Surface 2 – A Personal Experience Review

Written by on October 28, 2013 in Blog, Opinion, Review, Surface, Surface 2, Tablets, Windows 8 RT with 13 Comments

Surface2

Intro

A week ago, I expected to have so much to say about the Surface 2. Fast forward, and I simply don’t. I am going to provide my thoughts on from using the Surface 2. However, I also have to explain why I no longer have it. The Surface 2 could be the perfect device for you, and one day, could be the perfect device for me. Today just isn’t that day.

Surface2_Unbox

Hardware

Listen to our latest podcast here. You’ll see and hear the excitement I had for holding the device. The VaporMg casing feels superior in its raw form. The texture and temperature of the in hand experience is second to none. Although marginally so, it truly does feel lighter. The screen is beautiful, and for photos and videos it shines. However, the Surface RT screen can hold its own for other tasks. The kickstand seems to work better when used at both the old and new angle. I know that doesn’t make sense, but it is how it feels. “Lapability” is better, but still lacking. One still needs to work around the Surface 2, as opposed to it working around them. Oddly enough, more people commented on the Surface RT than the Surface 2 when proper up on my desk. I think the Surface 2 looks fresh, but some perceptions clearly differ.

I used the same case for the Surface 2 that I bought for the Surface RT. Being able to share and  reuse accessories is nice. But I will note here that weight begins to add up. A Surface 2, plus a Type Cover 2, placed in a case with a few extra items is not feather light. I leaned towards Surface like tablets because of weight concerns. In my experience, a Surface 2 with a type Cover 2 rivals some thin and light ultrabooks. The Sony Vaio Pro 11 and MacBook Air 11-inch come to mind.

Performance

It’s faster. The Surface 2 can multitask more seamlessly. It loads and buffers music, photos and videos very well. Apps load quicker. However, there is still that inherent lag when loading Modern UI apps for the first time. It is an improved an experience, but I grew to get used to the Surface RT’s loading times. I know apps load faster on the Surface 2, but not fast enough. Surface RT has seen countless OS and firmware upgrades over the last year. The circa 2013 Tegra 3 inside the Surface RT has been maximized to its full potential. I can’t say the same about this year’s Tegra 4 today. But I am sure it’ll get better over time. ALthough Qualcomm insists their chipset in the Lumia 2520 will prevail.

Battery life is hit or miss. And not just for me, but with top blogs reporting polarizing findings. Some reviewers see 6-hours on average, with others quoting 14-hours in battery rundown tests. In general, I believe it is about the same as the Surface RT. I also owned a third-party Windows RT tablet, the Samsung Ativ Tab (imported from the UK). That device blows away both the Surface RT and Surface 2 in terms of battery life. The Qualcomm SoC also performed somewhere in between the Tegra 3 and Tegra 4 in my real world experiences. For most people, the Surface 2 needs to last all day. I’d prefer having two day battery life, for the rare moments you can’t put in on the charger. Long story short, your mileage may vary. Don’t forget it can take days or weeks to fully break in the battery of any device you buy.

Software

Windows 8.1 on a Surface RT versus a Surface 2 is virtually no different. I didn’t find one thing I couldn’t do on one versus the other. Windows 8.1 is a great upgrade to the veteran OS, and it offers the best of both a laptop and tablet. The desktop in Windows 8.1 is easier to use, and Modern UI “Start Screen” tiles and apps offer users more options and control over their experiences. It also appears many new features are waiting to be unearthed by developers. Developers should be able to provide better updates, and even websites can join in the fun with Internet Explorer (IE) 11 offering web-based live tile support. This means websites “pinned to Start” can have live tiles that behave like local apps.

Apps are still an issue. Many will argue that I am wrong. They will say IE11 is a great browser, and websites offer users everything they need. Personally, if I wanted to live in a browser, I’d get a Chromebook. Chrome is by far more versatile for a web-based life. IE11 is decent, but the navigation between tabs, favorites, and pages themselves are lacking. I want new and unique applications customized for the Surface and similar devices. It was nice to get Facebook this month, and to know Flipboard is coming soon. But iOS, Android, and even Chrome offers apps and utilities for things above and beyond social networking and news readers. Listeners to the podcast will know that although not technically “needed”, a healthy app ecosystem is nice to have. I want to check-in at Great Clips, book my flight and have my boarding pass for JetBlue, access my home Time Warner DVR, Cisco VPN into my office, and listen to podcasts how I want to. Among many, many other things.

