port can drive an external full HD monitor, an HD TV or a projector with an HDMI port. That means you can play videos and slideshows on your TV, deliver PowerPoint presentations via projector or use the tablet with a desktop monitor for a PC-like experience.

The tablet has a single USB 3.0 port and it works with flash drives, hard drives, external CD and DVD drives, most current printers, mice and keyboards. Windows RT 8.1 provides the device drivers, and it has a healthy library for these peripherals, but you won't find USB 3G/4G dongle drivers and USB midi or music devices are hit and miss. Since you can't install .exe driver packages from manufacturers' websites, you're limited to what Microsoft provides with RT.

The tablet has a cover port, pogo style magnetic charging connector, 3.5mm combo audio (stereo audio out and mic in) and a micro SDXC card slot that's compatible with 64 gig cards.

The Surface 2 has dual band WiFi 802.11n, Bluetooth 4.0 that works with most Bluetooth devices like headsets, keyboards and mice. WiFi speeds and reception were average for a tablet, and we had no trouble streaming full HD video when 25 feet from our AirPort Extreme 802.11n WiFi access point.

Battery Life

Microsoft doesn't make any claims concerning runtimes, which is unusual. They do claim 7-15 days of idle (sleep or standby) time and state that the Surface 2 takes 2-4 hours to charge (accurate). In our tests, the tablet lasted 9.5 hours of actual use time with brightness set to 50% and WiFi active. We streamed HD video via the Netflix app for an hour, wrote parts of this review in Word for 2.5 hours, played music while making dinner, checked email and did social networking. That's certainly competitive with other mobile OS tablets and a bit better than some Atom Windows tablets.

Conclusion

The Microsoft Surface 2 is a difficult product to classify: in some ways it's Windows complete with the desktop UI, but it's Windows minus the 3rd party desktop apps. Some folks want full Windows or nothing, while others are looking for a low maintenance, virus resistant and quick tablet that's familiar (assuming Windows 8 is familiar) and has the power of Microsoft's explorer file manager and USB 3.0 port with its support for USB hard drives, flash drives and printers. On the other hand, if you're looking for a tablet that's great for games, get an iPad Air. The Apple tablet app ecosystem is absolutely huge and high quality games abound. If the thought of seeing Windows update on your no-fuss tablet is upsetting, get an Android tablet or an iPad. If you want a tablet with MS Office, compatibility with Microsoft optimized workplace networks and core apps to get work done, the Surface 2 is a great choice. Of course it can handle down time too with video playback, music and casual games. It's a product we can't help but like, even though we're not as bullish on Windows RT's future as Microsoft is.

Website: www.surface.com

Price: $449 for 32 gig and $549 for 64 gig, keyboard covers start at $120

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Microsoft Surface RT Review (1st gen model)

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Specs:

Display: 10.6", 1920 x 1080 IPS display. 5 points of capacitive multi-touch. Micro HDMI port. Has ambient light sensor, gyro, accelerometer and magnetometer.

Battery: Lithium Ion rechargeable, sealed inside.

Performance: 1.7GHz NVIDIA Tegra 4 quad core CPU. 2 gigs DDR3 RAM and 32 or 64 gigs of eMMC flash storage.

Size: 10.81 x 6.79 x 0.35 inches. Weight: 1.49 pounds.

Camera: 3.5MP front camera and 5MP rear camera.

Audio: Built-in stereo speakers with Dolby audio, dual mics and 3.5mm standard stereo headset jack.

Networking: Integrated dual band WiFi 802.11b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0.

Software: Windows RT 8.1 with MS Office RT.

Expansion and Ports: 1 USB 3.0 port, 1 micro HDMI port, SDXC micro SD card slot, cover port and magnetic pogo charging connector.

 

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