Surface 2 review: what is Windows RT?
The Surface 2 is the second-generation of Microsoft's Surface RT - the 10in ARM-based tablet running Windows RT, an OS which comprises all of Windows 8 apart from the Desktop. It's impossible, therefore, to talk about Surface 2 without addressing the essential weirdness of Windows RT, Windows 8 and the Surface tablets. See also: the 14 best tablets of 2013.
When Microsoft released the follow up to Windows 7, it did so with a couple of aims in mind. Yes, it wanted to iterate its desktop Windows program, improve speed and stability, and add features to make for a better desktop- and laptop computing experience. But in Windows 8 Microsoft also grafted on the Modern UI - a tiled interface designed with touch in mind - as well as a Windows App Store. Combined these were intended to drive Windows use on mobile devices such as tablets, and to offer a similar interface to Windows Phone 8 handsets and the Xbox.
The reality was a little different, and reaction was poor (although I'm personally by no means down on Windows 8). For most desktop and laptop users of Windows 8 - even those with touchscreen laptops - the Modern UI bit of Windows 8 is seldom seen. Most users of the full x86 Windows boot straight into the desktop and use Windows 8 much as they used Windows 7. And that's fine, but it does make the touchscreen Modern UI Start screen redundant.
And that matters because when Microsoft released Windows 8 it also launched Windows RT: the version of Windows that runs on ARM devices such as iPad-like tablets with smartphone-like all-day battery life. The thought of being able to run Windows on a thin-and-light touchscreen tablet seems compelling in the abstract. Windows in your pocket.
Unfortunately the reality doesn't live up to the concept. Windows RT devices such as the original Surface RT are hobbled by two major problems: they offer only half the experience of full Windows, and it's the worst half. And because that means you don't have the desktop you can't run traditional third-party software. Windows RT is only the unloved Modern UI, which means the only software you can install has to be found in the Windows App Store. Microsoft does, to its credit, include a version of Office with all RT devices, but the Windows App Store is a moribund place and so the version of Windows on tablets such as the Surface 2 is a pale imitation of full Windows.
(The only way you can access your RT PC's file structure is to boot up the Office apps. This - weirdly - enables a pretend 'Desktop' environment which exists only to fun Office apps. From here you can find out where things are stored and how much storage you have to play with. Otherwise you are in Fisher Price land: very simple to use, but limited.)
None of which makes Windows RT devices bad devices, but you have to question the need for them in a world in which iPad and Android tablets can offer similar functionality and performance with much better third-party support. And if you want a proper Windows 8 tablet you can always opt for Microsoft's own excellent Surface Pro 2 - a little heavier and bulkier, without the same battery life as an RT tablet, but a truly portable device that offers true power PC performance and software support.
It is in that context, dear reader, that I appraise the Surface 2. (So if you are a huge fan of Windows RT you may have a different view. I'd love to hear from you in the comments below the story.) (See also: Top 8 best Windows 8 tablets: the best Windows 8 tablets you can buy in 2013.)
Surface 2: design and build
Microsoft deserves credit for the way all Surface tablets are designed and built. They are high-quality devices with a couple of unique and interesting features.
The Surface 2 is recognisably a post-iPad ARM-based slate. A thin oblong of black-and-silver glass metal and plastic. The corners are curved, and everything fits together nicely. The rear of the Surface 2 differs from its all-black predecessor with a silvery grey back panel. Out of the box this looks great, but we did find it picked up marks pretty quickly. Marks you wouldn't notice on a black device.
Front on the Surface 2 presents an entirely black fascia, with just a white-out-of-black Windows logo at the bottom, and the camera pin hole above the display. Around the silver edges we find keyboard dock connector, power connector, a full USB 3.0 port, HD video out, on off switch, volume rocker and 3.5mm jack. There are two side-facing speakers. As before the magnetic power connector snaps in with a satisfying click.
It's not the thinnest full-size tablet, but at under 9mm it's not far off. We weighed it at 652g, which is exactly the same weight as we recorded for the 4th generation iPad, the first iPad with Retina Display. The featherweight iPad Air has now blown this out of the water of course, but the Surface 2 is most definitely neither too heavy nor too thick.
That is an impressive achievement when you consider that the nicely built Surface 2 now comes with a two-position kick stand, so you can stand it upright on your desk or prop it up to use on your lap. The original Surface devices had a kick stand that angled your tablet at 22 degrees. This was a nice touch, but 22 degrees was really only useful for viewing video on a desk or table, or appending the Touch- or Type cover and using your Surface as a laptop. Even with two fixed positions there will be activities for which you want a different angle, but the kick stand has always been a nice design feature, and two angles is better than one (or none).
