Last year Microsoft launched Surface as its almost-Windows tablet that almost succeeded in bringing Windows to the tablet form factor. It was as thin as an iPad, it came with a full-size USB port and almost full Office, it had a kickstand to hold it up and you could snap on an amazingly thin keyboard (at extra cost).
But Windows 8 and Windows RT didn't have a fraction of the iOS and Android apps, the kickstand didn't always hold it up in your lap and not everyone like Windows 8 enough to see Surface as a real iPad competitor. The impressive features didn't make for impressive sales.
For Surface 2, Microsoft has tackled a lot of the issues - in hardware and software - as well as improving the spec.
It has a new screen (though not Retina Display-class), a new two-position kickstand, USB 3, a faster processor, new keyboards and all the new features of Windows 8.1, from IE 11 to SkyDrive integration to more Snap window sizes. It's still Windows RT, so you can't add extra software to the desktop, but you still get Microsoft Office, and now it includes Outlook.
There are two versions of Surface 2; both have the 1.7GHz Nvidia Tegra 4 chip with 2GB of RAM behind the 1920 by 1080 10.6-inch screen but you can choose between the GBP £359/USD $449/AUD $529 32GB model we tested and the £439/$549/AUD $629 64GB one.
Those prices compare favorably with the equivalent memory iPad, and Microsoft is keen to point out that not only do you get the hardware featuring superior connectivity, but you get Office, too.
Remember; if you need more storage, Surface 2 still has the microSD slot - and it comes with 200GB of SkyDrive storage (free for two years, along with a year of free Skype landline calls and hotspot access).
The same look and feel
Surface 2 still looks very like a Surface, with a big black bezel sporting a capacitive Windows button, angled sides and rounded corners - plus the kickstand that folds out at the back. But now the matte blasted-magnesium alloy chassis is a pale silver-grey rather than almost black.
The new lighter colour is distinctive, stylish and probably makes the Surface 2 look slimmer - because while it's measurably thinner, the difference looks greater than it is (in perhaps the same way that the iPad appeared to be thinner than Surface RT).
But while the metal case is as sturdy, practical and finger-print resistant as ever, the grey isn't as hard wearing on the plastic bezel at the top that allows the Wi-Fi antenna to get such excellent coverage.
On our test unit, this showed some scuffing and discoloration after being shipped without the full packaging, so carrying it around without a case might produce the same effect in time.
The same marks wouldn't be noticeable on the black Surface edge. Plus, making the Surface 2 thinner meant removing the very thin lip of metal that ran along the top of the screen, between the plastic edge and the glass.
Surface 2 is much the same weight as the original Surface RT. At 676g it's a tiny fraction heavier than last year's iPad 4 (which has a smaller 9.7-inch screen) but it's positively weighty compared to the new 469g iPad Air.
In real life, when you pick it up it feels light and well balanced without feeling flimsy. It's comfortable to hold, in one hand or two, and light enough to carry around without weighing you down. And it still packs more useful ports into the case than just about any other tablet.
As with the original Surface, the power button is on the top right (bottom side right in portrait mode), and conveniently placed in either orientation. Thanks to the twin speakers, headphone jack and tiny Mini-HDMI port in the top corners, the volume keys are a little further down the left-hand side than you expect.
The magnetic power connector is a little easier to fit securely and the band of light around the connector is more obvious than the lighted dot on the top of the old connector - so it's easier to spot if you didn't get the connector plugged in correctly.
The most useful port is the full-size USB port, which is now USB 3; if you're plugging in a large external drive, you can open or copy files far more quickly.
And the microSD card under the kickstand is in the same place (and still lets you plug in a 64GB card) but the silver chassis makes it easier to spot. Even if you choose the cheaper 32GB model, this gives you the option of far more storage than most tablets; you could have one microSD card for music and another for videos, for example.
Network options are 802.11n Wi-Fi (with an extra-powerful diversity antenna that sees even more wireless access points than the original Surface, which can get online when even laptop PCs can't find a connection) and Bluetooth 4.0, with future LTE models expected next year.
The new kickstand gives you the choice of having the screen mostly upright or leaning it that little bit further back if you want to avoid glare from an overhead light, touch the screen at a more comfortable angle or make it balance more securely on your lap.
When you pull it out, the kickstand stops first in the original position and stays there securely no matter how much you tap or swipe on the screen. If you want the wider stance, pull the kickstand further and you get the 'wider stance' support.
