About this time last year, Microsoft made some major promises about ushering in the future of computing. One year and two Surface tablets, later the future Microsoft's been dreaming of isn't quite here. Maybe the second time's the charm.
Microsoft is rolling out the next two versions of its Surface devices, the Surface 2 (the followup to the Surface RT) and the Surface Pro 2. Both of them are virtually identical on the (wonderfully designed) outside, but the insides are where it gets real.
The Surface 2
Microsoft is pushing forward with its Surface RT crusade, but this time without the "RT". In name, anyway. The Surface 2 (as opposed to the Surface 2 Pro) is mostly the same as its predecessor at first glance. It's got the same fantastic physical design except a liiittle bit thinner. Oh and this time it's white.
But even though it's lost the "RT" in its name, the Surface 2 is still a Windows 8.1 RT device. It's just not wearing that on its chest anymore. Still nothing but Metro Modern apps here. The selection's getting better all the time, but it's still not great.
Surface 2 is available in 32GB and 64GB configurations and starts at $450 for the base model without the Touch Cover. So $50 off the Surface RT's launch price, but $100 more than what a comparable Surface RT will run you today.
Surface Pro 2
The Surface Pro 2, the real great hope of Microsoft's laptop-tablet hybrid future, doesn't look very different on the outside either. In fact, the case is exactly the same as last year's Surface Pro, with the exception of a new two-position kickstand.
Nothing mind-blowing here, but the Surface Pro was already magnificent from a design perspective. Not changing anything was one of the best moves Microsoft could have made. And again, the guts are where it's at.
Microsoft claims the Surface Pro 2 is more powerful than 95 percent of laptops out there (presumably that means "in circulation," so take it with a grain of salt), 20 percent improvement over the original Pro, with twice the graphical power. There's a 4th-gen Intel Core i5 in there to thank for that. That means a CPU that can really cook, better graphics, and most of all, better battery life. Microsoft claims it's 75 percent better battery-wise. That's fantastic, but in fairness a lot of that is thanks to Intel.
The Surface Pro 2 will be available in 256GB (!) and 512GB (!!) versions, in addition to the 64GB and 128GB options we had before. And the two new larger entrants have the option of rocking 8GB (!!!) of RAM. The load-outs start at $900, just like the original Surface Pro, but you can bet those higher capacities will cost you a pretty penny.
The Pro 2 is a real doubling down on the dream of a killer slate PC that's also a tablet, and putting more horsepower into an already solid physical design could be a solid step forward, and one that makes sense.
Microsoft's Surfaces are ostensibly tablets, sure, but their laptop-tablet hybrid potential leans pretty heavily on the Touch Cover and Type Cover that act as its future-keyboard. It's only fitting they get an update too.
The Touch Cover 2 and Type Cover 2 are both (almost miraculously) thinner than their forerunners by a millimeter, and they're both uniformly backlit.
So the the new Type Cover is almost as thin as a normal tablet cover, and Microsoft claims that it's totally silent. The company's putting a lot of emphasis on getting the speed of typing on the Type Cover up through refined mechanisms, which is good since the original Type Cover was usable, but not exactly pleasant. The resolution of the sensors on the Touch Cover have improved too, to the same end. Microsoft's also making a big point of saying how these are both stiff enough to offer "lapability." And we'll be stoked if that turns out to be true; last generation was greatly in need of a desk, which neutered the promised portability somewhat.
That's just the beginning for new "covers" though.
Microsoft's teased a whole bunch of other, more specialized covers through the Surface Remix Project. Everything from DJ-ing to god knows what else. Microsoft's pitching them like physical apps. It's a clever use of a Surface-specific superpower.
Microsoft's got a new fabric-covered Power Cover which is pretty much exactly what you'd hope for: a Surface keyboard-cover that's also a battery pack. It looks a little thick. Like thick as a Surface RT or two first-gen Type Covers, but at least it has real keys. It stands to reason it'll be a little stiffer than the other covers too, which could make the Surface work as a literal lap-top device. Maybe. The Power Cover only works only with the Surface 2 and Pro 2 (edit: and original Pro! but not RT). But the battery boost it offers is apparently "significant." Between the Power Cover and the Haswell battery bump, the Surface will reportedly last two and a half times longer than the previous generation.
Microsoft's also rolling out a Surface Dock, despite having been pretty dead-set against the concept not too long ago. The dock isn't for everything; it only works for the Pros, but it comes equipped with a mini DisplayPort for video-out, one USB 3.0 port, three USB 2.0 ports, microphone and headphone jacks, and a 1Gbps Ethernet port. It should make you Surface-Pro-to-Desktop-Voltron dreams a reality.
It's not exactly an accessory, but every Surface purchase comes with free international calling and a free year of unlimited hotspot-use through Skype. New Surfaces will also get you 200GB of free SkyDrive for two years too.
Update: Microsoft didn't mention it at the event, but the Surface 2 will come in an LTE flavor.
The Surface 2 and Pro 2 are available for pre-order online, at your local Microsoft store or Best Buy starting 8 a.m. EDT on Sept. 24, 2013. It'll show up on shelves in the US and Canada on October 22, with China to follow sometime in November.
To recap prices: Surface 2 starts at $450 for 32GB with no Type Cover, a little cheaper than last time around. Surface Pro 2 starts at $900 for the 64GB, or the same as last time around.