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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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