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Microsoft Surface 2 review: Does new tablet offer any improvements?

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Microsoft's Surface 2 is the second attempt by the company to create a stripped back and simple, tablet-style Windows 8 device.

Just as with the first, build quality is impressive, but the idea of splicing Windows 8.1 into a cleaner tablet experience just doesn't work.

Microsoft Surface 2

© Digital Spy



With the Surface Pro 2, this is more forgivable as you get the complete Windows experience and plenty power to play with.

This Windows 8.1 RT tablet delivers a more stripped-back experience that lacks laptop levels of grunt and left us asking ourselves, 'Why do we need this?'

Hardware and Design

The Surface 2 is a lovely thing to hold. Microsoft has switched to a lighter grey colour casing to better reflect the use of magnesium in its design.

We think this might be one the best-looking tablets to date. We love the Tron-style slate grey and the use of clean lines and angular edges. It all feels very different to the rounded and smooth edges of the majority of Android tablets and of course, the iPad.

We also really like how Microsoft has listened to people's concerns with the device's built-in kickstand. Now it flips out in two stages, the latter giving the tablet a bigger footprint and making it more stable on your lap.

Microsoft Surface 2

© Digital Spy

The Surface 2 two stage kickstand



The Surface 2 is also fairly compact compared to other tablets, sizing up at 10.81 x 6.79 x 0.35 inches. An iPad for example, is 9.50 x 7.31 x 0.37 inches. One of the main complaints of the previous Surface was its size. This has definitely been addressed here.

Just as with the Surface Pro 2, the 1080p display used here is excellent. The 10.6-inch screen gives great viewing angles, excellent colour rendition and deep blacks. This is still one of the best-looking tablet screens, despite being bested by the Nexus 10 and iPad in terms of pure resolution.

    You are constantly switching between different ways of interacting with the Surface, making it feel less like a single streamlined experience, which is what a tablet should be.

Nvidia's Tegra 4 processor powers the unit, with the quad-core chip clocking in at 1.7GHz. You also get 2GB of RAM to play with. Windows 8.1 RT never gives you enough flexibility for the tablet to seem slow. The number of apps on offer play it safe enough that nothing can really push the tablet to its limit.

Battery life is an improved 10 hours of video playback, while storage comes in 32 and 64GB forms. Surface 2 behaves pretty much the same as an iPad in the power and storage stakes. The claimed battery improvements by Microsoft have definitely been delivered.

Camera

New for the Surface 2 is an updated 3.5-megapixel camera unit on the front, with a 5-megapixel snapper on the back. Both are capable of proper 1080p video, and both are more than adequate for video calling.

Microsoft Surface 2

© Digital Spy

The Surface 2 camera



A year of unlimited world calling for Skype and a year's worth of free Skype Wi-Fi is Included with the Surface 2. This definitely puts it above most other devices for video calling, although admittedly there are plenty of Android and iOS-based alternatives that do the same for free.

User interface and software

Unlike the Surface Pro 2, the Surface 2 runs on Windows 8.1 RT. A stripped back and perhaps more tablet-friendly version of the Windows operating system, it actually ends up just feeling very restricted.

Windows 8.1 Bing Search

© Microsoft

Windows 8.1 Bing Search

The app ecosystem isn't even close to what Google Play or the iTunes App Store have on offer, which is a problem when you don't have full-blown windows to plug the gaps.

In the end, you are left with a device that feels very much like a restricted Windows desktop PC, rather than a tablet with clever solutions to traditional mobile computing.

Microsoft is pushing the fact that Surface has a proper, complete Office experience - which it does - but then Google Drive is more than adequate on competing devices. Alternatives like Dropbox and Apple's iWork apps also do more than a good enough job.

As such, we found ourselves just flicking through the Windows Marketplace looking for apps to install to get more from our Surface. The core of what is there, Office included, is very good, but there just isn't enough of it.

It almost feels like the Surface 2 would be actually better suited to having Windows Phone 8 running on it, in tablet size, rather than offering up a Windows desktop that you can't really do much with.

Windows 8.1: Xbox Music

© Microsoft

Windows 8.1: Xbox Music



The same clunky system of interactions that applied with the Surface Pro 2 apply here. Some parts of the OS are better suited to touch inputs, while others are so small that you will need to use a normal cursor in order to click on them. The Touch Cover 2 is a perfect accessory for keyboard input, but doesn't work so well for cursor control.

The end result is you are constantly switching between different ways of interacting with the Surface, making it feel less like a single simplified and easy to use experience, which is what a tablet should be.

Windows 8.1 definitely rights a lot of the wrongs of the operating system and if you fancy reading more about the new changes Microsoft has included, you can do so here.

> Read Digital Spy's review of the Microsoft Surface Pro 2

Music and Movies

That excellent 1080p screen lends itself well to movie watching, as does the included Xbox Music and Movies apps. You have a wide enough selection of content to easily match what a Nexus 10 or iPad could offer.

Sound output from the speakers is also good enough to keep lap-based movie watching a possibility, especially with the new two stage kickstand included. If you are planning on using the Surface 2 for listening to music and watching movies, the experience you get here keeps up with the competition.

The competition

The obvious competition here is the iPad, but there is also the excellent Nexus 10. Bottom line is, both are a better choice, unless access to proper versions of Office is absolutely necessary.

Apple iPad 4

© Apple



Microsoft does add in 200GB of SkyDrive storage to play with as a bonus over the competition, but we would opt for the Apple or Samsung offering in most cases.

Verdict

The Surface 2 makes the same mistakes its predecessor does. Hardware is great and Microsoft has improved on nearly every aspect of the specs and build of its entry-level tablet. Price is also an improvement at £359 for the entry-level version.

The user experience you get, however, just can't compare to iOS or Android, and the desktop-centric side of things isn't good enough to make the Surface 2 a viable option over the competition. Those who want proper Windows will need to do a touch more saving and opt for the Surface Pro 2, which strikes us as a much better proposition.

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