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Graphmaster Gerbil
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A few months with a Surface 2 - Review

Mon Feb 03, 2014 6:15 pm

Tablets are a hot subject when it comes to the progressing computer world. I have a feeling I am in a minority within the TR community in the regards that…I have a Windows RT device. I have used devices from all three major manufacturers, and decided to share with TR my experience using the Surface 2 64GB and Windows 8.1 RT since its release. I wanted to write this up as many people enjoy bashing Windows 8.1 RT, and while they can feel free to continue doing so after reading this I hope it provides some insight into an actual user’s experience of the product (rather than initial reception).

I’ve had my hands on Android for the longest time via my own personal HTC Sensation as well as a Gen I Nexus 7. For a period of time last year I also used a loaned iPad in an attempt to familiarize myself with the device and see if that was the route I wanted to go. I ultimately decided the Apple experience wasn’t for me, though I think it’s not worth the loathing on the comments section it receives at times. The point is, I done my best to have a fairly broad perspective of the market’s offerings.

The first round of Surface devices, to anyone who had been reading up on them, was obviously going to have issues before their release even happened. The RT out of the gate was going to have teething issues in regards to quality of the device itself, lack of 1080p screen, and a price point set too high for an early adopter device. The Surface Pro seemed more appealing, but the battery life simply wasn’t there for a tablet of any kind. Both of these observations came true after their release.

When the second round of Surface devices began to be discussed on paper, they seemed much more in line with what a successful product should look like. The Surface 2 had seemingly received the proper amount of polish and missing accessories that made it unattractive in its first iteration. The Surface Pro 2 got into an “acceptable” territory for tablet battery life, and offered a lot of power for its form factor. However, for me personally the Pro has always priced me out by about $300 at minimum. After doing more research, I decided The Surface 2 64GB offered me enough of what I was looking for to take a chance with getting it.

Intended Use:
I bought the tablet as a successor to my Gen I Nexus 7. This meant that it was primarily going to live next to my couch and be available for surfing the internet while I watched a movie or show on my HTPC. I wanted a larger screen then the Nexus 7, as I always felt cramped when using it. At my job we have quarterly management meetings, so I also knew that it would have to be used as an actual productive tool from time to time. To this end, I did purchase the Type Cover 2 (which will be discussed a bit later). Keeping 10 hour+ battery life was also a key factor for me, as without that a Tablet falls out of the coveted “convenient device” category. This would also be the device to accompany me on any out of town trips I had, which it would have to effectively serve as a work and entertainment device in tandem.

Actual Use:
The intended use for the Surface 2 as a couch surfer it does fairly well. Its 10” screen is more than easy to read, and the built in stand has good adjustable levels for sitting or lying down to still be able to see the screen. However to some extent I do miss the old 7” Nexus, in the regard that I didn’t care about flinging it on the couch or getting it dirty. I find that with the increased quality of this device, my desire to actually take a bit of care of it ends up taking away from its “lazy and carefree” couch surfer use. While it is also not breaking any scale, the lightness of the Nexus made it more desirable in the hand. The Surface you always want to use the stand, half because it’s incredible convenient but half because you don’t feel like holding it anymore.

What I found that I use this device more for than anything else is Work related tasks. It has effectively replaced many things around my work desk, from my office “to-do” lists to how I manage my Calendar. It has all been moved to my Surface 2, which sits next to me throughout my workday, has made my life leaps and bounds better. However, my work’s inherent integration with Microsoft products does make this transition a bit easier….so your mileage may vary.

I have also found a use for the device that I did not really use the old Nexus for, which is reading the news. I never was “comfortable” on the Nexus, it worked and displayed text but I wasn’t actually enjoying reading a large news column or anything on it. The Surface’s larger screen has changed that quite a bit, and I find that going to sleep and waking up now involve reading BBC/Al-Jazeera on my Surface before/after my slumber. Between that and the built in stand, it is a use for the Tablet I have come to really enjoy as a daily ritual. While this "new use"could have come about with any 10" tablet when being compared to a 7" tablet, I do find text (imho) is easier to read on the Windows 8.1 RT screen then Android and Apple's offerings. Maybe it has something to do with how they render text, not entirely sure.

- Build Quality
- Built-in Stand
- Included Apps
- Full USB Port
- Micro-SD Slot
- Fast Charging
- Battery Life
- Speakers

The first thing you notice about the device is the build quality of it. Is it better built then a sleek Apple device? No, not really. But I also wouldn’t say it’s built any worse, and in that regard I personally cannot ask for much more. The magnesium frame gives you confidence in its durability when you hold it, all the seams are flush and buttons have no squish to them. Overall, very good quality and from my experience fairly scratch resistant (both metal and glass).

