March 14, 2014

Surface 2

I have something of a soft spot for Windows 8. Or perhaps I just have a soft spot for ambition in the tech space.

Either way, what began as idle curiosity has morphed into keen interest on my part, and I have found myself trying and reviewing more and more new Windows devices lately.

For a while, I owned a Surface Pro—the first generation—and found it to be an incredibly versatile tool, with the best pen interaction I’d ever used. Because it is essentially a laptop though, I realized that I had no need for its power.

I ended up with the Surface RT instead, and when that was passed off to my grandfather to replace his aging netbook, I equipped myself with a shiny new Surface 2.

Distinguished Design

When you’ve used many tablets on an ongoing basis, you begin to appreciate the details of their design more. The Surface 2 is among the most ergonomically satisfying tablets on the market right now, with a pleasing density that compares favourably with devices like Apple’s iPad Air, Sony’s Xperia Tablet Z, and Google’s Nexus 7.

Instead of feeling like a collection of parts, these tablets are reassuringly unified and display the hallmark of good hardware design: they vanish as you use them.

The Surface line in general represents a departure from familiarity. They straddle the division between computer and tablet in a way that no other company’s products had done before.

For some, this is novelty to a fault; a hybrid that aims for the best of both worlds, but accomplishes only mediocrity.

Microsoft’s Identity Problem

I’m inclined to be more forgiving, not only because I tend to adapt quickly to new technologies, but also because I mostly agree with Microsoft’s vision for the future of computing. I applaud them for surging forward with such enthusiasm, and if it were any other company than Microsoft I suspect more people would do the same.

After all, we cheer when Apple pushes the envelope, to the point of crying out in the lulls between product launches, but because Microsoft has an older, solidly established role in the tech industry, it’s their sudden burst of energy as much as the actual technology that is unfamiliar.

Apple can get away with dramatic changes more easily because their entire culture is built around being dynamic, hip, and creative. Microsoft’s reach is orders of magnitude larger, but it’s a tougher ship to steer, especially considering the anchor of being perceived as a steady, boring monolith of technology.

Microsoft is an industry foundation, and foundations aren’t supposed to shift beneath you—it unsettles people.

Hardware & Ergonomics

All considerations of corporate culture aside, the Surface 2 remains a standout device. It has been criticized for its ergonomics by a number of publications, and I wonder if some of them were simply rushing to a conclusion, as can often happen when you aim to publish first instead of best.

It isn’t their fault really, as it takes time to understand something new and stop judging it in comparison to what you’re used to. Besides, publishing schedules rarely allow for lengthy consideration. This sort of thing happens all the time, but people are quick to forget. Taking a trip down memory lane to the first months after the iPad’s emergence reveals similar criticism and hurried judgement…and now look where we are!

Carved from the same VaporMG material as the first generation, Surface 2 now distinguishes itself with a silvery colour and somewhat more matte finish. The new look is sophisticated and attracts fewer fingerprints on the back, while maintaining the same slim and angular form factor.

I had a lukewarm reaction to the silver at first, mostly because I felt the design lost some of the elegance imparted by a black coat—its sharp silhouette seemed less futuristic in a lighter shade. I got over this notion quickly, and realized that it may also have something to do with the novelty wearing off, with Amazon joining the pointy-edge design club in the look of their new HDX tablets.

The Surface 2 is also appreciably lightweight (a little leaner than its predecessor), but this is still a 10″ tablet we’re talking about. Expectations of effortlessly holding it above your head at night while watching a movie are probably unrealistic.

Of course, you may not need to because the Surface has that handy built-in kickstand. Two things differ in this year’s model; firstly, the kickstand now has two positions allowing for more flexibility, and secondly, the satisfying click it makes when flipping shut is more muted.

For taller folks like myself, the new kickstand angle is a great improvement in a number of usage scenarios, encouraging better posture and making it more stable on softer surfaces like beds.

The running joke is that the Surface can’t be used in your lap. Needless to say, this is an exaggeration, but it has the glimmer of sense in it. When Microsoft positioned the Surface line as more than mere tablets, they encroached upon the territory of laptops and netbooks, the familiar workhorse business devices.

In doing so, they opened up a path of comparison in which there are clear ergonomic trade-offs being made. On the one hand, a thin slate with a kickstand that balances on your lap will never be as stable as a flat object that simply sits on it. They’re call laptops” for a reason. But laptops aren’t as light, as portable, as responsive.

Less stable” does not mean unusable though, as some reviewers would have you believe. I like to think that my lap is generally devoid of abnormalities, and I manage to use my Surface 2 like this just fine.

