Nokia Lumia 2520 vs. Microsoft Surface 2: Do we need two Windows RT tablets?

With Microsoft's Surface 2 now released and Nokia's Lumia 2520 on the horizon, we thought now would be a good time to compare the only two new Windows RT tablets.

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6 min read
First Look
Watch this: Nokia Lumia 2520: Nokia's Windows RT Surface rival

After the less-than-stellar debut of Windows RT last year, the subsequent cancellation of Samsung's Windows RT tablet, and Microsoft's $900 million Surface RT write-down, I honestly didn't expect another RT tablet from anyone other than Microsoft to be released, ever. However, earlier this week, Nokia announced its first Windows RT tablet, the Lumia 2520.

Its announcement comes right on the heels of the Surface 2's release, so what better time to compare the merits of each. And while I haven't actually seen the 2520 in person, CNET has. Also, after reading our First Take, speaking to my colleague Sarah Mitroff -- who did see it in person -- and looking closely at the specs, I feel I have a pretty good idea of what to expect.

Do we really need two Windows RT tablets?
Before Nokia's announcement of the Lumia 2520, I'd really made peace with the idea that Windows RT would be something only Microsoft would support and that we'd likely see it phased out by the time the Surface 3 rolled around.

The main reason being that vendors like Asus had figured out how to offer a full Windows 8.1 tablet for a lower price. There just didn't seem to be much reason for Windows RT, and the idea of another vendor hopping into RT's nebulous waters, didn't seem feasible.

I first wondered if this had anything to do with Microsoft's plans to buy Nokia's product division. However, Roger Cheng's analysis handily squashes that idea. A more perplexing question is: what does Nokia see in Windows RT that Samsung and a good number of consumers didn't?

Besides its lack of apps and missing legacy program support, Windows RT is a good tablet OS, but there remains a stigma attached to it. A "this is the lesser" sort of stench.

The Microsoft Surface 2 gets a nice upgrade, but is held back by the Windows Store
Watch this: The Microsoft Surface 2 gets a nice upgrade, but is held back by the Windows Store

Perhaps Nokia believes that with only two RT tablets for consumers to choose from, its chances of making a profit are that much greater. The company essentially appears to be simply following Microsoft's lead here. The Lumia 2520 is pretty much what you'd imagine a Nokia version of the Surface 2 tablet to be.

I think the justification for two so similar tablets will depend entirely on the 2520's price. If it heavily undercuts Microsoft, yet still delivers an experience on par with the Surface 2, then yes, I'd say it was worth it. That would give the relative few consumers interested in RT an option and would likely force Microsoft to lower the Surface 2's price.

However, that scenario isn't very likely. What's more probable is that Nokia will compete head-to-head with the Surface 2, and, thanks to its out-of-the-box LTE support, included video-editing software, and its unique take on the keyboard accessory, the 2520 will be a viable alternative to the Surface 2.

Whether you're comfortable settling for an RT tablet -- when full Windows 8.1 exists -- is a question you'll have to answer yourself.

The Surface 2 isn't much different from its predecessor in look and feel. It still feels like a high-quality device, and other than an additional kickstand angle, it's pretty much the same tablet (although the new silver-gray finish is quite pleasing to the eye).

The Lumia 2520 is thinner, lighter, and feels more compact than the Surface 2. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

According to my colleague Sarah Mitroff, the Lumia 2520 has a more curved design and feels more compact and lighter compared with the Surface 2; however, there's no built-in kickstand on the 2520. It's difficult to get a sense of its feel from pics, so I'm looking forward to checking it out myself.

While the Surface 2 currently comes in a Wi-Fi-only model -- an LTE version is planned for 2014 -- Nokia says it will only release LTE versions of its tablets, starting with the 2520 and continuing with any releases. This means that you'll only see the Lumia 2520 sold through cellular providers like AT&T and Verizon.

As for ports, the Surface 2 includes a full USB port, Micro-HDMI, and microSD. The 2520 features the same ports, but throws in NFC as well.

Like the Surface 2, the Lumia 2520 also comes with the latest version of Office, but Nokia goes one step further by including Nokia's proprietary video-editing software called Video Director. The software allows you to take short video clips and stitch them together into one movie, adding effects and extra panache of your choosing.

