First look at Microsoft’s Surface 2: Improved, but is it enough?

One year ago today, I shared some early impressions on Microsoft’s Surface RT tablet. I liked the hardware well enough, but saw room for improvement, and wasn’t too impressed with the available software choices. Fast forward to the present and Microsoft(s msft) has dropped RT from the name, created new Surface 2 hardware and courted more mobile app developers.

Surface 2

Does Microsoft have a hit on its hands with this new model? Given that the company wrote down $900 million of Surface inventory earlier this year, Microsoft’s tablet aspirations can likely only go up from here. However, I was curious to see how this second generation device has grown up, so I’ve spent the last two days with a review unit from Microsoft.

Much improved hardware

Overall, my first impressions are positive and I wish Microsoft had been able to release this device a year ago. On the outside, the hardware looks similar to the previous model, which isn’t a bad thing. Different is the kickstand, which features two fixed angles instead of just one. The device is much easier to use on a lap now.

The two biggest hardware boosts in my opinion? Jumping up to a full HD display and the new 1.7 GHz Nvidia(s nvda) Tegra 4 chip inside.

At 10.6-inches, the Surface 2 screen has a pixel density of 208 pixels per inch (PPI), making for much clearer text, images and videos. By comparison, the original Surface RT display resolution is 1366 x 768 with 148 PPI; acceptable, but not great. The Surface 2 screen is a joy to look at it for hours and from any angle.

Surface 2 Windows

Moving from last year’s Tegra 3 to this year’s Tegra 4 brings a noticeable increase in overall performance for the device as well. The difference in chips isn’t just a model number; the Tegra 4 is built on the more powerful ARM Cortex-A15 architecture, while Tegra 3 used Cortex-A9, a now older generation chip.

Everything is faster on the new Surface 2 as a result, with far less lag when loading apps and instantaneous app switching. I’ve only performed a few benchmark tests to compare, but so far, I’d say the overall performance of Surface 2 is at least twice as fast as Surface RT; perhaps even a little faster. If you want to see a number of benchmark scores of the Surface 2 compared to several other devices, AnandTech has a great set of graphs here.

Microsoft also included its new Type Cover with my review unit and it’s quite good. I can easily type on the keyboard all day although the trackpad area is a bit small for my tastes. With a touchscreen, however, that’s an easy issue to mitigate. This new Type Cover also has backlit keys that intelligently turn on or off as required; a great new feature.

Better software but still not on par

Where Surface RT fell down the most last year was on the software side. That’s less of an issue one year later. Windows 8.1 RT brings several user interface improvements and Microsoft has been successful in getting additional top-tier apps to the platform. Facebook(s fb) is here, for example, and Facebook notifications are well-integrated. But the official Twitter app is visually unchanged and doesn’t take full advantage of the device’s screen size. Some other apps aren’t here are at all, still requiring you to use a web app, if one exists; see Instagram for an example of that.

Surface 2 multitasking

On the other hand, Microsoft has beefed up its Office suite of products for Surface 2 by adding Microsoft Outlook. Like the other Office apps, it runs on the less touch-friendly Desktop but the experience isn’t as jarring as it was last year. Skype too is here; a given since Microsoft bought the company. And of course, there’s Internet Explorer pre-installed both in the Metro and Desktop environments. I’m finding IE to be a little better than before at rendering sites in general and using Google+ — is much improved.

I still think there is an “app gap” of sorts when it comes to third-party software though. Why? Because Windows RT isn’t the first or second choice for new apps. And sometimes, it’s not even the third one, meaning that some developers will still choose to program for iOS and/or Android and that’s it.

That’s still a challenge that Microsoft has to overcome, and to do so, it’s going to take more time. New, more capable hardware isn’t going to fix that problem; sales of the Surface 2 will.

Low-cost Windows 8.1 tablets still present a challenge

There’s one other aspect to consider if you’re interested in a Surface 2 and its the same one I noted in January of this year. Do you want to pay $450 for a Surface 2 — without the keyboard option — for Windows RT and roughly 8 hours of battery life, or do you want full Windows 8.1 with similar battery life and an included keyboard for about the same price? That’s what many Intel-powered(s intc) tablets offer, and a perfect example is the $349 Asus Transformer T100. It uses a new Intel Bay Trail processor, includes a keyboard as well as Microsoft Office, although it does have a lower resolution display than Surface 2.

Transformer T100 Book

I’ll have more to comment on about the Surface 2 after some additional usage, but for now, I can say the overall device experience is much better than the initial Surface RT on all fronts. Is that enough for Microsoft to get a bigger foothold in the tablet market? The jury is still out on that in my mind due to a relative lack of developer interest and similar Windows 8.1 products that are more capable.