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Microsoft Surface 2 review: Quality tablet suffering from a lack of app support

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The Good The Microsoft Surface 2 has a sturdy build, smooth gaming performance, and high-quality cameras. Windows RT 8.1 is easier to use than before, and the built-in photo-editing tools and Xbox Music are fantastic features. Office 2013 is included for free, and thanks to a new kickstand angle, the tablet is less likely to fall off your lap.

The Bad App support still lags behind competitors, and Windows RT is still incompatible with legacy programs. It's too easy to mistakenly push the tablet into its lower stance, and the touch pad on the Type Cover 2 isn't as comfortable as it was on the previous version.

The Bottom Line The Microsoft Surface 2 is great for getting work done, but those looking for extensive app support (beyond Office) will find top Apple, Android, and Amazon tablets to be better options.

7.3 Overall
  • Design 7
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8

The Microsoft Surface 2 is a definite upgrade over 2012's Surface RT. It's faster, with a sharper screen, and houses better cameras. If you're choosing between the older (still available) and newer model, the newer is the decidedly better option, even with its $100 premium. A far more appropriate question, however, is whether a Surface tablet in general is right for you.

There are two main issues with the Surface 2 that keep it from achieving true excellence. First -- with the notable exception of Microsoft Office 2013, which is bundled for free -- Windows RT is still not compatible with legacy Windows programs. (In other words: any old Windows program that worked on your XP, Vista, or Windows 7 PC won't run here.) Second, although the Windows app store has made some gains in app breadth and depth since its debut last year, it still lags painfully behind app stores from Amazon, Apple, and Google.

Those seeking legacy software compatibility can opt instead for the Surface Pro 2. It delivers the same overall look and feel of the Surface 2, but runs the full version of Windows 8.1, which does work with all of those old Windows programs (once you invest in an optical drive, at least). But there will be compromises: you'll pay twice as much; lose the free Office bundle; get shorter battery life; and get a tablet that's thicker and heavier than the Surface 2 reviewed here.

Meanwhile, even at $449, the Surface 2 is pretty expensive for a tablet with its aforementioned software limitations, and there are already other viable options like the Asus Transformer Book T100 out there -- a $349 tablet with a keyboard, running full Windows 8.1.

Though Microsoft offers a better package than it did last year, the Surface 2 ultimately suffers from the same problems as the original. And until the company can better address those issues inherent to Windows RT -- and the Windows Store in particular -- this will continue to be the case.

Design
If not for its new silver-grayish backside, you'd be hard-pressed to notice the physical differences between the Surface 2 and Surface RT. The new tablet is subtly refined in a number of ways.

The body is ever-so-slightly thinner and a wee bit lighter. The kickstand now has two different angles: 24 and 45. The 45-degree angle gives it a lower center of gravity, allowing it to actually sit on your lap while you type. Attempting to keep the Surface RT from tipping over while typing on your lap was one of my pet peeves about the tablet last year, so I'm glad it's been addressed. However, the metal still does dig into your skin if your quads are exposed. Also, it's a bit too easy to accidentally push it into the 45-degree angle when holding down the power button to shut the tablet down.

Microsoft Surface 2 Microsoft Surface Apple iPad 4 Google Nexus 10 (2012)
Weight in pounds 1.49 1.5 1.44 1.33
Width in inches (landscape) 10.8 10.8 7.3 10.4
Height in inches 6.8 6.8 9.5 6.9
Depth in inches 0.35 0.37 0.37 0.35
Side bezel width in inches (landscape) 0.81 0.81 0.8 0.9

For the most part, the Surface 2 can be described almost exactly as a Surface RT. When in landscape mode, there's a volume rocker, headphone jack, and speaker grill along the left edge, and Micro-HDMI, a full USB port, and another speaker grill along the right. The microSD card slot is still hidden behind the kickstand, but it has been moved down a couple of inches to allow for easier access.

