Microsoft has two new Surface tablets that are currently up for preorder, as well as a crop of refreshed accessories. I’ve had the Surface 2, Surface Pro 2, and new Touch and Type covers for a few days now, and can report on their performance.
The above video clip has all the hardware specifics that you could possibly want. TechCrunch’s previous coverage of the new tablets, including an interview with the team that built them, is worth reading if you have the time.
We’ll start with a brief overview of the two devices, and then talk each over each individually.
The Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 are a doubling down on the bets that Microsoft made with its first generation hardware: Tablets with kickstands and attachable keyboards that serve as a case. From that we can infer that Microsoft is confident in its hardware ‘package.’
The Surface Pro 2 has been incrementally improved in a number of ways, but its core value proposition, when compared to its predecessor, is greatly extended battery life, which was the chief complaint that Microsoft cited as guidance when it explained its building of the device.
Holistically, the Surface 2 is a more improved device, with changes to its hardware stretching from its screen, cameras, battery life, casing, and so forth. It’s a truly great, light device. Whilst as Starbucks — doing requisite road testing of the Surface 2: low power, bad Wi-Fi and light, loud noises, etc. are great friction for getting to know the bones of a computer — it appeared that I had the most attractive device in the shop.
The new Touch Cover is a dramatic improvement over the original Touch Cover. If you felt unsure typing on the first generation, the second will be worth checking out. The new Type Cover has a smaller improvement delta over its preceding version. Still, if you demand moving keys, it’s a fine option.
That’s the brass tacks of it. Let’s dig in.
The Surface 2 is the more important of the two Surface tablets. The Surface RT was a sales disappointment. Keep in mind that potential success of Windows RT is essentially now predicated on the success of the Surface tablet that runs it.
The new Surface 2 must help establish Microsoft as an OEM of note, drive revenue for the company, slow the sagging of the PC market as a whole, and, just to add to the pressure on the little computer, prop up half of Microsoft’s recent OS bet.
So, how does the device stack up in use? The Surface 2 is a fantastic device right up until you run into the quirks that Microsoft has not yet managed to completely remove from Windows 8.1.
Consider the following: I needed to use Word to write a post while testing the tablet. This is a perfect use case for the Surface 2, in that I was on the go, needed to ‘get shit done,’ and had a hard surface to set the device upon. The Surface 2′s hardware (with new Touch Cover) was great. But Windows 8.1 got confused and displayed the desktop in a very odd manner. Word wouldn’t fully expand across the screen, filling it by about 60 percent and no more. I closed, reopened, resized, and so forth, but the desktop stayed skewed and Word wouldn’t open. After some frustration, I flipped the tablet to a different viewing mode, and then back to normal. That jogging of Windows 8.1 solved the problem.
The Surface 2 is fast, benefiting from a speedier quad-core ARM chip. Windows 8.1 doesn’t lag due to processor load, though the operating system can sometimes confuse itself. Its screen, now sporting 1080p, is crisp and attractive. I’m a bit blind, but it looks as nice to me as any iPad screen that I have used.
Speakers can be a small issue for most, as we all now spend the bulk of our time wearing headphones, but having improved speakers when you need them is nice, and Microsoft came through on that front.
I was somewhat dubious that I would give more than a third of a damn that the kickstand has a new angular position. This is why I don’t design products. The new, lower kickstand angle is a fine addition to the Surface line, and I would estimate that around 90 percent of the time that when I was using the Surface 2, it was in the lower kickstand position.
The new color of the Surface 2 is also quite nice, and does, thank heavens, avoid fingerprints. The Surface RT, and both generations of Surface Pro, attract and collect fingerprints as if they were planning to gather data for the NSA. A small, but welcome change.
The Surface 2, like the Surface RT, is slim and light and feels great to carry around. When carrying the two around the city, I didn’t bother to bring a backpack – it felt better to just hold it and wander.
