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Surface 2 - a review

Since the announcement of Windows 8 in 2012 I've watched the development of the platform with keen interest. Windows has pressed ahead with a mixed interface for touch and traditional input, the Start menu now features bold, colourful live tiles providing quick snippets of information (in fact, the interface has inspired our University of You campaign and many LIS services here at the University), and the idea that one device is all you need, something Microsoft's recent marketing efforts have been pushing. In the wake of the 'Post PC' age, the dominant desktop platform really needed to prove it was still relevant a world that is becoming increasingly mobile.

The purest distillation of their reinvention was the Surface RT. A 10 inch tablet that, unlike the iPad, had full Microsoft Office, could support a keyboard and mouse, had a desktop mode for file management,- as well as large, touch screen apps. It ran on a new version of the Windows platform, redesigned for mobile processors, shedding the legacy of a 25 year old operating system. Microsoft felt they had delivered a platform with 'no compromises'. Maybe, just maybe, you could replace your laptop and tablet with a single, multifunctional device.

It flopped. Hard. Reviewers praised the excellent build quality and innovative features like the integrated Kickstand and keyboard/trackpad covers. But critics argued against the confusing operating system that looked just like Windows 8, but didn't support legacy apps, the disappointing performance of the Tegra 3 processor, the lack of many A-list apps and the feeling that this was a confused product that just didn't know what it wanted to be. At the same time, improvements in power efficiency for newer Intel processors meant that there was little advantage in restricting the platform to a mobile architecture and many manufacturers gave up on the RT. Microsoft made a $1bn loss on its new device and the world barely raised a shrug, happily carrying on using iPads and Nexus devices.

But Microsoft has deep pockets and wasn't going to give up that easily. In a humbling, apologetic keynote on 23rd September 2013, Surface boss Panos Panay introduced the new version, the Surface 2. Microsoft had learned from its mistakes of the initial product, refined, improved and upgraded and was ready to try again. They were even willing to bundle in free cloud services like 200GB of SkyDrive and Skype wifi to encourage you to make the switch So, in the wake of even more competition in the tablet and multifunctional device space, does the Surface 2 make any sense at all? Could you, realistically replace two devices with this one? The answer, I think, depends on what you expect.

a Surface 2 device

The build quality is, like its predecessor, excellent, with a cool, metal exterior and a much improved 1080p screen (good at this size, but not the highest resolution screen out there by any stretch of the imagination). The quad-core Tegra 4 is usually snappy, stuttering only slightly against heavy websites and Flash videos. The full size USB 3.0 port makes files transfers really easy, but makes the device chunkier than it otherwise might be. The battery life is pretty good in active use, easily getting through a full day, but not the greatest in standby (which remains connected to WiFi networks to update apps, messages and so on). Disabling some notifications helps considerably, but the standby life of this can be measured in days compared to an iPad's weeks (see specifications).

What sets this apart from other tablets though is the integrated Kickstand at the back, which now has 2 positions; one upright for desk work, and one more reclined for lap work (or just for taller people). It's one of those features that I didn't realise I needed until I had it, and now I can't imagine a tablet without one. Yes, you can comfortably hold an iPad mini in one hand to read (no such luck with the Surface 2, which although is lighter than its predecessor, is too unwieldy for this, particularly in portrait mode, which frankly looks a bit silly), but it's even better to not have to hold the device at all. It may sound like a real first world problem, but now that I have a tablet that I don't have to hold for Skype calls, reading and so on, it's awkward when I have to go back to, you know, holding one. Yes, I could buy a case that would do this for an iPad or similar, but now I feel like shouldn't have to when the Surface has a Kickstand that is integrated so elegantly.

Microsofts new Interface - Metro

Moving on to the operating system, the Start screen on the recently updated Windows 8.1 continues to feel so much more alive than the static rows of icons on iOS. News headlines roll in, social networks update, photos of my family float by. I'd fallen out of the habit of checking apps on my iPad, because I wasn't being reminded to do so. Now I find myself reading the news and browsing my RSS feed much more regularly, as the OS draws me in with immersive headlines and images.

Microsoft have integrated SkyDrive beautifully into this device, and now that 200GBs are bundled in, it really helps to mitigate the lack of storage on the lower end 32GB model especially. Microsoft have developed a clever system of downloading just the thumbnails and metadata of each file by default, so you can browse and search your documents and photos, but they take up only a fraction of the full file size. When you require full access to a file, it's downloaded on request. It works really well in the most part, but it can mean a frustrating wait if you want to browse larger files like videos. Fortunately you can choose to permanently download certain files to your device, and the option of using up to a 64GB Micro SD can help expand storage further.