Screen, Sound, and Sight

As much as I appreciated the dramatic increase in performance from the Surface RT to the Surface 2, the biggest improvement is without a doubt the new screen resolution.

Windows 8 is beautiful in HD, and the wide aspect ratio makes the Surface 2 excellent for watching movies, streaming things on Netflix, or catching up with your YouTube Watch Later’ playlist. Vibrant colours and respectable brightness make this one of my favourite tablets for media consumption.

Thankfully, the audio has also been improved, albeit not as much. The stereo speakers are articulate and project fairly well, but don’t expect any bass or enough volume to run a dance party. Since I mostly watch things in the evening in a quiet apartment, this doesn’t bother me, but if you’re a fan of watching Dragon Ball Z reruns on the bus without headphones then you’ll have a bad time.

One interesting difference between the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 is in the cameras. The front-facing camera on the Surface 2 is superior to the one on the Pro, counterintuitively. The reasoning is probably that casual users are more likely to be Skyping with family and will benefit from the 3.5 megapixel shooter.

Whatever the reason, video calls look amazing and it’s got me using Skype more than ever.

Touching and Typing

Surface 2’s hybrid nature means it’s perfectly capable of being used as a touch-only tablet, or as a mouse & keyboard device.

Personally, I find that I’m more tempted to use it as a simple tablet. When I had the Surface Pro, I was using a keyboard more and appreciated having the pen in lieu of a mouse, but on the Surface 2 it just seems unnecessary.

I do miss the pen, not only because it was great for notes in OneNote but because it was so responsive that it finally felt like having a digital notebook. But the reality is that my drawing skills suck and after a lifetime of typing I’m faster with a keyboard than a pen, so besides the coolness factor it just wasn’t useful to me.

Besides, my usage of OneNote is mostly relegated to managing my productivity these days.

With the Surface 2, I find touch navigation to be intuitive and responsive. Admittedly, some targets in the desktop view are small, but they’re no smaller than Apple’s infuriating notification clearing buttons, for instance. My piano player fingers are slender enough to make it a non-issue in most cases, and while I sympathize with those who have wider finger tips, there are plenty of scaling options to help.

The on-screen keyboard is among the best I’ve used on a tablet, with very satisfying typing sounds and a good use of the large screen real estate to provide useful directional buttons, punctuation, and other goodies without having to switch keyboard layouts. Plus, all those familiar Ctrl shortcuts still work!

Paired with an actual keyboard accessory, Surface 2 becomes a very capable casual business machine. More on that later. I will say that I had to resort to the Microsoft Wedge Keyboard because I found the touch and type covers to be uncomfortable.

Windows RT and the App Situation

The most confusing aspect of the Surface 2 is probably its operating system, known as Windows RT. To the layperson, it looks and feels 100% identical to the standard Windows 8 installations you might find on your computer (or on the Surface Pro). That is, until you try to install something…

The key difference between Windows RT and its big brother is that RT does not support the installation or running of any normal executable files—if it ends in .exe, you can’t use it on a Surface 2.

This means that in order to get new software, you have to use the Windows Store, which in turn means that the only things you can install on Surface 2 are Metro Modern UI apps.

The Modern UI design paradigm deserves its own post, so I will soar over the subject and focus on the important question for now: is the Windows Store a sufficient source of software for the majority of users? When I had my Surface RT, the answer was no. With my Surface 2, the answer is yes.

In the intervening time, a surprising wealth of outstanding apps has appeared. Flipboard, Foursquare, VLC, Reddit to Go…these all work wonderfully and complement the more established apps like Facebook, Netflix, Evernote, Twitter, etc. The Surface 2 manages to be a very reliable content consumption companion, and as of this moment the biggest gap in the app market that impacts me is the absence of a great Pocket app. I make do with Latermark.

To return to the subject of Windows RT, the main source of confusion is the degree of similarity between the appearance of RT and normal Windows 8. You still have desktop access, but the only things that run are Microsoft Office, system utilities, and Internet Explorer.

Well…one of them, anyway. There’s both a desktop and Modern UI version of Internet Explorer, and this is confusing even for veteran technology users. Why both?

Fragmentation notwithstanding, I want to make sure I dedicate a paragraph—and I never thought I’d be writing this—to praising Internet Explorer. IE11 is the fastest browser I’ve used, and contrary to all expectation it has also matured into a browser that I can actually trust to render websites reliably, beautifully, and consistently. It has none of the plugin or extension power of Chrome/Firefox/Safari, but when all you need is a browser, IE delivers.

Finally.

It’s a good thing too, because on the Surface 2 you can’t install anything else!