As with the original kickstand, this is beautifully engineered and a joy to use. It won't slip out of one position into the other but it's not stiff or awkward to use. It's great to have the extra flexibility; even if you were perfectly happy with the angle of the original kickstand you may find yourself choosing the wider stance some of the time.
The new angle definitely makes the Surface 2 more comfortable to perch on your lap, with or without the keyboard.
If you have short legs, it's definitely easier to use Surface 2 on your lap with the keyboard thanks to the combination of the new kickstand, the lighter weight and the more rigid keyboard covers; the Surface 2 balances more securely and isn't heavy enough to pull away from the magnetic connector so you can hold it on your lap by the pressure of your fingers on the keys, the way you can with a normal laptop. (Taller users with longer legs will still appreciate the better balance.)
3D Mark for Windows RT: Ice Storm Extreme - 9,192, Ice Storm Unlimited: 13,151 Battery life: 5-6 hours for intensive use Sunspider in IE 11: PirateMark HTML5 test: 12.4
At any angle, the new full HD screen is beautiful, though not obviously in the same category as Apple's retina display. It's brighter, crisper and more vivid than the original Surface screen - or the original Surface Pro. Reds and greens are more intense but yellows and whites stay bright and clean and the colours you see are more accurate.
The 1,920 by 1080 resolution is great for movies (and means you'll keep the DPI and zoom settings up, because while text is crisp, clear and smooth it can also be a little small on the 10.6-inch screen). There's far less glare than on most screens; the way Microsoft bonds together the different layers of the screen also makes blacks far blacker than usual, giving it a good contrast ratio.
The twin stereo speakers crank out impressive sound given how thin the Surface 2 is; volume is good, treble is clear and details are crisp. It doesn't kick out as much bass as some larger laptops but Surface 2 audio is great for listening to music or enjoying movies. If you use your tablet for entertainment, Surface 2 fits the bill.
The original Surface rarely felt slow until you fired up a demanding game but the combination of Windows 8, the hardware acceleration in IE 11, the 1.7GHz quad-core Tegra 4 chipset and 2GB of RAM make even the 32GB Surface 2 feel much speedier.
Even with multiple apps and many IE tabs open, we didn't see much slowdown as we opened more apps and web pages; apps launch quickly and you can swipe quickly to another app.
On Microsoft's own PirateMark HTML5 test the Surface 2 scored 12.4, compared to nine seconds on an original Surface Pro and 24 seconds on an original Surface (all running Windows 8.1). The new processor and graphics are definitely faster, in software and on sites that can take advantage of them.
Measuring battery life is always dependent on what you're doing; are you using Wi-Fi, running a lot of web pages and transferring gigabytes of data or playing Solitaire? Microsoft claims up to ten hours of playing videos; we actually saw 12 hours of video playback in some of our tests.
You can get nine or ten hours of web browsing, although that depends on the sites you visit; videos, Flash and WebGL take more power than simple text pages.
But when we first set up the Surface 2, installing apps and syncing all our email and files from SkyDrive (which means the Wi-Fi was in almost constant use) and running multiple Office applications and browser windows on the desktop, using the Balanced power profile and with the screen brightness on half, we measured five hours of solid use before the battery went from fully charged to just 6%. With less network traffic on other days, we saw much closer to a full day of working.
When the battery does run down, recharging is fast; you get about 1% charge a minute so in an hour you have well over half your battery life back.
Windows RT 8.1
Surface 2 runs Windows RT 8.1. The OS has been much maligned, but apart from not being able to install any desktop software (beyond the Office desktop programs and Internet Explorer that are built in), it's indistinguishable from using the full-fat Windows 8.1.
Overall Windows RT isn't that bad, but the major problem is that we're all completely used to the way desktop programs work, as well as the functions they perform. The Windows Store apps don't yet fill the gap that the lack of desktop apps leaves.
Take Dropbox for example, it's possible to access your Dropbox files using the Windows Store Dropbox app and upload one-by-one, but it is not possible to actually sync a Dropbox folder using it. That's where you need the Desktop app which doesn't work on Windows RT. (You'll find you'll have to use SkyDrive for this kind of thing).
