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Surface 2: Screen, Sound, Software & Apps

Andy Vandervell

By Andy Vandervell



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Surface 2: Screen & Sound Quality

Let’s deal with the first obvious point here, the resolution. The Surface 2 doesn’t have a Retina screen like the iPad Air, Amazon Kindle HDX 8.9 and HDX 7, or the Nexus 10. In the modern vernacular of ‘pixels per inch’ the Surface 2’s 1,920 x 1,080 resolution equates to 207ppi on its 10.6-inch, but this isn't a huge amount less than the 267ppi on the iPad Air.

The net result is the Surface 2’s screen isn’t as sharp as its nearest competitors, but it won't have a hugely detrimental effect on your enjoyment. The difference is most obvious on the Start screen, where text has a very slight jaggy quality you won’t see on any of the above rivals. The tile-based UI hides this weakness rather well, though, and text appears sharper in Word and other ‘desktop’ apps (basically Office, Internet Explorer and legacy Windows apps like Word Pad) thanks to Windows’ ClearType text rendering system, which isn’t in use on the tablet side of things.

Colours and contrast are very good

The difference in sharpness, then, is visible but not serious, and the Surface 2’s screen is just as good as the best tablets where colour, contrast and brightness is concerned. The peak brightness is high enough to be blinding in dimly lit rooms, and if anything the contrast and black level is ever so slightly better than the iPad Air. Moreover, the Surface 2 doesn’t appear to suffer from the irritating dynamic contrast brightness shifts seen on the Surface Pro 2.

All these factors and the natural 16:9 aspect ratio make the Surface 2 excellent for video viewing, especially compared to the 4:3 aspect iPad Air whose viewable area in widescreen films is noticeably smaller.

This makes the puny speakers all the more irritating. There are two of them, so at least they’re stereo, and unlike the iPad Air they’re positioned either side of the screen to create some semblance of a stereo effect, but they’re way too quiet for serious video or music viewing. They’re embarrassing compared to the iPad Air and the excellent speakers on the latest Kindles. It’s a serious weakness. In fact, they’re quieter even than the mono speaker on the iPhone 5s.

The memory card slot (right most slot) is discreetly tucked away

Surface 2: Software & Apps

So many column inches have been expended on the topic of Windows RT that it’s hard to know where to start. For the uninitiated, Windows RT is a paired back version of Windows 8. You can’t install desktop apps, but it comes with: a version of Microsoft Office that runs in a desktop; desktop and a tablet versions of Internet Explorer; and all the assorted accessory apps that Windows has shipped with since time immemorial.

In the name of brevity we’ll settle for pointing out this setup is no less confusing now than it was last year, and for all the noises coming out of Microsoft recently it seems we’re stuck with it for now. It still feels like an awkward compromise, it still feels incomplete, it still feels like step one in a greater plan, and there are still too many occasions where you have to resort to the desktop to find things, such as to check how much storage space you have left.

Headphone jack and volume controls are on the left edge

Of course, the Surface 2 runs the Windows 8.1 variant of RT or Windows RT 8.1 to give its full title. This brings with it several neat improvements and new features, such as smaller tiles, better organisation of apps and a new search feature that hooks into Bing to create a very cool touch friendly search experience. You can read all about these changes in our Windows 8.1 review, but suffice it to say we approve of them.

Office RT 2013 sees Outlook added to the roster, too, joining Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, which will no doubt please anyone wedded to corporate email. Office on the Surface 2 isn’t a custom ‘touch experience’ but rather ‘touch enhanced’, with most of the UI elements given extra padding to make them accessible on a touchscreen. It’s great to have the full Office experience on something as thin as light as this, but the tablet experience is (mostly) adequate rather than exceptional and there are still places where icons feel too small for comfort. There’s also the added confusion of having desktop and tablet versions of OneNote.

