Surface 2 Review: Does Windows RT Still Suck?
Did Microsoft get it right second time around?
Microsoft is desperate to gain footing lost to Apple and Android in the tablet market. And so it should be, too. The tablet market is projected to grow as quickly over the next five years as the smartphone market grew from 2007 to 2013. The company’s latest salvo into the battle is the Surface 2 – part tablet, part (with the optional keyboard) laptop. So how does it fare? Read on to find out.
Design, Display, and Build
I was pleasantly surprised when I first picked up the Surface 2. It felt both sturdy and comfortable in my hands with a nice weight that seemed to infuse it with a sense of strength. “If only Apple could make the MacBook Air I use like this,” I thought. Then of course I remembered that the Surface 2 isn’t a laptop – well, not really anyway… it’s primarily meant to be a tablet, a consumer device aimed at iPad/Android users looking for something “a little bit different”.
At 680 grams, however, the Surface 2 is far too heavy for most typical tablet use, especially when compared to Apple’s 470g iPad Air and the recently launched wafer-thin Sony Xperia Z2 Tablet.
Putting aside its rather bulky weight, however, the Surface 2 has many original and positive features in both design and build. For starters, the 10.6-inch (27 cm) 1920x1080 ClearType HD display looks beautiful when in landscape mode. Though its pixel per inch (PPI) only measures 208, the text and images on the screen are stunning. Another nice (and responsive!) feature is the capacitive touch Home button that quickly toggles between the Home/Start screen and the last-used app.
The Surface 2’s body itself is made from magnesium alloy and toughened glass, which gives it its weight, but also lends itself to a confidence that this Surface can take a beating. It measures 10.81 inches (27.5 cm) (W) x 6.81 inches (17.3 cm) (H) x 0.35 inches (8.9 mm) (D).
With the new dual-kickstand you have more than one choice when it comes to plopping the Surface RT down on the counter; you can have it upright and not so upright. It’s a simple addition, but a solid one all the same, making the machine great for use in the kitchen while cooking or for work (with the keyboard attached) on a plane or train - provided you have a table in front of you, that is.
Where the Surface 2 gets annoying is when you put it in portrait mode. Then the kickstand is obsolete and, because of its 16:9 aspect ratio, it makes reading content on the screen a bit awkward. 16:9 is a great aspect for movies in landscape mode, but there’s a reason magazines and books (and the iPad) use a 4:3 ratio – people use tablets differently to PCs and laptops.
Storage, CPU, Memory, and Battery Life
The Surface 2 comes in two flavors: 32GB or 64GB. All the other specs for both models are the same. I tested the 32GB version.
Before I move on to the other specs, a note about that storage space: you aren’t going to get anywhere near the stated amounts. Even before you load any of your own content on the Surface 2 you only actually have 18GB available on the 32GB version and 47GB available on the 64GB version; Windows RT 8.1 takes up the rest.
In my opinion, wiping out half a device’s stated storage before the user adds any of their own content is a big downer.
Storage aside, the rest of the hardware specs for the Surface 2 come out pretty good. At its heart the Surface 2 has an Nvidia Tegra 4 1.7 GHz Cortex A15 quad core SOC (with a “power saving” 5th core to boot). It ships with 2GB of RAM and also has a built-in battery that will give you “up to” 10 hours of video playtime and offers up to two weeks of idle time. I’ll speak more about how the specs affect the Surface 2’s performance below, but as for that battery, in my week-and-a-bit of heavy testing, I found Microsoft’s claims to be pretty accurate.
Ports, Connectivity, and Sensors
The Surface 2 really comes into its own with regards to connectivity, sensors, and ports. As you’d expect it’s got all the normal wireless connectivity with 2 MIMO Wi-Fi (802.11 a/b/g/n) antennas and a Bluetooth 4.0 chipset. What it does lack out of the box is GPS and 4G – although the latter will be coming very soon via an update, according to Microsoft.
Lack of GPS aside, the Surface 2 comes with a host of other sensors most third-party apps rely on one way or another, including an ambient light sensor, an accelerometer, a gyroscope, and a magnetometer.
But what’s really nice about the Surface 2 compared to, say, the iPad Air, is its USB 3.0 port and the MicroSDXC card reader. The USB 3.0 port is a godsend. It makes transferring files quick and easy, but it does come at a cost - SIZE - which is why you don’t find them used aboard tablets all that often. Usually that’d be a big faux pas, but in this context Microsoft is forgiven because the Surface RT would be a lot worse off without.
