Review

A month with the Surface 2

The second generation Surface is a well-built, highly functional machine but it has yet to catch-on in the market to the same degree of the iPad. For Microsoft, the Surface is a must-win device as the company shifts from a software focused company, to a device and services model where the Surface plays a key part. Without the Surface, Microsoft’s consumer branded ecosystem is incomplete as they have mobile with the Nokia devices acquisition, the living-room with the Xbox One and the personal computer with the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2. Therefore, Microsoft will back the Surface line and force its way to becoming a household name, no matter how large the previous write-downs, may have been.

The OS:

Here’s the thing with Windows RT, it works well for its intended use. It may not be popular to like Windows RT but the OS handled nearly all of my needs with the idea being that the Surface 2 is a tablet. It does fall a bit short of being a laptop replacement with the lack of a full-fledged Photoshop or my preferred photo application, Picasa, but for a device to get on the web, get some work done, and have plenty of battery life leftover, it’s perfect.

To the untrained eye, Windows RT operates like the Windows you have known in the past but the fatal flaw of the platform is the the fact that it mimics a classic Windows desktop, without all of the features. What happens when demoing the Surface 2 to those who are new to the platform, is that they like the device but then ask “can I get “ X “application on here?” And sadly, the answer is usually no, but once educated on the security of the platform and the Windows Store, most tend to warm-up considerably to the tablet. But I digress, Windows RT works well, it’s a complete modern OS that easily competes with iOS and Chrome OS. If Microsoft would simply hide the desktop icon, it could avoid a lot of confusion and help define the market for Windows RT.

From the perspective of "does it allow me to accomplish my daily tasks?” The answer is almost always yes and the fact that it includes Office out of the box, allows me to pick up my Surface 2 instead of my laptop in many cases. Admittedly, I can’t use the Surface 2 full time, yet, because of a few notable applications not being present (Picasa and Photoshop being the two crucial apps) but genuinely, I am pleasantly surprised at how well the Surface 2 has been integrated into my daily workflow. Anyone who writes off a tablet because of Windows RT but thinks iPads, Chromebooks or Netbooks are a better option, because of the underlying OS, is simply not educated well enough on Windows RT.

Living with the Surface 2:

There is a lot to love about the Surface 2. It has fantastic build quality, a great screen, a plethora of essential ports when compared to the field, and a kickstand that truly makes the device transition between a tablet and a laptop. One quip we do have though, and it mostly is the fault of marketing, is that the keyboard covers are fantastic, but not included with the Surface the keyboard covers are fantastic, but not included with the Surface; we challenge you to find a commercial that doesn’t feature the keyboard covers. The keyboards are a fantastic peripheral for the device and because you rarely (if ever) see the tablet in marketing without the cover, many think they come included.

Why is this a big deal? Well, the Surface 2 is priced at $449 but, in reality, it’s not priced at that, its priced at $449 + $119  = $579  to include a useable keyboard cover (the Touch cover is not ideal for long term usage and we would always recommend the Type cover over the Touch cover). We know that Microsoft occasionally runs bundles or other promotions to lower the price but that’s the current MSRP of the two products.

With that being said, the value of the two products combined shows off the power of the Surface 2. It becomes a compact machine that has nearly everything you need in the form of a tablet or if needed, also a laptop.

The Surface 2 builds on the new “2 in 1” marketing efforts we have seen from Intel and Microsoft. While it is far from a jack-of-all-trades, it does have many tangible usage scenarios that make the Surface 2 a great product.

It has to be said that using the Surface 2 in portrait mode is still annoying. The 16:9 layout will never work well for an ‘iPad like experience’ but that’s the tradeoff; you either have a 2 in 1 type tablet hybrid, or you have a dedicated tablet.

But the more I use the Surface 2, the more it grows on me and the true value of the device begins to shine through.

Another issue we constantly face is a dead battery when trying to use the Surface 2 in the morning. While many think it's related to the ‘connected standby’ feature, whatever is causing the battery drain when not in use, is highly annoying.The more I use the Surface 2, the more it grows on me While my iPad can go days, if not weeks, in standby mode, the Surface 2 constantly has a dead battery if it stays in ‘standby’ mode for more than 36hrs. Because of this, I have gotten in the habit of charging the device each evening; not a huge issue, but something that should be noted.

On the other hand, the battery life, while using the device, is fantastic. I am easily averaging around 10hrs of use with hitting a low of 7hrs when streaming loads of content while backing up to Skydrive and have edged out over 12 hrs when keeping the backlight low and strictly working within word and excel documents. The short of it is, the battery life is good for this type of hybrid, something that will not hinder its use by any means.