Office is clearly the Surface 2’s best selling point, but beyond this the Windows Store is still sparsely populated. Some big hitters are on there, but there’s very little going on beyond that. Moreover, we encountered one bizarre app breaking problem with the Netflix app where it refused to play videos when headphones were plugged in, throwing up error messages suggesting we update drivers and the like. It’s the kind of problem you just won’t encounter on an iPad or Android tablet.


December 6, 2013, 9:26 pm

Windows RT can afford to be an experiment until 64-bit is introduced. It would be interesting to see whether Microsoft can merge both x86 and ARM v8 into a single operating system distribution. Considering that software developers do not want to program for two operating systems, this would probably be the best approach. Additionally, business applications will always be legacy, and hence the need for both Microsoft and Intel to support legacy hardware and software.

Jdawg Laurence

December 6, 2013, 11:57 pm

Agree with this review pretty closely. The biggest issue I've had with my Surface 2 is the speaker volume when I'm watching music or videos. Almost have to put headphones in. It was good at first but it seems to have lost some volume after an update, maybe it is something to do with software? Hoping so.

Dre' Reavis

December 9, 2013, 5:24 am

you reference the T100 as a viable alternative that cost less....but it has a much worse display, does not come with 200gb 2 year cloud storage, has a much worse camera and has an inferior build quality.

Sure, it runs full blown Windows X86 apps on a 10" with cpu that is no more powerful that the cpu in the Surface 2.

The Surface 2 isn't for everyone (waaaaaaaaaay more games on the iOS platform...not as open as Android)...but I'd happily recommend it to anyone that didn't need a specific X86 on a tablet.

And anyone that would want an iPad tabletesque experience (sans the games ecosystem) with the tile/swipe usage of Windows 8 I'd definitely recommend the Surface 2 over any other Windows tablet (including the Surface Pro).


December 9, 2013, 9:52 am

"Surface joins this crowd with some seriously impressive sound coming from the tiny speakers"
Taken from the original Surface review on this website which I'm sure these are the same speakers as used in the Surface 2. Not sure what you were listening to when using the original Surface as if they are the same, then they are poor (as per this review). I purchased the original based on this statement (I couldn't find one to try out personally and all other tablets were crap).


December 9, 2013, 10:00 am

Sometimes the speakers in my Surface surprise me with how good they are - and the stereo field is particularly impressive. Maybe this review sample had issues, but the Surface 2 I tried recently sounded identical to my original Surface.
I'm not saying these are good speakers to hi-fi standard, but in terms of tablet I've not heard anything better.


December 9, 2013, 10:06 am

They are working on it already. By 2015 there'll be an 'interpreter' that allows applications written for any Microsoft platform to be used across them all - x86 Windows, RT, Phone, XBox. At that point RT will overcome any issues it has currently. However, I still think a lot of the arguments against RT are superficial anyway. It's as though reviews don't understand what it is. It's a cut-down ARM tablet OS that looks like Windows. Don't expect it to be Windows and it's actually quite god. The store is still lacking, but it'll get there...
Microsoft need to support all platforms so they are ready to move if one of them makes a huge step forward.


December 9, 2013, 10:11 am

The speakers are crystal clear and are impressive, but imo too quiet. I sometimes take it out to the pub for my daughter to watch Peppa pig and you cant hear the bloody thing, yet the iPhone sat across the table can be heard with no problem.I love my Surface but kick myself for jumping onboard as soon as I did (or late in the case of shelf life on the original), paid far too much (i.e. before they reduced them). I would love a Surface 2 but couldn't justify the outlay. Best tablet out there imo, yet most reviewers just don't give it credit (or dock a couple of points because of the ecosystem but ignore its full browser capabilities that means you don't require apps to view BBC iPlayer etc etc)


December 9, 2013, 10:12 am

The original Surface also has a MicroSD card slot in the same location.
What space does the OS take on other tablets? I don't know because you never mention it IN ANY OTHER REVIEW. Also, I believe this tablet includes recovery partitions and tools, and so can be setup, backed up and restored without the need of a separate PC. It can be removed (or moved onto a USB device), releasing up to 6GB, if existing space isn't sufficient. These are plus points, in my opinion. It moves this device into a more serious piece of hardware, rather than a toy.


