(Pocket-lint) - Just shy of a year ago the original Surface RT landed in Pocket-lint towers. And we were rather taken with its ambition. A tablet looking to steal the crown from laptops - a great idea. But an idea that, as we were acutely aware then, carried with it risk. The Windows 8 RT bastion came with limited apps and straddled the tablet-laptop divide in a way that made it feel like neither one device nor the other.
Enter Surface 2 and Microsoft has done something bizarre: ditched the RT name. The tablet runs ARM-based Windows RT 8.1, not full Windows 8.1 like the more powerful Surface Pro 2. Therefore, and just like its RT predecessor, the Surface 2 has limitations to what can be installed using its operating system. Confused yet?
In the year since RT launched we were hoping for a boost in app support in Windows Marketplace. But it - in a similar fashion to Windows Phone 8 - is taking time to build up in this area. Hardware-wise Microsoft has pulled out the "thinner, lighter, faster" big guns - but in an ecosystem that remains limited for a wide user base does this matter and is the Surface 2 a hardware step forward in a software world that's two steps behind?
A new Outlook
Design-wise the Surface 2 trims some of the fat of the original. But you'll probably struggle to notice: it's 4g lighter and 0.5mm slimmer. Meh.
But it's turned that fat into muscle as the Surface 2 has a new 10.6-inch, 1920 x 1080 resolution IPS screen - the same as found in the Surface Pro 2 - and a two-position kickstand for a wider variety of resting angles, although we did find it fiddly to open up half the time.
A Tegra 4 processor under the hood powers along Windows RT 8.1 which is now also padded out with the new Outlook app as part of the RT Office suite. A definite step forward.
READ: Surface Pro 2 review
We're pleased that the entry Surface comes with an amazing screen, as the touchscreen IPS panel really is a visual joy, but as a dedicated tablet device the aspect ratio is a little odd. It's very wide or, conversely, tall, in the hands. You won't be able to join thumbs while holding it, so as a tablet for on-the-go use it can feel too excess. It's fine enough when rested on the lap, but we found its virtual keyboard didn't deliver a quick typing experience for us and as it pops up over the open Window it gets right in the way of what's going on.
A good job, then, that there are new keyboard accessories. The Touch Cover 2 is an awesome example of how to make an accessory keyboard - but you'll have to buy it for £100 if you want it. It's worth it though: it's a super-thin keyboard with backlit, light-up keys that doubles up as a protective cover. It clips into the base of Surface 2 via the magnetised connector and that's it - done. Not only is it thinner than the Touch Cover that came before it, it's got a lot more sensors for a more accurate typing experience. The whole panel can also be used as a two-finger gesture panel to scroll around in documents, not just limited to the trackpad. Now that might sound a bit silly, but we found it really useful for eyes-off handling.
In price terms the Surface 2 is more affordable than the original RT model. The 32GB model - there's also a pricier 64GB option - cuts £40 off the RT's £399 launch price, arriving at a fairer £359. That's Microsoft sticking it to Apple to undercut the price-point of the iPad 4 right there. Unlike the Apple device, Microsoft doesn't limit expansion as there's a microSD card slot tucked around the back, more or less out of view, that can accommodate an additional 64GB.
Microsoft does also throw in two years' SkyDrive subscription offering up 200GB of online storage space for not a penny more on the purchase. If you want to keep that after 24 months then it will cost £64 a year ongoing, £32/year for 100GB, or £16/year for 50GB. You might think of it as £128 saved, or you might think of it as a future cost implication - it's a bit of both, really.
Let's touch a little more on Windows RT 8.1. In short the RT version is supposed to be the more app-based experience rather than heavyweight programme experience. With Surface 2 you can only install applications from Windows Marketplace, not the power-hungry EXE files of full Windows 8.1 - as found on the Surface Pro 2 (or any other laptop you have upgraded) - such as Adobe Creative Suite.
In the Surface 2 that means the ability to jump into mail, online cloud storage, news, weather, and whatever else you customise into the device's tile-based user interface from the available Marketplace. Some apps are fee, such as Office RT which comes installed, while other third party ones may cost extra cash. The majority of the tablet-based stuff you'll want to do is here, although the Marketplace isn't swarming with the breadth of apps found in Android and iOS counterparts.
There's also a desktop app to take you through to a desktop experience, somewhat reminiscent of earlier Windows. Only it's not; in RT's case the desktop is a facade as it can't be used like in full Windows 8.1 on the Pro. More confusion.
