Microsoft Surface 2 deep-dive review: Better hardware, but still with Windows RT

Microsoft's upgraded tablet offers some nifty new hardware features, but is any Windows RT device worth $449?

Microsoft has plenty riding on its second-generation Windows RT tablet, the Surface 2. Its first iteration, the Surface RT, not only met with a fair amount of critical scorn, but sold so poorly that Microsoft was forced to take a $900 million write-off on unsold inventory -- an action that some observers believe contributed to Steve Ballmer's resignation.

So the revamped Surface 2 carries a great weight of expectations on its thin, 1.49-lb. frame. Does it live up to those expectations and -- more importantly -- is it something you should buy? Read on to find the verdict, both for Microsoft and for you.

Well-built new frame and kickstand

At first glance, the Surface 2 bears a great deal of similarity to the original Surface RT. Both have 10.6-in. screens set in a black surrounding frame; both devices have rounded corners and kickstands. But take more than a moment to look, and you'll see that Microsoft has made some improvements.

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Microsoft Surface 2

While the front bezel is still black, the rest of the Surface 2 case is now silver, made from a matte magnesium alloy that not only has a pleasant feel, but didn't pick up dirt and smudges in all the time I used it. The Surface 2 weighs the same but is slightly -- very slightly -- smaller than the Surface RT: It measures 10.81 x 6.81 x 0.35 in., compared to the Surface's 10.81 x 6.77 x 0.37 inches.

The kickstand has been redesigned: It now has two settings -- the original, upright one, and a second one in which the screen tilts back more. At first, that seemed a subtle difference, but after considerable use, I found it more important than it first seemed. The second setting is ideal for when you have the tablet perched on your lap or beside you in bed. At this position I found it more solid and stable than the upright position. It also has a wider viewing angle. On a practical, day-to-day level, this made a big difference for me, particularly when watching Netflix and other videos.

Cameras and the display

The Surface 2's cameras and display have been considerably upgraded. The original Surface had underwhelming 720p front and rear cameras; the Surface 2 now has a 3.5-megapixel front-facing webcam and a 5-megapixel rear camera, which can both capture video at 1080p. In use, both performed well in low-light situations.

Even bigger news is the better display. The full HD screen can display video in 1080p even though its 1920 x 1080 resolution (up from 1366 x 768 on the original Surface) may not sound stellar. But specs are one thing, and actual experience is another, and I can vouch that the display is a beauty. Whether you're running apps, browsing the Web or doing anything else, the colors are bright and vivid.

And it really shines when it comes to watching videos. I'm a Johnny-come-lately to the TV series Breaking Bad, and the quality of the display fed my fervor for binge-watching. The new display is, in fact, one of the best things about the new tablet.

The Surface 2 also has stereo speakers on each side of the frame: When I was watching movies, they delivered surprisingly vivid, realistic sound.

Keyboard/covers

Microsoft has also introduced new keyboard/covers that work with both the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2: the Touch Cover 2 for $120 and the Type Cover 2 for $130. Both do double duty as covers and keyboards.

The Touch Cover 2 is a pressure-sensitive keyboard like the original Touch Cover, which is still available for $80. It is thinner and lighter than the original; it also adds backlighting, a nice touch.

The Type Cover 2 is a follow-up to the original Type Cover, which is no longer being sold. The Type Cover 2 improves on the original with the addition of backlighting, but aside from that is essentially the same mechanical keyboard.

I tried out the Type Cover 2, and it's a surprisingly good keyboard despite how thin it is, with good tactile feedback. It's slightly more cramped than most laptop keyboards, but that didn't affect my typing much. I found the illuminated keys helpful in low-light situations.

Microsoft is working on other keyboard/covers, including the Power Cover, which will be available in early 2014 and which combines a touch keyboard with a battery. And there's also a Surface Music Kit for DJs to remix music. It's not for sale yet, although Microsoft is running a contest to give some away.

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