The built-in stand is probably the most obvious attribute for the Surface line-up, and one that works amazingly well. I work at an office full of CS/IT employees, so there are tablets floating around left and right every day. Not every employee tells me they want the Surface 2 after using mine, but almost universally everyone points towards the stands as a desirable addition that they wish they had on their respective tablet. It’s sleek, it works amazingly well, and the addition of the second tilted orientation fixed any qualms with the original implementation. And while you can get a case/stand for Apple/Android products, having it built in certainly offers a nice level of convenience.

The included apps with the Surface are very nice, and cover almost everything you would want to do with the device. Office is office as you would expect, and works just as you would expect. For me, that is a huge bonus having that on there (for work as I outlined before). I found the system stock came with almost everything I needed off the bat. I will say I was disappointed that the included video application does not play MKV’s stock, you will have to go to the store to solve that issue. I tried the two top rated solutions from the store, the cheaper $3 solution plays MKVs but struggles on 9GB+ 1080p movies. I found it best to pony up for the $15 PowerDVD solution that plays all sized of MKVs silky smooth. This is something to note as an additional cost if you intend on getting this system.

Having a Full USB port was one of my initial criteria, and I was very happy to see the Surface 2 release with one. Carrying extra media around or transferring work oriented documents is much easier not having to use a dongle and knowing at all times my Tablet will be compatible with almost any device. The micro-sd slot is also welcomed, as more and more we are seeing this option being taken away. I have a 64GB micro-sd in there, and the get speeds as advertised.

I have found the Surface 2 to be incredible fast charging as well. I can get to 80% in fewer than 45 minutes, and 100% in fewer than 1.5 hours. I get about 12 hours battery life if I use it normally, 15 if I really baby it and 10 if I hammer the system with requests. While it’s not breaking any records, I found it to be more then adequate for the experience I receive.

Last would be a quick shout out to the speakers on the system. They aren’t going to blow your mind, but being what they are I was incredible impressed with how usable they were when headphones/speakers were not available. I think this is worth mentioning as many times, tiny speakers are done wrong.

- Screen
- Charging Cable
- Free Commodities
- Weight
- Tegra 4
- Windows 8.1
- Type Keyboard 2

The screen on the Surface 2 is nice, but I think as far as other offerings on the market I wouldn’t call it a “Pro”. It offers nice but certainly not calibrated colors, 1080p display, and good viewing angles. However there are other products that offer bleeding edge display technology where as I would call this “average” by today’s standards. I do not find any colors too washed out or too saturated though.

The charging cable is a bit of a conundrum if it takes away or adds to the device. It is a proprietary charging cable that is held on by magnets to the body of the Surface 2. It is not the easiest thing in the world to connect, but not really difficult either. You have to learn how it wants to be plugged in, and it becomes easy. Adorning the connector is a charging light that is a dim LED. A nice feature, but it does not tell you when the device is fully charged, just that it is properly hooked up. Make it an easier to use connector and have the LED show when it’s topped off, and we’d have a winner.

The freebies they throw you when you purchase a Surface 2 are nice, but nothing overwhelming. You get 200GB of SkyDrive for 1 year, and you get a 1 year free of Skype. While the Skype time is fine, I feel like the SkyDrive could have been for a more realistic operational time, like 2 years. Something that could make me actually believes that I would utilize that over the life span of an average tablet. I felt this was more of a catch 22, where they try to get you to utilize the services so you have to pay later.

The weight of the device I hit on a little before. It’s not tipping the scales at 1.49 lbs, but it’s certainly not something I would call “light weight” by today’s market. However I don’t think it’s particularly heavy for a 10” tablet either, and I don’t consider this aspect (when factoring in size and build quality) to be a con.

Tegra 4 is adequate. I have found nothing that it can’t do; it runs cool and doesn’t eat too much battery. However, I am not overwhelmed by its speed nor do I find it brings anything to the table that many other offerings can do. One thing that I did fine is Microsoft advertised the Tegra 4 being locked down to 1.7Ghz, where I find mine frequently going to 1.9Ghz. It appears to be linked to core load, and if you are loading 2 or less it will allow the higher frequency. Overall, this may be able to turn into a pro if the Windows team ever develops game streaming to the Surface…but I’m not holding my breath.

Windows 8.1 I find to be a joy to use. It offers me a tablet oriented OS that doesn’t sacrifice the ability to do real productive work in a familiar environment. Multi-tasking on this compared to either Android or IOS is light and day, and when it comes to actually being productive if need be no other offerings I have used hold a candle to the Surface 2. However I put this attribute as middle ground because while I enjoy bland business oriented software/hardware, I think many people find themselves wanting when using Windows 8.1. My overall concern, and why I wouldn’t personally rate this as a pro, is the lack of customization (which I think is what also stalls out everyone else on this). The operating system needs more ability to turn off and on certain features to make it the experience you want. All the tools for any situation are there, but without being able to select which ones you specifically do and do not want, it ends up feeling like some things are wasteful additions that only clutter or complicate your experience.

