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Published: Saturday, 12/7/2013

Surface 2 tablet does it all with lovely mobile software

BY BOB TEDESCHI
NEW YORK TIMES

I can’t be the only person who needs fewer gadgets in his life.

Over the last decade, my home has turned into an electrical outlet battle zone, with family members bouncing one another off the power grid so they can charge their Kindles, iPhones, Android phones, laptops, iPods, iPads, Bluetooth headsets, and a flip phone or three.

Some ingenious 14-year-old will soon make a fortune designing a tabletop nuclear reactor with a USB port, or maybe a powerstrip the size of a Cadillac Escalade.

Until then, I will put a fat checkmark next to tech items that let me move one step closer to single-outlet nirvana. Actually, the first such device just hit my hands, and if my eyes did not deceive me, this baby did not come from the Company That Invents Products You Didn’t Know You Needed, otherwise known as Apple Inc.

Instead, it came from Microsoft Corp. The device is the Surface 2 ($450 for the 32-gigabyte version), a tablet/​laptop hybrid that, unlike its predecessor and competitors, may put a dent in the demand for powerstrips in my house.

The Microsoft tortoise has been playing a slow-and-steady strategy on mobile, largely because it was about 1,000 years late to the starting gate. But Microsoft’s continued dominance with Windows and Office gave it time to develop a mobile strategy while maintaining a prominent place on desktops. That’s the glass-half-full argument, at least.

While everyone was watching Apple’s can-you-top-this show and Android’s flood-the-zone operation, Microsoft was grinding out mobile software that eventually reached Downright Lovely status.

Why didn’t anyone notice? Oh. Right. Microsoft hadn’t quite figured out apps or hardware.

Apps remain an open question, but good Microsoft mobile hardware finally arrived with the release in October, 2012, of the Surface and last February of the Surface Pro. These are tablets that can double as laptops because of a beautifully designed kickstand and a detachable keyboard (the Type Cover, $130). Put another way, these were entertainment machines that could double as workhorses. The Surface runs the company’s basic level software for desktops, laptops, and other devices, Windows RT (version 8.1), while the Surface Pro runs Windows Pro (version 8.1).

The upsides were significant. Here, at last, were Windows machines that let users experience the company’s mobile and desktop software in one device, with a nifty interface, and, most notably, the Type Cover, which enabled a seamless transition between tablet and laptop. (The Type Cover’s less versatile sibling, the Touch Cover, sells for $80.)

The downsides, sadly, were also significant. Among them: a rigidly designed stand, a battery with a short life — someone get me the powerstrip! — and, on the base Surface version, the omission of Outlook, the popular email and scheduling program.

But with the second iteration of the Surface, which went on sale in October, most of those downers have been addressed. The new Surface includes Outlook, an upgraded battery, a kickstand with two viewing angles instead of just one, faster USB ports, and other goodies.

It has roughly the same thickness and weight as the iPad — 1.5 pounds without the cover — and the screen size is 10.6 inches, giving it slightly more viewing space. With a Type Cover, it feels similar in your hands to an iPad with a cover. In all, the device falls nicely below the “bulky” threshold.

The company says the battery lasts up to 10 hours, two hours more than the previous version. I tested it by streaming video with the screen at full brightness and had power for 8.5 hours.

Why buy the Surface 2 instead of the Surface Pro 2? The Surface Pro 2 is a $900 machine, not including the $130 keyboard, and at that price the detachable tablet would have to provide a great all-around experience to justify the cost. While the Pro has an excellent high-definition screen (1080p) and a feather-light feel, you can get better apps — and many more of them designed for a mobile experience — on Apple and Android devices. (Disclosure: I co-created an iPad app.)

The value proposition of the base Surface 2 seems about right. For around the price of an iPad, you get a tablet that’s great for watching movies, checking email, browsing the Web, and using most of the basic apps you’ll need.

The selection of apps still is not what you’ll find for Android or Apple devices, but basic apps like Facebook, Twitter, Flipboard, and Slacker are there, as are many games, including popular Xbox titles.

Strangely, games like Angry Birds Space and Angry Birds Star Wars cost $3.50, while they’re free on Apple and Android. And that premium price for apps isn’t limited to the Angry Birds franchise, so if apps and games are your thing, and you’ve spent time on other mobile platforms, prepare for an occasional case of sticker shock.

But still. The Surface is a bargain machine that packs a tremendous amount of value for the price.

The software sparkles with thoughtful and innovative touches that will most likely find their way to competing platforms. When a Web site or page includes information that spills over onto another page, for instance, part of that page peeks out at you as you browse, so you know it’s only a swipe away.

You can toggle between the traditional Windows interface and the mobile interface by just tapping the home button. And if you want to devote a small portion of your screen to one thing — say, your Twitter feed — while using the rest for another app, the software lets you do that easily.

I found the touchpad on the Type Cover less responsive than the touchpads found on laptops, but then I realized: Who needs one when you can swipe and tap the screen?

As one might expect from any successful device birthed in the Windows realm, competitors have quickly emerged. There are more than a dozen Windows tablets with keyboard attachments on Microsoft’s online store. (The company refers to these devices as 2-in-1 PCs.)

So if the Surface doesn’t quite fit your needs, cast about. Nokia’s new Lumia 2520, for instance, is available for $400 with a two-year contract on Verizon or AT&T. But the Nokia Power Keyboard attachment ($150) is not included, and even if it were, it’s not nearly as good as Microsoft’s Type Cover.

Perhaps competing manufacturers will catch up. Maybe Nokia, now that it is being bought by Microsoft, will build a better keypad.

In the meantime, Microsoft gets to enjoy a first-out-of-the gate advantage in the category. Imagine that.



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