When the Microsoft Surface RT first came out, it was a very good product with a well-executed design and powerful productivity tools, but it was hard to recommend to all but the most ardent of early adopters.
The launch of the Microsoft Surface 2 is much like hearing the same song with the volume turned up. The new Surface 2 offers even better productivity tools, with improved keyboard accessories, a smoother Windows RT experience, and a wide selection of familiar programs like Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and now Outlook. Throw in an elegant improved design, dramatically better performance and battery life, along with a slightly cheaper price point than the original slate was launched for, and the Surface 2 is clearly a good choice of tablet.
Microsoft has made several changes to the design first seen on the Microsoft Surface RT, but it has wisely decided not to change what works. The tablet still has the slim slab design of the previous Surface products, complete with the lightweight VaporMag magnesium-alloy construction and angular bevelled edges. This time around, however, the Surface 2 is a little bit thinner (at 8.9mm) and a little bit lighter (it’s 675 grams sans keyboard), and the stealthy black colour is now a light silvery grey that's nearly white in certain lighting conditions.
The display has also received an upgrade from 1366 x 768 resolution to 1920 x 1080 (full HD). Compared to the likes of the iPad with its high resolution Retina Display, however, this still rather pales in comparison. That said, when compared to other Windows RT tablets, like the Asus Vivo Tab RT (with a 1366 x 768 display), it's a giant step up. Regardless, the display is much improved, both in resolution and colour quality, and it looks great whether reading documents in a six-point font or watching HD movies on YouTube or Netflix. The capacitive touch display also tracks five points simultaneously, which is enough for one or two-handed use.
Along the back of the Surface 2 tablet is a built in kickstand, which looks identical to the kickstand on the Surface RT. However, Microsoft's designers and engineers have upgraded this as well, changing the hinge to allow for two positions instead of one.
The first position props the kickstand at the same 22 degree angle seen on the previous iteration, which is perfect for use on a desk or table by a person of average height. The drawback to this, of course, is that if you were taller than average or wanted to use the tablet balanced on your lap rather than at table height, the angle doesn't quite work. The solution is this two position hinge, which now opens further to a much more comfortable 55 degrees, perfect for actual lap-top use (and for those of us over six feet tall).
Microsoft has also updated the accompanying keyboard covers, which attach to the tablet along the bottom edge via a magnetic dock. The docking connector is one of the best things about the tablet in that it always seems to work, always connects correctly, and the magnetic connection holds strongly enough that it won't unintentionally slip – yet it pulls off easily without any sort of latch.
While the TouchCover and TypeCover accessories are upgraded along with the tablets, the previously released keyboard covers are still compatible. One thing the keyboard covers don't offer is improved battery life, unlike, say, the Dell XPS 10, which comes with a docking keyboard that has a secondary battery, nearly doubling the usable life of the tablet when docked. The slim keyboard covers Microsoft offers for the Surface 2 don’t do any such thing.
The TypeCover that came with our review unit has been upgraded with a quieter key mechanism, which makes it a lot less irritating to your co-workers or fellow commuters, and a backlight adds visibility in dim and dark environments. While we didn't have a new TouchCover keyboard to try during our testing, the soft-touch sensitive keyboard is also upgraded with an improved array of sensors for more accurate typing.
Unfortunately, Microsoft hasn't fixed the biggest problem people had with the TypeCover and TouchCover, namely that they are not included in the price of the device. Instead, they are sold as accessories, with the TouchCover 2 (£100) and TypeCover 2 (£110) both purchased separately from the tablet. Given that you'll need a cover for any of the laptop-like capabilities touted on the Surface, this seems like a sneaky way for Microsoft to squeeze an extra hundred quid out of its customers.
Software and apps
Windows RT is also back, although you won't find the RT name on the Surface this time around. With the RT 8.1 update, many of the same changes seen on Windows 8.1 have been brought to the tablet OS as well. The start button is back when in desktop mode, and the tiles of the Start screen can now be resized and repositioned with greater flexibility.
The other major change is the included software. Office RT 2013 has been expanded to now include an RT-friendly version of Outlook in addition to the RT variants of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote which were already included with the original Surface RT.
Other extras include 200GB of cloud storage via Microsoft SkyDrive, which both bolsters the 32GB of on-board storage, and makes sharing and syncing files between the Surface 2 and other PCs easier. If you want to fully integrate the Surface 2 into your circle of personal computing devices, SkyDrive is essential. Microsoft's offer only lasts for two years, however, after which you'll need to pay for the same amount of storage.