The front camera gets a healthy upgrade to 3.5 megapixels, and the back camera is now 5 megapixels; both are up from "720p" on the Surface RT. On the Surface RT, you could easily see the screw heads behind the kickstand, holding the tablet together. These are no longer visible on the Surface 2; this is another example of the Microsoft engineering team's attention to small details that ultimately do matter when taking the tablet's overall quality into account.

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The Surface 2's 45-degree kickstand angle gives it better balance on laps. Josh Miller/CNET

New Touch and Type
Both the new Touch and Type Covers are still sold separately at $119 and $129, respectively, but now include a useful backlighting feature. They're also thinner than before and feel a bit more comfortable when held. When they're used as covers, the whole package doesn't feel as thick.

The Type Cover keys are quieter when struck, but the keys don't depress as far, which took some getting used after using the Type Cover 1 consistently for a few days. However, the Type Cover 2's touch pad is now flush with the palm rest and just isn't as comfortable to use. Typing on the Type Cover 2 feels more accurate.

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The Surface 2 is just as durable as the Surface RT. Josh Miller/CNET

Windows RT 8.1
Windows RT -- even in its new shinier, version 8.1 form -- is still the poor man's Windows 8.1. It still won't run legacy programs, but anything found in the Windows Store is fair game. It does, however, include a full version of Microsoft Office 2013.

It's clear Microsoft has thought about what makes a good interface, which is where it perhaps went wrong with its original touch interface from 2012. Things still aren't perfect, but without completely re-inventing the wheel -- again -- Microsoft has made sensible and thoughtful changes that noticeably improve the flow and efficiency of interacting with apps and settings. Whether it's displaying tiles instead of slides in the Pictures app or including a left navigation bar in Xbox Music, things just make more sense.

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The glowing backlight of Microsoft's new covers. Josh Miller/CNET

Previously, accessing your array of apps was a two-step process -- swipe up from the bezel and tap "All apps" -- but now, simply swiping up from the home screen takes you directly to the array. It's a small but significant change.

Tiles can now be made even smaller than before, allowing you to fit substantially more on screen at once. They also no longer feel stuck to the screen and can be moved around much more freely.

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The Windows RT 8.1 settings interface includes an almost overwhelming number of options. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

The settings menu has been nearly completely overhauled with a more streamlined interface that surfaces -- no pun intended, but perhaps actually intended -- options you previously had to access the legacy Windows Control Panel in order to reach.

Options as simple as Sleep parameters or Date and Time settings were buried in an interface that wasn't made to support touch, especially for those of us with fatter fingers. But now many of those options have been brought to the touch interface, making adjusting settings a lot less headache-inducing.

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Happy now? Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Windows traditionalists will rejoice: the Start button makes its much-appreciated return, offering quick shortcuts to the Control Panel, search, Task Manager, file explorer, and other options traditionally associated with the Start menu pre-Windows 8.

Overall, there are way more options in settings than there were before. They're easier to find and access, but the sheer number may be overwhelming to some. Thankfully, Microsoft foresaw this as a potential problem and took action: the top level of the settings menu will add a shortcut to any recent setting you've changed, so you don't have to go digging for settings you access often.

A significant camera app upgrade; Xbox Music still great
Given the bare-bones nature of the original native camera app for Windows RT 8.0, it's not a huge surprise that the app has seen some upgrades. What is impressive, though, is just how far Microsoft takes those advancements.

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The editing options in Windows RT 8.1's native photo app go further than what you get with any tablet app before it. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Swiping up from the bottom bezel while in the camera app displays a few new options, including a timer and an exposure feature that increases or decreases the amount of light in the shot. There's also a full-space panorama feature -- not unlike the one found in the Nexus 10 and 7 -- allowing you to capture an entire scene, including the floor, ceiling (or sky), and everything in between.

It does a better job at capturing the spaces directly above or below you than Google's tablets, but I either don't have a steady enough hand to stitch together a smooth cohesive picture or the app needs to do a better job at leading me through the steps of creating a panorama. I could never complete a picture that didn't look like a digital Picasso painting.

