With Surface 3 on the way—my review unit should arrive Monday, Microsoft tells me—I spent some time with Surface 2 again over the weekend to reacquaint myself with what Microsoft had gotten right—and wrong—with its previous generation tablet. Surface 2 was an interesting experiment, and its striking how thin and light and utterly portable it is. But Surface 2 also suffers from horrific performance problems. And while I recall it being faster than the original Surface RT, in using it now the performance is just terrible.
And that was always the problem with Surface 2. So close. And yet so far.
Indeed, I bet anyone who has used Surface 2 has engaged in a sort of internal game called, “this thing would be great if only”. Surface 2 would be great if only the performance was better. If only the application compatibility was better. If only all the devices I owned actually worked. That kind of thing.
Microsoft obviously played this game too. And the result is Surface 3.
On paper, Surface 3 is a device that is roughly as thin and light as Surface 2. But it has a superior 3:2 HD-plus screen. It is based on an Intel chipset, letting Microsoft use “real”/full Windows 8.1, not the chopped-off-at-the-knees Windows RT. This provides the full range of application compatibility, including desktop applications like Chrome, iTunes and Photoshop, not to mention games. And it provides access to the full range of hardware peripherals you already own, with all the right drivers and utility apps.
That’s all very general and, frankly, very obvious.
But looking at Surface 2 with fresh eyes, I see more specifics. More of the good. And more of the bad.
Let’s start with the bad, get that part out of the way.
Surface 2 is a device that is far too widescreen. It looks scrunched in landscape mode, and it’s silly-tall in portrait mode. Unusable is a strong term. But it’s basically unusable in portrait mode.
Speaking of unusable, the performance. My god, the lack of performance. Every time I criticize Surface 2—or even Surface RT—I hear from someone with a variation of, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. This things works fine for me.” And I get that we’re living in an “everyone’s a winner” era and that we’re supposed to value everyone’s opinions. But I’m going to pull the experience card on this one and just speak plainly. If you think Surface 2 performance is somewhere in the “fine to acceptable” range, you’re nuts. And you need to ask more of a device that cost this much money. Period.
The magnetic power connection is laughably bad. It was improved from the first generation Surface tablets, yes, but you don’t have to have a lot of experience with the magnetic power adapters Apple has been using on its MacBook laptops for years to immediately see the flaws here. It’s hard to attach at all, let alone do so accurately. (But I give Microsoft props for a more obvious power light, which helps you know you made the connection properly.) Surface Pro 3’s connector is better, mostly because it’s not possible to incorrectly latch the thing to the side of the device. As I did repeatedly with Surface 2 while writing this. It’s just terrible.
Can we talk applications? Don’t worry, this one will be quick.
On Surface 2, the lack of desktop applications is neck-and-neck with performance for the front-runner position in what’s wrong with this device. And in keeping with my previous comments about performance, anyone who thinks that’s OK or even desirable—yes, those people are out there—are, again, nuts. I’ve used Windows 8.x about as much as anyone, having moved to the system full time in late 2011, one year before the initial release. And I have yet to find a single Metro/Modern/Windows Store/whatever app that I absolutely need or want to use. Not one. And of the apps I do use regularly —Google Chrome, Adobe Photoshop Elements, and a few others—not one is available on Surface 2. Not even Microsoft’s Photo Gallery, which is part of Windows Essentials. That’s not just dumb, it’s shameful.
There are a few less critical issues. By the time Surface 2 arrived on the scene, the Type Cover had gotten backlighting, which I like. But of course it doesn’t offer two typing positions, and I bet many people would prefer to angle the keyboard as is possible on Surface Pro 3 and now Surface 3. The kickstand does support two screen angle positions, better than Surface RT, but not as good as Surface 3’s three positions. And video out requires different adapters than with Surface Pro, something that is no longer an issue with Surface 3.
Microsoft did of course get some things right with Surface 2.
The sheer mobility of this device is laudable. It does provide a sort-of-PC experience with a real desktop version of Microsoft Office—with Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, and improved over time to include Outlook too—a real keyboard (if you picked Type Cover over Touch Cover) and it does so in a package that is iPad-light. I’m sure half of the Surface 2s sold sealed the deal when prospective customers imagined carrying just that device around instead of a full PC. It’s a good idea in general, but ruined by the points I made above.
The build quality is exemplary. Like many Nokia Lumia handsets, ThinkPad laptops, or Apple whatevers, Surface 2 is immediately and obviously well-made of quality materials. There’s no squeaky, creaky plastic anything to ruin the experience. And in using the natural color of the magnesium—a medium gray Microsoft calls silver, and yes, Surface 2 was the first to do so—Microsoft found a solution to a problem that dogged previous Surface RT and Pro devices: the black paint (which Microsoft called titanium) peeled off and scratched too easily. This thing is durable, and it still looks great today.
Surface 2 is fan-less and completely silent, and it never gets truly hot. For someone like me who is perhaps overly sensitive to noise, this is a huge and delightful differentiator.
The expansion mix is right for this class of device, a tradition that continues in Surface 3. So you’ve got a single full-sized USB 3.0 port—not USB 2.0 like Surface RT—microSD expansion, and HD video out (albeit not miniDisplayPort).
Surface 2 pricing was improved over the original Surface RT, too: the base 32 GB Surface 2 was just $449 at launch, $50 lower than the base Surface 3 is today (with the same RAM, but twice the storage). That’s too bad.
Looking a bit deeper at Surface 3, I see some other improvements over Surface 2 that matter. You can get a Surface 3 with 4 GB of RAM, for example, where Surface 2 was only available in 2 GB configurations. You can expand Surface 3 into a desktop computer using an optional docking station. You can use Surface Pen with Surface 3 and use it to take hand-written notes or create drawings and paintings. The screen is 3:2, so it can really work like a tablet. And the USB/power situation is much improved: micro-USB is an excellent and highly-compatible choice for power, plus that port can be used for data. Surface 3 is thus the first Surface device to actually ship with two USB ports.
So the real different between Surface 2 and Surface 3 is that Surface 2 was a decent companion device for adults, or a reasonable solution for students, albeit one that couldn’t really work well in tablet mode. But Surface 3 is a real tablet and a real PC. It can be used instead of a more powerful Windows laptop or MacBook Air and an iPad. (Ostensibly. Again, something I’ll need to test.) Surface 3 could be a much more acceptable device to a much bigger range of customers.
We’ll know for sure soon.