Surface 2 Review: One Step Forward, Two Steps Behind

The Surface RT was Microsoft's brassy if ultimately flawed attempt to do a cannonball into the placid, iPad and Kindle-dominated tablet pool. It didn't quite work out. With the Surface 2, Microsoft is taking the opportunity to say "No guys, but really," with a blistering, scary sort of confidence.

What Is It?

The Surface RT with a spec bump, a new name, and some surface-level changes.

Who Is It For?

People who want a tablet that's good for browsing the internet and watching movies, but is also good for typey things. Microsoft Office junkies.

Why It Matters

Like the Windows 8.1 and the Surface Pro 2, this was Microsoft's first opportunity to change course and cut losses after its original Surface line and Windows 8 were met with a thud. It's not doing that.

Design

The Surface 2 is, for all intents and purposes, the Surface RT again. There are a few changes, but they're all fairly minor. The Surface 2 is a whitish gray now, for instance, and it's got a coarser, less slick finish to its body.

Surface 2 Review: One Step Forward, Two Steps Behind

It is thinner! By two hundredths of an inch. And lighter! By one hundredth of a pound. It has Surface branding on the back now, instead of having the Microsoft logo. It's also got a better screen (1080p, 208 PPI, like the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2) and a pair of better, 1080p cameras. 3.5 megapixels in the front, 5 megapixels in the back. The best camera of any Surface, in fact, but still a tablet camera.

It's also got the same fancy new two-stage kickstand as the Surface Pro 2. This is an improvement that definitely makes it easier to use with a keyboard on a lap, but it doesn't make it good to use with a keyboard on a lap. Since the Surface 2 is a tablet first and foremost, that's not the a crucially important improvement, and the failure to make it great is not a crucially important failure either. It just sort of is, something that Touch or Type Pad Cover 2 owners will nod at appreciatively and then move on.

Using It

The Surface 2 doesn't just look like the Surface RT, it acts like it too. Just better. Where the Surface RT was noticeably laggy, the Surface 2 is not. And the better screen is, well, better also, if not quite up to par with similar 10-inch tablets like recent full-size iPads, or the Nexus 10. But even so, them live tiles really pop now, and video looks crisper than ever.

Surface 2 Review: One Step Forward, Two Steps Behind

Aside from the general lagginess, the other big issue with the Surface RT was the apps, or rather the lack thereof. The Surface 2—and in fairness, any Surface RTs out there and in use—aren't suffering nearly as badly as they were a year ago. The Windows Store is now home to absolutely essential apps. Apps like Facebook and Twitter.

But really, when it comes down to it, the Surface 2 is a better Surface RT through and through. An alternate universe Surface RT. The Surface RT it might have been nice to have last year, but is nice to have at the party either way.

Accessories

The biggest leaps for Surface 2 actually come from its accessories. Like, the Touch Cover 2 is actually good for typing! Yes, the weirdness of pounding on a flat surface with no moving parts persists. It is still perilously easy to wander off course, type some gibberish, fill your screen with\\\\\ as you attempt to find backspace, and wind up swearing. But the Touch Cover 2 is somehow instantly more intuitive than it was before. It helps that, apparently, this new version has some 1,100 touch sensors instead of the meager 8o (!) that were in the old one. You'll notice.

Specs aside, Touch Cover 2 just feels better, and so long as you can keep yourself anchored to the home keys, it's fairly easy to just go to town. There's still a learning curve—there always will be—but now it's more like days than weeks. Maybe even hours.

It's not all good news, though. The original Touch Cover was too flimsy, and its successor isn't much sturdier. Side by side, it seems that the Touch Cover 2 might actually have more flex to it. That's all kinds of impressive from an engineering standpoint, but it's kind of a bummer when you're trying to peck at it on your lap.

Surface 2 Review: One Step Forward, Two Steps Behind

The Type Cover 2 is a slick little update as well. Its new keys have less travel that the old version, and the shallower press-depth makes it feel more solid. That's a blessing and a curse actually, because it lulls you into a sort of false sense of security and you'll find yourself on a typo-riddled sprint as you try to run before you can walk. We actually found it easier to type on the Touch Cover at times, because it demands a sort of careful concentration that keeps you on track. But once you get the hang of it—again, a matter of a day, or a couple of hours—it's possible, feasible, and comfortable to really cook on the thing.

As an added bonus, both covers have backlights now, fairly powerful and even ones, considering that the addition didn't add so much as a millimeter to either cover. According to Microsoft, the new Touch Cover is actually thinner than it used to be, but the change is virtually impossible to notice. The Touch Cover, with its new army of sensors, is also theoretically able to support keyboard-wide swipey gestures, like some big trackpad, but we couldn't find anything that showed this off particularly well, or any compelling reason we'd want to.