Accessories

I only bought one official accessory. The Type Cover 2 in purple. It is highly lusted after, thanks to Microsoft making them hard to pre-order online. I scored one before Surface 2 launch day at my local Best Buy. It worked almost just as well on the Surface RT as the Surface 2. My Surface RT didn’t display as many options for the trackpad as the Surface 2. (I tried the app found on the Windows Store, and searching for new updates with it attached.) The keyboard on the Type Cover 2 is very good for being as thin as it is. The trackpad however might as well not even be there. Ok, that is a bit harsh. It is probably better to have something to use when navigating desktop based apps either locally or via RDP. But it is too small for my hands, and too unresponsive and unpredictable to be useful for more than a click or two. Now I know why the iPad, Android tablets and even some Windows 8 tablets come only with a keyboard.

Thanks to bluetooth and the full-sized USB port, you can have wired and wireless options. If tracking is important to you, definitely consider an external mouse. I have the Microsoft Wedge Mouse, but the new bluetooth enabled Arc Mouse looks compelling as well.  Any bluetooth and USB RF-based pointing devices should work. The USB port is the best feature of the Surface family. Other devices lean towards micro-USB. Having the “real thing” allows one to grab an accessory and go. I use a USB powered Qi-charger for my Lumia 925. Also, my AT&T Bean LTE dongle works as well. However, driver issues still plague some Windows RT “certified” devices. Windows On Arm “connected standby” support is the root cause, and it has been a problem for other devices as well.

My Issues

The USB “connected standby” issues plaguing my AT&T Beam LTE dongle are definitely a downer. AT&T and Netgear state they support Windows RT, but that support seems minimal. No one wants their displays to not turn off when they hit the sleep/wake button, let alone when the display sleep time limit is reached. If you leave the dongle attached and walk away from the Surface RT or Surface 2, the display can be left on for hours. There goes your battery life.

Speaking of battery life, my Surface 2 barely go me through a day. And one day, I had a serious problem with the battery. I left my Surface 2 with Type Cover 2 attached and on the charger overnight. Before leaving the house around 8:30am, I put them it my case and left for work. I was so busy that day, I didn’t get a chance to use the Surface 2 until 1:30pm. The remaining power was down to 40%. In 5-hours, sitting unused, the device burned through 60% of its battery. Unacceptable.

On launch day, I played around with the Type Cover 2 a few times. Twice, when attaching the Type Cover 2 the Surface 2 froze. The only way to resolve that was to completely power off the device. However, I did receive a day one firmware update that resolved the freezing issue. The firmware update also squashed some software bugs I witnessed with screen refresh times and display sleep/wake performance. Some third-party apps still didn’t behave as well as I would have liked. Various apps had scrolling, loading, and sat syncing issues.

Verdict

My Surface 2 and Type Cover 2 went back to Best Buy shortly before completing this review. I am confident additional Windows RT OS/driver updates and Surface 2 firmware updates will resolve most, if not all of the issues I saw. I am sure developers will be updating their apps to better support Windows RT 8.1. But I don’t want to wait. I need to get work done on my mobile devices now more than ever. In my opinion, the Surface RT offers a more stable experience than the Surface 2. The Surface 2 does not offer enough new features or improvements to justify upgrading. If you have a Surface RT, keep enjoying it. Maybe give the Surface 2, and the Surface family which is likely to grow in numbers, another look in a few months. I must be clear that others aren’t reporting the issues I have found with the Surface 2. Maybe I had a lemon? Or am not used to early adopter issues like these? Don’t just take my word for it. Visit a local retailer and check out a Surface 2 for yourselves. But if you have a Surface RT today, upgrade to Windows 8.1 and know you likely have the most stable experience available on the platform today.

Surface2_TypeCover2

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  1. Mario says:

    You definitely had a lemon – Haven't any problems with my Surface 2. Surface RT feels much faster with Windows 8.1.

  2. SGAdmin says:

    Great writeup John. It sounds like you got a bad device or it had a software issue somewhere. Maybe a 8.1 refresh would have worked, maybe not. Regardless, that's not the experience Microsoft want's someone off the street to have. Surface 2 still has merit in many different situations for work and for play. It's such a young platform and hopefully will be growing up….soon.

  3. @jwiskowski says:

    I definitely saw issues outside what most buyers seemed to have experienced. Hopefully most are enjoying their new Surface 2s! I did start with a clean 8.1, and imported no settings or apps. But I should have tried a refresh. I am sure I will try another Surface device soon enough :)

    Some of my concerns were separate from the issues specific to my usage/device.

  4. David G says:

    I was disappointed with this article. I was hoping for a review. What I got was a long forum post.

    By review, I mean someone who tinkers with bleeding edge technology, figures out all the gotcha's and workarounds, and tells the rest of us in a way that saves us from that pain and time drain.

