Microsoft’s Surface 2, foreground, is much more manageable to use on the lap than the original Surface RT, rear, thanks to a second kickstand angle and a stiffer keyboard cover.

A tech reporter who has been using Apple’s iPhone 5 and iPhone 5S, both running iOS 7, recently mentioned to me that he sometimes mixes the two up until he looks closely at them. The comment reflects the fact that the iPhone 5S, while a nice step up, is ultimately an incremental improvement.

I felt that way at times this weekend as my family tried out Microsoft’s Surface 2 (the successor to the company’s original Surface RT tablet) set for release this Tuesday Oct. 22, starting at $449. The Surface 2 we used this weekend was a loaned review unit, but my family has used our own personal Surface RT around the house for the past year, and we were looking forward to experiencing the progress Microsoft has made in that time in its attempt to catch up the iPad and Android tablets

prod_surf2c_PageWe noticed the array of improvements — including better battery life, a sharper screen, a better sound system, and a second kickstand angle that makes it much more realistic to use the device as a laptop when combined with one of Microsoft’s new, stiffer keyboard covers.

The USB port on the Surface 2 has been upgraded from USB 2.0 to 3.0. The Surface 2 comes with Windows RT 8.1 pre-installed. And the Surface 2 is noticeably zippier compared with the Surface RT, thanks to an upgraded Nvidia Tegra processor.

Yes, even that notoriously bad connection between the power cord and the power port on the tablet has been incrementally improved with the help of stronger magnets, although it’s still far from completely fixed and requires near-perfect positioning to make the power connection snap in.

But overall, for basic tasks like web browsing and watching videos, it was tough at times to tell the Surface RT and Surface 2 apart when using them in the living room this weekend. The weight difference is tiny, and you don’t notice the battery life improvement until you get to the outer range of usage time. Microsoft says the Surface 2 will deliver up to 10 hours of battery life, compared to 8 hours for the original Surface RT.

prod_surface2_WebIt’s a good thing that Microsoft changed the color of the Surface 2’s rear exterior to silver for casual users to distinguish between them.

Of course, incremental updates are normal in the tech industry, as evidenced by the iPhone 5S example, but ideally that would come in much later generations.

Especially after the underwhelming reception for the Surface RT, which forced the company to take a $900 million charge against earnings, it’s too bad Microsoft wasn’t able to make more drastic changes this year and release a device with a more reasonable aspect ratio, for example. The screen dimensions of the Surface 2 are essentially the same as the Surface RT, which means it’s still ridiculous to use in portrait mode.

And of course, for people who need to run traditional Windows apps, this ARM-based machine is not the tablet you’re looking for. Consider the Surface Pro 2, or a new 8-inch Windows 8.1 machine, such as the Dell Venue 8 Pro, which uses traditional Intel-based PC processors and runs legacy apps.

Bottom line, as my family considers our tablet needs of the future, it’s difficult not to consider trading in our original Surface RT and putting the money toward one of those new 8-inch Windows 8.1 tablets, or whatever Nokia unveils this coming week … or, yes, maybe an iPad mini — especially if Apple drops the price of the current model next week.

Surface Diary: Previous installments

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  • Walt French

    A bit of a pity that good, now better hardware and software reflects solid engineering and a vacuum at the top where a matched strategy should’ve come from.

    Gates’s vision of a PC on every desktop was essentially realized by the time Balmer took over the shop a decade ago, and the “vision” of “devices & services” says nothing to consumers why they should throw in with Microsoft.

    Maybe the next CEO will have a strategy that makes sense outside of the executive suite.

    • Guest

      Since you have all this incredible foresight, Walt, maybe you should throw you hat in the ring?

  • JimmyFal

    I have to laugh at the need to run traditional Windows “apps”, you mean “applications” (yes big difference actually) on a small tablet.

    Although I would never give up the desktop on my Surface, UNTIL we have touch based versions of Office, which are coming, the need to run the rest of the Windows legacy happens to include generations of malware that only the consumer knows best how to install themselves, without really even trying.

    I would love to see glowing reviews of the Surface, that gently prompt the user to go ahead and adopt, because that adoption that you provide will insure that the apps that are missing from the platform get more quickly developed. File that under the “reviews from tech bloggers that you will NEVER see”.

    The Surface is of outstanding quality and Win 8.1 is a much more refined product than 8.0, so I’ll say it, adopt it in droves, so that the tech blogosphere can find something else to complain about other than the app count.

    • Carlos Osuna-Roffe

      JimmyFal…. way better platforms died under the Windows/DOS siege, including Amiga, NeXT, BeOS and OS/2.

      Desktop LInux has barely scratched the surface (pun intended) due to Microsoft FUD.

      Why would anybody want to “turn the tables”. Windows 8 is not that a good platform to deserve anyone’s mercy. The API is immature and you can’t develop apps without having Win8 (just like Apple but unlike Android).

      If Microsoft wants to compete, it does not need to reduce the noise, but rather increase the signal.

      • JimmyFal

        That’s a very fair assessment. If MS cannot please developers enough, then they deserve to be right where they are. A lesson only they can learn. Interesting to see Android in the same spot that Windows once was, all the market share with all the inconsistencies in security and end user experiences. Where would the Google “open” platform be without the closed Google apps I wonder.
        The self installed malware problem for the average joe, simply must be eradicated. Android is close but not al there. RT is there, but apparently not so easy to develop for according to you. I’m not qualified to asses that part of it.
        What I want to see is a great experience for mom and pop consumer. Malware free. Win RT provides that and so does Apple. Android is still a bit clunky for anyone other than the techies that know how to root it from the start.

  • Jason Farris

    I think this is the second or third time I’ve read you describe the aspect ratio as “ridiculous”.

    Respectfully I disagree; I like the additional screenspace afforded (by 16:9 in portrait). It’s great when I’m taking notes with the pen; and when browsing the web I get more reading in before the scroll. In wacom mode (creative cloud) it’s great to hold portrait in one hand while drawing with the other.

    The advantages when going back to landscape are too numerous to name, but snaps and native HD ratios are the easy mentions.

  • Guest

    Why wouldn’t you consider an Android device? If what you want is more iPad-like, that seems like a more obvious contender.

  • Jeremy Schroder

    Any feedback RE: the Surface Pro 2?
    I don’t see the aspect ratio and power connection swaying too many people away from Surface. I am not a huge fan of the power connection either, but I am surprised it annoys you so much, considering how little a typical user needs to use it. I plug mine in maybe once every two or three days. The more prevalent negative feedback in the blogosphere seems to be price, lack of apps, and a general negative opinion of Microsoft. I am very interested in the Surface Pro 2, but I am stuck on the price at the moment.
    Would like to hear your forward thinking. What would have been a giant leap in your opinion?

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