If you haven't previously seen them the keyboard covers are great - albeit expensive - addition to the Surface RT. The Touch Cover is strange to use at first but is something you can get used to after a while. It's just 3mm thick and uses pressure-sensitive touch pads. The Touch Cover is fine for the odd bit of typing but anyone wanting to do any serious work will benefit no end by opting for the Type Cover. It's double the thickness but provides keys that actually move.
Proof of the high standard of design and build is shown off in the way the keyboard covers lock effortlessly and satisfyingly into place – the TV advert isn't lying. You can even dangle the tablet from either keyboard cover without it falling and smashing on the ground.
Overall, then, the Surface 2 is a well designed and built device. Something you would be pleased to be seen carrying (like a copy of PC Advisor magazine. What? Seriously, what?) See all Windows tablet reviews.
Surface 2: specs and performance
Where the Surface always performed was in gaming, and the Surface 2 is no exception. Running the onscreen Egypt HD 2.5 graphics benchmark the Surface 2 achieved a respectable score of 33fps. Running the 3D Mark Ice Storm Extreme benchmark the Surface 2 scored an average of 8432, Ice Storm Unlimited averaged out at 12,787. These are very healthy scores that reflect our experience of a zippy machine even when running multiple processes.
Battery life is decent, too. Expect around nine hours of web browsing or 10 hours of video playback.
Surface 2: storage and connectivity
The Surface 2 comes in 32GB and 64GB flavours, with a MicroSD card slot that allows you to add up to another 64GB of files and media. On our virgin test Surface 2, with a nominal 32GB of storage, only 17.7GB was available, and only a total of 25.2GB could be accessed. You also get 7GB of SkyDrive storage with your Windows 8 account.
As we mentioned above you get a full-size USB 3.0 port, as well as a microSD card reader, and there is a HD video out port.
Wireless connectivity is covered by 802.11a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0. There is no cellular connectivity.
Surface 2: display and audio
The Surface 2 boasts a 10.6 in (269 mm) display. It's bigger than most tablets and the resolution of 1920 x 1080 and aspect ratio of 16:9 offers greater real-estate for widescreen movies, spreadsheets and the likes. Detail is decent in a device with a pixel density of 207ppi. This is way behind some smaller tablet displays, but we can't say that we had any problem with detail, even on densely populated Word documents. In general it's a bright and detailed display, that shows off games and photos well.
The 5-point multi-touch is as responsive as the rest of the Surface 2, and the display feels durable. Those side-mounted speakers offer Dolby stereo, and they are certainly passable for the odd movie-watching session (although if you are on your own you'll always be better off taking advantage of the 3.5mm jack with a pair of headphones.
Surface 2: cameras
There are two cameras and two video camera, situated on the front and back of the Surface 2. There is a 3.5 megapixel front-facing camera for video calls, and a 5.0 megapixel rear-facing camera for, well, those times when you use your 10.6 in Windows tablet as a camera. We expect that will be never.
However, we tested out that rear-facing camera, and here are the test shots and clips (click to enlarge):
Surface 2: software and buying advice
...all of which brings us to Windows RT 8.1. On the plus side it is very easy to use, I personally like the way it looks, and it is stable on this device.
There are some real oddities. Sharing photos and videos just isn't as intuitive as it ought to be - I know I can use the Share Charm from an individual image, but it just doesn't feel natural. Why can't I just select all the images from the camera roll and email them? Can I? And why can't I access the file structure to track down folders and files I know are there?
I'm glad that Microsoft has removed the pointless 'Desktop' tile from the Start screen, but as mentioned avoce you still kick into 'Desktop' when you launch any Office app. It's just plain weird.
Most important of all: when a Windows device is on ARM, it isn't full Windows. You can't install x86 software as you can on any other Windows device. It's the same situation with Android and iPad tablets, and it simply makes the RT more of a consumption device than a productivity tool, like tablets on those rival platforms. But as nice as the Surface 2 is - and it is - I don't really see why I would choose it rather than an iPad, or a cheaper but decent Android such as the Nexus 7 2 or even the Tesco Hudl. After all, Google Play and iTunes knock spots of the Windows App Store when it comes to apps and media. See also: the 14 best tablets of 2013.