A year ago, Microsoft decided it would build its own tablets, going head-to-head with many of its hardware partners in the process.
Unfortunately for the Redmond, Washington-based tech giant, to say its devices failed to set the world afire would be an understatement.
In July, the company shocked investors by reporting a massive $US900 million writedown on unsold tablet inventory.
All Windows 8 tablets – both from Microsoft and its partners – accounted for just 8% of the Australian market, compared to 56% for Apple’s iPads and 26% for Google Android, including Samsung devices.
Despite the rough start, Microsoft’s back with a second generation of its tablets.
Will it be enough to persuade consumers? It’s time to find out.
An important note
Before going any further, it’s important to note the are two very different versions of Microsoft’s tablet, and both are – rather confusingly – marketed under the “Surface” brand.
The “consumer” Surface 2 runs a cut-down operating system called Windows RT 8.1, uses an ARM processor designed for smartphones and can’t run legacy desktop Windows apps.
Then there’s the Surface Pro 2, which runs the full desktop Windows 8.1 operating system and all of its desktop apps and is built around an Intel processor.
This review looks at the Surface Pro 2, and not the consumer version.
Hardware and features
Most of the Surface Pro 2 specifications will look very familiar to anyone who has used its predecessor.
The Surface Pro 2 measures 10.81-inches x 6.81-inches x 0.53 inches – just like its predecessor.
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It features a 10.6-inch 1920 x 1080 display – also exactly like its predecessor.
It also has 1.2-megapixel cameras on both the front and the rear – no prizes for guessing how many megapixels its predecessor’s camera had.
Finally, like its predecessor, it’s a “hybrid” device, meaning it’s basically a tablet that turns into small laptop by adding a keyboard.
The biggest differences are in the processor – like the MacBook Air, the Surface Pro 2 uses an upgraded Intel Core i5-4200U – and an upgrade from Windows 8 to Windows 8.1.
What’s the consensus?
The Surface Pro 2’s similarity to its predecessor hasn’t escaped the notice of reviewers.
A recurring theme across most of the reviews is that – aside from an improved kickstand that can now be adjusted to two different angles – the Surface Pro 2 looks nearly identical to its predecessor:
With the exception of that dual-stage kickstand, this is basically the same hardware as the original. Sure, it’s now made of two pieces of magnesium alloy instead of three, but the difference is so subtle you might not spot it even if you tried. For all intents and purposes, though – and in all the areas that count – the Pro remains unchanged.
One of the worst aspects of the original Surface pro was its atrocious battery life. According to The Verge, the good news on this front is the new version is significantly better than its predecessor. The downside is that its battery life still remains far worse than either the Apple iPad or most Android tablets:
The Surface Pro 2 lasted 7 hours, 33 minutes on the Verge Battery Test, which cycles through a series of websites and high-res images with screen brightness set to 65 percent. That’s nearly double the Surface Pro score, which lasted for 3 hours, 59 minutes. It’s the same package and screen, but it’s clear that Intel’s Haswell chip is helping to improve battery life here. While it’s not the 10 hours you might expect from a tablet, given the compromise for laptop-style power it’s definitely acceptable.
Another big downside noted by The Verge is its lack of support for 4G LTE, meaning you’ll need to be near a WiFi hotspot to access the internet:
There’s plenty of power, but LTE capability would add a lot to the portability side. A Surface 2 with LTE is expected early next year on AT&T in the US, but Microsoft has no plans to bring LTE to the Pro — that’s a shame, since having this much power online everywhere would be great.
Finally, according to Gizmodo, a fundamental issue that remains with all ‘hybrid’ devices – and the Surface Pro is no exception – is that they are neither a full-sized laptop with a full-sized screen, nor do they compare to the best tablets on the market:
There’s a great laptop inside this device, and a great tablet inside it too. But the connective tissue between the two that falls short, and both sides of the equation are weaker for it. Often the best thing about a laptop is that it is very much not a tablet, and vice versa. And the limitations of a stalwartly singular device can be gauged and worked around. This is the weird way I have to sit on the couch with my laptop, so be it!
Who’s it for?
If you liked the original Surface Pro but wished it had better battery life or a slightly faster processor, this is the device for you.
Likewise, if you’re in the market for a small laptop and a tablet – one that can handle all of your desktop apps – then this tablet is also worth a look.
However, if you want a full-sized laptop or a simple lightweight tablet with good battery life and a reasonable price tag, this probably isn’t the device for you.