Camera, Audio, and Video
Like any good tablet, the Surface 2 sports a front and rear camera for video conferencing, shooting videos, or taking pictures. The front facing camera is a decent 3.5MP setup capable of shooting video in 1080p HD. The rear facing camera offers a little more oomph and is a 5MP sensor that is also capable of shooting 1080p HD video.
Both cameras worked well for Skype calls and shooting pictures/video. Given their “low” megapixels one might assume this would not be the case, but it’s important to remember that for most people a 3MP camera is more than enough to capture good images – even if you are printing them out and blowing them up to 8x10’s. Besides, I’ve yet to meet anyone who takes “serious” photos with a tablet camera.
On the audio side of things the Surface 2 sports Dolby Digital Plus stereo speakers. Truthfully, these sound a bit tinny to me – and I’m not even that big of an audio guy. But as soon as I plugged in my headphones to the Surface 2’s 3.5mm jack music and other audio sounded fine.
One last nice AV feature of the Surface 2 is the HD Video Out (micro HDMI) port. This allows you to easily connect your Surface 2 to any HDMI display to mirror its screen or play videos from it.
Operating System, Apps, and Performance
Put curtly, Windows RT 8.1 just isn't that good of a mobile operating system. It’s okay at some things – Netflix, Office, and web browsing, for instance – but lacks huge swathes of functionality elsewhere.
The Surface Pro can run legacy apps, filing the void inside Microsoft’s Windows Store, and is a truly decent machine for this reason alone. The RT, however, cannot and is tragically limited to Microsoft’s tumbleweed-ridden Windows Store. And when your device is meant to complete with the likes of Android and iOS this just won’t do.
But the fact is, on closer inspection, the new Start/home screen is a mess, too. It’s not that a tiled interface is a bad idea – it really isn’t. It’s the execution, the way it works. The arbitrary sizes of the tiles and the unintuitive way you can arrange them makes navigating the UX a pain in the ass. But the main problem is the way Windows RT 8.1 divides itself between the tiled interface and the desktop interface.
With the Surface Pro, you have the best of both worlds: legacy apps and Windows Store apps designed specially for Microsoft’s Modern UX. The Surface RT only does the latter, however, and is rendered almost useless as a consequence, which is likely the reason no one these days, other than Microsoft and Nokia of course, will touch RT.
Microsoft gets points for including a free copy of touch-optimized versions of Word, Outlook, Excel, and PowerPoint with the Surface 2, but it isn’t enough to fill the gaping hole inside Microsoft’s Windows Store.
Things may change at BUILD 2014 in April, where Microsoft is expected to announce the consolidation of Windows Phone and Windows RT, allowing developers to create content that’ll work on both Windows Phone and RT. This will make a big difference to the Surface RT, and Windows RT in general, but it’ll still take time to yield fruit, potentially months and months. And who likes waiting?
On the positive side of software things, at least everything seems to run smoothly. Using Word on the desktop was surprisingly easy, especially with the Touch Cover/Keyboard attached. While the gestures, and animation feedback used for those gestures, may not be as elegant as on iOS and Android, the hardware inside the Surface 2 has more than enough power to keep things running smoothly (as well as handle any new changes Microsoft introduces at BUILD 2014).
Cost and Conclusion
One last nice thing I want to mention about the Surface 2 is the optional Touch Cover, which allows you to snap on a flat backlit keyboard/cover combo. Though the pressure sensitive keys take some getting used to, you quickly realize how much easier tablets would be to use – and how much more productive they can become – when you’ve got a keyboard at your disposal.
And that’s why, if you do want a Surface, it’s worth investing in the Pro edition and giving Windows RT a very wide berth. Windows 8.1 Pro is designed for workers and can run everything your laptop/desktop PC can. Windows RT, meanwhile, is a more mobile-facing platform designed for more traditional tablet users [basically, RT is Microsoft’s version of iOS and Android].
But it lacks A LOT of what makes iOS and Android great as platforms; things like applications, games, and developer support just aren’t there. Even the UX feels like an afterthought, something Microsoft just ported over from the desktop in order to have a “mobile strategy”. And when you're limited to RT, the Surface doesn't really cut it as a dedicated tablet (even with ad hoc laptop capabilities) with its wide aspect ratio and heavy frame - the iPad and Nexus 7 are sleek, agile and portable, while the Surface is more like a tank.
Things could change in the coming months. The consolidation of Windows Phone and Windows RT seems logical (okay, essential). But whether this will herald the range and scope of changes required to make RT a viable platform, something to bring it inline with iOS, Android or Windows 8.1 Pro, is another thing entirely.
The Microsoft Surface 2 is £359 for the 32GB version and £439 for the 64GB version. The optional Touch Cover/Keyboard is £99.99.