The screen
The Surface 2 features a 10.6-inch screen, while the Lumia 2520's screen is a slightly smaller 10.1 inches in size. Each screen runs at a 1,920x1,080-pixel-resolution. And while these are undoubtedly high resolutions, they're not the highest we've ever seen. However, each screen employs techniques that extend their quality and presentation value beyond simple sharpness.

There's more to a screen's quality than simply its resolution. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

In an effort to increase the quality of the Surface 2's display, Microsoft fused the touch layers, the cover glass, and the LCD into one. So instead of three separate pieces making up the screen -- each with its own reflective properties, thus reducing image quality -- fusing them together into one means you have only to account for one reflective layer, reducing image quality degradation.

From my hands-on experience with the Surface 2, it appears to work. The screen is almost impeccably sharp, with a wide viewing angle, accurate color, and a high contrast.

The Lumia 2520 takes a different approach to achieve a similar end. Like Lumia phones, the tablet uses Nokia's ClearBlack Display technology, which through an array of polarizers, essentially controls the light coming into the display in a way that reduces reflections and increases screen contrast.

The keyboard
I love using the Surface 2's Type Cover 2. It's an amazingly comfortable keyboard that of course doubles as a screen cover. This new version also includes a handy backlight feature.

The Surface 2's Type Cover 2 gets some backlighting action. Josh Miller/CNET

As for the 2520, since it doesn't include a built-in kickstand, Nokia put one in the keyboard accessory instead. It looks a lot like the Type Cover 2, from its fully depressible keys, to the disappointingly flush touch pad. However, when folded around the tablet it looks exactly like a Trapper Keeper, shamelessly appealing to my '80s childhood nostalgia.

That said, my favorite feature of the new keyboard is that it extends your battery life by an additional 5 hours. My least favorite thing is its $150 price. That's $20 more expensive than Microsoft's Type Cover 2, but the battery life extender kind of makes up for it. On paper, at least.

The processor
The Surface 2 houses a 1.7GHz Nvidia Tegra 4, whereas Nokia went with a 2.2GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 for the Lumia 2520. The Tegra 4 is great for smoothly navigating the OS, quickly decoding streaming video, and loading apps. Alas, as a gamer, I was a bit disappointed.

The processor isn't as powerful as the 1.9GHz version of the Tegra 4 in the Nvidia Shield, and if Microsoft had gone with a faster processor, it would have gone at least a little way toward future-proofing the machine. Don't get me wrong; it delivers the gaming goods, just not impressively so.

On the other hand, the Snapdragon 800 has already proven itself in the Kindle Fire HDX, virtually tying with the Nvidia Shield and beating every other processor before it when it comes to gaming performance. As a result, I expect the 2520 to be a more capable gaming machine than the Surface 2.

The Surface 2's front-facing camera is rated at 3.5 megapixels and is the sharpest, clearest, most colorful front camera I've yet seen on a tablet. The 5-megapixel back camera is no slouch, but since rear tablet cameras typically have better specs, I wasn't as overly impressed. Still a great tablet camera, though.

Expect the 2520's back camera to outclass the Surface 2's. Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The Lumia 2520 kind of takes the opposite track. It features a 2-megapixel front camera, but a 6.7-megapixel rear camera. So, if the megapixel rating is anything to go by -- and it sometimes is, but not always -- the Surface 2 will have a better front camera, while the 2520's rear camera should be the more impressive. The proof, however, will be in the pudding.

The Surface starts at $449 with 32GB of storage, and there's a 64GB version for $549. The 2520 doesn't yet have a set price, and so far only AT&T and Verizon have announced plans to sell it in the US.

I can't imagine Nokia would charge more than Microsoft for its tablet. My guess is that it'll want to undercut Microsoft's price a bit or possibly offer more storage for the same price. It would also be nice to see a 128GB configuration when the price is finally announced.

We shall see
Once the 2520 is actually released, we'll have a clearer picture of its merits and how they truly compare with the Surface 2's. Yes, the world of Windows RT just got a bit more interesting, if for no other reason than to see how this new unexpected competition plays out.