Hands on with Microsoft’s Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2: In search of a tablet turnaround

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Microsoft Surface 2 Hands-on

When I reviewed Microsoft’s first tablet last year, I said it showed a great deal of promise but that Windows RT had some serious wrinkles that needed ironing, not the least of which was a severe app problem. Beyond that, the $630 price tag with a keyboard attachment was a huge barrier. I also said it was my favorite tablet on the planet in terms of hardware design, though, and that it made me really, really want the Surface Pro. Then in January I finally got my hands on the Surface Pro I had been waiting for — and it was worth the wait. This gorgeous machine featured almost everything I loved about the Surface tablet, but it also ran full-blown Windows 8 Pro and therefore supported tens of thousands of Windows apps from day one. But the sleek slate was priced higher than people expected and the battery life was disappointing to many. In the end, Microsoft’s debut tablet family went nowhere fast. But if at first you don’t succeed…

Microsoft isn’t letting a tiny billion-dollar stumbling block halt its tablet journey, and the company on Monday unveiled brand new versions of both of its Surface tablets.

The Surface 2 features a design and specs that are very similar to its predecessor. The beautiful and durable magnesium “VaporMg” case from the original tablet remains, though the kickstand design has been tweaked to support two viewing positions instead of one. There is still a full-size USB 3.0 port and a microSD slot for up to 64GB of additional removable storage beyond the in-built 64GB or 128GB.

Microsoft’s Surface 2 does feature a few big changes though, not the least of which is a new white color option that looks very nice up close. It also sports the same full HD 1080p display as the Pro 2 in place of the 1,366 x 768-pixel panel Microsoft used in the first-generation model, a Nvidia Tegra 4 processor that replaces the original Surface RT’s Tegra 3, and the updated Windows RT 8.1 operating system along with a full copy of Office (with Outlook) and unlimited free international calling with Skype.

These additions are huge and they add a lot of value to Microsoft’s Surface 2.

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In the limited time I spent with the tablet on Monday, I found the hardware to be noticeably thinner than the original model and lighter as well. I also launched a bunch of apps and was able to fly around between them all without a hiccup. The issue with the Surface was never hardware though, and while the performance improvements are definitely appreciated, Windows RT is still a tough sell even at the new lower starting price of $449. Even with unlimited free international calling, I’m not quite sure exactly what new features are going to draw consumers at large to the Surface 2.

It’s also worth noting that Microsoft is following Apple’s strategy and keeping the first-generation Surface RT tablet around as lower-cost compliments to the Surface 2 and the Surface Pro 2. The Surface RT will stay on store shelves starting at $349, which is a $100 discount compared to the base-model Surface 2.

Moving on to what I believe is the star of the show, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 2 is a much more significant upgrade for one main reason. The exterior design is the same, but that is a good thing considering how fantastic the Surface Pro’s design is, and the specs are very similar as well in some areas. The big news though, is the new fourth-generation Intel Core i5 “Haswell” processor and other improvements to the device’s battery life.

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There were two main complaints surrounding Microsoft’s first Surface Pro and fair or not, battery life was one of them. The Surface Pro’s battery lasted nearly as long as Apple’s 11-inch MacBook Air, but people were apparently hoping for more out of a Windows machine. Now, they get it. Intel’s latest power-sipping processor coupled with some serious tweaking with battery life in mind will allow the Surface Pro 2 to last 75% longer than the original Pro on a charge. Simple math suggests we’re looking at 7 hours or more per charge, which is exactly where the Pro 2 needs to be.

The other big Surface Pro complaint was price and nothing has changed on that front. The device will start at $899 with 64GB of storage, just like last year’s Pro model did.

Remember though, this is not a “media tablet” like Apple’s iPad. This is a full-blown premium portable computer like the MacBook Air and it is priced accordingly. In fact, it’s probably no coincidence that Surface Pro 2 pricing aligns almost perfectly with Apple’s MacBook Air lineup.

Again, there’s nothing crazy to report following my hands-on time with the device. The original Surface Pro is sleek, the full HD display is beautiful and performance was quite impressive for a compact device with a convertible form factor. The same can all be said of the Surface Pro 2. The big news here is the massive bump in battery life and the fact that Microsoft isn’t budging on price.

There are also some new accessories this time around, including a docking station and a new Power Cover that is thicker than Microsoft’s Touch Cover and Type Cover, but includes and its own battery to help Microsoft’s tablet last 2.5 times longer per charge. Microsoft’s Touch Cover and Type Cover were also redesigned. They were both made thinner and given new backlit keypads, which will definitely be appreciated by users.

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Predicting the fate of newly introduced gadgets is often a dangerous endeavor, but sometimes a company hands you a crystal ball. Unless Microsoft is planning some serious marketing wizardry that will somehow deliver a Samsung-style turnaround, we can likely expect the second-generation Surface family of tablets to follow fairly closely along the same path Microsoft’s first-generation devices traveled. Hopefully the difference this time around will be more realistic manufacturing orders that don’t leave the company sitting on a mountain of unsold inventory.

The shame of it is they really are great devices. Especially the Surface Pro 2, which is easily the most impressive Windows device I have ever used, supplanting the first-generation model.

The new Surface slates are better than their predecessors. Much, much better. Performance wasn’t what was preventing people from buying the original Surface tablets, however. The new thinner case on the Surface 2 is also great, but thickness also wasn’t preventing people from buying it. People just aren’t excited about Windows 8 and Windows RT. In fact, some people are downright scared of Microsoft’s new platforms.

Where Windows RT is concerned, it’s still a tough sell with Windows RT 8.1. Microsoft’s Windows Store is now home to more than 100,000 apps, but that’s nothing compared to the scores of programs available for iOS, Android or full-blown Windows 8. Apps for RT also feature the new user interface that consumers haven’t yet warmed up to, and Microsoft still hasn’t really shown consumers that there is compelling differentiation in Windows RT compared to iOS and Android.

Expectations seem much more realistic this time around, and if you cut through the marketing jargon you can see exactly what these tablets are. They’re hero devices that showcase Microsoft’s Windows RT 8.1 and Windows 8.1 platforms. They’re high-end tablets built for consumers and enterprise users looking for a premium portable Windows experience. Nothing more, and nothing less.

Microsoft’s Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 will both launch on October 22nd following the release of Windows 8.1, and prices noted above still don’t include any Touch or Type Covers. We’ll have full reviews up before then but in the meantime, check out our hands-on photo gallery.

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