Is the Microsoft Surface 2 right for you?

  1. What happened to the first generation of Surface?
  2. When pundits are not.
  3. Why Windows RT?
  4. How many “apps” do you need?
  5. My Surface 2
  6. Is the Microsoft Surface 2 right for you?
  7. Tips
  8. Addendum (January 2014)

Published November 27, 2013.

Whenever buying anything, you should have a mental map of your priorities. For the Surface (Windows RT) line, the following should be your top priorities, in my opinion:

  • Mobility (size/weight)
  • Battery life
  • Microsoft Office


  • You don’t need pen input
  • You don’t need “legacy” Windows desktop applications (it’s a companion device, although you could use remote desktop if you really need to)
  • You’re not wedded to an app store

Of course, the Surface as a companion device is quite capable for other things like e-books, web surfing, app games, Skype, and consuming multimedia, but if those three items I listed above aren’t at the top of your list, the Surface isn’t ideal for your use case. Unless you don’t intend on buying the cover-keyboard for Office use, in which case the Flash-enabled browser and a few apps may end up fulfilling your needs anyway; a Surface without keyboard is actually cheaper than an iPad 4. Keep in mind that both Surface lines are hybrids and can cover more than one use case. You may not have considered that you can get rid of both your iPad/Kindle and laptop, but that’s exactly what a good number of users have done, if you read the user reviews and not the pundit editorials.

It’s true that you can get certain regular Windows 8 hybrid tablets for about the same price as this, but consider build quality (magnesium, Gorilla glass), battery life, size/weight, added cost of Office, etc. Try to get a hands-on feel at a Microsoft Store or official vendor with demo units.

I think students especially would be able to use the Surface to its full potential, but there are some important caveats.

First of all, if there is online coursework like an internal university website, keep in mind that Internet Explorer RT doesn’t support add-ons for security reasons: There is no Java (not to be confused with javascript) or Silverlight support. While I understand the lack of Java, since it’s not a Microsoft technology and they had lost a lawsuit years ago about including an MS-version in Windows, the lack of Silverlight is completely perplexing to me because that’s a Microsoft technology.

If you’re a student and have some online course websites you need to access, be sure to check system requirements or ask your school’s IT department about it. I can say that when briefly testing a trial Adobe Connect account–my graduate school used Adobe Connect for online courses–it worked well enough except that you cannot share desktop (if the Surface is the host, I think) and sharing documents like Powerpoint presentations may be limited if there’s a lot of fancy formatting and animations and such; chat worked fine as well as webcam support, note modules… I didn’t test it in depth, however. If you need any of the above browser support with add-ons, you’re better off getting some other device.

The worst part about being forced into IE11 with 8.1 RT is that it’s not compatible with some websites because it’s so new, and you cannot easily mess around with user agent masking as you can with browsers like Opera. Moreover, the user agent string includes a “touch” token that unfortunately breaks certain browser sniffing scripts on some websites that think you’re using a “mobile” stripped browser like Safari on iPad and end up serving you the neutered mobile version of a website instead of the proper full version, but sometimes you can get around that if the website–if created by a competent webmaster–offers mobile/full website option links. There is IE’s compatibility mode, but that’s not always a solution. There are two sides to this: Microsoft wants websites to “catch up” to IE11, being the newest major revision in the browser flock, but webmasters need to test their own websites and ensure compatibility with the latest version of IE, particularly with the browser sniffing and auto-redirection scripts. After all, website creators need to realize that just because a device has a touchscreen doesn’t mean it only has a mobile web browser, and that explicit differentiation has only happened with Win8.1 and IE11. If possible, visit a Microsoft store with a list of your most important websites to see if they’ll load fine in the RT version of IE11.

Furthermore, Microsoft Office RT does have limitations despite being the most powerful option available on any mobile OS. One of the key features missing from OneNote RT, which is disappointing, is the ability to sync audio recording while taking notes, though there are other apps that can do so. You cannot run macros. You can view all the Office 2013 RT limitations here:

If you have any Office feature needs that are missing from the RT version, you’ll have to get a regular Windows device and either pay for Office yourself or use a corporate license from work.

