All's not well beneath the Surface as Microsoft tries again
Review: Microsoft Surface 2 tablet, €440 to €540
NOBODY could ever accuse Microsoft of lacking persistence. When the company sets its mind to a task, it chases that goal like a relentless shark, trying again and again.
Windows took six years until version three before it was even half-way usable and became popular. Xbox trailed PlayStation until the release of the 360 four years later.
In short, Microsoft plays the long game, which explains why it’s persisting with its unloved Surface tablets.
The sheer unpopularity of the Surface cost Microsoft $900m in inventory write-offs and effectively led to Steve Ballmer’s departure as CEO.
Yet here is the Surface 2, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed ready for another round of the fight against the iPad and Android tablets.
It arrives at an unfortunate time just as Apple launches the iPad Air, which is massively faster and much thinner than its predecessors, plus it comes loaded with rudimentary but free productivity software.
That alone takes the wind out of Microsoft’s sails. Certainly, Surface 2 lifts its game compared to its original sibling, being noticeably less sluggish, sporting a better screen and slightly improved battery life.
Remember too that the Surface design was pretty good to start with, solidly made and offering practical extras such as a USB port (for printers, mice, etc) and Micro-SD memory-card slot.
But this tablet feels quite porky beside the wafer-thin iPad Air and you really need to spring for Microsoft’s add-on keyboard/cover for the Surface 2 to be truly useful.
That’s another €125 right there on top of the basic price of €440 (32GB) or €540 (64GB). The Surface’s cost advantage over Apple begins to evaporate at that point.
Microsoft pitches the Surface 2 as a machine to get work done, almost as a laptop replacement. So it includes a full version of Microsoft Office on-board. Alas, Office is at times unusable via the touchscreen and demands a keyboard and mouse for full efficiency.
It’s a shame because the Surface interface includes some nifty iPad-trouncing features for multitasking, such as the ability to split the screen between two applications.
Other advantages to note are the option of secondary accounts (so you can let the kids use it without messing up your own stuff) and some nice freebies including 200GB of cloud storage with Skydrive and loads of free minutes to landlines with Skype.
In the end, though, what wounds Surface most is the lack of comparable apps. Sure, it has Office – better than Apple’s free alternatives yet almost too complex. But iPad streaks ahead not just in the categories of games, entertainment and web – but in the crucial area of productivity, Microsoft’s heartland.
No doubt, Microsoft will be back next year with another improved machine. But the Seattle giant needs to dig deeper to carve out the shallow niche currently occupied by Surface.