Review: Microsoft Surface 2 a worthy iPad rival

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The new Surface 2 from Microsoft is a wonderful piece of hardware.

It’s beautifully made and blazingly fast, portable yet powerful, interactive and entertaining all at once. So why isn’t Microsoft eating Apple’s lunch?

The Surface product line is in many respects Microsoft’s answer to the iPad, and with the latest version of its convertible tablet / laptop, which goes on sale Tuesday starting at $449, the Windows giant is doubling down on the product line, despite nearly a billion dollars worth of losses on the first iteration.

The Surface 2 is at heart a tablet, just like the Apple iPad or the Google Nexus 7 or any of the dozens of tablets that consumers have been buying as though the stockpiling tech for some digital drought. It sports a 10.6-inch screen, it weighs just shy of a pound and a half, and its metal body is put together as well as a Porsche's.

The screen is full HD -- 1080p, just like your television set. That’s nowhere near as sharp as the iPad’s “Retina Display,” which does make ordinary web pages look wonderfully sharp. But it’s the only spec Microsoft falls short on.

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The iPad has exactly no USB ports. The Surface has a USB 3.0 port, a new-ish update to the venerable connection that is  astoundingly fast. The iPad has exactly no expansion slots at all, in fact. The Surface has a MicroSDXC slot as well, a jumble of letters that translates to “that black sliver of silicon in your smartphone.” Best Buy sells 64GB cards for as little as $50. It has an HDMI output too, meaning you can plug it directly into your television set. (Apple sells a $50 cable to output HD from its proprietary Lightning port.)

Most important, the iPad has no keyboard, though other companies sell add ons. For an additional $129, Microsoft offers the Touch Cover 2.0, a felt-lined detachable cover that holds a full-size keyboard and really does lock into place with that satisfying clicky sound you hear in the ads.

Microsoft bundles a free copy of Office 2013 with the Surface, meaning out of the box you have the latest versions of Outlook, Word, Excel and PowerPoint and can type without fear of autocorrect mistakes. I’m wrutuign – oops, WRITING in Word right now. It’s a good experience, for the most part, though hardly a desktop keyboard. And the track pad is less responsive than I would like, while the left- and right-click functions are often hard to find. But on the whole it works well.

So what’s the problem? The number 8, for one thing.

Microsoft’s newest operating system is awfully confusing for anyone used to the speed, efficiency and all around excellence of Windows 7, and the company has seen countless column inches dedicated to how needlessly confusing Windows 8 is for desktop and laptop users. Surface runs Windows 8, and therefore consumers assume it’s complex and confusing.

But it isn’t, although it does require you to alter the way you interact with your computer. Most menus are hidden off screen, and to find them you’ll have to swipe in from the right or down from the top. It’s not hard, just different -- and arguably unintuitive.

Microsoft released Windows 8.1 on Friday to tweak the system to address user complaints, and it retreats in some areas to address the major pain points of those old desktop users. Yes, there’s a Start menu of sorts again, and yes, there’s a few new guides to better showcase the new way to use Windows. But it doesn’t change much for those who hate it.

I find Windows 8 to be a pain in the butt on my desktop, and my wife loathes it. The fact that it’s far faster than Windows 7 doesn’t make it any easier to use with a mouse.

But use Windows 8.1 on the Surface and you’ll be converted faster than a child on Christmas morning. Part of the new operating system’s challenge is that it essentially requires a touch screen. Some 98 percent of desktop and laptop users don’t have one, making much of the new design cumbersome.

On the Surface, the new Start screen apps are a dream. Microsoft includes simply gorgeous apps for news, weather, recipes, sports, finance and more. The full-screen images on the sports app are a fan’s dream – go Red Sox! – and the ease of scrolling through any of these apps makes them weirdly fun to use. I find myself browsing stock prices simply because I can, and I don’t give two hoots how the Dow did last week.

Another big issue is software – sorry, the cool kids call them apps now. Put bluntly, there aren’t any.

The Surface 2 should have been called the Surface 2 RT, to distinguish ordinary Windows from Windows running on ARM processors. To get the OS to run on this different chip architecture, the company basically rewrote it from the ground up. The Surface 2 runs a different OS with mostly the same name –it’s called Windows RT 8.1 – and those two letters mean none of the software that runs on regular Windows computers will work here. If you bought a copy of Adobe Photoshop, it won’t work. Want Candy Crush? It won’t work. According to, Windows 8.1 lacks 75 percent of the most popular tablet apps.

The only software that will run on the Surface 2 is contained in the Microsoft Store, and it’s not very extensive. Still, there’s enough to get you going. Photoshop isn’t there, but a free version called Adobe Photoshop Express is awfully handy, and awfully free. And the included copy of Office supplies most of what you’ll need in terms of productivity.

If you’re looking to run all those other apps and get even more power, Microsoft offers the Surface Pro 2, which runs on the newest chips from Intel -- meaning it runs ordinary Windows 8.. It costs a pretty penny, too, starting at $899.

But the $449 Surface 2 with that new $129 Touch Cover at is $578 -- about as much as as Apple’s newest iPad with a comparable 32GB of storage. Third party software aside, the Surface 2 is a beautifully built, compelling device.

But will anyone buy it?