Added to which, the level of big name Windows Store apps is still way below that of the iOS and Android equivalents. After all, we've only just got an official Facebook app, a year on after Windows RT's launch
You get the new Start screen with multiple tile sizes, so you can have tiny shortcuts for the apps and sites you choose to pin there or huge live tiles showing multiple news stories or email messages. You get the Start button back on the taskbar (whether you want it or not), plus the unified Smart Search, that finds documents, pictures, music and web results for your search term.
You can use your desktop background on the Start screen or have your Surface 2 boot straight to the desktop, just like in Windows 8.
You get all the updated and new apps included with Windows 8.1. On the original Surface you could snap two apps (including the desktop) side by side; now you can divide the screen in half or into two-thirds or three quarters to fit what you're looking at.
That's great for keeping an eye on Twitter while you work on the desktop, or having an email open in the much-improved Mail app while you watch a video, or looking at a Web page while you make a Skype call (think of it as Microsoft remembering why Windows is called Windows).
And you can pinch to zoom out and see more of the Start screen, swipe down to close a running app, swipe from the left to switch aps, swipe from the right to open the charms; the responsive and beautiful touchscreen makes this smooth, fast and fluid (once you're used to the interface).
The longer you've used Windows 8 and Windows 8.1, the more seamless setting up and using Surface 2 feels. From getting the keyboard layout you always use on a brand new tablet to having your own desktop background and your pictures and files from SkyDrive, to having IE already know what web pages you like to visit and filling in the URLs as you start to type them, Surface 2 immediately feels like your very own device.
If you've never touched Windows 8 or 8.1, how much of that seamless integration you get depends on how much you already use Microsoft services like SkyDrive and Outlook.com and Xbox Live and Skype. If you have those accounts, they'll start filling your Surface 2 with familiar files and messages and people as soon as you tell it about your Microsoft account. Like the iOS and Android ecosystems, Microsoft services repay your loyalty with convenience.
And yes, you'll have to learn that you use the charms to get at search and settings and sharing options and that you can swipe to switch between running apps instead of tapping the Windows button (on the taskbar or on the tablet) to go back to the Start screen the way you'd press the Home button on an iPad.
But if you've used any version of Windows at all, you can fall back on familiar shortcuts like Alt-Tab while you learn. And this time around, Windows RT 8.1 includes a Help and Tips app that shows you much more than an animation you might ignore during setup.
Browser and media
Internet Explorer 11 is specifically designed for touch and has been re-engineered for the 8.1 update of the Windows 8/RT software.
You get built-in Flash as well as modern browser standards like SVG and WebGL, all fully hardware accelerated (which makes for some impressive results on pages that use these well).
What you don't get are other plugins from anyone except Microsoft (and that includes no Silverlight and no ActiveX support), but unless you're using a very old website you're unlikely to need those anymore, anyway. There are some still-in-development web technologies Microsoft doesn't support in IE, in Windows 8.1 or RT, in particular WebRTC, which is trying to bring Skype-style real-time communication to web pages.
In practice, experimental standards like this aren't yet widely used, so where you're more likely to see issues is on web pages that have been written specifically for Webkit browsers like Chrome and Safari, rather than for actual web standards. In an attempt to stop sites serving up old, less-functional pages designed for much older versions of IE, Microsoft has changed the way IE tells websites about itself; that's more likely to get you the full site, but a site that uses the iOS or Chrome prefixes rather than the standard HTML5 ones won't always look right on IE.
You can choose between using IE in the familiar desktop interface or the cleaner full-screen immersive interface. Just as in IE 10, if you start in the immersive browser you can use the tools in the app bar to see the same page in the desktop browser. And now in IE 11, you can right-click on an open tab and open it in the immersive browser instead (if you decide you want to post a link to a social network using the Share charm, for instance).
IE (especially on Surface) isn't going to give you the bleeding edge of the web, and you don't get the option of installing Chrome or Firefox the way you do on Windows 8.1 (any more than you do on an iPad). What you do get is a browser with fantastic touch support, password, tab and history syncing across different PCs and excellent performance, plus security settings that protect you and excellent privacy options.
Music and video apps
As Surface 2 won't run new desktop apps, you're restricted to what's in the Windows Store, on top of the built-in Music and Video apps.
As we noted in our Windows 8.1 review, these are much improved. You can still browse the large video and music catalogs of the Xbox services (and you get limited free music streaming from Xbox Music, including the smart playlists) but the emphasis is now on playing content from your own music and video libraries.
The on-screen touch controls are simple and responsive. With its excellent screen and speakers, Surface 2 is a great multimedia tablet. The on-screen touch controls are simple and responsive.
