Microsoft Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 After Problem-Plagued Year, Microsoft Re-Surfaces

Microsoft Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2

After Problem-Plagued Year, Microsoft Re-Surfaces

Rating: 7/10 Very good, but not quite great

  • Surface Pro 2: $900 for 64GB, $1,000 for 128GB, $1,300 for 256GB, $1,800 for 512GB, Surface 2: $450 for 32GB, $550 for 64GB, Touch Cover 2: $120, Type Cover 2: $130
  • · More info from Microsoft
      Reviewed by

Mathew HonanEmail Author

  • October 21, 2013 |
  • 12:01 am |
  • Categories: Tablets


Delightful touch interface makes best use of gestures this side of a mime troop. Two angle kickstand. Gorgeous full-screen, high-definition video makes you want to skip the theater. Backlit Touch Cover 2 feels you, bro, and wants to help you express yourself. Two years of 200GB free SkyDrive storage should be plenty to store all your HD porn. Skype calls right from the lock screen.


Developers, developers, developers: Wherefore art thou, developers? Desktop mode is a joke on Surface 2, and too minuscule to be much use on Surface Pro 2.

Microsoft’s Surface devices are the physical embodiments of its operating system. That was true of last year’s devices, which, like Windows 8 itself, many people found perplexing. And the new Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, much like the new Windows 8.1, reflect iterative refinements based on what Microsoft learned after releasing its products in the wild.

These devices feel more refined. The keyboards are more responsive, the battery life, cameras and displays are all better. There are no dramatic changes, but everything is a little bit nicer. I liked the Surface devices Microsoft released last year, and I like these even better. But they aren’t without problems, some of which are significant.

There are two devices, both of which come in multiple configurations. There is the ARM-based Surface 2, which runs Windows 8.1 RT–a bare-bones version of Windows that can only run applications from the Windows Store. It won’t handle your longtime x86 apps. And then there is the Surface Pro 2, which has an Intel Core i5 processor, runs Windows 8.1, and can do anything and everything a regular Windows machine can. Both are essentially tablets with detachable keyboards. Both are designed to be touched. The Pro comes with a pen input too, so you can scribble away.

Some of the upgrades are really noticeable. Take the kickstand that props the device upright. Its hinges now stop at two different angles: one designed for a desktop, the other for your lap. Battery life really is great. With casual on and off use, you should be able to run all day on both. My tests found almost five hours of video playback on the Surface Pro 2, and almost seven and a half hours on the Surface 2. Did I mention both come with 200 GB of SkyDrive storage?

Overall, these are just really well-built devices. Solid. Light. Responsive. Here’s an anecdote that I think speaks to build quality. While testing these, I had both set up on a ledge in our home that overlooks a stairwell. A friend, looking at them, picked one up by its keyboard, not realizing it is connected by mere magnets. It popped off, and the Surface fell about 12 feet, tumbled down a couple of steps, and smacked and skittered across the hardwood floor below. I cursed. But not only was the Surface unblemished, the movie it was playing never even stuttered. It was as if nothing had happened.

Speaking of the keyboards, these too have gotten upgrades. I had gotten used to typing on a Touch Cover and can hit it quickly enough and without making a sea of errors, but the new 2.75-millimeter-thin Touch Cover 2 is far more responsive than its predecessor. The keys are illuminated so you can use it in the dark. It’s more sensitive. It’s easier. Similarly, the 5.4-millimeter-thick Type Cover 2 has been improved in subtle ways (it’s also backlit and hey you can get it in a few different colors). But while both are responsive, both still feel small. If this were your only computer, my guess is that you’d find the keyboard cramped.

That cramping also exists on the desktop environment. Windows 8.1 made it clear that, despite complaints, Microsoft isn’t retreating from its touch-first operating system philosophy. (Nor should it; the world is changing.) It pushes you to use programs from the Start screen and the Windows Store, where you’ll find apps optimized for gestures over mousing. And when you do use the Desktop mode on either device, the interface elements feel very, very small. Almost unnavigably so. It’s hard to operate menus or hit buttons, which is exacerbated by the very small trackpad on both style keyboards.

This is true both not only of the Surface 2, which runs a stripped-down version of Windows, but also Surface Pro 2, which runs a full version of Windows 8.1 capable of fielding all those traditional desktop apps you’ve been using for years. While you won’t spend much time in the desktop environment with the former, it’s certainly one of the latter’s selling points. But trying to accomplish things with the tiny trackpad, or using your fingers to poke at the screen, is difficult.

If you only want to use a Surface for web browsing, email, and office applications, you’ll do fine. But look for many of the applications that have made tablets not just useful, but delightful—like Flipboard, or Instapaper, or Pocket, or even a legit YouTube app—and you come up empty.

Which means that the Windows Store apps, the ones that can run both on ARM and x86 machines, are an essential part of the user experience. A year ago, reviewing the Surface RT, I wrote that “overall it’s quite good; certainly better than any full-size Android tablet on the market. And once the application ecosystem fleshes out, it’s a viable alternative to the iPad as well.”

That fleshing out still has not happened. Honestly, I expected the Windows Store to come alive with apps over the past year. Microsoft, after all, is a company with a massive, well-established developer network. It seemed likely to me that developers would dive in. I was wrong.

The Windows Store does have lots of apps. But too many are crappy little parasites that prop up the store’s numbers without actually adding any value. Worse, many of the applications from major developers are half-assed. Dropbox and Evernote, for example, are hobbled compared to the versions you’ll find on other platforms. The Windows Store version of Evernote, for example, will not even record audio notes.

If you only want to use a Surface for web browsing, email, and office applications, you’ll do fine (especially thanks to the needed overhaul of its mail application). Microsoft has you covered on all that. But look for many of the applications that have made tablets not just useful, but delightful–like Flipboard, or Instapaper, or Pocket, or even a legit YouTube app–and you come up empty.

The bottom line is that once you venture beyond the Windows Store applications Microsoft itself makes, and a very small handful of others, there is not a lot to love. Will you love the Surface as a tablet? I don’t know. How much do you love Microsoft Office?

The Surface line is still great hardware–even better than the original, which I liked quite a lot. But it has a real software problem that doesn’t appear to be getting much better and may even be locked in a downward spiral. Not many people are buying Windows RT devices, so developers aren’t writing apps, which gives people little reason to buy it. Chickens and eggs.

This is, of course, less of a problem on the Surface Pro 2, which has the full arsenal of Windows desktop apps to fall back on. Dropbox is Dropbox; Evernote is the full elephant. But if you are just using Surface Pro 2 as a desktop machine, you would do likely do better for your money to go with a touch-capable ultrabook.

I’m still bullish on Surface, and Windows 8.1. Both show an immense amount of promise. But both are hobbled by the application situation in the Windows Store. This is a problem that Microsoft has to solve. Without more third party programs designed to run as touch-first (dare I say Metro) experiences, Surface risks becoming little more than a curiosity.

All photos by Josh Valcarcel/WIRED



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: