Testing: Microsoft Surface 2 as a Laptop

By Norman Chan

In testing the Surface 2, I approached it from two perspectives: how well it works as a tablet and how well it works as laptop alternative. Those two use cases have different design and hardware requirements, some of which are complimentary, and some that are mutually exclusive. Today, I'm going to go over my experience with the Surface 2 when used as a laptop alternative.

It's no secret that we weren't fans of Microsoft's first generation Surface RT. Not many people were. As a weird tablet-laptop hybrid, it didn't excel at being either type of device; as a platform to showcase Microsoft's then just-released Windows 8, it called more attention to the dearth of useful apps available on that ecosystem. And one year later, everyone's learned a little bit from the great Surface RT experiment. OEM partners have all but abandoned the ARM version of Windows (bless Nokia), consumers are much more aware of what they're getting into with the big three tablet OSes, and Microsoft is more determined than ever to prove that Surface is a viable computing concept.

We've already gone into detail about the technical differences between this year's Surface models, and I've been using the Surface 2 as a secondary computer for the past week. In testing the Surface 2 (Microsoft has not yet sent us a Surface Pro 2), I approached it from two logical perspectives: how well it works as a tablet and how well it works as laptop alternative. Those two use cases have different design and hardware requirements, some of which are complimentary, and some we know to be mutually exclusive. A touchscreen suits both scenarios, for example, but a keyboard does not. Today, I'm going to go over my experience with the Surface 2 when used as a laptop alternative.

That means starting off with the biggest design change in Surface 2--the addition of a 40-degree angle to its unique kickstand.

"Lappability." That's the new word devised by Microsoft engineers to evaluate how well the Surface could be used when resting on your lap. You know, like a laptop. In truth, I think the lap scenario represents just a small slice in the pie chart of different ways people use laptops. Most of the time, laptops are used on solid surfaces like desks, tables, countertops, and airplane seat trays. Think about the last time you actually had to use a laptop on your lap because a solid surface wasn't available. Yes, lappability is still a minimum requirement for a device that wants to call itself a laptop/hybrid/convertible, but it's more of a checkbox than a dealbreaker. And with the Surface design, it's unfortunately a convenient way to dismiss the hardware without giving it a fair shake.

So let's talk about lappability. With the Type Cover attached (I'm using the Type Cover 2, which doesn't feel noticeably sturdier than Type Cover 1), Surface 2 is absolutely usable on the lap at its new 40-degree angle. The extended angle changes a few things. The most important is weight distribution. At the new angle, the center of gravity on the Surface 2 is shifted in two directions: lower (closer to the ground/knee) and further back (away from the keyboard). This change alone makes the Surface much less wobbly when typing; movement and tapping on the type cover now has little affect on the stability of the Surface. It stands well on its own, as long as your knees aren't shuffling or fidgeting. Sorry, leg bouncers.

Second is the angle of the screen. Tilted 40 degrees back, Surface 2 is more accommodating for taller users. But since the original tilt is still almost unusable on the lap, the new angle has to be comfortable for other users as well. And it is. I felt less neck strain when using the Surface at 40 degrees than at 24 degrees, both on the lap and sitting at a desk. In fact, there were very few instances where I didn't want to use the 40-degree angle, only switching to 24 degrees if the screen caught glare otherwise.

The only downside to the new angle when using Surface 2 on the lap was how far I could position it away from my body. Unlike a traditional laptop, where the hinge between the screen and keyboard is secured and the bulk of the laptop rests below the keyboard, Surface risks being tipped over backward if you push the kickstand past the edge of your knees. I was much less worked about wobbliness and stability than I was about the screen falling backward if I wasn't being careful. But overall, thumbs up for Microsoft solving the lappability issue with Surface in Surface 2, and I hope that'll shut pundits up about it and let them focus on the use cases that really matter.

(For comparison, here's the Surface 2 being used on a lap at the original 22-degree extension--actually tweaked to 24 degrees in Surface 2. Notice how with the original angle, the Type Cover is weighed down near the hinge because of the front-heavy weight distribution of the Surface.)

To evaluate Surface 2 as an alternative to a dedicated laptop, I had to think about the tasks that I do most on my laptop, or at least that I rely on. At the office, I use a MacBook Air as my sole computer. It does everything I need it to do for productivity, and the only thing I can't do with it that I can with my Windows desktop at home is play games and back up all my photos and video. Inventorying my daily tasks made me realize how undemanding I actually am with a laptop. For my day-to-day work, I just need a laptop to do a few things well:

  • Browse the web with lots of tabs
  • Use Google Docs and Gmail
  • Download files and manage them
  • Watch web video
  • Play music
  • Multitask with social media
  • Image editing

Surface 2 can actually do all of those things, but of course to various (and limited) degrees. Let's go through some of these tasks specifically.

Browsing the web in a meaningful way is essential, and it's unsurprisingly the most demanding task for the Surface 2's hardware. Windows RT is also constrained by the fact that your only web browsing option is Internet Explorer 11, in both the modern UI and the limited Desktop. And even though I prefer Chrome when given the option, IE 11 is a fine browser in Desktop mode. It's still the browser with the best multi-touch compatibility--pinching, panning, and scrolling with the touchscreen is far better on IE than Chrome or Firefox in Windows 8. Getting used to IE 11 on Windows RT wasn't a big deal.