Windows Apps and games
This is the place where Surface 2 differs from a normal Windows 8.1 PC; you can't install all your familiar desktop software, just the apps and games in the Windows Store. While you get the improved and new apps that come with Windows 8.1 - from Alarms and Calculator to News, Food and Drink and Movie Moments - you can also find another 100,000 in the Store.
It is a much larger selection of apps than it was last year, and this remains one of the issues for Surface. Many developers create apps for iPad first and come to Windows only later, if at all. And while Microsoft has rules and standards for the Windows Store, there are far too many wrapper apps that are little more than links to websites, searches for specific videos on YouTube and other low-value content.
Big-name apps launching for Windows 8.1 include Facebook and Flipboard. Adobe has Adobe Reader and Photoshop Express for Windows 8 but not the other apps it has for Android and iOS. The Kindle and Nook apps are excellent and Rhapsody is there, but not Spotify. If you add in third-party apps, there's a reasonable choice of apps and the selection is growing steadily.
For example, Kayak has an excellent app for booking hotels that makes good use of photos to help you find somewhere that looks nice; Tripit doesn't have an official app but there is a Windows 8 version of the excellent third-party My Trips app.
Given how uncooperative Google has been over allowing Microsoft to create an official YouTube app for Windows Phone it's no surprise that there's no official YouTube app, although there are plenty of competent third-party apps. And remember, with the full IE browser, you can get the full functionality of websites so you may not need an app. We'd just like to see Microsoft concentrate more on quality than quantity, and throw some of the worst apps out of the Store.
You can play Bejeweled and Where's My Water and umpteen different versions of Angry Birds, but not Candy Crush. However, there is an excellent selection of casual and, well, more intense games from Microsoft Studios, from Mah Jong to Halo: Spartan Attack. It's not like high-end PC gaming, but the more demanding games play well.
The cameras on the original Surface and Surface Pro weren't that impressive, but the 1080p Surface 2 cameras are a definite improvement, especially in lower light - thanks to the much larger sensor on the 3.5MP front camera.
Since the time you're most likely to use a tablet webcam is for making a Skype video call, that's probably the most important improvement, but the picture quality is also substantially better. The rear 5MP camera is also better than the Surface camera, but it's more 'basic phone camera' than any sort of competition for the Nokia Lumia 1020.
The image quality of photos you take is actually higher than the preview shown on screen; text and textures were both sharper and crisper in photos than they looked as if they would be before we took the shots.
The low-light compensation adjusts the preview as you watch, so wait a few seconds before starting a video call or snapping a selfie. This also coped well with outdoor pictures on the rear camera taken on an overcast day; despite the cloud, colours were bright and fairly accurate. The problem is how poor the camera is at focusing on things that are really close; don't expect to do macro shots of flowers.
The extra performance of the Surface 2 means the panorama tool (which creates up-to-360 degree Photosynths rather than flat shots) runs perfectly happily; it was about as fast as on an original Surface Pro running Windows 8.1. For comparison, on the Atom-based Acer Iconia W3 running the 8.1 Preview, it didn't work at all.
Our favourite camera feature is for the way you usually take a picture a second too late; tap the photo thumbnail to open it then drag the slider around the circle enclosing the Save button to pick from the shots the camera saves from just before you took the photo. This is the same kind of tool you get in the Photos app for changing exposure and colour balance but it lets you rewind to get an action shot or the perfect expression.
Both cameras are angled to show a good view of your face or what you're looking at when the Surface 2 is propped up on the kickstand. That means when you're holding the Surface 2 to take a photo, you have to tilt it further down that you expect to frame your shot. On the other hand, given how awkward it is to take a photo with a 10-inch tablet anyway, you're going to use this mostly for showing the person you're talking to what you can see rather than for real photography.
Surface keyboards and accessories
The magnetic connector that holds the snap-on keyboards in place, turning Surface 2 into almost a laptop, is one of the strongest features of the product - quite literally; you can dangle Surface 2 by the keyboard and it won't fall off, but also because it adds a lot of flexibility without adding weight or bulk.
You can use the existing Type and Touch covers with Surface 2 (or Surface Pro 2). There's a new, even thinner version of the Touch Cover, now with backlit keys and touch gestures for moving the cursor, selecting text or picking a word prediction as you type. We tested the new Type Cover, which has the same backlighting, complete with an indicator so you know when the Caps Lock is on.