The Surface 2 is a better device than the Surface RT. The largest issues that the Surface RT suffered from were outside of its ability to solve: App density in the Windows Store and the quirks of Windows 8. The Surface 2 combines a wealth of hardware improvements, married to Windows 8.1, and far more available applications.
So is it good enough? I think that the Surface 2, provided that Microsoft markets it properly and builds the correct amount of inventory, will be a moderate success for the company. There is a bit of hangover from the Windows 8 launch cycle that will hold the Surface 2 back, but that doesn’t stop it from being an attractive, innovative piece of hardware whose software foundation is rapidly – at last – improving.
Surface Pro 2
You already know everything that you need to know about the Surface Pro 2: that it has longer battery life, more storage options, and the ability to tack on up to 8 gigabytes of RAM. The Surface Pro 2 builds on what helped the Surface Pro sell decently: providing a full Windows experience, fused to Touch and Type cover technology, helping you work on the go.
Microsoft felt no need to tinker with the core value proposition that worked for the previous generation, so it busted hump to boost the battery life by around 60 percent (use case depending, of course). The guts of the device have been rebuilt almost from the ground up, so I don’t want to sound dismissive, but if you put a Surface Pro 2 and Surface Pro side by side you can easily get them confused.
In fact, the most intriguing bits of the Surface Pro 2 come next year, when the Power Cover and Docking Station will be released. Each is designed to make the Surface Pro 2 a cleaner fit into the enterprise landscape. But as I didn’t have access to those add-ons, I can’t provide notes here on their daily use.
Will the improved battery life help the Surface Pro 2 sell better than the Surface Pro? Yes. The question is how much better? Microsoft kept the price point of the new Pro on par with the old Pro. If you offer a better device for the same amount of money, it stands to reason that it would sell more units.
Briefly, the part of the new line of Surface products and accessories that surprised me the most was the new Touch Cover. The original Touch Cover was pure potential, in that it looked great, but wasn’t quite up to snuff. I felt constantly worried that I was not typing properly, or hard enough, or soft enough, and so forth. The new Touch Cover has something around 14 times as many sensors built into it and improved firmware so that you can screw up, but it doesn’t mind.
The result is that the thin – and now backlit – Touch Cover is far better to type on, while retaining the design elements that made it an interesting piece of hardware to begin with. Whether you have a Surface or not, give one of these a whirl.
As noted above, the new Type Cover is less dramatically reformed, though its backlit keys and new key travel are both pleasant additions.
The Marriage Of Hardware And Software
It’s very hard to discuss the Surface tablets without constantly referencing software, though I tried in the above. The Surface devices are designed to provide the best possible Windows 8.1 experience, and so to use one is to employ Microsoft’s vision of how one should interact with its new operating system.
An external facet of this is the deep integration of SkyDrive into Windows 8.1 to better marry the Surface 2 (device) and SkyDrive (service). Microsoft is dishing up 200 free gigabytes of SkyDrive capacity to Surface purchasers. Another example is the front-facing camera in the Surface 2, which is designed to handle low-light settings well, which benefits Skype usage. In this case, again, Microsoft is trying to unite the physical and the digital by providing Skype premium service to people who buy Surface tablets.
This all comes together for odd economics: A $449 Surface 2 – that’s its base price, sans a Cover of either variety – comes with SkyDrive storage that retails for $100 yearly (you get two free years), paid Skype service that isn’t that cheap on its own, and the full Office suite. The attached software and service goodies that come with the device rival its cash cost in terms of what you would pay if you purchased each separately. It’s a bizzaro world in which lowering hardware costs are bumping into the prices that Microsoft charges for software, which is something to think about.
All told, Microsoft has a far stronger lineup of tablets in play and a vastly improved operating system to support them. If it can’t turn that into a sales improvement over its first generation’s rocky year, it can’t become an OEM, period. But with smart advertising (lots), and proper expectations, the company may do well.
I can sum up all the above by saying that if I were heading to a cafe in five minutes, I would probably take the Surface 2 with the new Touch Cover and leave my Macbook Air at home.