What about price? The keyboard cover, while highly recommended (either Touch/Type), can be replaced by a cheaper external keyboard if you wish, but ultimately you need a keyboard to get the most out of the Surface. If you get a matching cover-keyboard, that adds $$$ to the price tag. I do agree with criticism that Microsoft should have more bundle deals, but I suppose the many options make that impractical along with the fact that there are people who don’t want a keyboard most of the time (hint: first generation accessories, which should be cheaper, are compatible with the second generation Surfaces). I can see a number of potential buyers balking at this expense, but it’s entirely worth it to me and others: The value of the complete Surface package is equal to the price tag, in my view. But as mentioned previously, if you want the Flash-enabled web browser and only some basic apps like an ebook reader, and don’t intend on typing a whole lot, you can skip the keyboard and save money over an iPad.

Now, the first generation Surface RT is still being sold by Microsoft at this time, and you will wonder why you’d get that instead of the second gen.

I had the first generation, and found the performance adequate for my uses. Moreover, I found the single kickstand angle is actually fine, though the additional kickstand angle in the Surface 2 means I can expand my usage scenarios, and you may find the wider kickstand angle is much better than just the original angle (especially if you’re tall). However, there are plenty of folio-type cases on the market that offer multiple viewing angles for the Surface, if you don’t mind added bulk.

So why would anyone get the first generation? It’s cheaper. It’s even cheaper if you go with a second-hand used unit or refurbished. It also comes with Windows 8.0 preinstalled instead of 8.1. While 8.1 gave very significant improvements on different fronts, if you don’t need Outlook (Gmail worked fine in IE10), you may prefer Internet Explorer 10 for compatibility reasons (e.g. your banking website) compared to the required Internet Explorer 11 that comes with 8.1. Moreover, the XDA jailbreak only works with Windows RT 8.0 and not 8.1 (“yet”), so if you want to use Audigy or other ARM-ready developer tools out of the box, you should actually stick with the Surface RT and disable autoupdate. There is no guarantee that XDA will be able to crack 8.1 for the same functionality as the original 8.0 jailbreak, as Microsoft apparently took the pains to close virtually all the security loopholes that allowed the first jailbreak. But ignoring the jailbreak issue, first gen Surface RT users report that the 8.1 update noticeably improves performance.

I would say that if price is a primary concern, and you still want the slim, compact form factor with decent battery life and MS Office (upgrading to 8.1 will give you Outlook), or if you really want or need to use the XDA jailbreak for certain things, the first generation Surface RT may work out well. Special note: If you buy a Surface RT with the original Windows 8.0 RT, I’d recommend that you create a recovery drive (see Tips) immediately before upgrading to 8.1. This is because once you upgrade to 8.1 RT, the recovery image itself will be changed to version 8.1, and you won’t be able to get back to original factory condition otherwise. Then you can create another recovery drive after upgrading to 8.1.

To be perfectly honest, I don’t care if the Surface line never takes off and even peters out. After all, I was part of the less-than-2% Japanese-style subnotebook user base (Fujitsu) in the U.S. for about a decade. Market capture has to start with Microsoft and their long-term goals, and that has nothing to do with me. I’m just happy to have my device, and that’s all that matters as long as warranty and software support continues throughout its life cycle.

You would consider a Surface over an iPad or Android tablet if you want more–a device and OS that sits between a Windows laptop and the walled-garden OSes–but also don’t need a regular Windows machine because you have another laptop/desktop. If you find consolidation appealing, which is just the ability to take fewer devices with you when you move around, Surface is a compelling product. That’s not to say other hybrids aren’t just as compelling, but Surface doesn’t get the recognition it deserves for kicking OEM vendors in the pants for early Windows 8 hardware innovation. Now some vendors are cloning the Surface, so imitation is flattery, right?

Here is a good overview and hands-on of the Surface 2 by Lisa Gade:

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