Microsoft Surface 2 Review: Productivity Is the Promise — and the Problem

The hardware's in good shape; now it needs a better Office and the right third-party apps.

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Harry McCracken / TIME

In October of 2012, Microsoft released a tablet called Surface RT, the very first computer it ever designed and sold itself.

It was the company’s answer to the iPad — but not exactly, since the closest thing it had to a killer feature was the a flip-out kickstand and optional keyboard covers which let you use it like a laptop.

And it was also a PC — but not quite, since the only conventional Windows software it ran was Microsoft Office and a few other preinstalled apps.

It was, in short, hard to pin down.

One year later, the sequel — Surface 2 — is here. Microsoft is calling it “the most productive tablet on the planet,” which downplays direct competition with the iPad in favor of carving off a new niche. But even though the niche makes sense for Surface to tackle, this device doesn’t go all the way toward fulfilling it.

What’s most interesting about Surface 2 is pretty much what was interesting about Surface RT, which is quite a lot: the kickstand, the keyboard covers, the full copy of Microsoft Office which comes preinstalled. It has a USB port and a MicroSD slot, providing opportunities for expansion and customization — such as the addition of a mouse and extra storage — which the iPad has famously written out of the picture.

Above all, what’s significant about the new Surface remains the fact that it runs Windows RT. The operating system has the same touch-friendly, stylish Metro interface as Windows 8, and runs new-style apps from Microsoft’s Windows Store. It has almost nothing in common with any previous version of Windows — it can’t even run the third-party applications which they can — and is also distinctly different from the iPad and Android tablets. Whether you find it bold or befuddling, it’s not more of the same.

As it did last year, Microsoft islaunching two variants on this concept. Surface 2 is available in a 32GB model for $449 and a 64GB one for $459 (neither price includes a keyboard cover). It’s arriving alongside Surface Pro 2, a largely similar — albeit thicker and heavier — device which includes Windows 8.1 and comes with a nifty pressure-sensitive pen for note-taking and doodling. Surface Pro 2 starts at $899, twice the price of the most basic Surface 2. But it also runs classic Windows apps, from your favorite games to full-strength Photoshop, making it a plausible primary PC for more folks. (My colleague Jared Newman bought one and tells me he’s pretty pleased with it overall.)

The original Surface RT remains on the market, too. It’s now simply known as Surface, and is a $349 budget special.

Most of Surface 2’s hardware changes compared to that first Surface are minor — sometimes exceedingly so. The case is still made of magnesium, and still looks classy and feels solid, but now it’s a light gray rather than the darker shade of the original model. Microsoft touts Surface 2 as being “leaner” than its predecessor, but at 0.35 of an inch thick and 1.49 pounds, it’s only slightly over 0.02 of an inch thinner and less than one-fifth of an ounce lighter. That reduction in bulk feels like a rounding error, especially in comparison to Apple‘s newly downsized iPad Air.

Other upgrades are more meaningful: The new Surface sports a faster processor than the Surface RT and a pleasing new 10.6-inch display with the same resolution as the Surface Pro 2: 1920-by-1080 pixels. The kickstand now pops out to two different angles: 22 degrees (like the original) or 55 degrees (designed, Microsoft says, to work better if you’re balancing this newfangled laptop in your lap). The front- and back-facing cameras offer higher resolution and better performance in murky lighting; the USB port supports USB 3.0, the zippy current version. Estimated battery life is now 10 hours, up from eight for the first Surface; in my informal tests, it at least came close.

The Surface 2 which Microsoft provided to me for review was equipped with the second-generation version of its $130 Type Cover. It’s one millimeter thinner than the first version, sports backlit keys and permits quieter typing. Like all Surface covers, it snaps on and off in a jiff via a magnetic connector on the tablet’s edge and doesn’t require its own battery or any setup. It’s not perfect — the touchpad is still too dinky and tough to manuever — but overall, it’s the best tablet keyboard I’ve ever used.