That said, Microsoft added plenty of picture-editing options. There's a useful selective focus option that allows you to sharpen one asset while blurring everything else. The shadow options let you adjust the fullness of shadows in the shot.

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The redesigned Xbox Music makes finding what you want to listen to a lot easier. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

My favorite is the color enhancement feature, which lets you selectively increase the color of any object in the shot. Combined, these features are some of the most robust I've seen on a tablet camera app. They aren't as gimmicky as some found in Samsung's Galaxy Note 10.1 2014 Edition, but feel more useful, especially for people a bit more serious about photo editing.

Xbox Movies and Music have deeper media libraries now, and the redesigned Xbox Music in particular makes finding what you want to listen to a lot easier. With more than 30 million songs, it's one of the best free streaming-music services around.

A Windows Store makeover
The Windows Store gets a cleaner, somewhat more sophisticated and flatter look. Microsoft has chosen to pull back a bit and not dump as much information on you, giving you the choice of finding it yourself. Promoted lists are a bit more focused and feel more specifically chosen. Lists like "New and Rising," "Surface Picks," and a list of Trending apps should make finding what's popular and good a bit easier. The new pull-down navigation menu should help as well.

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The new look of the Windows Store. The redesigned review section for each app is probably my favorite new addition. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

User reviews of individual apps are more prominent and useful; you can now see just how many five-star or four-star or three-star -- and so on -- reviews have been posted for the app in question. Also, swiping to the right or left reveals more app information, allowing you to easily find related apps or apps made by the same developer. Your installed apps are now auto-updated, ensuring that you'll always have the latest versions.

I like the Windows Store changes. It not only makes it easier to find apps, but is now much better at delivering useful information about each app. It's not perfect -- there may still be a bit too much swiping required, and it's not as effective at promoting apps compared with rival app stores -- but it's a noticeable and appreciated improvement to what RT users have experienced for the past year. Hopefully, the changes will inspire more developers to bring their apps to the platform. Which leads me to my next point.

So, what about app availability?
Last year I called the Surface RT "an innovative tablet stranded in an app desert". Have things improved in the last year? The short answer is: yes. There are more apps in Windows Store, including official Facebook and Twitter apps. There are plenty of cool apps for cooking, too, but still no official YouTube app. The holes are being filled, but it's slow going and seems to be rather random.

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Things have improved for the Windows Store in terms of app availability, but they still aren't where they need to be. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Game availability has increased, but not as much as should have by now. While Halo: Spartan Assault is a quality exclusive game, the very latest games like Asphalt 8, Riptide GP2, and Angry Birds Star Wars 2 are nowhere to be seen.

So while I can't in good conscience call the Windows Store "an apps desert," it still feels like a developing market -- one that's unsatisfying if you've experienced Apple's, Google's, or Amazon's app ecosystem.

Performance
By including a Tegra 3 in the Surface RT -- at the time an already year-old system-on-chip (SoC) -- Microsoft underestimated the appeal of having a powerful graphics processor in a tablet. The Surface 2 thankfully houses a much more powerful 1.7GHz Tegra 4 SoC.

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Riptide GP runs smoothly and looks great on the Surface 2. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

This is the same Tegra 4 that HP put in its Slatebook X2, and the performance -- at least according to 3DMark, is very similar. The Surface 2 scored 13,068 in 3DMark. That's higher than the iPad 4 (9,425), Nexus 10 (8,553), and of course Surface RT (3,339). It's a great score and speaks accurately to the tablet's gaming prowess, but it's not as fast as the new Kindle Fire HDX (16,655) or Nvidia Shield (16,348). Riptide GP -- the original -- ran at an incredibly smooth frame rate, and it looked fantastic at 1080p. It doesn't have the high-end effects of its sequel, but it's a fun game that runs silky smooth on the Surface 2. Unfortunately, it's one of very few of its kind.

