Microsoft's second-generation Surface tablets—the Windows RT 8.1-based Surface 2 and the Windows 8.1 Pro-based Surface Pro 2—will be available for purchase on October 22, 2013 in many markets around the world. So what's new for this generation of devices? Here's what you need to know.
Because Microsoft was new to the PC hardware market with the first-generation Surface devices, it launched those products in a more measured way. Surface with Windows RT—Surface RT—launched first, in October 2012, and then only in the United States and Canada. And Surface Pro didn't launch until February 2013. Over the intervening months, Microsoft has expanded the availability of its Surface devices geographically, of course, but also via other means, including the ISV channel.
With the second-generation Surface lineup, the availability picture has improved dramatically. Both Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 will be launched together, for starters. But they're also launching in far more markets simultaneously: 22 of them—Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States—on October 22, followed by China in early November and elsewhere in the coming months.
Still 2 Models ... For Now
In late September, Microsoft announced two new Surface models, each of which replaces a previous Surface model. Surface 2 is the second-generation version of Surface RT, and it utilizes an ARM processor and will run Windows RT 8.1. Surface Pro 2 is the second-generation version of Surface Pro; it features a fourth-generation Intel Core ("Haswell") processor and will come with Windows 8.1 Pro. As I noted above, these will begin shipping in October.
But wait--there's more! Microsoft is also keeping its first-generation Surface RT device in the market as a low-cost option. (Pricing is discussed below.) But I'm wondering whether that isn't temporary. Sometime before the end of the year, Microsoft will launch a third Surface model, which I think of as Surface mini, which will also feature an ARM (Qualcomm) processor and run Windows RT 8.1 and feature an 8-inch screen. It's possible—likely—that this device will replace Surface RT as the new low-end model when it appears.
For now, though, we have Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 to discuss.
Shared Features and Technologies
Despite different hardware architectures, OSs, and target markets—differences are explained in the sections below—Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 share a surprising number of commonalities. Both devices still utilize the high-quality "VaporMg" casing made of magnesium, an integrated kickstand, front- and rear-facing cameras, multiple built-in sensors, and a 10.6-inch widescreen display.
But many of these common features have changed for generation 2. The VaporMg casing on Surface 2 is now a light gray color that Microsoft says is the natural color of the magnesium process. (Surface Pro 2 continues forward with the dark titanium color from before.) On both machines, the Windows logo has been replaced by a Surface logo: "Surface users want others to know they're using a Surface," Microsoft's Panos Panay said at the launch event.
That integrated kickstand has been updated, too: Instead of supporting just a single viewing angle, it now supports two. The second of the two viewing angles is geared toward a sorely missing capability on the first Surface devices: You can now use it on your lap. But it's as solid as before and utilizes the same reassuring click.
Both devices sport USB 3.0 (in generation 1, Surface RT offered only USB 2.0), Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n, and Bluetooth wireless networking components. And the cameras in each machine have been updated. But the biggest change is the screen: Both devices now use a ClearType Full HD display, meaning 1080p or a resolution of 1920 x 1080. Surface Pro did offer this resolution before—Surface RT was a lowly 1366 x 768—but the new screen offers 46 percent better color accuracy, so it's an improvement across the board.
Of course, Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 do target different markets as well. So let's further examine where these devices diverge.
Surface 2 is Microsoft's answer to the Apple iPad, or what Panay called the "personal tablet" market. Of course, given how sales have gone over the past year, Microsoft is a bit sensitive about head-to-head comparisons of Surface with iPad, so the firm is also differentiating, once again, with Office. So, yes, Surface 2 is a personal tablet. But it's also the most productive personal tablet, one that ships with a free and full copy of Office, which features Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote, and now Outlook.
This bimodal view confuses the aim of this device, I think, but it's not exactly news: This was an issue for Surface RT as well. Fortunately, Microsoft appears have to have addressed some of the original device's issues, and in ways that are fairly meaningful. Indeed, Panay said that Surface 2 was not a "subtle" upgrade from Surface RT but rather a complete revamp.
That revamp starts with the aforementioned 1080p screen, which makes a surprisingly strong difference, whether you're looking at text, graphics, or video. The Surface 2 also includes a much more powerful TEGRA 4 processor that Panay says results in "unprecedented" performance for a personal tablet. "This is the fastest personal tablet [there is]," he said. "There's no lag and no latency."
Surface 2 also provides 25 percent better battery life than its predecessor, which Panay says is 12+ hours in the real world. (Microsoft's more conservative marketing materials state 10 hours as the official figure.) And the device itself is thinner and lighter than Surface RT, too.
Thinner, lighter, faster, and a much better screen: These are indeed big changes. And it comes with Windows RT 8.1, which is a significant improvement for both, um, personal tablet users—where you can stay out of the desktop more easily—and more traditional PC users alike. But it's still not clear why Microsoft continues to push a product that, so far at least, has not resonated in the slightest with consumers.
Panay mentioned that the app count in the Windows Store has grown from 10,000 at launch a year ago to 100,000 this year. But Windows "Metro" apps—which are the only app type you can install in Windows RT—have not taken off like Android or iOS, and most big-name apps and games are still missing in action. The value proposition of this platform, as with last year, is still questionable, especially for consumers. For business users, Surface 2 is like a smartphone or, yes, a personal tablet, in that it's managed by using Exchange ActiveSync (EAS) or MDM solutions like Windows Intune. That might not be of interest, especially in larger organizations. Which is why Microsoft makes a Pro version of the device as well.