On the flip side, the actual touchpads on both the Type and Touch Cover are still too small. Of course, we're talking about a touch-enabled device here, so it's not the end of the world. But just because you have a ready alternative doesn't mean an existing part should get away with being sub-par. Besides, old habits die hard, and it's important to have a precision pointer option when you're navigating the desktop. Fortunately this is Windows RT and you won't spend much time there.

Like

Surfaces are beautiful hardware, and the Surface 2 is no exception. Like the RT, the Surface 2 looks good, feels good, has all the right clicks and snaps while you're removing Touch Covers and adjusting the kickstand. The Surface 2, like the RT before it and Surface Pros 1 and 2, is a device you will want to pick up and hold and love and use and dare I say cherish. Nobody else is out there making tablets this genuinely lovely on the outside. Nobody is even coming close.

Surface 2 Review: One Step Forward, Two Steps Behind

The Surface 2 has not only better specs than its forbear, but provides a better experience. The Surface 2 runs apps snappily, unlike the the RT. The tablet's Tegra 4 processor and 2GB of RAM will leave you wanting for nothing. And with the new 1080p, 208ppi screen on par with the Surface Pro and Pro 2, it looks as good as any Surface ever has.

The two-stage kickstand makes the Surface 2 much more versatile for lap-top and laptop use, with a Touch Cover or Type Cover, if that's what you're into. And the new accessories and their various improvements make typing with a Surface 2 more feasible than ever.

And the Surface 2's cameras, boasting 1080p verses 720p on every other Surface device, are a major improvement. The shots the 5MP rear-facer produces aren't exactly fantastic, but they're not a muddy mess either.

Surface 2 Review: One Step Forward, Two Steps Behind

No Like

The Surface RT had bigger problems than lackluster specs though, and most of those still persist. First there's the ecosystem. Admittedly, the stable of Metro apps—the only thing you'll be running on your Surface 2—has improved from the very dismal state it launched with last year. You will now find an official Twitter app, and an official Facebook app, for instance.

But if you move beyond the absolute necessities, you'll find that there's still not a lot of selection in the Windows Store. In social networking, you'll find that Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, and Vine are all missing. Admittedly several of these don't have tablet versions, but there's no phone version to fall back on. And if you're not up to using the built-in Xbox Music for your tunes, good luck finding Pandora, Spotify, Rdio, Soundcloud, or Last.fm. And, it pretty much goes without saying, but your chance of stumbling on something cool is almost nil.

But even besides all that, the spec bumps are good but not great. The step up to 208 PPI is far from top of the line. Comparatively sized tablets like the iPad and the Nexus 10 boast 264 and 300 PPI respectively. And smaller tablets go even higher, like the Nexus 7's and Kindle Fire HDX's 323 PPI.

And then there's the price. The Surface 2 starts at $450 for a 32GB model. That's just $50 less than a 16GB iPad (a more considerable $150 less than a comparable 32GB though), which boasts a better screen and far more robust ecosystem. And it's $100 more than the Nexus 10, which also offers a better screen and wider selection of apps (though admittedly not all of them optimized for a 10-inch screen).

And this is all without the Type or Touch Covers that lend the Surface 2 its special, type-friendly productivity skills. Those covers are $120 and $130 extra respectively, catapulting the Surface 2 far beyond the Nexus 10 in price, and bringing it neck-and-neck with the iPad. And considering some of the Surface 2's more glaring inferiorities, that can make it a tough deal to swallow unless you are really into typing and also Office.

Should You Buy It?

Probably not. The better screen, better camera, and better processor help make the Surface 2 a much more compelling tablet than the Surface RT, but it's not quite as compelling as the competition, and what unique value it does bring to the table is not for everyone. Not for many.

The Surface 2 is still remarkable for its accessories, specifically the Type and Touch Cover 2, which are much much better than the covers the Surface RT had to contend with. If you really do find that you need a tablet that simply must have a physical keyboard, but also that physical keyboard must be attached and svelte and not just some bluetooth one, then yes, the Surface 2 is your tablet. But you belong to a very small niche.

Microsoft Surface 2 Stats
Price: $450, + $120 for Touch Cover, +$130 for Type Cover
Screen: 10.6-inches, 10.6-inch ClearType 1920x1080 (207PPI)
Processor: 1.3 GHz Quad Core Tegra 4
Storage: 32 GB, microSDXC expandable
Wi-Fi: 802.11b/g/n
RAM: 2 GB
Connectivity: 1 USB 2.0 port, HD video out
Weight: 1.5 Pounds
Dimensions: 10.81 x 6.77 x 0.35 inches