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A closer look at Microsoft’s Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2

HardwareFeatures
by Sebastian Anthony, 24 Sep 2013Features
A closer look at Microsoft’s Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2

Microsoft has announced the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2. Both the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 are primarily iterative hardware upgrades, bringing improved performance, battery life, and sharper displays. The tablets themselves, except for a beautiful 1080p display on the Surface 2, introduce almost no new features.

Instead, new functionality is provided by a variety of new attachments, such as the Power Cover, which will increase battery life by around 50 per cent, and a Docking Station, which makes it much easier to use your Surface Pro 2 as a desktop replacement. The Surface 2 will cost $450 in the US (£280), the Surface Pro 2 will cost $900 (£560), and they’ll go on sale on the 22 October. Curiously, the original Surface RT will also stick around at its £279 price point (presumably until Microsoft’s stockpile of tablets is depleted).

Visually, both the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 are very similar to their predecessors. The Surface 2 is now the raw silver-grey of its magnesium chassis, rather than black. It is slightly thinner and lighter, but it feels very similar to the Surface RT. The Surface Pro 2 really is identical to the original Pro; it isn’t any thinner or lighter, as far as we could tell. Design-wise, both tablets now feature a dual-angle kickstand, allowing the tablet to either stand nearly upright, or at around 45 degrees. Externally, the new kickstand is really the only change to Microsoft’s new Surface tablets.

Internally, the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 take full advantage of the new Tegra 4 and Haswell chips, and the Surface 2 now has the same 1080p ClearType display as the Surface Pro 2. The Surface Pro 2 now ranges all the way up to 512GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. Both tablets now support USB 3.0. Thanks to the Tegra 4 and Haswell chips, both tablets pack a lot more in the way of computational and graphical processing power. Surface 2 runs Windows RT 8.1 (though the “RT” moniker was used very sparingly at the unveil), and Surface Pro 2 runs Windows 8.1.

Microsoft is reporting that both tablets have improved battery life, with the Surface Pro 2 now lasting 75 per cent longer than the original Pro (so, probably up to around 7 or 8 hours). With the Power Cover – a keyboard cover that also has a battery pack – the Pro 2′s battery life should be “two and a half times” more than the original Pro (around 10 hours, by our estimation). The Tegra 4-powered Surface 2 is apparently good for 10 hours with its built-in battery, and maybe up to 20 hours with the Power Cover.

Hands-on impressions of the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2

In-hand, both of Microsoft’s new tablets still feel fantastic. There’s no getting around the fact that the Pro 2 is a bit heavy for single-handed use, but considering it’s more powerful than 95 per cent of laptops currently on the market (Microsoft’s own statistic), you can’t really complain. Sadly, we weren’t allowed to run anything on the Surface Pro 2, so we couldn’t gauge performance, and Microsoft hasn’t published the Haswell chip’s clock speed.

Perhaps most importantly, the Surface 2 finally feels like a slick, responsive machine. The new 1080p display (the same as in the Pro 2) looks fantastic, and the tablet remains impressively responsive when opening, closing, and switching between apps. Whether this is purely down to Tegra 4′s much-improved CPU and GPU, optimisations to Windows 8.1, or some combination of the two, we’re not sure. Either way, it’s now a joy to use (and gaze upon!) the Surface 2, rather than a laggy chore.

For the most part, though, the Surface 2 and Pro 2 look and feel very similar to their predecessors.

A bevy of accessories

If the tablets themselves are virtually unchanged, at least Microsoft went the whole hog with new accessories. The Touch and Type Covers have been significantly updated: They’re now both thinner and backlit. The Touch Cover has been significantly reworked – it now has 1092 sensors under the keys, rather than just 80 – meaning that it’s significantly less unpleasant to type on.

The Power Cover is a Type Cover, but with a built-in battery that extends the battery life of your Surface tablet. There’s also a new peripheral called the Music Kit, which is essentially a simplified keyboard with bigger buttons that’s designed to be used with sound recording software. The Music Kit comes from the Surface Remix Project (video below), which aims to produce a whole range of weird and wonderful Surface attachments.

The Docking Station, which looks really weird (cool) and has an awesome mechanism for locking your Surface in place, is basically a port replicator (and extender) for your Surface Pro 2. The idea is that you use your Surface Pro 2 while on the move, and then plug into the Docking Station once you get home or to the office. The Docking Station has four USB ports, one Mini DisplayPort, 3.5mm audio in and out sockets, and an Ethernet socket. Some sites are reporting that the Surface Pro can drive two external displays via the Docking Station, but we can’t confirm that.

Curiously, there’s also a wireless adapter for the Surface keyboards, which allows you to use the keyboard without it being attached to the tablet. All of these interesting keyboards/peripherals, incidentally, are coming “early 2014,” rather than at launch.

Hardware is still just one part of the equation

Externally and internally, the Surface 2, Surface Pro 2, and the myriad of accessories are impressive. They feel good, look good, and at first blush they appear to perform very well indeed. Unfortunately for Microsoft, though, these physical successes are only one part of the equation. The question of software is a far more important matter. Having a beastly Tegra 4 SoC and all-day battery life is nice in theory, but in practice it’s no good if you wield that power and battery life to play awful games and generic, poorly designed apps.

Microsoft pointed out that the Windows Store now has 100,000 apps – up from 10,000 this time last year, when the Surface RT launched – but, tellingly, very little time was actually spent showing off killer apps… because there are none. Without a powerful software ecosystem, the Surface tablets are nothing more than massively overpowered digital photo frames.

But hey, what more can Microsoft do? Windows 8.1 is a significant and much-needed upgrade from Windows 8, which is a good start. With RT being dropped for the product name, consumer confusion should be reduced – but having said that, there’s still the niggling fact that the Surface 2 can’t run Desktop apps, except for Office. The Windows Store could still be significantly improved, too.

Really, though, at this point, it feels like Microsoft is attempting a “build it and they will come” strategy – a strategy predicated on the misguided belief that if the hardware is good, then the rest will follow.

With iOS and Android so firmly entrenched, it would take a herculean effort to turn Windows 8 into a successful mobile OS – just as with the smartphone market and Windows Phone 8. With the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, the hardware side of the equation is solid – now Microsoft needs to firm up the software. How Microsoft can do this, though, I’m really not sure.

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