Microsoft Surface Tablet Details, Examined

Sep 23, 2013 (12:09 PM EDT)

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Tablet Buying Demystified: 10 Tips
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Tablet Buying Demystified: 10 Tips
Microsoft announced second-generation Surface tablets Monday at an event in New York.

The Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 replace the Surface RT and Surface Pro, respectively, and look almost identical to their predecessors, aside from a new color for the Surface 2. But both devices offer substantial improvements, mostly under the hood.

Microsoft VP Panos Panay, who presided over the event, said the Surface Pro 2 uses Intel's i5 "Haswell" processor. He said the chip means the Surface Pro 2 runs 75% longer between charges than the current model, whose battery life has been one of its most criticized features. The improvement should translate to between seven and eight hours of battery life.

[ Trying to integrate tablets into your workforce? Read The Good And Bad Of Tablets At Work. ]

He also said the Surface Pro 2 boasts 50% better graphics processing, an improvement that presumably comes courtesy of Haswell. The device's screen maintains the old model's 1080p resolution but should render colors 46% more accurately, Panay stated.

The device will come in 64-GB and 128-GB configurations, each with 4 GB of RAM, for $899 and $999, respectively, and 256-GB and 512-GB configurations with 8 GB of RAM for $1,299 and $1,799.

Surface 2

Panay said the Surface Pro 2 is faster than 95% of laptops on the market, and he repeatedly asserted that it is the best mobile option for professionals.

"It's one of the best products Microsoft has ever built," he said.

The Surface 2 drops its forebear's "RT" branding but still runs Windows RT, unlike the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2, both of which run the full version of Windows 8, with support for both Modern UI touch apps as well as legacy desktop apps. Panay touted Windows RT 8.1's benefits over not only the earlier version but also other tablets. Those benefits include support for Microsoft Office -- including Outlook, a new addition -- and mutli-tasking capabilities.

The device runs on Nvidia's Tegra 4 processor, which makes it noticeably faster than its ancestor, and competitive with many tablets in its class. It uses the same 10.6-inch ClearType Full HD display as the Surface Pro, switches out its USB 2 port for USB 3, and includes a 3.5-megapixel front-facing camera whose sensor is designed to keep Skype chats looking good in poor lighting. It also includes a 5-MP rear camera.

The Surface Pro 2 will come in black, like the original, whereas the Surface 2 includes both a black version as well as an attractive "magnesium" option.

Although neither the Surface Pro 2 nor Surface 2 changed much in size or looks, both devices include a new two-step kickstand that allows the tablet to be propped up from two different angles. Panay said the new kickstand will help users balance the tablets while typing in their laps, another area in which the original devices attracted criticism. He said the ability to type in one's lap is especially important for the Surface Pro; otherwise, the device wouldn't qualify as a laptop replacement.

In addition to the new tablets, Microsoft also announced several accessories, including not only refreshes of its existing Surface keyboards but also several new products.

The Touch Cover 2 and Type Cover 2 keyboards are lighter, thinner and more rigid than their predecessors. Both include backlit keys. Panay said the Type Cover follow-up allows users to type faster because the slimmer profile means the keys don't travel as far when pushed. He also said the Touch Cover 2 should be much more responsive; it features almost 1,100 sensors, more than 13 times the number in the original.

Microsoft also introduced the Power Cover, a sturdy-yet-thin keyboard with a built-in battery than can push the Surface Pro beyond 10 hours. The company will also sell a Surface docking station that includes one USB 3 port, three USB 2 ports, an Ethernet connection and a DisplayPort video outlet.

Microsoft will continue to sell Surface tablets and keyboards separately. The Touch Cover 2 will be $119.99, the Type Cover 2 $129.99, and the Power Cover and docking station each will cost $199.99.

Microsoft will also give new Surface owners free access to some of its core services: a year of Skype calls to landlines in more than 60 countries; unlimited Skype Wi-Fi at more than 2 million global hotspots; and 200 GB of SkyDrive storage for two years. Panay said the integrated services demonstrate that Microsoft is taking "huge" steps as it transitions into a "device and services" company.

In an interview, Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi said she was impressed with many of the new devices' features, such as improved out-of-box access to Skype and SkyDrive, which she said could help Microsoft gain traction among consumers.

"Consumers generally don't see Microsoft as sexy," she said.

She also said the new kickstand and keyboards should make the devices easier to use, and that Microsoft showed its commitment to Surface with future-looking projects, such as keyboards that it calls "blades," and that can be used for more than typing. One such accessory demonstrated at the event allows users to easily mix and create music by applying different amounts of pressure to a keyboard-like pad.

The first Surface tablets struggled to the tune of a $900 million write-down-- a debacle by any standard but particularly troubling for Microsoft, given that iOS and Android tablets have continued to soar while Windows tablets have floundered. Are the new devices enough to turn things around?

Time will tell. The buzz at the Surface event was ostensibly positive following the announcement, but Milanesi said Microsoft is still in a "tough spot." She noted that in the premium market, the Surface devices can't match the iPad's ecosystem, and that in the budget market, they're much more expensive than Android models.

The new devices can be pre-ordered starting Tuesday, and will be available Oct. 22, only a few days after Windows 8.1 and Windows RT 8.1 become available.