Microsoft Surface 2

The Microsoft Surface 2 is great for getting work done, but those looking for extensive app support (beyond Office) will find top Apple, Android and Amazon tablets to be better options.

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The Microsoft Surface 2 is a definite upgrade over 2012's Surface RT. It's faster with a sharper screen and houses better cameras. If you're choosing between the older (still available) and newer model, the newer is the decidedly better option, even with its AU$60 premium. A far more appropriate question, however, is whether a Surface tablet in general is right for you.

There are two main issues with the Surface 2 that keep it from achieving true excellence. First, with the notable exception of Microsoft Office 2013, which is bundled for free, Windows RT is still not compatible with legacy Windows programs. Second, although the Windows app store has made some gains in app breadth and depth since its debut last year, it still lags painfully behind app stores from Amazon, Apple and Google.


If not for its new silver-greyish backside, you'd be hard pressed to notice the physical differences between the Surface 2 and Surface RT. The new tablet is subtly refined in a number of ways. The body is ever-so-slightly thinner and a wee bit lighter. The kickstand now has two different angles: 24 and 45. The 45-degree angle gives it a lower centre of gravity, allowing it to actually sit on your lap while you type.

The Surface 2's 45-degree kickstand angle gives it better balance on laps.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

When in landscape mode, there's a volume rocker, headphone jack and speaker grill along the left edge and a micro HDMI, a full USB port and another speaker grill along the right. The microSD card slot is still hidden behind the kickstand, but it has been moved down a couple of inches to allow for easier access. The front camera gets a healthy upgrade to 3.5 megapixels, and the back camera is now 5 megapixels — both are up from "720p" on the Surface RT.

Microsoft also has new Touch and Type covers, although they're still sold separately. They now include a useful backlighting feature, are thinner than before and feel a bit more comfortable when held.

The Surface 2 is just as durable as the Surface RT.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

The Surface 2 runs Windows RT 8.1, Microsoft's cut-down, tablet-optimised Windows. It still won't run legacy programs, but anything found in the Windows store is fair game. It does, however, include a full version of Microsoft Office 2013. It's clear that Microsoft has thought about what makes a good interface, which is where it perhaps went wrong with its original touch interface from 2012. Things still aren't perfect, but Microsoft has made sensible and thoughtful changes that noticeably improve the flow and efficiency of interacting with apps and settings.

The glowing backlight of Microsoft's new covers.
(Credit: Josh Miller/CNET)

Tiles can now be made even smaller than before, allowing you to fit substantially more on screen at once. The settings menu has been nearly completely overhauled, with a more streamlined interface that surfaces options you previously had to access the legacy Windows Control Panel in order to reach.

Windows traditionalists will rejoice: the Start button makes its much-appreciated return, offering quick shortcuts to the Control Panel, search, Task Manager, file explorer and other options traditionally associated with the Start menu pre-Windows 8.

Happy now?
(Credit: Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET)


The Surface 2 thankfully houses a much more powerful 1.7GHz Tegra 4 SoC than the Tegra 3 in the Surface RT. The Surface 2 scored 13,068 in 3DMark. That's higher than the iPad 4 (9425), Nexus 10 (8553) and, of course, Surface RT (3339). It's a great score and speaks accurately to the tablet's gaming prowess, but it's not as fast as the new Kindle Fire HDX (16,655) or Nvidia Shield (16,348).

Swiping through different apps feels immediate and smooth, as does snapping multiple apps into split-screen mode. Movies load faster and look sharper, and boot times are now shorter.

The Surface 2 loads web pages much faster than the Surface RT ever did.
(Credit: Screenshot by Eric Franklin/CNET)

The new 1920x1080-pixel screen is sharp, bright and outputs colours more accurately than the Surface RT. Side by side, the Surface RT's screen looks yellowish in comparison. The new cameras deliver sharp pics and video, and their low aperture allows them to capture a lot of detail even in low light. The 3.5-megapixel front-facing camera is the best front shooter on any tablet yet. It captures clear, colourful images with lots of detail. The new speakers are louder and clearer than the speakers in last year's RT and are fine for delivering background music as long as you're not sitting too far away from them.


The Surface 2 enters a more competitive and intimidating market than the Surface RT did last year. Tablets continue to get better, and the general public is more aware of Windows RT's inherent limitations and have seen fit to pass judgment.

The Surface 2 has a few notable advantages in its corner, including quality design and hardware. It's still the best productivity tablet, thanks to comfortable keyboard options, free Office 2013, 200GB of free SkyDrive space for two years and unlimited worldwide Skype minutes for one year. Xbox Music and Video are also both easily comparable with similar services on the other tablet platforms. However, the software limitations of Windows RT, its lack of legacy app support, in particular, still loom over it like an ever-watching Visigoth.


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