Review: Microsoft Surface 2, Ripe for a Return to Grace?

Thinner, lighter, faster... but still no apps

Our score: 4/5
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Published: February 27, 2014 4:40 PM
By Romain Thuret
Translated by: Hugh Ehreth
Are Windows RT and the Surface really a viable concept? While the pairing of Windows 8.1 and a hybrid device is more than relevant, as it was on the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2, the utility of the first Surface and similar products that ran on Windows RT, a scaled-down version of Windows 8, was largely debatable.
 
Microsoft Surface 2

The Surface 2 is Microsoft's assertion that it believes a hybrid mobile device running Windows RT can find a lasting place in the consumer electronics landscape. The body is more or less the same as the first Surface, but thinner, lighter and with Full HD resolution instead of just HD. It has a 10.6" IPS display with a 16:9 aspect ratio, a 1.7 GHz Nvidia Tegra 4 quad-core processor, 2 GB of RAM, a choice of 32 GB or 64 GB of storage, a microSD card slot for up to 64 GB more, Wi-Fi a/b/g/n, Bluetooth 4.0, a micro-HDMI output, a USB 2.0 Host port (the same one that gave the first Surface its notoriety), a 5-Megapixel camera on the back and a 3.5-Megapixel camera on the front.

The operating system is Windows RT 8.1, the latest version of Microsoft's "lightweight" OS.

The 32 GB version costs £359 not including the Type Cover 2 (£109.99), a keyboard dock we highly recommend buying along with the tablet.
Surface 2

Design & Handling5/5



If there's one thing Microsoft is above suspicion with, it's the manufacturing quality of its mobile devices. Like the Surface RT and Surface Pro 2, the Surface 2 is a gem in terms of design. The aluminium/magnesium alloy body has gone from black to grey, the ports and buttons are meticulously well integrated into the shell and the stand is incredibly sturdy given how thin it is. Stylistically, the design is sober, different, easily recognisable.
 
Microsoft Surface 2

Of this there's no doubt: the Surface 2 is a stylish, gorgeous object.
 
Microsoft Surface 2

The stand now has two possible angles at which it props the slate, a welcome addition for anyone who found the first angle too vertical.
 
Microsoft Surface 2

Along the right edge is a magnetic connector for the power adapter. It's handy, but micro-USB charging would have been a more universally pleasing solution.
 
Microsoft Surface 2

The bottom edge is where the connector for the Type Cover 2 and Touch Cover 2 is located (see the inset below for our review of the Type Cover 2 keyboard dock).
 
Microsoft Surface 2

List of grievances: we find the borders surrounding the screen still too wide (over 20 mm); the body overheats a bit when the components are heavily solicited; the overall weight has gone down since the Surface RT, but it's still heavier than competing high-end tablets; the Type Cover 2's trackpad is more effective on the Start Screen than on the desktop; the handling is good, but with the 16:9 aspect ratio and landscape-focused OS, it isn't the most practical tablet for portrait mode.
 
Microsoft Surface 2

Display4/5



This is yet another RT-based tablet that sports a beautiful IPS screen. It may not revolutionise the tablet display or even spar with the Surface Pro 2's picture quality, but it's quite satisfactory. It has a contrast ratio of over 1,100:1 and brightness of nearly 350 cd/m², which give it excellent visibility indoors and satisfactory visibility outdoors. The colours definitely aren't awful, but it's a shame Microsoft didn't do more to improve the fidelity of flesh tones, considering that most movies and pictures you see contain, you know, people.
 
Microsoft Surface 2

The screen has a touch response time of 91 ms, which is pretty far behind Apple's tablets (less than 60 ms), but it's still one of the best figures on the market.

The Full HD resolution (1920 x 1080 pixels) is a leap forward from the Surface RT's 720p, one that makes everything look clearer and more precise. However, it must be said that at the same time that Microsoft is moving on to Full HD, most of the competition is already on to higher resolutions like 2048 x 1536 on the iPad Air and 2560 x 1600 on the Galaxy Note 10.1.

For more about the display, check out our dedicated article here.

Interface & Navigation4/5



Same player, shoot again. Despite the less-than-enthusiastic reception Windows RT has garnered, despite the public's questioning looks and despite the withdrawal of almost every brand that initially signed up to design devices for the OS, Microsoft has revived it in the form of version 8.1.

It's still a scaled-back version of Windows 8.1 in which users can't install ordinary Windows software, in which users can only get apps via the Windows Store, in which Office 2013 RT is installed by default. As its name suggests, Office RT is a scaled-down version of the Office Suite, but one that works well for basic productivity.

