Microsoft this week began selling the latest generation of the Surface, the tablet it launched late last year and then struggled to sell.
The Surface 2 is smaller, has a better screen and improved performance compared with last year’s model, the Surface RT. It even has a cheaper price tag of $449 than the Surface RT did last year when it debuted for $499.
All in all, the Surface 2 is a nice device, but it still fails to present a good reason why consumers should pick it over the iPad or cheaper Google Chromebooks.
But let's start with what’s different.
Microsoft has improved the Surface’s helpful little kickstand and given it two angles at which it can rest. The first angle is the same as that of the Surface RT’s, but if you push the kickstand further back the Surface 2’s kickstand will lean back even more. That’s helpful, especially if you’re a taller person or if you are using the Surface 2 on your lap.
With the Surface RT, resting the device on your lap could be a struggle. That’s no longer the case with the Surface 2.
The other smaller changes users might like are the Surface’s improved screen and slightly slimmer build. The Surface RT used a 720p HD screen and was 0.37 inches thick, but the Surface 2 features a full 1080p HD screen and is 0.35 inches thick.
One of the most unique things about the Surface 2 is its super wide 10.6-inch screen. It comes in a true 16:9 screen ratio, which is the way widescreen videos appear. If you love video and hate black bars, you’ll appreciate the Surface 2’s display, especially now that it comes with more pixels.
The other standout feature of the Surface continues to be its attachable keyboard covers. The covers protect the Surface the same way the iPad’s cover protects it, but unlike the iPad’s cover, the Surface’s double as keyboards.
Microsoft sells the keyboards separately and offers two choices: touch and type. The touch cover is completely flat and only shows the imprint of a keyboard, but many users still prefer it over a touch screen. Meanwhile, the type cover offers clickable keys just like a real keyboard while also remaining relatively flat. And the generation of the covers have been improved with new backlights, making them more useful in low-light situations.
On the exterior, the Surface 2 continues to offer the same useful ports as its predecessor: a USB 3.0 port, microSD memory card slot and an HD video out port. Inside, the Surface 2 runs on Windows 8.1 RT, a slight improvement over last year’s Windows 8 RT. The new software offers users more features and gives them the ability to customize more than before.
My favorite part of Windows 8.1 RT was how much better it made multitasking on the Surface 2. Now, users can split the screen in half and run two apps at the same time. They can also split it in many other different ways. Previously, users could run two apps at once, but one app would take three-fourths of the screen while the other was limited to a tiny column and became relatively useless. If you’re a multitasker, you’ll appreciate this feature.
But for all the improvements that Microsoft has made, the Surface 2 continues to lag behind its main rival: the iPad. Don’t get me wrong, the Surface 2 offers a perfectly fine experience, but there’s simply not much that will convince most consumers to pick it over the iPad.
Let’s start with the size and design of the two devices.
The Surface 2 weighs 1.49 pounds, which is slightly heavier than the fourth-generation iPad’s 1.44 pounds and will be half a pound more than the iPad Air, which comes out Nov. 1. The Surface 2 is by no means a thick tablet, but the new iPad Air will be ultra-thin at 0.30 inches. The Surface 2, in my opinion, is also a well polished machine, but the iPar Air was designed by Jony Ive of Apple and looks extremely beautiful.
When it comes to apps, Microsoft has also continued to improve. Last year, it didn’t have a Facebook or Twitter app -- that’s changed and both apps work great. But Apple’s App Store continues to remain top dog with the most apps and the most high-quality apps. Among those still noticeably missing on the Surface 2 are Spotify, Pandora and HBO Go.
Windows 8.1 RT is still a young operating system, essentially only in its second year. It still feels a bit slower than iOS 7 on the iPad, there aren’t as many features because Microsoft hasn’t had as much time to figure out what else it needs to add, and there are even some weird glitches.
At one point while using the Facebook app, I pulled up the on-screen keyboard, put it away, and I was left with only half of the Surface 2’s screen in use while the other half went black. I had to open and close the app a few times to get the full screen back.
In battery performance the Surface is definitely behind Apple. Last year, I got 6.5 hours of battery with the Surface RT, and Microsoft said the Surface 2 could get 10 hours of battery from continual use, the same as the iPad, when it unveiled the device.
I tested the tablet watching two Netflix movies, a few videos online and by simply surfing the Web at 50% brightness and I only got seven hours of battery life. Sure, there was improvement, but not much and it wasn't close to what the iPad can deliver.
The only reasons users might prefer a Surface 2 are because of its ports and its extra goodies. Those who want to plug in jump drives and memory cards will appreciate the Microsoft tablet's extra ports that aren’t included in the iPad. The Surface 2 also comes with a whopping 200 gigabytes of cloud storage through Cloud Drive and free calls to landlines in more than 60 countries thanks to Skype -- as well as access to Skype Wi-Fi, which is available at 2 million hotspots.
The only goodies Apple offers are free downloads of its iLife and iWork apps, which are Apple’s version of Microsoft Office. The Surface 2 comes with the Microsoft Office apps included.
Consumers may also like the Surface 2’s price. You get 32 GB for $449 compared with the $499 starting price of the iPad Air with 16 GB. But to get the true Surface experience, you need its covers, and the new ones start at $119.99. However, Microsoft is still selling last year’s non-backlit covers, which start at $79.99.
I like the Surface 2. It has a great screen, a beautiful design, and useful and innovative keyboard covers. But if I had a choice, I'd still go with the iPad.
[For the record, 11:05 a.m. PDT Oct. 26: An earlier version of this post reported that the Microsoft Surface 2 has a USB 2.0 port. The tablet has a USB 3.0 port.]
[For the record, 11:19 a.m. PDT Oct. 28: An earlier version of this article and video reported that the Microsoft Surface 2 comes in silver or black color options. The Surface 2 is available only in silver while the Surface RT and the Surface 2 Pro are available only in black.]