Surface Pro 2
Positioned as a new kind of Ultrabook, Surface Pro 2 is less different from its predecessor than is Surface 2 compared to Surface RT. It utilizes the exact same body as the first Surface Pro, which is initially disappointing given its thickness and heft but makes sense when you consider the accessory compatibility story (especially with the new Docking Station described below).
Surface Pro 2 (with purple Type Cover 2)
Panay described the Surface Pro 2 as a modest upgrade by design: The original Surface Pro, he said, was "the best product Microsoft has ever made," which is defensible, and "the best-selling device in its class," which raises all kinds of questions. The Surface Pro was "working," he said, and people understand it. So Microsoft put its energy into improving it, not reinventing the wheel.
To that end, the updates in this device are predictable. It features a fourth-generation Intel Core i5 "Haswell" processor, which provides a 20 percent performance boost but more impressive gains in battery life: 75 percent more, in fact, which means the device should get seven hours of battery life in real-world use. No real surprises, though as you'll see the lineup has expanded to four models, some terrifically expensive.
Aimed at the business and "pro" markets, Surface Pro 2 is a real PC. This means that the device includes everything that's good about PCs—100 percent compatibility with all Windows-compatible applications, utilities, and hardware peripherals, well-understood and fine-grained management, full enterprise compatibility—and all of the bad, which includes viruses and other malware, and, of course, complexity.
But where a 10.6-inch screen makes some sense on a personal tablet, it makes little sense for this market. Today's mainstream Ultrabooks are 13 inches or bigger, and available 11-inch devices, while slightly larger than the Surface devices, look like postage stamps by comparison. Some will appreciate the portability of such a device. But the combination of such a high-res but tiny screen and the Windows desktop, which is still ill-suited to such usage, is painful on all but the sharpest eyes. It just doesn't work.
I had expected Microsoft to rejigger its Surface pricing structure in the wake of the past year's sales debacle, but the company did no such thing. Surface 2 pricing starts at $449 for a 32GB model, just $50 less than the Surface RT launch price and a full $100 more than the price of that device today. A 64GB model is $549. Both of these devices feature 2GB of RAM, which is just fine for Windows RT.
Surface Pro 2 is even worse. Here, Microsoft didn't lower the price at all, compared to the Surface Pro launch prices. A base 64GB version (with 4GB of RAM) costs $899, while a 128GB version (also with 4GB of RAM) sits right at $999. Mind you, these prices do not include a typing cover of any kind, so the cheapest real-world price for this device is really $1,028. You can get an 11-inch Macbook Air for $999, and that device features a nice hardware keyboard and twice the storage. See the problem?
Responding to a need I'm not sure exists, Microsoft is also offering two higher-end versions of the Surface Pro, which bump the RAM to 8GB but oddly offer no improvement to the stock i5 processor. A version with 256GB of storage will retail for $1,299. And a limited-availability 512GB version will cost a whopping $1,799, a price that would make even Apple blush.
Microsoft has also unleashed a new slate of Surface accessories, most of which also work with the original generation devices. Sadly, the two most eagerly-awaited accessories won't ship until next year: A new Docking Station ($199) for Surface Pro and Pro 2 offers a USB 3.0 port, three USB 2.0 ports, audio in and out, and a mini DisplayPort 1.2 connector that supports a 3840 x 2160 external screen. And a much-needed Power Cover ($199), essentially a Type Cover with a battery, is compatible with Surface 2, Surface Pro, and Surface Pro 2 (but not Surface RT) and will provide two to four hours of additional battery life, depending on device.
Surface Pro Docking Station
Several other accessories will be available immediately or in October.
Touch Cover 2 is thinner than its predecessor but offers automatic backlit keys and will cost $119. It comes only in black. It works with all Surface models.
Type Cover 2 is also thinner than its predecessor and features automatic backlit keys, and it comes in a new felt-like exterior that covers the front and rear over the cover. Available in magenta, cyan, purple, or black, this accessory will cost $129. It works with all Surface models.
Type Cover 2
Microsoft is also provide a tubular Wireless Adapter for Typing Covers, which lets you use a Type Cover, Type Cover 2, Touch Cover, Touch Cover 2, or Power Cover detached from the Surface device at a distance of up to 30 feet. It works with all Surface models and costs $59. And a new Car Charger with USB ($49) extends the lineup of Surface chargers; it also works with all Surface models.
Although I'll be reviewing Surface 2, Surface Pro 2, and various accessories in the coming weeks, my hands-on time with the devices this week is enough to offer some basic advice.
If you already own a first-generation device, there's no reason to upgrade, though a Power Cover (and possibly a Docking Station) will be a welcome addition for any Surface Pro user.
While I'm curiously interested in Surface 2, I recommend that potential customers wait and see what the Surface "mini" looks like: This smaller form factor might make more sense for a personal tablet, depending on your needs.
Surface Pro 2 ... I don't know. Although everyone's needs are different, I think the 10.6-inch screen is just too small for regular productivity use, and I eagerly await a 13-inch device--but with the understanding that it probably won't happen anytime soon, if ever.
Put simply, these devices are all incredibly well made and feature innovative designs. I'm just not sure that an audience exists for either as they now stand.