October 22 was supposed to be the Surface’s shining moment: the day the leaner, meaner, faster Surface 2 (and its brawnier cousin, the Surface Pro 2) hit the streets, buoyed by midnight launches and Pitbull concerts.
Then Apple announced plans to hold its iPad announcement on October 22, and just like that, Microsoft’s tablet is once again playing second fiddle to Apple’s on-the-go maestro before it even gets out the door.
But that doesn’t mean the Surface 2 is a futile endeavor. Microsoft’s ARM-powered tablet blows the pants off the iPad...if you have demanding productivity needs.
Office on the go, forever
When PCWorld spoke to a cadre of first-gen Surface RT lovers, all of them—every single one—bought the tablet for productivity, not pleasure. In particular, they were drawn to the Surface’s mixture of Office Home & Student and extreme endurance, along with the machine’s USB port and MicroSD card slot—two relative rarities in the tablet world.
“I love [the Surface RT] for its niche,” said Andy Rathbone, the author of Surface for Dummies. "It’s the only portable device that can run Microsoft Word for ten hours between charges."
The Surface 2 stands ready with even more-powerful and longer-lasting hardware, as well as the clamored-for addition of Outlook RT 2013.
Windows RT 8.1 should also help, thanks to its enhanced Mail app and numerous new features that smooth over the Modern UI’s rough edges and make it easier to stay in Microsoft’s touch-friendly interface. Windows 8’s “Snap” multitasking features, PC-esque settings, dynamic Live Tiles, Internet Explorer 11, and semblance of a filing system were its big draws over iOS. Windows 8.1 builds upon each of those, and its deeper ties to SkyDrive forge a tighter bond between your tablet and primary computer than is possible with Apple’s ecosystem. (Microsoft is tossing in 200GB of free SkyDrive storage for two years with each Surface tablet.)
Touch me, type me
Beyond the baked-in improvements, a wave of new and updated Surface accessories add to the tablet’s productivity potential.
The revamped Touch and Type Covers are backlit, while a new Power Cover with a built-in 30W battery and a Surface car charger (complete with USB port!) keep the words flowing for longer than Microsoft’s tablet can do by its lonesome. An optional adapter wirelessly connects your keyboard to your tablet via Bluetooth to allow you to type from anywhere in the room—an incredibly niche need, but one that fits right into the Surface 2’s focus on productivity.
It’s another accessory, however, that hints at a future full of possibilities for the Surface: The Music Cover.
Of music notes and massive niches
Rather than alphanumeric keys, the intriguing Music Cover comes packed with controls designed to help budding producers tune and tweak musical tracks with ease—with the help of a unique app that installs when you connect the cover.
While the idea of customized “blades” (as Microsoft calls these covers) is pretty much still in the womb, they hint at an almost platform-esque future for Surface, one with a strong focus on productivity niches bolstered by special Touch Covers like the Music Cover. Imagine, if you will, a easel-like blade designed for use with Fresh Paint or Photoshop, or a cover created for video editing?
During an “Ask me anything” session with the Surface team, one Redditor asked for a blade designed to work with the Xbox and Windows 8’s Smartglass app. Microsoft also tasked students from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California, with dreaming up blade ideas and received all sorts of crazy suggestions, as seen in the video below, ranging from solar chargers to credit card readers.
It’s fascinating stuff—but stuff for far in the future, alas.
Still a specialized slate
The Surface 2 still follows in the footsteps of its failed predecessor despite its beefed-up internals and retooled software. The Windows RT operating system remains an albatross, Outlook RT 2013 be damned. And in an age of surging small-screen slates, the Surface’s 10.6-inch display stands out as particularly bulky.
But as far as all-day-plus Office machines go, you’d be hard-pressed to find anything more focused than Microsoft’s own tablet. The Surface 2 crystallizes the productivity tasks that shone in the original version, sharpening them into a machine that could excel in school or business scenarios.
And even if you pick one up for work, you’ll likely find the Surface capable of meeting most of your casual play needs, too. While there are still several glaring no-shows in the infant Windows Store, big-name apps like Facebook and Netflix (and Twitter, Hulu Plus, ESPN, and…) are there, and Web versions of most missing apps are only as far away as Internet Explorer 11.
Even so, none of that prevented the first Surface from failing miserably.
The iPad’s Retina display and fleshed-out ecosystem simply make it the better option for all but the most ardent Office lovers—and that’s before we even see what’s unveiled at today’s Apple event. Plenty of people use their iPad for work, too: Third-party keyboard accessories abound, and Apple is literally giving iWork away for free now. And yes, Microsoft plans to release Office for the iPad…someday. (Though if it’s anything like Office for the iPhone you’d be better off with iWork.)
If you absolutely, positively need the full-fledged version of Office in long-lasting form, the Surface 2 should be right up your alley. But for everybody else, the iPad is still the superior option.