What made IE difficult to use in last year's Surface was the limited processor speed. But Tegra 4 and the 2GB of RAM on the Surface handles web browsing without problems--I could open 12 tabs on the Desktop without running out or memory. Scrolling with touch was always responsive, and web pages would only take a second to reload if I had too many tabs open. IE11 also cranked out a SunSpider score of 375ms (faster than the iPad 4), but take that with a grain of salt, since it's well known that IE is tuned for that benchmark.

My two most essential web apps--Gmail and Google Docs--also ran just fine on Surface 2. I was able to work as I normally do: logged into two Google accounts and with several Google Drive documents open. This is where running IE on the Desktop gives Surface 2 a big advantage over other productivity tablets. Having actual windows that I could resize, move around, and minimize contributes so much my ability to be productive on the web. It's real multi-tasking, with more than just apps placed side by side.

The other benefit of having a Windows Desktop is file management. File management is almost non-existent on iOS, and it's still a labored process on Android. With a Desktop, I could download files directly from the web, save images from websites, download email attachments, and even zip them up. (using a USB mouse, natch.) Of course, since you can't install traditional x86 programs in Windows RT, what you can do with those files is limited. But for my purposes, just being able to gather assets and throw them into SkyDrive to sync to my home computer was very useful.

When using the Surface 2 as a laptop, I ended up spending most of my time in the Windows 8 Desktop, with a second Modern app client snapped to 320 pixels-wide on the right of the screen. Usually Twitter, sometimes Mail. On the Desktop, IE and Notepad windows got me through most of my tasks, and I actually rarely used Office RT. Word, Excel, and Powerpoint just aren't necessary in my workflow.

There were two things that Surface 2 sucks at doing that I need from a laptop: streaming music and image editing. There are no Spotify or Rdio apps for Windows RT, and Xbox Music's radio feature is very lacking unless you pay for it. Pandora runs in IE but consumes more memory than it's worth. The same goes with image editing--Metro apps for tweaking images exist, including PhotoShop Express, but they're way too simplistic and cumbersome for my needs, and don't suit mouse use.

Speaking of the mouse, Surface 2 works much better as a productivity device when using both a mouse cursor and touch than touch alone. The problem is that it has a single USB 3.0 port, which many people would prefer to allocate to USB storage. Surface 2 starts at 32GB, even though only 20GB is accessible to the user. I ended up plugging in a 32GB microSD card for media storage and using the USB port for a mouse. One other issue, being right-handed, is the placement of the charging plug on the right side of the Surface 2. The connected power cable would often get in the way of my mouse.

Microsoft included a Type Cover 2 with the Surface 2 review unit, and to be honest, I really didn't notice much difference between it and last year's Type Cover. The backlighting is useful and wasn't a bear on the battery, but the reduced millimeter of thickness isn't life-changing (or worth another $130). I also couldn't notice Microsoft's claim that the keys are quieter in this year's revision. The palm rests are now soft plastic instead of the rubberized texture, but the trackpad buttons are no longer clicky. The trackpad still really sucks, and it's another reason that I carried around a mouse when traveling with the Surface 2.

If you're buying a Surface for productivity purposes, a Type Cover is all but essential. I haven't had a chance to test the new Touch Cover, but typing with Type Cover 2 is functional and effective. I wouldn't go as far to call it a joy to use (what a terrible qualifier) but definitely did not feel at a disadvantage when typing on Surface 2 compared to typing on a laptop like the Lenovo Yoga 11s.

In thinking about the Surface 2 as a laptop alternative, you have to consider how its competition also fares in the same use scenarios. That competition falls into three categories: Ultrabooks, other full-size tablets, and Chromebooks.

Surface 2 is not a replacement for an ultrabook. I would much rather have my MacBook Air or a Yoga 11s--with full x86 operating systems and apps--than the Surface 2. Surface 2 doesn't even have a battery life advantage here, since my rundown had it dying just after six hours of heavy use. What it does have going for it is weight and cost: 1.5 pounds is light for a device that I can really be productive on, and $450 is half the cost of a Haswell Ultrabook. I would never buy a Surface 2 instead of an Ultrabook, but I would bring one to type and browse the web on a long plane ride.

Surface 2 is much better a laptop alternative than other full-size tablets, meaning the 9.7-inch iPad and Android tablets like the Galaxy 10. File management, windowed web browsers, and multi-tasking are all better on Surface 2. I can't trust the iPad to hold up with half a dozen research tabs open while also typing in a Google Doc. But again, this is when considering just the one use case, and our experience has been that iOS and Android tablets excel in many other ways.

The most apt competitor for Surface 2 would probably be Chromebooks. These browser-only devices are, like Surface 2, designed for productivity, and far limited than full-fledged laptops. They are, in essence, the new netbooks. Surface 2 is $170 more expensive than the HP Chromebook 11 (plus $130 for a type cover), but the differences between the two more than justify the cost. If I was in the market for a laptop alternative for productivity purposes, I would choose a Surface 2 over any Chromebook for the 1080p resolution, touchscreen, longer battery life, and weight advantage.

But that's through the lens of a laptop user looking for productivity. Next week, I'll share my experiences with Surface 2 as a tablet.