Almost the entirety of navigation under Windows RT happens in the Start Menus, which are composed of the usual horizontal rows of tiles that extend infinitely to the right where users can place and resize their apps as they see fit. Unlike the iPads, the Surface 2 does true multitasking in which two apps appear side-by-side in adjustable sizes, taking up the entire screen.

Like the Surface RT, the Surface 2 has a serious dearth of apps. Even the biggest ones like Facebook and YouTube are missing, there are very few available games and the Windows Store is sluggish at times. As it did with Windows Phone, Microsoft is struggling to match the competition's offer. More than a year after the release of Windows RT, it's kind of disturbing to know that the only real software pull the Surface 2 has to offer is Office 2013 (Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote).

Redmond keeps losing its users by letting the standard Windows 8.1 desktop mode show up every time they launch Office or insert a USB key. This is one of the redundancies that persist in the new Window's Start Screen/desktop duality. Naturally, we assume Microsoft didn't want to make its PC users feel out of place, but it makes the overall system lack coherence. When you're using the Office Suite, you will quickly feel the need for a mouse (and the detachable keyboard is practically a must, by the way).

When it comes to performance and responsiveness, the Surface 2 relies on a processor that has already proved its mettle countless times on Android. There were no lags or hiccups when we tested it, at least, none other than the usual dillydallying that occurs when opening the multimedia functions (Windows RT loves to load the related video game, music or film stores before displaying everything).

Multimedia4/5



Internet Explorer 11 is fast, fluid and highly enjoyable in Full HD, even if we've already grown accustomed to higher-definition browsing in Android and iOS. The 16:9 aspect ratio, however, broadens and boosts the experience.
 
Microsoft Surface 2

The Windows RT video playback app is wide-ranging in its file format compatibility, but it doesn't have as many options as you get in Android and iOS players such as Samsung and Archos' default players and third-party apps. The aspect ratio enlarges the image, but it also adds the horizontal black bars on the top and bottom of the screen.
 
Microsoft Surface 2

In theory, the Tegra 4 processor should be an obvious boon to video gaming. The problem is that between the vacuous TegraZone that has hardly been updated since the days of the Surface RT and the deficient Windows Store, it would be hard to say that this is a quality video game console substitute. On top of that, with the very few popular titles that are available at the Windows Store, such as Asphalt 8: Airborne and Dungeon Hunter 4, the graphics aren't particularly impressive and the games suffer the odd lag.

Battery Life5/5



Microsoft is advertising an average battery life of 10 hours. As on the iPad Air, in practice you can sometimes even get more than that out of the Surface 2. We got it to last around 11½ hours of video playback and with more varied usage (some e-mail, Internet, movies and games) it lasted just over 9½ hours. With straight gaming, the Surface 2 will last on average just under 7 hours. It takes 3½ hours to charge, which is just about average for a tablet with a high capacity battery like this one.

Camera3/5



As for the camera, leave your hopes at the door. The 5-Megapixel rear camera is dangerously close to mediocre, taking pictures that clearly lack definition, have washed out colours and have obvious barrel distortion around the edges. Plus, the sensor is positioned such that you have to tilt the tablet slightly forward when taking your picture in order to have a straight shot.

The 3.5-Megapixel camera, on the other hand, is hands-down one of the best front cameras on the market, along with the iPad Air and iPad Mini with Retina Display. In both good and bad lighting, the picture quality is great with little to no ghosting or latency.
4/5 Microsoft Surface 2 DigitalVersus 2014-02-27 17:40:00

Pros

  • Display
  • Responsiveness
  • Office 2013 Suite
  • Battery life
  • Front camera
  • Top-notch design and finish
  • Stand
  • Type Cover 2 is great, and essential to get the most out of the Surface

Cons

  • Not enough apps at Windows Store (not even big ones like Facebook and YouTube)
  • Too few games & mediocre gaming performance
  • Screen borders still too wide
  • Poor quality rear camera
  • Proprietary port for charging
  • It's lighter than the Surface RT... but still heavier than the competition

Conclusion

With a stylish, well-built body, Full HD resolution and good battery life, the Surface 2 is a choice buy for anyone looking for a tablet that does (pretty much) everything. It does still lag behind some of the competing high-end iOS and Android tablets, however, due in large part to the heinous shortage of apps in the Windows Store. All the same, it would be an excellent fit at the office.

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