Microsoft also bundles in the Best of Skype package, which adds a year of free international calls (to 60 countries) and free Wi-Fi through Skype Hotspots along with the normal Skype app. Whether or not this is a big draw depends on how frequently you use Skype to call landline phones or other countries (which many people do).
Finally, there's the question of apps and software. While there are over 100,000 apps available that run on Windows RT – a vast improvement over the paltry 3,000 on offer when the Surface RT first launched – the selection still feels sparse and slightly out of date. There are plenty of unique offerings, with games like Halo: Spartan Assault, and the expected stuff such as the ubiquitous Angry Birds (in several different incarnations), and media apps like Netflix.
Compared to the 475,000 apps that Apple has for the iPad, and also considering that a great many of those apps were available on iOS and Android devices a long time before coming to the Windows Store, even this sort of growth feels insufficient. It's frustrating to go hunting for a hugely popular app, like Instagram for example, only to find that there's no RT-friendly version.
On the right-hand edge of the tablet is a single USB 3.0 port, along with a microHDMI output and a microSD card slot. On the left, you'll find a headset jack and physical volume controls. All other connections are wireless, with dual-band 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0. The Surface 2 also includes the usual tablet sensors: Accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, and ambient light detection through the on-board cameras.
The Surface 2 comes with a front-facing 3.5-megapixel webcam. While I rarely devote much of my reviews to webcam quality, this front-facing camera is just about ideal for Skype, being selected and optimised by Microsoft just for that purpose, and it performed quite well, delivering clear images, and 720p video capture. Given the bundled Skype offer on top of this, there’s certainly plenty to tempt video chatting addicts.
The rear-facing camera has seen a spec bump to 5-megapixels, and it’s set at a slight angle so as to offset the tilt of the tablet when using the kickstand. While this is great for shooting video when the tablet is stationary, you will need to hold the Surface 2 at an angle when using it handheld. Also, while the camera angle works great for the first kickstand position, it doesn't correct for the angle of the second 55 degree position on the kickstand. It's just another feature that manages to be both thoughtfully designed and frustrating at the same time.
The Surface 2 is available with either 32GB of internal storage (for £359), as seen in our review unit, or 64GB (£439). Microsoft covers the Surface 2 with a one year limited warranty.
The Surface 2 upgraded the tablet's hardware, and it now boasts an Nvidia Tegra 4 quad-core processor, which is a 1.7GHz ARM mobile CPU paired with 2GB of RAM. It's a step up from the Nvidia Tegra 3 processor found in the Surface RT, and when we tested performance in BrowserMark 2.0, the Surface 2 left the previous Surface RT in the dust, offering a much faster browsing experience. Because of this processor, and the fact that Windows RT doesn't support traditional Windows software – including our normal batch of tests – we weren't able to run our usual review benchmarks. Despite this, we were able to test web browsing performance and battery life, arguably the two most important aspects of the tablet.
While it has the same size 31.5Wh battery as the Surface RT, the Surface 2 stretches the available charge for several hours more, lasting 14 hours and 51 minutes in our battery rundown test. In comparison, the leading Dell XPS 10 lasted 11 hours and 34 minutes, well ahead of the Asus Vivo Tab RT (9:37) and the Apple iPad 4 (5:36). The previous Surface RT lasted only 7 hours and 45 minutes.
However, both the Dell XPS 10 and the Asus Vivo Tab RT also offer a docking keyboard with a secondary battery, extending the life of these tablets to 20 and 15 hours respectively. Although the Surface 2 – thanks to more efficient hardware – offers nearly as much battery life on its own, the addition of a secondary battery would extend it even further.
The Microsoft Surface 2's performance, the software, pricing, indeed the whole package represents a big step up from the original Surface RT. If this was the public's first taste of Windows RT, the Surface could have performed much better than the original model managed.
Thanks to the Nvidia Tegra 4 processor, the 15 hours of battery life, the lower price point and expanded productivity, the Surface 2 is the clear leader among Windows RT tablets. If you want Office and Skype on an affordable tablet – and don't require the full Windows experience – the Surface 2 is the best there is.
The slight catch is that while the tablet itself is laudably £40 cheaper than the price which the original Surface launched at, Microsoft is still charging £100 for the keyboard accessory which is central to the Surface hybrid experience – meaning you’ll be forking out £460 in total, which doesn’t sound quite such good value for money.
Manufacturer and Model
Microsoft Surface 2
1920 x 1080 pixels
Microsoft Windows RT 8.1
275 x 173 x 8.9mm
3.5-megapixel front-facing, 5-megapixel rear camera
microHDMI, USB, proprietary
14 hours and 51 minutes
Nvidia Tegra 4
Storage Capacity (as Tested)