30 days later:

It’s easy to say the Surface 2 does not master any trait, but with each new update, new app, and new peripheral, it gets much closer to becoming a complete laptop replacement.

After using the Surface 2 for a month, it has quickly shown its value that may not always be apparent when you first pick it up. The thing is, the Surface is so close to replicating your laptop experience that you forget that it is actually a tablet. When you start to put all of the puzzle pieces together, in the long term, the Surface begins to build out its niche and that's something that we can get behind.

To get the most value out of the Surface family, you have to put away the idea that it competes with the iPad at a 1:1 level, because it doesn’t. The Surface is a new class of device; it’s a hybrid whereas the iPad is only a tablet.

After 30 days, you begin to ‘get it’. It’s a device the plays in several markets for one price point and admittedly, while mastering no single trait, it does do a lot of things pretty damn well.

The Surface 2 is a fantastic product that is still maturing and as the Windows Store and the OS catches up to the quality of the hardware, the future of the Surface family looks bright.

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jakem1 said,
I presume that Brad's comments about using the Surface in portrait mode refer to the feel of the tablet in your hand rather than the display of more information. I personally don't mind using it in portrait mode but it doesn't feel as balanced as it does in landscape mode. That's a small issue though and is far outweighed (to me) by being able to view so much more information on screen.

The higher res Surface 2 also seems to render content far better than the original Surface in portrait mode.

You are probably right.

The problem is that people's perception of how a tablet should look and feel is based on how comfortable they are with the iPad and older aspect ratios.

Taking users from TabletPCs that more commonly used a 16:10 ratio to HD standard 16:9 ratios, they don't have an issue with portrait mode or feel it is strange.

However users that have been using iPads that are transitioned to the standard HD 16:9 ratio, they often initially complain that the display looks or feels non-tablet like.

These same users that come from 4:3 tablets (iPads) also often have the misconception that 'less' information is displayed on the screen because the width is narrower until the difference is demonstrated to them.

Both Amazon and Apple have done a disservice to tablet users and readers. Kindle used an older aspect ratio because that was how the original screen technology was designed, not because it more closely matched real books. Real books are closer to 16:10 aspect ratios, not 4:3.

What is strange is that common users can be broke from this perception with a simple demonstration of the advantages of the 16:9 aspect ratio tablets, yet this same argument against standard HD resolutions screens is in almost every review of a 16:9 tablet. While there is hardly any review of the iPad that complains about the older aspect ratio with the black bars while watching movies, etc.

The other curious anomaly is these reviewers don't correlate that the aspect ratio is closer to or identical to their cell phone that they are very comfortable with in 'portrait' mode.

It is almost like the 4:3 ratios is the only thing that still stands out about an iPad, and people want to cling to some detail they feel can be used to argue that the iPad is still better, even when it isn't.

Ironically, if Apple had a better scalable UI framework for their Apps on iOS, the iPad would have been 16:9 when they moved to the higher resolution displays, instead they weren't willing to risk the scaling and breaking of Apps to display properly.

Edited by Mobius Enigma, Nov 24 2013, 1:43pm :

The funny thing is that all of the iPad sycophants forget to complain about their iPhone 5s being 16:9 in portrait mode when they use the device with one hand.

Mobius Enigma said,

What is strange is that common users can be broke from this perception with a simple demonstration of the advantages of the 16:9 aspect ratio tablets, yet this same argument against standard HD resolutions screens is in almost every review of a 16:9 tablet. While there is hardly any review of the iPad that complains about the older aspect ratio with the black bars while watching movies, etc.

I find this fact to be one of the most stunning parts of the constant stream of praise of the iPad, including the recent description of the iPad Air as "perfect" by a ZD Net reviewer. These same uncritical thinkers write their reviews on 16:9 desktop or laptop screens, watch their 16:9 TV's at home and then think it is just fine that they watch video content with letterboxing on their iPads. If Microsoft developed a product that forced users to use something common to the era of VCRs and CRT TV's, they would be roundly, and properly, mocked for it. But, as I said before, Apple users just silently accept the crappy tradeoffs they are forced to make.

All too true.

It strikes me as being rather odd that the iPad is, in fact, the ONLY Apple display to use a 4:3 aspect ratio (note that the iMac, all MacBooks, and Apple's entire line of Cinema Displays use 16:9 or 16:10 aspects) - and that even includes the iPad Air.

Worse, the display's layout encourages using it in "book/portrait" layout, as opposed to landscape. (However, to be honest, most Android tablets, including those from Samsung, commit this same "sin".) It's almost as if to discourage thinking of the device as a computer, by deliberately discouraging using a layout familiar to any computer user - PC, Mac, or portable version of either

It looks really nice. However I am still using my netbook from 2009 that has 2GB ram, 120GB SSD and full windows 7 (and then my powerful win 8.1 computer for games etc). Sure it is not the same spec as surface 2 and not a tablet but I can do more on it. However I think watching videos would be better on the Surface 2. I am really tempted to get one but going to hold on to my netbook I think as it is still going strong.