To save power, the backlight dims and then turns off when you stop typing for a few seconds - and comes back as soon as you touch a key again. The letters on the keys glow and the hint of light between the keys is enough to help you see the trackpad in a dark room as well.
Despite being thinner, the new Type Cover is still a delight to type on, with amazing action for something so thin. Every once in a while you might miss a keystroke with the original Type Cover; we never found that happening with the new model, even when we've pulled it off the magnetic connector and snapped it back on. The keys are also much quieter than before, so you can type without disturbing those around you (the original Type Cover was much more staccato).
Even on the new Touch Cover, the trackpad is an integrated flat pad with no tactile feedback; if you liked the physical movement and click of the previous trackpad it takes a little getting used to. Tiny as it is, it's amazingly accurate for tapping to select, two-finger scrolling (in either direction) and pinch-to-zoom.
Yes you can just reach up and do it on the screen, but if you don't want to (Word 2013 can be a little balky about detecting a long-finger press when you're trying to right-click on a spelling mistake, for example) this is a far better alternative than you might expect.
The soft-touch fleece underside of the previous covers is replaced by a smoother soft fabric; this feels more like neoprene than fleece. We don't like the tactile feel as much, but it's also rather less likely to pick up the odd crumb.
We're also looking forward to trying the wireless keyboard adapter. That will let you use the Type or Touch Cover as a Bluetooth keyboard; ideal if you find it more comfortable to have an inch or so between screen and keyboard but don't want to buy a second keyboard. Although at $60, you could get a basic second keyboard for the same price...
Microsoft spent a lot of money on marketing comparing the original Surface to the iPad, and Surface 2 does better on all the things that make it a Surface: a full USB 3.0 port, expandable storage, better SkyDrive integration, and an almost full version of Office that now includes Outlook, an improved version of Internet Explorer and far better options for working in two apps at once.
The thinner chassis, lighter weight and the two-position kickstand help Surface 2 get closer to the iPad 4, but the iPad Air has upped the ante somewhat. Although giving away iWork makes it look like Apple thinks Office on the Surface is a threat, many users like iPad for the range of apps in the App Store and that's something Surface 2 can't yet match. The Windows Store loses in every way compared to the Apple App Store and Google Play on Android.
As we know, Surface 2 doesn't run full Windows 8, instead opting for the hobbled Windows RT without support for legacy desktop - unlike Atom-based 8-inch tablets that you'll see on sale for similar prices.
That means it's a simpler, more secure system, but it doesn't help to remove the feeling that there's still something half-basked about Windows RT. If Microsoft had the same level of Windows app ecosystem as Apple or Google then things would be different, but they don't, so the feeling remains.
It's also worth remembering that Intel Atom Windows 8 tablets won't give you good performance for more demanding desktop software; having a full version of Windows isn't necessarily an advantage there.
The innovative design of Surface is even better with Surface 2; the kickstand works better in a wider range of positions, performance is visible improved; in many cases the battery will last all day - and the screen is vivid and accurate.
Plus, you get familiar features from the PC world; a full USB 3 port as well as expandable memory, Office and a powerful new version of Internet Explorer that's one of the most capable touch-friendly browsers (and don't forget Flash), as well as added extras in the shape of free Skype and SkyDrive benefits. This is the only tablet we know of with a backlit keyboard.
Surface 2 is priced as a premium tablet, especially when you have to buy Type and Touch Covers separately. That's fair, but there are far cheaper options (if you don't count the value of Office and 200GB of SkyDrive storage).
Windows RT 8.1 is a definite improvement in many ways, but the Windows Store does still lag behind Google Play and the Apple App Store by some distance and it's the productivity gap between the lack of desktop software and the apps on the Windows Store that harms the overall score we're giving it here.
As an aside, it would have put the price up even more, but we'd have liked to see Microsoft add the superb digital pen from Surface Pro to Surface 2.
Microsoft is making some of the best PC hardware around and Surface 2 is an even better example of the combination tablet-you-can-use-like-a-notebook than the first Surface.
The new screen, the improved kickstand, the much-better battery life and software with far fewer rough edges add up to an impressive product.
But Windows RT is still a problem. Things just aren't quite joined up yet because of the limited app support. However much you think you won't need desktop apps, you will undoubtedly find something that compromises your experience. And that's a real shame, as the hardware is superb.