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Hands-On: Should Microsoft's Surface 2 Be on Your Wish List?

Business users, field workers, students and anyone else looking for a mobile and functional tablet to run Office, handle e-mail, browse the Web and use various other apps almost anywhere should consider Microsoft's new Surface 2. Whether looking to get some work done on a long flight, at a local Starbucks or on the sofa while watching football, the Surface 2 is the best (relatively) low-cost portable unit for that purpose.

I've spent over a month with the new Surface 2, introduced in September and released in late October, and it's a nice evolutionary improvement over the original Surface RT. To be clear, just like its predecessor, the Surface 2 runs an improved version of the scaled-down version of Windows, now called Windows 8.1 RT. That means that if you are looking for a unit that must run traditional apps designed for Windows 7 or earlier, the Surface 2 is not for you unless you've checked the Windows Store and found an equivalent modern app developed for Windows 8.

Given the state of traditional Windows apps in the new Windows Store, there's a good chance at least some apps you use are not available -- at least for now. In some cases, like in the case of Adobe (noted last week), they may never come. Hopefully that will change and, depending on your app usage, you'll have to decide if that's a deal breaker.  

If running a traditional Windows app on the go is a requirement, the new Surface Pro 2 has a nearly identical form factor to the RT model, though it comes loaded with an Intel processor rather than the ARM-based system-on-a-chip architecture. The Surface Pro 2 is somewhat thicker and heavier than the Surface 2 (2 pounds versus 1.5 pounds), and the Pro offers less (though vastly improved) battery life. And you'll pay at least double for the Pro (see Redmond magazine contributor Derek Schauland's take on the Surface Pro 2 here).

But even if all of your desktop or laptop apps aren't available in the Windows Store, that doesn't mean you should rule out the Surface 2. It simply means you shouldn't consider it as a replacement for your existing Windows PC (though that was never the intent of the Surface 2 or its predecessor). Rather it's a perfect companion device for common tasks like using Office to write, create and edit spreadsheets and work in PowerPoint. For many workers, that should suffice.

The Surface 2 I tested is the entry level unit, priced at $449. I used the Type Cover keyboard (at an additional $130 cost), which is now backlit, though a Touch Cover keyboard is also an option for $10 less. Having seen the Touch Cover, I prefer the Type Cover, which feels more like a real keyboard but that's really a matter of preference. It's foolish to get a tablet without some kind of cover. When you want to use it as a pure tablet, you can easily remove the cover and put it aside. But having some form of keyboard option makes sense, especially if you're using Office.

Powered by an ARM-based NVIDIA Tegra 4 quad-core processor and 2 GB of RAM, the entry level Surface 2 comes with a scant 32 GB solid-state flash drive for storage. But with the installed software, less than half of that capacity will be available for apps and data. Though a USB port will allow for additional storage, if you have your sights on installing lots of apps, you may want to spend an extra $100 for the 64 GB version, which, in reality, should have been Microsoft's entry level model.

Equipped with a perpetual Office 2013 license that includes Outlook, the Surface 2 offers good battery life, a crisp 1920x1080 HD display and performs reasonably well presuming you're not running too many apps at once. The Surface 2 has a very similar form factor to the iPad, though Apple's newest iPad Air is lighter. Even though you can also get an optional keyboard and Office-compatible apps for the iPad (but not Office itself, at least not yet, though many predict that will change in the coming year), the wider display on the Surface 2 seems to make it more suitable for work-related tasks such as working in Office or going through e-mail. The new backlit keyboard is a nice feature but you'll want to make sure to close it when it's not in use to save battery life.

The new dual-position kickstand also is a welcome addition to the new Surface, letting you find a suitable angle for working. I connected my small wireless Logitech mouse to Surface 2's USB port but if you spring for a Bluetooth-compatible mouse, that will free up the lone USB port. Of course, you don't need to use a mouse if you're willing to wean yourself off it. The keyboard does have a track pad or you can use the touch interfaces. I still find the mouse easier for certain tasks, especially when working with an Excel file or copy and pasting in Word, on the Surface 2's 10.6-inch display. However, I'm not sure I'd feel any different with a 20-inch touch display.

Over the past few years, when I go to meetings or attend all-day conferences, I typically take my aging ASUS Eee PC netbook, which runs Windows 7 and can't be upgraded to Windows 8x. The Surface 2 is much easier to carry and pop open on the fly. It is perfect when sitting down at an event or meeting to take notes, keeping an eye on e-mail, browsing the Web and using various social media apps.

While I like the Surface 2, if you already have an iPad, you're not going to want to pass it along to the kids just yet. Chances are you're not going to find all of your favorite iOS apps in the Windows Store. If you do, then you'll find little use for the iPad. Again, in most situations, I doubt that will be the case at this point.

Will that change? As I reported earlier this month, IDC says developer interest in the platform has risen by eight points in the most recent quarter. While that's good news, with 37 percent of developers now saying they want to build Windows apps, that's 35 points below developer interest level in Android and 50 points lower than Apple's iOS. Getting more apps into the new Windows Store ecosystem in the coming year will be critical to the success of the Surface 2 and fellow Windows-based devices that run on low-power system-on-a-chip platforms.

Let's face it though, no one is going to buy a device on the promise that more apps may appear in the future. You're going to consider it based on what it can do for you out of the box. If you're looking to ditch your heavy laptop and all you need is access to files, the ability to work in Office, browse the Web and have it work all day on a single charge (figure eight to nine hours), it'll get you through the day when you're away from the office. Microsoft also has said it will offer a keyboard with a built-in extra battery that will add 50 percent more battery life.

The fact that SkyDrive is integrated nicely into Windows 8.1 makes it easy to synchronize all of the files you use on it with your other systems, including your main computer. Though as I recently noted, it would be nice if SkyDrive had the same ease of use as Dropbox, which is also available as an app in the Windows Store (other popular services such as Box are available).

Some may lament it lacks built-in connectivity to cellular networks, though if you have a phone with a hotspot, it should hold you over when WiFi isn't available. It's likely versions with 4G connectivity will appear or you can also check out the new Nokia Lumia 2520, already equipped for the AT&T network.

There seems to be more demand for the newest crop of Surface systems as it appears they are hard to come by, Network World reported on Monday. Though it could be that's because Microsoft was more conservative in making supply available.

If neither the Surface 2 or Surface Pro 2 suit your needs, there's a slew of alternatives available from third parties such as ASUS, Acer, HP, Dell, Lenovo and Sony. You can bet they will have more consumer-grade and business-class systems in the coming year. Is a Surface 2 on your wish list?

Posted by Jeffrey Schwartz on 12/18/2013 at 10:45 AM


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