I didn’t try the $120 Touch Cover 2, which sacrifices discrete keys for a flatter, thinner, one-piece keyboard; it’s also added backlighting and uses 1,092 sensors rather than the original’s 80 sensors to provide better typing accuracy. Early next year, Microsoft also plans to ship a $200 Power Cover, which is exactly what it sounds like: A keyboard cover with a built-in battery which can provide extra juice to extend the Surface’s run time.

So that’s the Surface 2 hardware: refined, but not redefined.

The tablet’s operating system is Windows RT 8.1 — that is, Windows RT with Windows 8.1’s improvements — and that’s a reasonably big deal in itself, as long as you find the basic idea of the new interface intriguing rather than off-putting. (The update is also now available on the original Surface.) Not only can you run two apps on screen at once — an option which the iPad, of course, doesn’t offer — but you can adjust their size. SkyDrive, Microsoft’s online storage service, is more seamlessly built into the OS, permitting you to store more of your files in the cloud without giving it much thought. The new-style Start screen now lets you organize your apps with more flexibility, and the search feature finds stuff across your device, the Web and elsewhere.

Microsoft also throws in a few new freebies with the Surface 2 which are actually worth something. It comes with a roomy 200GB of storage of SkyDrive online storage — available on all your gizmos, not just the tablet — for two years. For the first year, you can also use Skype to make unlimited calls to landlines, and get gratis connections to two million Wi-Fi hotspots around the world.

The bundled version of Office which comes with Surface has one big change which will matter a lot to some worker bees — it now comes with Outlook, the Microsoft e-mail program which is standard equipment in many businesses. Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint offer Office’s signature benefits: almost every feature you can imagine, and perfect compatibility with the files your coworkers create in other versions of Office. Nobody will ever accuse these apps of being underpowered, which isn’t true of most productivity software for other tablets.
But as with last year’s Surface, Office isn’t an unalloyed plus for Surface 2. All of these programs still use the old-school Windows interface, modestly updated to work with touch input. They sit on a vestigial version of the classic Windows desktop, and never quite feel entirely at home. For instance, they don’t deal well with being shrunk down to share screen real estate with other apps — sometimes information runs off the display or gets hidden by a scroll bar. And if you’re using the tablet with the on-screen keyboard and pop open an Office app’s Ribbon toolbar, the viewable portion of your document is reduced to a tiny sliver.

Basically, using Office on the Surface 2 leaves you craving a version of Office designed with the new interface in mind. Microsoft says that one is on its way, though it isn’t yet being specific about when it might show up.

Third-party apps do at least as much as anything preinstalled to determine what you can do with a device, and it’s de rigueur in reviews like this one to point out at least one major app which isn’t available in Microsoft’s Windows Store. (Here’s one: Candy Crush Saga.) Still, after a year of operation, the store shows signs of life. Among the 100,000-plus apps it offers for Surface 2 are nice official versions of Facebook, Twitter and eBay. Foursquare may be better than it is on any other platform, and Flipboard is on it way.

Yet when it comes to productivity — the subject which Microsoft has chosen to play up as Surface’s defining virtue — the pickings remain surprisingly slim. In categories where the iPad offers multiple solid options, such as blogging apps, you’re lucky if the Windows Store has anything at all. Programs such as Adobe’s Photoshop and Autodesk’s Sketchbook are available only in basic versions, not the much meatier editions available for the iPad and Android tablets.

It’s not that it’s impossible to build a good productivity application which will take full advantage of the Surface 2. Microsoft’s OneNote — one Office app which is already preinstalled in a Metro version — is just fine. I also like Back to the Drawing Board, a computer-assisted drafting program. Jared recommends a music app called FL Studio Groove. There are other examples, too, just not enough of them. (Sadly, TouchMail, an e-mall package which I got excited about in preview form back in April, remains a preview: It doesn’t let you access your own accounts.)

I’m still rooting for Microsoft to get Surface right, and I figure that it has at least another year before the platform faces anything like an existential crisis. The good news is that Surface doesn’t really need more pixels or additional kickstand angles or a beefier battery: If Microsoft ships a well-done Metro version of Office and convinces more developers to write top-notch productivity apps, Surface 2 will feel like a whole new computer, no hardware upgrades required. But without them, it’ll continue to feel incomplete.