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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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