I agree with a lot of things sais in the post, except the portrait usage : it's fully appropriate for news reading. People were asking to apps like Nextgen reader to get this portrait mode support. So it is on Bing news.
So, even if we're talking about vertical mode in 16/9 terms, people never been shocked about the vertical use of the 16/9 format with iPhone. Ok, it's a palm use device, and even if it's not the best use for Windows8 home screen, it's still a lot usable, and it does both, portrait and landscape mode, as you want. So, I don't agree saying it could be "a problem", it's clearly not.
Windows RT already has enough perception problems, which are not based on real use and real understanding of product position, as ssid in the post.

I've always said the surface 2 (and the RT) was a fantastic device that never got a fair shake from most the tech blogs and media. Most blogs that reviewed it simply focused on the negatives, or went with the same group-think complaints (OMG NO APPS!!1!) without actually bothering to do much with the device. Reviewers that took the time to explore it's features and capability, and use it for more than just a simple "app launcher", were extremely pleased and loved the device.

With the perception MS has in the tech media, it's easier for most bloggers to just heavily criticize and trash MS products simply because of the name or their own personal biases, because it typically drives more clicks.

This trend of using early adopters as beta testers would be fine if they gave us all a few perks along the way.

Out of the box Surface 1 was buggy as hell, crashed apps all the time, and the release day core apps were embarrassing void of basic functionality.

After we all paid good $ to early adopt and "help" Microsoft get there act together, the wait has been well worth it. 8.1 on a Surface 2 is a productivity animal. And these next couple of years will see a flood of quality apps. The lack of negative headlines alone will drive Surface adoption.

I have a couple of issues with Surface 2. There is a bug that makes it so you are unable to turn the device on properly after a time. You have to hold the power button in for 10 seconds to force it off, then turn it back on. This is not just an occasional problem, it happens often enough so that an average consumer would have to call someone for help if they did not already know how to reset in this fashion.

My other issue is with SkyDrive. Although it is nice to have your files offline and available "on demand" the average joe might go to access a file that they meant to have with them, and not realize that it is still offline and needs to be downloaded. They just need to be more clear on this front.

Nice review Brad pretty clear description, I will pass this one around.

jimmyfal said,
This trend of using early adopters as beta testers would be fine if they gave us all a few perks along the way.

Out of the box Surface 1 was buggy as hell, crashed apps all the time, and the release day core apps were embarrassing void of basic functionality.

You have some good points. If you're not going to offer "perks", then lower the cost. I was really tempted to get a MS tablet until I learned the keyboard cover was a separate price. After the HP Touchpad pricing fiasco, I thought for sure MS would offer their tablet at a cheaper price point or include the keyboard.

This is how I felt with Vista and Windows 7. I felt like I was a beta (or even alpha!) tester with Vista and I was so shocked when MS did not heavily discount Win 7 for Vista users.

Once I bought a Nokia 1020, I knew I wanted a Surface. So I sold my iPad Mini and purchased a Surface 2 (with Type Cover 2). I absolutely love it. There are a few little things, such as the Tegra 4 video drivers could be improved. I think people would be surprised what RT can do.

I need to check them out in my Microsoft store. My Air is my tablet for the foreseeable future but I am interested in the surface. Seems like the lack of quality apps would be crippling it.

The one thong that made me go with the Surface Pro is the lack of support for Silverlight. It's used for all online sport streaming here in Norway.

Brad, great review and almost how I feel about my Surface RT.

Battery drain at night is odd. I haven't narrowed it down but there is definitely something to it. Some have said wifi, but I haven't been able to reproduce the problem reliably enough to test.

I agree the marketing shows the keyboard which is a bit deceiving. But the idea that you must buy a 100+ keyboard to take advantage of office is a bit short-sighted. I've stopped carrying my type cover with me all the time. At work, I just have a regular usb keyboard I hook up to the device If I want to type on it heavily. It has the same drawbacks as an ipad with the onscreen keyboard. However, you can hook up any ole keyboard to it not just Bluetooth which is a huge cost savings for those who want a desktop/laptop replacement how many use them. Otherwise the same is true for ipad and surface, except the surface cover option is, frankly, superior to anything I've seen on an ipad.

Portrait mode. I disagree. It works fine. I use the bing news app on mine in portrait all the time. In fact, the increased content is nice. I don't think the ipad has any plus in this area. In fact, when going landscape and watching videos... the surface wins. I think it's a "what the user is used to seeing" issue. Widescreen in portrait works, it's just new and people who love ipads will use it as a negative.