Six Guns by Gameloft is probably the most taxing traditional-view polygonal game in the Windows Store. It runs noticeably smoother than on the Surface RT, but wasn't as smooth as I'd hoped it would be. By going with the 1.7GHz version of the Tegra 4 instead of the faster 1.9GHz, Microsoft makes a performance sacrifice. Load times, though, were much-improved over the Surface RT.

Swiping through different apps feels immediate and smooth, as does snapping multiple apps into split-screen mode. Movies load faster and look sharper, and boot times are now shorter.

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The Surface 2 loads Web pages much faster than the Surface RT ever did. Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET

Page loads in Internet Explorer are also faster. Gamespot.com took an average of 10 seconds to load on the Surface 2 and more than 20 seconds on the Surface RT. It still isn't as fast as the iPad, Kindle Fire HDX, or Nexus 7, though.

The new 1,920x1,080-pixel screen is sharp, bright, and outputs colors more accurately than the Surface RT. Side-by-side, the Surface RT's screen looks yellowish in comparison.

Tested spec Microsoft Surface 2 Microsoft Surface Apple iPad 4 Google Nexus 10 (2012)
Maximum brightness 315 cd/m2 391 cd/m2 455 cd/m2 368 cd/m2
Maximum black level 0.24 cd/m2 0.27 cd/m2 0.49 cd/m2 0.44 cd/m2
Contrast ratio 1,313:1 1,448:1 939:1 836:1

The new cameras deliver sharp pics and video, and their low aperture allows them to capture a lot of detail even in low light. The 3.5-megapixel front-facing camera is the best front shooter on any tablet yet. It captures clear, colorful images with lots of detail.

The new speakers are louder and clearer than the speakers in last year's RT, and are fine for delivering background music as long as you're not sitting too far away from them. They're louder than last year's, but not as loud or quite as clear as the Kindle Fire HDX's. There's a slight muffled quality to them you won't find on Amazon's latest tablet.

With the screen brightness at about half, battery life lasted throughout the day while testing the tablet, watching videos, surfing the Web, and idling in standby. In our official battery results -- running a local HD version of "The Avengers" while in Airplane mode -- the Surface 2 lasted an impressive 11.6 hours, compared with 9.5 hours for Surface RT.

Conclusion
The Surface 2 enters a more competitive and intimidating market than the Surface RT did last year. Tablets continue to get better, and the general public is more aware of Windows RT's inherent limitations and have seen fit to pass judgment.

The Surface 2 has a few notable advantages in its corner, including quality design and hardware. It's still the best productivity tablet thanks to comfortable keyboard options, free Office 2013, 200GB of free SkyDrive space for two years, and unlimited worldwide Skype minutes for one year. Xbox Music and Video are also both easily comparable with similar services on the other tablet platforms. However, the software limitations of Windows RT -- the lack of legacy app support, in particular -- still loom over it like an ever-watching Visigoth.

Also, despite its quality, at $449 starting, the Surface 2 is still an expensive prospect. Especially given the fact that there are now viable options -- based on its specs and the admittedly few minutes I've spent with it -- like the $349 Asus Transformer Book T100 out there. By the way, the price of the Asus includes a keyboard, 32GB of storage, and full Windows 8.1.

Microsoft still charges $80, $120, and $130 for its Touch Cover, Touch Cover 2, and Type Cover 2, respectively. And while the Surface 2 may outclass the T100 in hardware, if all you're looking for is a cheap tablet computer that runs legacy Windows apps, the T100 can do just that. The Surface 2 can't.

The Windows Store is still not yet ready to compete with the big boys. It's improved over the last year, but so has the competition, especially Google's and Amazon's stores. The Apple App Store remains the premiere purveyor of apps, bar none.

The Surface 2 is a lot like Nvidia's Shield: an undeniably high-quality product that's still waiting for lots of high-quality software to go along with it. If you're a fan of the Windows 8 ecosystem, the hardware improvements here serve it well. However, Amazon, Google, and Apple still do tablets better.

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