December 9, 2013, 1:12 pm

On the MicroSD, on reflection that's poorly worded. I didn't intend imply it's new to this version, but you're correct of course.

On the space issue, it's not something we mention often in other tablet reviews because (as a general rule) it's not a problem on those tablets. I suspect some of the Android ones use more (especially the Samsung ones), but a 32GB iPad has in the region of 29GB free after the OS and formatting.

You're right to point out that the backup/recovery partition takes some of that space, too, but then you can backup/reset/restore an iPad without a PC as well. All you need is an internet connection to download the apps, the app data is stored as part of the backup.

The method of backup has nothing to do with how serious either is or not, but the path Microsoft and Apple have chosen. For Microsoft this makes sense given this is basically Windows 8 underneath, but it does come with this trade-off.


December 9, 2013, 1:17 pm

They are the same so far as I'm aware.

All I can say about the difference is:

1) Different reviewers -- I can say quite comfortably there's no way I would have given the original RT an 8/10 had I reviewed it, but then I wasn't at TrustedReviews at the time and the context (quality of rival products etc.) was different back then.

2) And on the topic of context, expectations changed. Since the Surface RT tablets and phones have begun shipping with much better, and much louder, speakers. It's not really the quality that's as issue but, as point out in your comment below, the volume. They're just way too quiet.


December 9, 2013, 1:24 pm

They are, to my knowledge, the same and they aren't that good compared to numerous recent products. The iPad Air and the new Kindles have noticeably better speakers, the iPhone 5s has a louder mono speaker than the stereo speakers on the Surface 2. Given the speaker on the iPhone 5s isn't that special, I'd wager they're quite a few phones that have better speakers than the Surface 2.


December 9, 2013, 1:28 pm

It's a viable alternative, not a perfect one. As you point out it has some weaknesses, but it's fundamentally a more functional, flexible and useful product for running Windows 8 and it's a comfortable £100 less all in.

I'd wager we'll see a few more high-end tablets like the T100 (i.e. Atom-based but with better screens) early next year. That's what I'd do if I was a product manager at Asus or similar.


December 9, 2013, 2:01 pm

I see. I guess I never really turn mine up over ~30 because I usually use it in a quiet room, so I've not compared max output levels, and compared to various other Android tablets I've used, and even the iPad mini, the speakers are better. Admittedly I've not really tested the speakers in anything within the last year to any level beyond "yes, they work".


December 12, 2013, 12:36 am

stupid question. I am considering the surface 2 for my daughter, does it have Microsoft word installed or is it something we need to purchase?


December 12, 2013, 10:19 am

It's included.


December 30, 2013, 4:40 am

I have the surface 2. in some point it Sucks period........... any documents I want to download I need to download a app. and the app store is worth nothing...... I might soon decide to sell for metal scrap. im still looking what it is good for.


January 11, 2014, 11:25 pm

I've always said - lose the bundled Office and instead make it option available in the App Store, make the TouchCover cheaper i.e. around $60 because without it the product is incomplete, and release a 128GB model for $549 and only then we can talk business.


January 15, 2014, 6:50 am

A good point was made in that Office is it's one and only big selling point and that all the others are just a few minor perks.
However, consider this question: why buy any other tablet? Every tablet on the market, including the Surface 2, can do the exact same things such as watching media, social networking, playing games, e-reading, etc. In this context, Office gives the Surface 2 an edge over all the rest.
From my personal perspective, I don't need a tablet. But if I were to buy a tablet, this would be my first choice because it can do anything an iOS or Android tablet can do, and a tad more. The big message I'm trying to put out there is that every tablet can do the exact same things, and the Surface is no exception, except that it also has Office.


March 14, 2014, 10:04 pm

My surface 2 now fails to start after less than 6 months of light use. Luckily it is still under warranty and will be replaced, and mine could be an anomaly, but this is terrible product reliability for a tablet especially compared to its competitors.

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