Microsoft’s New Surface Tablets Are the Same Idea, Refined

The Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 won't win over skeptics, but they make sense for Microsoft.

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Harry McCracken / TIME

Microsoft's Panos Panay enters the audience, tablet in hand, during Microsoft's Surface event in New York City on September 23, 2013

When Microsoft announced its original Surface tablets last year, expectations, pretty much by definition, were high. After almost 40 years as a supplier of software to PC companies, Microsoft was finally making its own PCs — and it was trying to reinvent the PC as a high-end tablet with inventive features such as the super-thin Touch Cover keyboard. Whatever happened next, it was a historic moment in PC history.

Today, at an event in New York, Microsoft unveiled its new Surfaces, the Surface Pro 2 and Surface 2, which will be available for pre-order tomorrow and will go on sale on October 22. This time around, the stakes are far lower. Second-generation products, after all, are almost never anywhere near as big news as their predecessors¬†are. And with sales of the first versions of Surface nowhere near the iPad’s ballpark, even people who expected Surface to make a dent in the universe have presumably recalibrated their assumptions. The big immediate question with the new Surfaces isn’t whether they’ll be blockbusters — it’s whether they’ll at least do better than their predecessors.

If you had problems with the very concept of Surface, there’s nothing in the new ones to sway your opinion. They’re the same idea in more refined form, and it’s impossible to be enthusiastic about either unless you’re at least O.K. with the Windows 8.x experience on a touchscreen device. (Surface Pro 2 runs Windows 8.1; Surface 2 uses the new version of Windows RT, which is essentially Windows 8.1 without the ability to run old-school third-party Windows apps.)

If, however, you found Surface at least vaguely intriguing, the new models are worth your attention. According to Microsoft, they’re faster, with better battery life. The specs are beefier; the signature keyboard covers and kickstands have been refined. I won’t try to render a verdict until I’ve gotten real hands-on time with them, but it’s already clear that they’re better in numerous little ways.

Here’s the rundown of what’s new:

Battery life: I’m listing this first because it’s the one thing I care about the most. Both original Surfaces ran out of juice too fast, especially given their emphasis on mobility. The new Surface Pro 2 uses Intel’s power-efficient fourth-generation (a.k.a. Haswell) processor; that, along with other improvements, gives it 60 percent more life on a charge than the first one, according to Microsoft. (The company doesn’t seem to be playing up a specific number, but it originally quoted a life of five hours for the first Surface Pro, which would place this one at eight hours.) The Surface gets 25 percent better battery life than its predecessor, Microsoft says, or up to 10 hours.

Form factor:¬†It’s largely unchanged, but the Surface 2 is slightly thinner and lighter than Surface RT, and available in a white version. Both models are built around 10.6″ screens — big for a tablet, and small for a PC.

Power features: Microsoft says that both Surfaces are faster than their first-generation counterparts — the Surface 2 by three to four times (it has a new processor and speedier access to memory and Wi-Fi) and the Surface Pro 2 by 20 percent. The Surface 2 now has the same full-HD screen as the Surface Pro 2 — with 46 percent better color accuracy than before, according to Microsoft — and a USB 3.0 port. It also has higher-resolution cameras, including a front-facing camera designed to handle Skype video calls better in murky lighting.

In 2014, Microsoft plans to introduce a docking station for the Surface Pro 2. It has built-in Ethernet, more USB ports and the ability to drive an external display, and is aimed at power users who want to use the tablet as their primary computer.

Input options: Microsoft says it’s improved both the Surface’s Touch Cover (which sports a one-piece membrane keyboard) and Type Cover (a thicker cover with discrete keys and more of a notebook feel). Both are thinner than their previous incarnations and are now backlit. The Touch Cover uses 1192 sensors (up from 80) for more precision; the Touch Cover keys now have more travel, and are silent.

Coming in 2014: the Power Cover, which includes both a keyboard and a built-in battery that extends the tablet’s life and charges the internal battery. Microsoft says that a Surface Pro 2 with Power Cover can run 2.75 times as long between charges as the original Surface Pro. The company also demonstrated a cover designed for making and remixing music on the tablet.

Kickstand: The new version of the fold-out stand still snaps open and shut with the high-end feel of a luxury car door, as Microsoft will tell you every chance it gets. But now it has two positions, one of which is designed to make it easier to use this newfangled laptop in your lap. (I found that this was possible with the first Surfaces, but I did need to balance them rather gingerly.)

Apps: Either new version of Surface will be infinitely more appealing if you’re excited by the Metro-style apps in Microsoft’s Windows Store. There are now 100,000 of them, giving the platform some critical mass, though it’s still short on ones that lead me to say “Hey, I could envision buying a new computing device just to get get that.”

Bonus stuff: Both Surfaces come with a year of Skype international calling and Wi-Fi hotspot access, and 200GB of SkyDrive storage for two years. (With Windows 8.1, SkyDrive storage is more neatly integrated into the operating system, making the notion of using it as a primary repository for your data more appealing.) And Surface 2 adds Outlook to the other Office apps it already included at no extra cost — a pretty big deal for some business folks who intend to use it as a productivity machine.

Price: The Surface 2 starts at $449 with 32GB of storage, which is fifty bucks less than the original price of the Surface RT. (That model will stay on the market at $349.) The Surface Pro 2, like its predecessor, starts at $899 with 64GB and a pressure-sensitive pen. In both cases, as before, those prices are without a cover/keyboard. Basically, Microsoft isn’t doing much to please those who said that Surface was far too expensive; instead, the new models offer meaningful upgrades at prices which are either slightly less or the same as before.

Availability: I continue to think that the first Surface rollout suffered from the fact that the tablet’s only retail presence during the initial marketing blitz was at Microsoft’s tiny Microsoft Store chain. The company later expanded distribution to outlets such as Best Buy, and the new Surfaces will be widely available from day one. You won’t have any trouble checking one out in person.

After Surface honcho Panos Panay’s onstage presentation, I chatted with Julie Larson-Green, the Microsoft executive Vice President who, in Microsoft’s reorganized world, now heads up all devices for the company. She told me that the original Surface Pro, being a full-fledged Windows PC, was an easier sell than the Windows RT-based Surface RT, which required more explanation. (Everyone thinks of both versions as sluggish sellers, but the Surface Pro is a success by at least one benchmark — it’s the best-selling Windows laptop priced above $800.)

It’s telling that the Surface 2 has neither “Windows” nor “RT” in its name. Larson-Green told me that Microsoft is positioning it as “a personal tablet, a family tablet” but that she’s now using one as her primary computer. Surface Pro 2, meanwhile, continues to goes after people who want a powerful Windows PC that happens to be a tablet.

I also felt obligated to ask her about Microsoft’s impending acquisition of Nokia’s devices and services business, even though I knew it was too early for her to say anything meaty about how it might affect Surface. “I’m very excited,” she said. “We’ve had a great relationship with the phone team. I’ve met with [outgoing Nokia CEO and incoming Microsoft executive] Stephen [Elop] a few times now.”

Me, I think that the Nokia merger, when it happens, could be crucial to determining Surface’s fate. At the moment, Surface is an idiosyncratic little offshoot of Microsoft’s core business. Even if the devices are getting better — and they are — it’s tough to see how they matter all that much to the company or the industry. But if Microsoft is serious enough about reinventing itself as a devices-and-services company to spend billions to buy a smartphone maker — and it is — the notion of it making its own PCs stops sounding frivolous, and starts sounding essential to the future it sees for itself. What would it have said about Microsoft’s confidence in that vision if it had given up on Surface after one generation?