When it comes to the Type 2 Keyboard, I have extremely mixed feelings. While this accessory brings a lot to the board, and is incredible useful when I absolutely must use it, ultimately comes out feeling half baked. The durability of it, while I have not had any actual problems, doesn’t lend the owner to believing in its long-term life span. The “self-healing” plastic material scuffs very easily, and I have recently stopped taking it with me everywhere the Surface 2 goes. It now lives in my car, where I can grab it anytime I need it (which is maybe once per week) but not being worn needlessly just by being around. I thought I would use this part of the tablet more, and between the OS handling things fairly well and the Type 2’s mediocre track pad I find it stays off most of the time. It excels at typing, and it’s a joy to type on. They keys feel great and I take notes without any errors at all. The track pad stinks, plain and simple. It is too small, not sensitive enough, and desperately needs real buttons. Overall, this would be considered a good accessory at $65, but for its current offering its way overpriced. The only saving grace is that when it comes to really hammering on the keyboard, it does this in spades and that is really what got it for (and what I think most people get it for). I find myself just touching the screen instead of the track pad, not the end of the world.

- Price
- Teething Software
- Lack of 3rd Party Apps
- 2GB Ram
- Lack of x86 support

First, the price of this machine is too high for the market. I don’t regret buying it, I have really grown to like it and I don’t view it as money poorly spent. However, given the current market most people look at it and never give it a real consideration. Between the lack of exposure to it (how many of these have you ever seen?), the adoption of a new OS that they know is more limited (will touch on this in a bit), and the fact that the 64GB version if breaking $500 it’s not in an extremely competitive point within the market. Microsoft needs to dump $100 off the 32GB and 64GB price, $60 off the Type cover, $75 off the Touch cover, and we have an extremely competitive and compelling product.
Seeing as I have been on since these released, the software is much better now than it was at launch. At launch many things simply were half baked, specifically the “restore” options. Those have all been fixed now and it has seemingly been smooth sailing for the last 4 weeks, however 4 weeks is not enough time for me to consider the software mature. Updates have come out quickly, but compared to alternatives this is the newest and least fleshed out software of the bunch making it a more risky investment.

There are enough Apps in the Windows Store to get anything you want done on this device. Anyone who says otherwise is just being difficult. I have had no problem coming up with anything I’d like to do, and finding a solution quickly for it. Now, whether those apps are free and how many of them you have to choose from is a different story. In my experience, there will be 2 high end apps for ~$10 that work flawlessly and are amazingly well done. There will be 2 mediocre apps that will be ~$3 that will get the job done, but not as nice. There will be 2-5 free apps that do what the mediocre apps do, but likely with ads or looking pretty unpolished. I don’t have a particular problem living in that world, but I also have less than 10 apps installed on any of my devices whether it is Android, Windows or Apple. I think this situation will be helped out a lot when the Windows Phone app store and Windows RT app store combine into one.

2GB of RAM seemed like enough for the system, and many people may find it is enough. However, I tend to find that when I read news I want to go through the entire website and tab out each article I want to read. When they are all tabbed out, I then read and close them as I go rather than constantly navigating the sites pages. I can easily fill up the 2GB of RAM by doing this, and would have LOVED to have the option to upgrade it to 4GB of RAM minimum. Then again, as I look thorough them, almost all sub $600 tablets I wish had more RAM.

I have no use for 4G/LTE on this device, but if you did…..too bad for you. The only option to get this with 4G/LTE is a special model from Verizon alone, and it’s not a favorable option when compared to others on the market. However, I would have loved for this to have GPS abilities for when I’m driving in the car. I don’t think my next tablet will be limited to ones with GPS capabilities, however the feature certainly would have been nice…at least it has Bluetooth!

The lack of x86 support is obviously a con to the Surface 2 platform, but something that I knew going into this purchase. I have had no real problems doing it, but I am very integrated into Microsoft products anyway. The real cons for the average user will be the fact that you have no alternative browser, and you will never be able to install games. I don’t mind the IE browser on the tablet, it works fine and the browser wars are too hyped anyway. However, I do certainly wish I could run Eve Online on this….

I think it’s a great device, but it will be difficult for Microsoft to follow it up with anything that keeps the Windows RT branding relevant. The device was designed during a time where Intel couldn’t offer 12 hour battery life with the snappy experience the Tegra 4 offers. And to be honest, I’m not entirely sure if we are even there yet. I have used the newer Intel tablets and all of them feel incredible cheap, and a huge amount slower than the Surface 2. Almost everyone who owns one, and then uses the Surface 2, comments on how much snappier and enjoyable of an experience it offers over the Atom based tablet.

