Attractive Surface 2 not as good as it looks
In a two-day test, Microsoft’s new Surface 2 exhibited some impressive features, but a frozen keyboard, occasional app hang-ups and a few abruptly closing browser windows were signs this $449 tablet isn’t yet a business-class machine.
Seattle Times technology columnist
Microsoft’s new Surface 2 tablet looks fantastic with its vivid display and a silvery magnesium case that would be right at home on the bridge of a spaceship.
Unfortunately, the entry-level, $449 model doesn’t perform as well as it looks.
After two days of testing the Surface 2 at work and home, I was reminded of the old adage about Microsoft products: Wait for the third version before you take the plunge.
But it remains to be seen whether there will be a third version, since the Surface 2 is based on Windows RT, a forlorn operating system that’s been largely abandoned by the rest of the PC industry.
The Surface 2 goes on sale Tuesday alongside a new version of the more powerful and capable Surface Pro. The latter costs twice as much — $900 — but it runs a normal version of Windows and is compatible with more programs.
With all sorts of new tablets going on sale this holiday season, including new iPads expected to be unveiled Tuesday, it might be wise to wait before taking the plunge on a Surface 2.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft lowers the Surface 2’s price fairly soon, or starts throwing in accessories such as its clever “Touch” covers with integrated keyboards, to keep it competitive.
I wanted to like the Surface 2. It’s pretty impressive for what’s only the second generation of the computer produced by Microsoft, and it comes with a suite of useful software.
But after experiencing several hiccups during a two-day trial — including a frozen keyboard, occasional app hang-ups and a few abruptly closing browser windows — I decided it’s not yet a tablet that I'd buy for work or home use.
If it cost $300 or less, I’d be more forgiving, but the Surface is a second-generation, business-class device that costs as much as a laptop and the more seasoned iPad.
There are some things to like. The cool slab is just a third of an inch thick and weighs 1.5 pounds. Its 10.6-inch touch screen has been upgraded to full 1080p resolution, and its battery is claimed to last 10 hours, two hours longer than the original Surface, which Microsoft began selling a year ago.
The Surface 2 does some cool tricks and comes with Microsoft Office, so it can be used for work as well as browsing, watching videos, playing games and most other things people do with tablets. With its split-screen capability, you can do several at once.
During Thursday’s Seahawks game, the Surface 2 was a perfectly fine substitute for the iPad I normally use for email and browsing on the couch.
Later that night I watched part of a TV show via the Surface Netflix app, which is superior to the Netflix app on the iPad.
But the next morning, when I propped up the Surface on the kitchen counter to squeeze in some work over breakfast, its $120 backlit, snap-in “Touch” keyboard stopped working. Nor could I enter text using the on-screen touch keyboard until I closed all the open apps and reopened them.
I tried three different Surface keyboards and none worked. Finally I went into the system controls and did a “refresh” — a 15-minute process — and the keyboards started working again.
As for wireless connections, the Surface unfortunately doesn’t yet have built-in cell service available. It was easy to tether to my phone and connect while riding the bus.
Unlike the overly restrictive iPad, the Surface 2 lets users load files directly and connect accessories, through a USB 3.0 port and a memory-card slot.
The Surface 2 wakes up almost instantly, has an improved camera, and speakers with plenty of oomph to play music.
Microsoft also improved the Surface’s signature built-in kickstand, giving it a second position that leans the device farther back. It also added quick access to the built-in cameras, which you can start using with a downward flick of the finger, without unlocking the device.
Then there’s the operating system.
Windows RT was designed to run “big Windows” on the tiny, power-efficient mobile processors used in phones and tablets such as the iPad. The goal was mostly achieved; RT works on these chips, but it’s incompatible with programs written for older versions of Windows.
You probably weren’t going to use an enterprise app on RT devices, which are aimed more at consumers and students. But students who want to use, say, Microsoft’s Worldwide Telescope astronomy atlas are also out of luck on RT.
RT filled a gap between Windows 8 and Windows Phone. It was also supposed to address Microsoft’s glaring absence in the booming market for Web tablets, which are now owned by 35 percent of U.S. residents over the age of 16, according to Pew research.
But the need for RT is becoming less obvious. Windows Phone is scaling up to run on small tablets using mobile chips. At the same time, Intel’s new chips are finally small and efficient enough that PC makers can use them to build nice tablets running regular versions of Windows 8.
Dell, Lenovo and Acer announced 8-inch Windows tablets last week in the $300 range. Instead of RT, they all use regular Windows on Intel chips.
New Intel chips also led to dramatic improvements in the Surface Pro 2, which Microsoft claims has 75 percent longer battery life. It’s a more intriguing option for those wanting a PC-like tablet.
Both Surface models come with the 8.1 version of Windows that was released last week.
Sadly, Windows 8.1 no longer uses the rendering of the Space Needle that was the default home screen on Windows 8. But 8.1 does give users more options to configure the software, a token “start” button and a laundry list of updates and fixes.
The app store’s tile on the start screen now displays the logo of featured apps, even if you already own those apps. Some users will be confused when they tap on the Netflix logo, for instance, and are taken to the store and not the Netflix app.
I’d put up with that sort of thing if Microsoft would change the layout of Internet Explorer or allow competing browsers to run on Windows RT.
IE’s controls fade away to maximize the display window, forcing you to tap the screen or click a mouse to have them surface. Users should have the option of keeping tabs and controls visible at all times.
(Update: I didn’t realize it but this option is there: When the browser is open, swipe left on the screen and then tap Settings, then go into “Options” and there’s a switch to keep the controls visible.)
The Surface browser would render some Web pages only if I toggled to traditional “desktop” mode. This option wasn’t made clear, though; in Windows 8 mode the browser presented a blank screen when pointed at these pages.
Microsoft has thoroughly woven services such as Skype and the SkyDrive storage service into Windows 8.1.
SkyDrive is particularly handy. It works just like another hard-drive on the system, which starts with 32 gigabytes of local storage. Files are automatically saved on SkyDrive and are accessible from other devices when you log in with your Microsoft account.
It’s easier to choose which files or photos you want to download from SkyDrive onto the local device, and Microsoft gives Surface buyers 200 gigs of online storage for two years, in addition to the 7 gigs it provides free to everyone.
The catch, of course, is that after this trial offer you’ll probably end up paying monthly fees to access all the stuff you’ve stored on SkyDrive.
At which point Microsoft ought to start giving people Windows RT tablets for free, if they sign up for a two- or three-year bundle of online services.
Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org
About Brier Dudley
Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
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