Microsoft seems to think it's sensible to call everything "Windows 8.1". Like with Windows 7 - which came with six different purchase options depending on what you were getting from the software - the company continues down a similar line, with four options. It might as well have dressed called the versions "pro-ish, pro, proer, super-business-pro" or some such bonkers take, but instead we're left with Windows RT 8.1, Windows 8.1, Windows 8.1 Pro, and Windows 8.1 Pro Enterprise. Bah.
This is a big mistake in our view. Off the shelf and if you don't know much about Windows then you might be none the wiser about what means what. Other systems are more clearly divided: Apple iOS for phone and tablet is different from the silly-named but identifiable Apple OS X (Mavericks, Mountain Lion, Lion, etc). Microsoft could have gone whole hog and made a Windows Phone 8 tablet experience, ditched RT and then kept an 8.1 Pro and Business solution for other devices. But such decisiveness hasn't happened and, as such, in RT you'll end up with a derelict desktop that just doesn't need to be there.
But RT is not a write-off by any means. What's in a name? Once you get to grips with Windows RT 8.1 it's a solid experience. If all you care about is writing documents, emailing them, looking at pictures, browsing and other tablet-based activities then the Surface 2 has got you covered. It will be more than a viable Apple and Android alternative to many, but it feels like it's out there, as if it's in a different space all of its own. That's largely because Marketplace lacks some of the fun stuff and, daresay the Surface 2 feels altogether more business orientated.
Eye of the Tegra
In the performance stakes there aren't a whole lot of tablets out there that opt for Nvidia's Tegra 4 system. Surface 2 is one such device, and it makes full benefit of the power on hand, pairing the 1.7Ghz processor with 2GB of RAM.
In tablet terms, compared to similar price rivals, the power is roughly on par with something like an iPad 4. So it's good enough to handle anything that's available from the Marketplace - from playing movie files, light editing, or all those games apps that you may download. Even at a simpler level web browsing was smooth and faultless. Video playback may be limited due to codec support, but the ARM-based VLC player can be picked up from the Windows Marketplace for a few quid.
Microsoft has also taken note on the camera front by popping a 5-megapixel rear and 3.5-megapixel offering on the front. The original Surface RT has front and rear cameras that were - well, awful would be a generous word. In Surface 2 it's a considerable leap forward, not that we can ever endorse using a tablet as a camera replacement. For Skype calls it's spot on, and if you did need to take the occasional casual snap then it's now useable for quick sharing straight from device.
But the biggest boost comes in the longevity stakes. Tegra 4 is lighter on the battery, meaning an alleged 10-hours per charge in use. We're not into benchmarking, all we do know is that after a long weekend of use it took plenty of time for the battery to drain down to zero. Good stuff. Turn off Wi-Fi, dim the screen and we're sure you'd get a full long-haul flight of movies in.
The Surface 2 also comes in a 4G variant (May 2014) that allows you to ditch the need to search for a Wi-Fi hotspot or forever worry about making sure you've got a Mi-Fi device with you. Setup is as simple as popping open the small nano SIM slot on the right side of the device and then slipping in your SIM into the caddy that is ejected.
Once inserted Mobile Broadband toggle is found within the Networks area and you can opt to turn it on or off depending on your battery saving needs. Controls are basic, although you will need to know your networks settings, and you can opt to have the device automatically roam when you are abroad or not. Depending on how your coverage is will depend on the results, but the 4G Surface 2 features a decent enough antenna that we've not had any problems connecting during our two week loan of the device.
Surface 2 might be thinner, lighter and faster than before - but only just on all counts. And as much as those three words might read well on page, the latest Microsoft offering is, above all, a confusing prospect.
Why? Because it's not full Windows 8.1. It's the "lite" app-based version known as RT. Or it used to be called that - only now the RT moniker has gone from the device's name. And when working in RT you'll likely find yourself bouncing between the tile and desktop interfaces while wondering why the latter even exists. It's not a tablet experience, it's a confused experience that lacks the elegance of Android or iOS.
With the original Surface RT we felt affection as to what it could develop into. But it was a bit of a punt then, almost a year back, and one that's failed to develop at the rapid pace it needed to. With the second generation upon us we feel that it's landed short in this department. Surface 2 needed to be bolder; a product drilled-down to its core tile experience like a Windows Phone 8 device - in order to leave the desktop operation stuff for the Surface Pro 2 instead - but instead we're left with a "what is it?" feeling.
But use it plenty, add a keyboard and it's actually a pretty good experience. Not so much a "fun" experience, but we suspect there's a case for more business-aligned users to shower praise the Surface 2. Microsoft has pushed the hardware forward: the Full HD screen is amazing to look at, the build quality decent, the software - despite outlined potential confusions - steps ahead of where it once was. It all adds up to a very reasonable device and the price point is fairer than before too. We just wish it didn't sit on the fence so much.