Though improved, Microsoft’s ARM tablet still falls flat
When you’re literally the laughing stock of the tablet world, it’s pretty hard to make a comeback. In fact, most critics didn’t believe we’d see what’s before your eyes now: Surface 2.
Surface 2 is faster and has a better kickstand than its predecessor, but it may be too late for Windows RT.
There’s plenty of reason for people to be such haters, too. The original Surface RT that shipped in October 2012 was a financial bomb at its original price of $500. Microsoft eventually had to take a $900 million write-off on the Surface RT; irate shareholders even sued the company, calling SurfRT an “unmitigated disaster.”
The reception to Windows RT has been so poor in general, that most of the original PC OEMs who jumped in have since jumped out in favor of full x86-Windows 8.1 tablets. That brings us to the curious life of Surface 2, a sequel to a tablet that most think didn’t deserve one.
Externally, the Surf2 looks the same, but the internals are quite different. Surf2 sports a 1.7GHz Tegra 4, which is a good clip faster than the 1.3GHz Tegra 3 in its predecessor. The original wasn’t a horrible performer but it did get a bit laggy on occasion. Surface 2 is noticeably faster in feel and in the tests.
To compare performance, we updated the Surface 2 and Surface RT to the latest OS versions and ran browser-based benchmarks within Internet Explorer 11. The Surface 2 was at a minimum twice as fast as the older tablet in the HTML5 tests we ran. There is a cost for this performance, though. Even though Surface 2 is rated to offer longer battery life, we found that Surface RT outlasted Surface 2 by a healthy margin. Our test, admittedly, puts more of a load on a tablet than typical usage. Rather than loop a movie, we looped Futuremark’s Peacekeeper HTML5 benchmark, which is a good processor load and keeps the Wi-Fi hot. Surface 2 ran nearly four hours while Surface RT hit an impressive six-plus hours. Surface 2 also got noticeably warm during the rundown.
Other improvements to Surf2 include a 1920x1080-res screen, USB 3.0 support, and low-power capability on the Bluetooth 4.0 radio. The most noticeable physical change is a two-position kickstand, as the kickstand on Surface RT was apparently taken from the Gitmo enhanced-interrogation-techniques manual of PC use and was horribly uncomfortable to use at a desk or on a plane.
The OS is, of course, Windows RT 8.1, and no discussion of the OS can go without talking about its app store. When Surface RT launched, people gave Microsoft the benefit of the doubt that the app market would pick up. It hasn’t. The app market still looks and feels like the store shelves following a zombie apocalypse, where you’d drop to your knees and thank the gods for a can of beans.
Perhaps even worse for the app market is the lack of support from Google. We know each of the big companies are building their own self-contained biodomes but they’re also increasingly trying to cut each other out too, and the lack of a Modern app for Gmail, Google Maps, and all things Google really, really hurts the Surface 2. Yes, there’s a Netflix app, Amazon app, and Yahoo native app, but the inability to get Gmail or Google Maps or YouTube makes the Surface 2 an inferior experience to Android-based tablets. The fact that Google deigns to support iOS makes it doubly bad for those of us who want finger-friendly apps on our tablets.
The only real plus on the software side is the free copy of Office 2013 that’s optimized for ARM on the Surface 2. With it, you get Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, and Outlook. Those apps give the Surface 2 its only real edge over other tablets. With the TypePad 2 keyboard attached (the original TypePad is actually better) and a Bluetooth mouse, you can get away with a decent amount of laptop-like Office productivity that you really can’t with other tablets. And no, we don’t care what you say—that copy of SquareOfficePro12 you downloaded from the app store for $4.99 will not do absolutely everything Microsoft Office will do. It just can’t and won’t. It may do what you need it for, but it won’t do the same things as a set of applications that Microsoft has thousands of people working on, so stop fooling yourself.
So, where does this leave Surface 2? It’s clearly superior to the original Surface RT in performance, but it doesn’t really matter. Even the original Surface RT had issues with fratricide in our eyes and the situation is far worse for Surface 2. Who, after all, wants to pay for Surface RT or Surface 2 when you can get a full x86-based Windows 8.1 tablet for almost the same price that will at least run Windows desktop apps? Frankly, not many of us, as you can see from the sales figures.