    This article didn't do that. It said …my paraphrase…"i tried it, had some problems, sent it back." While I'm sure that's true, that's not the helpful insight I was looking for. It still leaves me having to figure out on my own pretty much everything I had to figure out before I read the article.

    Just my $0.02.

  5. Andy says:

    What do you think is a better alternative? I think I read that you are sticking with your Surface RT. I just recently purchased a Surface 2 for a home that has kids that need flash based websites for schools. We have an ipad 2 which my wife has setup with her email and uses primary.

    A $450 laptop would have been just as good a device to purchase, however, I don't think at the same price point they would get the same battery life.

    With the surface 2 I am very impressed so far with Windows 8.1 as a tablet. There are now 6 personalized accounts on my surface 2, each with their own start screen and email.

    The keyboard is so nice that it actually makes you think you have a laptop more than a tablet. I think it would help if microsoft sold a very simple and cheaper cover blade that had no keyboard functionality but just protected the screen.

  6. Joe says:

    " In my opinion, the Surface RT offers a more stable experience than the Surface 2. The Surface 2 does not offer enough new features or improvements to justify upgrading."

    LOL! What the hell? My Surface 2 literally destroys my Surface RT in terms of performance, stability, usability, and even battery life.

  7. KDB says:

    John – really interesting write up. I follow your podcast, and have been anticipating your review. I am an attorney, and use my RT on a daily basis – of course, it is great for consumption, but allows me to get work done sporadically when I don't fell like lugging my 8 lb laptop home. Especially enjoy the new Outlook.

    I have also found that some the upgrades in 8.1 – specifically, Reader, are fantastic. I can put an entire file (2+GB) on a jump drive, plug it into the USB port, and take PDFs that are hundreds of pages long to a deposition. The Reader in W8 could not easily navigate large PDF's. THe updated Reader is great, and allows you to open multiple files.

    In short, I am loving the upgrade to 8.1, and have been contemplating whether I even want to upgrade to Surface 2. I have the touch cover, and really like it. But, I was contemplating the new Touch and Type covers ….. interesting that you took back the new Type cover as well. Did you consider keeping it? Maybe buying it once additional firmware updates are released?

  8. @dgg4 says:

    I did not find this article very useful. You had a bad experience…got that. Why? Answer that question would be helpful. Without that, not as useful as it could have been.

  9. Brian says:

    I returned my Surface 2 as well. It doesn't have flexibility of the Pro nor does it have the range of dedicated software available to the iPad or Android tablets. Just falls between 2 stools for me. Gave it a good thrashing. Really, really tried to like it, but just couldn't….

  10. @JimmyFal says:

    Tech reviews are of such a wide variety these days, that I pity the poor readers some times. Paul Thurrott was somewhat trashing the original Surface RT to such a degree, that he enthusiastically tells people NOT to buy it. Then Thurrott gets a Surface 2 and practically declares it a 180 degree experience from Surface 1, to such a degree that he now thinks that RT may have a future whereas on the Surface 1 he felt it was pointless. http://winsupersite.com/mobile-devices/surface-2-

    Your review is in such stark contrast. I was very surprised actually, especially after listening to your thoughts on Surface 1 on the podcast. It seems as though the keyboard freezing twice on you left an especially large impression on you. I guess twice is too much, but if it didn't happen again after that then maybe it was a quirk of the moment. Not sure I could judge a tablet by a couple of freezes, but the dongle issue was probably the deal breaker. That seems like an issue that would prevent you from getting any work done until it was fixed. When I look at the "reliability monitor" on my Surface, I can see that I have crashed Skype a couple of times, and Mail app etc. I guess when that happens, I just close it and open it, and then don't think about it too much after that. Annoying when it happens, for sure.

    I have both devices 1 and 2. I did side by side comparisons of launch times for apps etc. and didn't find the Surface 2 launch time to be dramatically better, but they were better. I am one of those folks that got 13.5 hours out of looping a movie on the Xbox Video app. I'm not sure I would try to talk the average user up from a 1 to a 2, maybe that bump is mostly for us enthusiasts, but I certainly would not try to talk someone out of a Surface 2 just because you had a couple of early on stability issues in the first week (only week?) of use.

    I value your opinion, love the podcast. I wish you had kept the unit for full return period, maybe you would have found a fix for the dongle issue. As you said, you have played with an awful lot of tablets and this one didn't pass the test. I am surprised though. The backlit keyboard, kickstand, low light performance of the camera, better camera, and the 200 GB of free SkyDrive storage were definitely enough for me. I'm sure different peoples different usage scenarios are responsible for varying degrees of acceptance.