As an IT person that usually needs to do fairly complex tasks on the go, I always had second thoughts about Windows RT. In order to get in my network I need specialized two-factor authentication methods that required special software that only runs in Intel.

But as I actually used the Surface 2, I realize that even if I could install the VPN application, it is still cumbersome, because if I lose connectivity for 10 seconds I lose all my open sessions and I will have to authenticate again into the each one of them, which could be 4 or more. So, the best solutions actually remote desktop into a computer that has all the sessions open and authenticated, so if you temporarily lose connection, you just have to reestablish the connection to that machine only.

So the Surface fully replaces my laptop on the go when I'm on call, because with remote desktop or teamviewer I can access my work environment and with the touch cover and trackpad I can operate the interfaces easily, and when I'm finished, I just pull the keyboard back and I get back to tablet mode.

"It does fall a bit short of being a laptop replacement with the lack of a full-fledged Photoshop or my preferred photo application, Picasa....."

For the love of what is holy to you, can we get this right for once.

!!! RT, like iOS, is a TABLET OS !!!!!

Every single review out there is hammering on the fact that RT cannot run desktop apps.
No, ofcourse not, it was never designed to do that!
If you need to run desktop apps, there's a Win tablet with an Atom or i5 CPU inside.

That's where you come in as a writer, to explain your so called 'fatal flaw' of the system.
Review the tablet and explain the differences from the start.

And while compairing it to a laptop, there's no talk about the advantages of having a USB port and SD slot in the tablet, as well as a monitor connector.
IMHO a big plus against a iPad and a Android tablets.

Also..
"Anyone who writes off a tablet because of Windows RT but thinks iPads, Chromebooks or Netbooks are a better option, because of the underlying OS, is simply not educated well enough on Windows RT."

This is where you should focus on in future review or editorials.
Educate the masses properly, explain the differences and the advantages.

my two cents.

I got a 1st generation Surface RT 64Gb off Craigslist for $150 three weeks ago... I didn't think I would like it, but for the price I figured it was a good gamble. I have not gone a day without using it and it's actually one of the most impressive devices I've ever used. It my internet in the living room device, it's my connected anywhere at work device, and it's changed my perspective on tablets. The only thing I think Microsoft needs to add to Windows RT is an app to make it a media center extender. I know that's asking for a lot, but it would make the Surface the perfect tablet for me.

I think the point about Windows 8 (and Windows RT) tablets should be their "convertible" nature: use them as a tablet AND when you need use them as a PC. So to me more should be done to enhance this convertibility. For example, I want a solution to connect the tablet to a big display, keyboard and mouse, so when I need to do some work at home I can just plug the tablet there and run Office. A dock? Wireless display? I don't find the keyboard cover to be a solution. I think it's hard to use the keyboard cover on your lap if you need to do some work while you're sitting somewhere. Just because of this lack of "convertibility" of the Surface I bought a Lenovo Yoga laptop (11 inch) instead. I think this kind of device embodies the "convertible" nature of Windows 8 better than the Surface. Waiting for new solutions!

i recently picked up a surface 1 cheap as ive always wanted to give one a try, i own an iPad and a Galaxy Note 10.1 and the surface is a really good device. Im impressed with the display and the fact it can handle pretty much anything i throw at it.

If i had a complaint it would be regarding the apps, yes there could be more, but more importantly some of the apps that are available need quite significant upgrades. I use evernote and it's vastly superior on iOS and android, i know this is the job of the developers but it's what i experience when using the device.

I do find it a really productive and versatile device. I hope they never get rid of the desktop side of the tablet but simply hide it if need be, as i believe this gives the surface the a large degree of versatility, couples with the USB slot and Micro SD reader.

I'm a Surface lover too, and I also use it more than my PC.

It also drives me mad how these tech journalists / bloggers either just regurgitate other stories / post and add their own biased opinion, or use these things for a couple of hours and go back to their Apple stuff.
And, of course, omit all the good features of the Surfaces (or is that Surfae...? lol*) that would put their Apple products to shame.

And talking of bias, yes, I do love Microsoft, dislike Apple and have limited experience with Android (but don't like what I have seen of it).

But I do think that these tech bloggers often talk a load of rubbish (as stated above)

The icing on the cake? The other day, my brother was using my mother's Surface RT instead of his iPad mini and we were having the usual argument about iPad vs Surface (ok, so I called it a toy and he retaliated), but then he looked up and said "This thing [the Surface RT] puts that [the iPad] to shame".

* I don't speak Latin and that was a joke!

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