What we need to see in a Surface 2 tablet

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The date’s set, and the invites are signed, sealed, and delivered: It looks like we’ll get our first glimpse of Microsoft’s second-generation Surface tablets on September 23.

At first glance, the Surface lineup seems desperate for a refresh. Windows tablet sales have yet to take off, and the Surface line alone dealt Microsoft some staggering financial losses over the past year. But don’t let that fool you! Microsoft’s tablets are actually remarkably well-engineered pieces of kit, from their sleek VaporMg exteriors to the Surface Pro’s speedy, Ultrabook-level firepower.

That doesn’t mean the Surface is perfect, though. Here’s what we need to see in the Surface Pro 2 and the second-generation Surface RT.

Both models: lower pricing

The original Surfaces just cost too much.

The Surface RT debuted at an iPad-mirroring $500, despite the fact that Windows RT’s app ecosystem is nowhere near as rich as Apple’s. The cheapest Surface Pro, meanwhile, cost a wallet-busting $900—and no, neither shipped with a must-have Touch Cover, which were sold separately for $120. That’s far too rich for mainstream blood, especially now that the Surface RT carries the stench of failure, rather than prestige.

The second-gen Surface tablets should ship with the buyer’s choice of a free Touch or Type Cover included.

All is not lost, however: Surface RT sales have exploded since the slates were reduced to $350. If Microsoft wants the second-generation Surface slates to sell well, the recent price reductions should carry over to the new hardware. If Microsoft really wants Surface RT 2 slates to move, they need to be in the $250-$300 range.

And yes, those prices should include gratis Touch or Type Covers. An IHS iSuppli report estimated it costs Microsoft a mere $16 to $18 to produce one of the keyboard accessories. Unfortunately, most experts and rumors say that second-generation Surface pricing should remain relatively static.

Both models: a more flexible kickstand

Image: Robert Cardin
Be flexible, Surface. And I mean that literally.

The original Surface slates sported a kickstand that locked the tablets at a 22-degree angle. That’s great when you plop the hardware on a standard-height table, but not so great when you’re trying to use it on your lap. Early rumors suggest the second-generation Surface tablets will feature two different kickstand angles; that’s a good start, but I’d like to see a wider range of orientation options.

Surface Pro hardware

PCWorld’s review of the Surface Pro called it “the best pure Windows tablet,” thanks to its mixture of killer design and potent PC-grade hardware. But those capable components also worked against the Surface Pro, which was chunky and almost appallingly short-lived compared to Android tablets and the iPad.

“Primarily what I expect to see is hardware that delivers better performance and better battery life, ideally with less weight,” says Wes Miller, an analyst at Directions on Microsoft. “Design-wise, it appears Microsoft is staying the course with the same landscape-based design seen in the first generation of Surfaces.”

Microsoft’s first-gen Surface Pro.

The Surface Pro 2 seems like a natural fit for Intel’s Haswell Core processors, which have done wonders for the MacBook Air’s endurance.

Rumors indeed suggest the Surface Pro 2 is getting a Haswell processor, which reportedly adds 2 extra hours to the original version’s 5-hour endurance. Seven hours of battery life still isn’t a full day, but it’s close. A "Battery Cover" keyboard accessory—first hinted at by Surface honcho Panos Panay in a February Reddit AMA—could supply even more juice.

Beyond the processor switch and a new 8GB RAM option, early scuttlebutt suggests the Surface Pro’s components will remain largely unchanged. Hopefully that stagnation doesn’t include the device’s thickness and weight. A svelte, long-lasting Surface Pro would be scads more appealing than the current physical dimensions.

The plastic pen that shipped with the original Surface Pro.

No other hardware elements are really clamoring to be changed on the Surface Pro—though it’d be nice if the included stylus were clad in magnesium instead of plain old plastic.

Surface RT hardware

The original Surface RT, while still draped in the same design principles of the Surface Pro, landed on the opposite end of the performance spectrum. Its all-day endurance made the tablet an Office-wielding force to be reckoned with (for some people), but the Nvidia Tegra 3 processor inside made performance feel pokey after a few months of use.

The Surface RT needs more detailed eye candy. The 1366-by-768 display may have been tolerated with netbooks, but it doesn’t cut it in a tablet.

Already thin and trim, the Surface RT 2—or simply “Surface 2,” if the early rumors about the slate’s dropping the toxic "RT" moniker are correct—mainly needs a shot in the arm, hardware-wise. The tablet has been linked to both Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 800 processor and Nvidia’s Tegra 4, either of which would provide plenty of pep. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a Tegra 4 in the Wi-Fi version and a Snapdragon 800 in a LTE-equipped model, as the Surface RT 2 is just begging for a mobile data connection.

The Surface RT 2 needs some skin-deep beauty, too, and by that I mean a better display. The original Surface RT’s 10.6-inch, 1366-by-768-pixel display is far inferior even to the screens on the $200 Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire HD. Make it full 1080p to match the Surface Pro, please. (If the resolution were much higher than that, it’d be difficult to use the desktop.)

Both models: more refined software

A Surface tablet running the Bing Food & Drink app new to Windows 8.1.

Expect both Surface slates to be released in late October, packing Windows 8.1. Windows 8.1 smoothes over Windows 8’s roughest edges and is a lesson in course correction, but even that isn’t enough to make Windows 8 truly compelling. Windows RT should ditch the desktop entirely, while the Surface Pro 2 should intelligently default to either the desktop or the Modern UI, depending on whether you’ve attached your slate to an external monitor. And could we get some compelling Windows Store apps, please?

But wait! This article is about potential Surface improvements in particular. If you want to read our suggestions for how a new Microsoft CEO could breathe new life into Windows, well, that’s a whole ’nother story.

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