However, I think just over the horizon that fact will change. Intel’s time and money has been primarily spent trying to get ready to battle it out with ARM, and it’s only a matter of time before their low power designs can offer the same snappy performance as an ARM processor with x86 support. I would say a package very similar to this in specs, thermals, weight and display quality running an x86 Atom that is close to as snappy I would certainly love…but to be honest my overall use wouldn’t change much outside of the aforementioned x86 game.

The only real way forward I can see for the RT devices is if Microsoft can consistently deliver 4-6 hours of battery life over a similarly spec’d/sized x86 device. I think the OS is fine and going into it knowing its limitations, it offers a great well rounded experience on all fronts.

If I had to wager any money though, and my choices were that Windows RT will stay relevant or that Intel’s rise in lower power capabilities will equal the Arm/x86 contest, I think my money would be on the Intel corner…

I hope that even if Intel does win that battle though, the Microsoft team takes the Surface 2 idea and transitions it over to an Atom powered machine. I think outside of Windows RT, many people would have labeled an x86 Surface 2 as an immense hit between price, quality, and features.

Hope this was worth the read! Thanks if you stuck it out. Feel free to ask any questions!
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Re: A few months with a Surface 2 - Review

Fri Feb 07, 2014 12:31 pm

Thanks for the thorough write up.

I've had my eye on getting a Surface. Was thinking I would want the Pro but the price is holding me back. (and it doesn't include MS Office!) Your review makes me think the Surface 2 would work well for me. (my use case is a lot like your use case)

I'd need the keyboard. Probably would add a Bluetooth mouse. One thing I'd need is a decent app for SSH access. I'll have to check if Putty (or something similar) is available for RT.
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Re: A few months with a Surface 2 - Review

Fri Feb 07, 2014 1:04 pm

As a Dell Venue 8 Pro user I agree with all the points above. I believe that text rendering is superior even on a lower DPI devices is due to ClearType using sub-pixel rendering.

Having an x86 processor for desktop apps have been a nice novelty but not a deal breaker. In fact there is only one application that I cannot get on the Windows Store which is a Juniper Network Connect or Junos Pulse client.

* At first I installed a bunch of my go-to x86 apps but in time found very good replacements that work well enough with mouse and awesome with touch in the Windows store. This includes file explorers, torrent clients, media players, SSH/terminal emulators, etc. With VLC and Firefox finally embracing Modern I'm really excited.
* I have to agree the game selection is still pretty bleak compared to Android or iOS.
* Having Outlook is AWESOME. Other Office apps are good too, they even have touch support modes that work very well if you have a keyboard paired (to save screen space).

Current tablets I use/test/hack with:

HiSense Sero Pro 7 (Stock)
Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 (CyanogenMod 10.2)
iPad 2
iPad 3 4G
Dell Venue 8 Pro

My daily driver continues to be the Dell. I like how Windows 8.1 handles multi-tasking, multi-window (snap), app switching, etc. Give it a week or two and it really grows on you.

If I had my druthers I would have picked up a Surface 2 over the Venue. With the full size USB and larger-screen/kickstand/touch-or-type cover it is a real gem.

Maybe MS will realize Surface 3 should be Atom based. One can hope.
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Graphmaster Gerbil
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Re: A few months with a Surface 2 - Review

Fri Feb 07, 2014 1:10 pm

There is one I use called SSH-RT. Works fine enough for me to do everything I'd want (I use it for work and play). It has an average of 4.1/5 stars, and is free.

If you need an IM client it has IM+ for free or IM+ Pro for $4.99. I found the Pro worth the money for the features the free lacked. 3.9/5 stars.

For FTP there is mFTP, which isn't as nice as the other two I've mentioned thus far. I don't use FTP all that much, so I settled on a free app. There look to be good rated paid for apps available if you rely upon this. 2.5/5 stars.

PowerDVD Mobile is the video playing app I use, which was pricy at $14.99 but runs my 30GB mkv's across the network silky smooth. The others do not. 3.2/5 stars (I would rate this more like a 3.8/5 stars personally).

The Netflix app is great and free, no problems there. 4/5 stars.

If you have any other questions I'll do my best to answer them.
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Re: A few months with a Surface 2 - Review

Mon Feb 10, 2014 8:07 pm

Nice write-up. I want the tablet ecosystem to work so that I have this machine as an option. For me, tablets are under powered for what I really want to do with them (12 tabs open, email, and remote VNC's a machine). However, I've not bought the new Surface 2 so maybe it would work for me.

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