Document Properties in Windows 8

The core apps are also very good and the mail app, browser, calendar and so on on are, in the most part, equal to their rivals on other mobile platforms. There are also some nice additions in news, sport, weather, recipes, which give the Surface a really nice 'out-of-the-box' experience. Which is just as well, because the Windows app store is rather limited. Yes, there are most of the big names, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and the like, but notable holdouts, YouTube, Rdio, Instagram - or any sort of alternative web browser. The platform does not allow for installing traditional Windows apps, so you're limited with what is available in the app store. There are some reasonable third party alternatives (such as MetroTube for YouTube) and some really good apps generally (Nextgen Reader is one of the best RSS readers I've seen on any platform), but the fact is that there are so many missing apps and the ones that are there can feel like an afterthought behind their more mature counterparts (Facebook and Evernote being prime examples), as well as some utter garbage (dreadful Mario clones) that embarrass the platform.

Unlike other tablets there is a desktop mode, but it serves more to confuse than anything else. It's possible to jump between the touch and desktop apps, but you have to have your wits about you and on occasion I've been frustrated by feeling lost in two differing interfaces (am I using the desktop or touch browser? Why are there even two?). New users to the system could well be overwhelmed, and Microsoft seem to agree, hiding the Desktop tile by default. I can't shake the feeling that we're getting pretty close to a post-desktop world that loses the skeuomorphic metaphors of files, folders, windows and so on. The iPad and such-like started the trend, and it's surely a matter of time before other types of devices follow, however, until Microsoft see fit to release 'metro' versions of their Office suite, people that need to get work done on this device will find themselves moving between the interfaces.

Split Screen view in Windows 8

Yet, it's the ability to work on this device that Microsoft differentiates their product on, and they have included access to versions of Word, Powerpoint, Excel and Outlook. They work pretty well (although some elements appear rather small on the 10.6" screen), and the interface has been modified to improve support somewhat for touch. However they still look and act like desktop apps, and whilst browsing documents and emails is fine using touch only, it's really no fun at all trying to use the on-screen keyboard to create or edit documents.

And it's the hybrid nature of this device makes the Touch or Type Cover more of a necessity than an option. I've not yet tired of the satisfying click when you connect it to the tablet. The backlighting that was missing on the first version is appreciated and the keys are almost as good as having a 'real' keyboard. It's considerably smaller than most laptops though, and there's no travel between the keys, meaning that initially I was mistyping quite frequently. I suspect that this will improve as my muscle memory adjusts. The fabric backing is nicely tactile, but is prone to picking up stains from coffee spills, grubby children's fingerprints and so on. It's rigid enough to work in a lap, just, but quite wobbly compared to a regular laptop. Unfortunately the trackpad is disappointing. Small, fiddly and sometimes unresponsive when scrolling in apps (Outlook 2013 being a particular annoyance). I resorted to buying a Bluetooth mouse when I need ultimate precision, but why should I have to when the Type Cover costs an eye-watering £110? (compared to other mobile device keyboards at around £50.) And because it's so necessary to the experience, you're pricing the device against laptops, rather than tablets in the most part.

And so, here is the issue with first version of the Surface persisting with the second. You're paying £470 (with the keyboard) for a device that falls some way in between a tablet and a laptop. If you were to buy one device or the other you'd arguably get a much better experience on whichever platform you chose. A mid range, full Windows 8 laptop, with similar performance, battery life, screen quality and so on, but with a much bigger library of legacy apps and better input. Equally, spend £470 on a tablet and you'll get a top of the range iPad or Android device with all the bells and whistles, equally portable, fully touch optimised and yet again, a bigger library of apps.

The Surface 2, like the Surface RT before it is an ambitious device. Something that tries to bridge the gap between the old and the new. One device to rule them all. And it many ways it works. The Surface 2 is handsome, practical, and productive. You can see the potential there, but there are frustrations and idiosyncrasies that would put many people off - the lack of many apps and restrictions on legacy ones, the confusing interface, the frustrating input at times, the cost - take your pick.

There are better laptops and there are better tablets. But if you desperately want just one device in your bag, and you don't mind working through some of the limitations and omissions, and you don't mind paying a premium over other competing tablets, then it might just work for you. The question is, how many people are out there like you?

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