    I wonder how long it will take Microsoft and Nokia to build the unified tablet device experience. Will they get it done in time for Surface 3? Will there be separate tablets? It would be nice to get all this done for fall of next year, that's probably, sadly, too soon though, we'll see.

  11. Cedric says:

    This review is unfair and borderline idiotic.
    -101 of IT & consumer electronics: if you need a device that works bug free from first minute never ever buy a brand new product. All new devices come with bugs. Yes even iPhone 5s, iOS 7 or iPad AIr. The only question to ask is: can I count on the manufacturer to work diligently to fix them? What is their history fixing them? In this regard the track record of Microsoft in generally industry leading.
    - If you don't like the trackpad don't use it. What's the fuss? On the other hand it's there when you really need it, such as in a crammed coach flight where you won't have enough room to use a mouse. In my opinion, with my medium sized hands the trackpad is ok and sure better than none.
    - The Type Cover 2 is outstanding. I have yet to see a better keyboard in the same size. The backlighting is wonderful, it is amazing that it senses when your hands are about to use it and already backlight. Given the choice, sure I would prefer to type on my full-sized mechanical keyboard, in the same way that I'd rather use my 30" monitor. Compared to its peers though it is in my opinion a solid choice. Btw I'm typing this post on a Surface 2 with Type Cover 2. My only regret is that to use F1-F12 you have to use Fn-F1. By default, the F1-12 keys have other uses such as configuring the screen luminosition. To me it would have been better the other way around, i.e. Fn + F3 = Mute.
    - I do not own a Surface RT but the Surface 2 is super super fast. I imported a 2GB+ outlook data file in no time. Skydrive files were copied before I had time to check them. A few minutes after having started the Music App it already listed the more than 6000 songs I have on my desktop and that were found in Xbox music.
    - Your review does not mention the 2 year 200 GB Skydrive and the 1 year Skype all you can eat. For a few intent on non using it this is a zero value. For the most of us this is a good to outstanding value.
    - I have absolutely none of the problems you mentioned. I bought the Surface 2 last week, did updates until there were none left.
    - Why did I buy it in the end? I think it is presently the best offering for someone needing web, email and office. There is no way you'll have a good experience working with Office on a very average HD screen whereas you have an outstanding FullHD display on the Surface 2. There is no way you will really use PhotoShop with 2GB of RAM. On the other hand, having very sound fundamentals such as great screen great keyboard, PhotoShop or Visual Studio is a remote desktop connection away.

    - What would I have liked. True pen support. I almost bought the Pro 2 because of its outstanding Wacom pen support. I am amazed though at the efficiency of character recognition on the S2 with basic capacitive pen: you write horrible words in OneNote and the Surface is still guessing what you wrote pretty will. It is perfectly useable.

    - Microsoft's biggest mistake if you ask me, is to make it difficult to use Desktop apps. Surface RT1 is true Windows: many desktop applications such as 7-zip or notepad++ are just a recompile away. And indeed it works. But you have to jailbreak the Surface. Just like with phones there should be a way to jailbreak the device on a permanent or long time basis.

    - But all in all so far I am extremely satisfied with the Surface 2. I can use it for an entire day. I can really work. I can really surf the web or watch movies. I can really multitask. The build quality is outstanding if a little heavy. The stand is super useful. The aesthetics is very pleasing to my eyes, it does not plastic. There won't be any better support for USB or multiple displays or good web browsing or multitasking on iOS and Android.

  12. @chriswong13 says:

    I pre-ordered the Touch 2, and agree that the trackpad is garbage, but for only one situation – dragging – to either move things around or to select text. It's very sporadic and inconsistent; it's like a bad joke. If I use two hands (one index finger to hold down the left button and the other index finger to drag), it's much better. I think this will be resolved once Microsoft releases an updated Trackpad Settings app that supports the Touch 2 and Type 2 keyboards, so I can disable tap-to-click gestures. It's also very Mickey Mouse that they couldn't time the release of an updated Trackpad Settings app with the launch of the new keyboards. Other than this one issue, it's a big improvement over Touch 1…

  13. Jack Cook says:

    I did enjoy your article. Thanks for putting in the time to make it a good piece.

    I have the RT and purchased the Surface 2 for my wife and the Surface Pro 2 for my self. I'm happy with the devices but my biggest issue is the battery life on the Surface 2 compared to the RT. I get a full day of serious work on the RT yet my wife gets just hours with the "2" and she just plays games, checks a few websites for news and sports and email of course.

    I'm not sure what is eating the battery so quickly on the "2" but I did turn off the auto screen adjust and set it to about 37% … that has made a difference. It is a faster processor and a seriously better screen so that may be some of the issue. Time will tell if they can improve on it.

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