Office

Microsoft Office is the headline feature of Surface 2, used to demonstrate its potential as more than just a consumption device. And unless you’re using macros or other advanced features of the suite, you’ll never know the difference between the Office on your Surface 2 and the Office you buy for your computer.

This is an amazing feeling, and having access to the full capabilities of OneNote and Word in a tablet makes me jealous of students who have the opportunity to use these for school. In all honesty, I recommend the Surface 2 above any other tablet for student use because its combination of strengths and limitations makes it practically ideal as an educational companion.

Alongside its genuine multitasking, the Surface 2 is portable and quick, its battery lasts forever, you have access to all the apps you need for the majority of schoolwork and research (outside of more advanced STEM disciplines where you may run into trouble), and while there are games and distractions, they aren’t as numerous as their iOS/Android counterparts.

With that in mind, I hasten to point out that while the app selection is now better, it still doesn’t come close to threatening iOS or even Android. And it won’t satisfy hardcore users—that’s what the Surface Pro is for. Those who like to be on the cutting edge of new app releases will not be happy with the Windows Store, and there’s no way around that fact.

Those whose tablet needs are more basic, on the other hand, will find their needs met in satisfying and often creative ways—in some cases without even installing anything else thanks to Microsoft’s extensive suite of apps.

Ecosystem

I’ve been saying it since my first experiences with Windows Phone, but it continues to become evident as time goes on: Microsoft is doing great things with its ecosystem.

When you buy a Surface 2 you end up with a diverse suite of stock apps that covers a lot of ground. Skype handles messaging with more and more elegance (a recent update finally stops it ringing when you answer elsewhere), the Mail and Calendar apps are simple but effective, and the People app is an address book plus networking app that gives you access to your social networks without having to install anything else.

Then there are the incredible Bing apps. These include health tracking, travel planning, news reading, financial info, sports results, bookmarking, mapping, recipes, music, video, and a gorgeous weather app.

All of this right out of the box, and each individual app is surprisingly sophisticated.

Digging deeper, you’ll notice that your documents and files are stored in OneDrive (formerly SkyDrive) by default so that you can access them from anywhere, even your Xbox. Microsoft will give you 200GB of free space for a year when you buy a Surface 2, so you can back up all your files and know that they’re safe even if the device is destroyed.

You’ll soon realize you can scan, print, and record voice memos without having to install or configure anything. Accessories are plug-and-play, and there’s a bona fide USB port for connecting flash drives, external hard-drives, a mouse, etc. You can set up speech recognition for total hands-free control of your tablet, you have Windows Defender protecting you from malware automatically, and your tablet can keep its apps and operating system up to date all by itself so you never have to worry about maintenance.

For the most part, it all just works” in a way that we’ve come to expect from certain other companies rather than Microsoft.

The ecosystem is maturing beautifully, and while the integration between computer/tablet/phone is not yet as seamless as it is on the Apple side of the fence, the grass is plenty green in Microsoft’s lawn.

Staying Alive

As I wrap up my thoughts on this unusual tablet, I have to commend the engineers for managing to squeeze so much battery life out of such a slim form factor.

It may not be as impressive as the iPad Air, but the Surface 2’s battery life is terrific, lasting for ten hours of heavy use and days of casual work. It also features some of the most conservative idle power drain of any device I’ve seen. Forget about it for two weeks and it’ll probably still have some juice.

Even if it’s dead, you’ll be pleased to know that it charges fast. Actually, it charges faster than any other device I own. Anandtech’s superb technical analysis corroborates my own findings that it can go from zero to 100% in 2 hours—a ridiculous figure. For comparison, the iPad Air takes twice as long to charge, and something like the Galaxy Note 10 takes more than 3 times as long.

Conclusions

Microsoft is in fine form with the Surface 2. Understood as a consumer tablet, it offers a set of features aimed at a different audience than some, but it serves that audience very well.

Students, small business owners, and those with straightforward tablet needs will be thrilled by the Surface 2. Some power users won’t be able to stand the limitations of Windows RT and may even eschew the Surface Pro because they don’t like Windows 8. Others still will approach the situation more open-mindedly and make use of tools like Remote Desktop to access the power of their desktop machines wherever they go.

There are plenty of people out there who don’t like or understand Apple products, who are put off by Android, or who have simply trusted Microsoft with their computing needs for a generation and see no reason to change camps with the advent of portable computing. For them, the Surface 2 represents not only a safe choice but a great one.

It lacks the ecosystem and ubiquitous appeal of an iPad, or the flexibility of an Android tablet, but makes up for it by reaching further toward the future in its ambitions. One device for work and play. No compromises.

Microsoft has a long way to go before they truly fulfill that vision, but at least they’re on their way.


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