Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review: Surface 2 32G (Why I Am Shocked How Good It Is)

I write this as I return to Sydney, Australia, after attending another great MVP Summit. Sometimes Summit can be frosty, depending on how the previous 12 months have been but this was not one of them. This was a ‘good’ summit and thoroughly enjoyable. In fact, it was probably the best I have attended.


One of the ‘thank you’s Microsoft threw the way of the MVPs at this Summit was a discounted Surface 2 32Gb. I have a Surface Pro and have done a few reviews on it. (here and here).

I did not see the need to get a machine that ran Windows RT, as opposed to a full version of Windows, but my wife needed a machine that was more portable than her large Dell laptop. After showing her the Surface 2 in a local electronics store, she agreed the Surface 2 would meet her needs.

I purchased the Surface 2 and, being tech support for the family, set it up under my account (I did not have my wife’s Windows login and password at the time) to see how it works.

My Fears

The original Surface RT was a clear play against the iPad; it ran an efficient non-Intel chip and ran apps rather than ‘standard’ Windows software. My thinking was I needed a ‘real’ laptop-like device and the Surface Pro fit the bill. As mentioned, in my previous review, the Surface Pro is more comparable to a MacBook Air than an iPad, based on its specifications and functionality.

Also, Windows RT will not run legacy software. I did not want to be in a position where I could not run an essential program (whatever that might be) so buying the Surface Pro was erring on the side of caution.

While it was not important to me, the non-Pro versions do not support a digitized stylus so they are limited in their use as, say, a drawing implement, without an external writing pad.

Finally, the original Surface RT had a lack of Outlook support. I live in Outlook and this was a deal breaker.

So, at the end of February, at the previous Summit, I opted for the biggest, most powerful, Surface Pro I could get, the Surface Pro 128. It did everything I needed and I still use it at home, work and in-between.

Why My Fears No Longer Apply

Every excuse I made not to buy the original Surface RT do not apply to the Surface 2. Here are the reasons I no longer want to give the Surface 2 to my wife and keep it for myself (which is never going to happen, by the way. She deserves the best and the Surface 2 comes pretty close).

Outlook Support

The Surface 2 comes with Microsoft Office for free, including Outlook. Often, when I told people the reason I do not have an iPad was a lack of Outlook support, they would tell me ‘but it has a mail app’, which, of course, it does, but Outlook is so much more than this. Outlook is a one-stop shop for my emails, calendar and RSS feeds. I can link to two Exchange boxes (my Office 365 Exchange and my work Exchange), send emails from either, consolidate my calendars and so much more. The mail and calendar apps of the iPad seem awkward and clumsy in comparison. I was fearful the Surface 2 version of Outlook was going to be a cut down, pale imitation, of the ‘proper’ Outlook but this is not the case.


Everything I need from Outlook is there, without compromise, with the default settings optimized for the Surface. The only thing I have not tried to install is TwInbox, which I use to bring Twitter into Outlook, but there are plenty of Twitter monitoring tools out there, if required.

Legacy Software Support

Here is a screenshot of my Surface Pro taskbar with the programs I most frequently use, roughly in order of popularity.


For all of these, I can either run them on the Surface 2, or work around the issue without too much compromise.

  • Internet Explorer: It is there and appears to have both flavours (Metro and Desktop)
  • File Explorer: Available
  • Firefox: I cannot find it in the store but, as long as Internet Explorer does not flake out, I will not need it
  • Chrome: See Firefox
  • Outlook: Available
  • Word: Available
  • OneNote: I have found the touch-optimised Metro version which connects seamlessly to my SkyDrive OneNote Notebooks
  • PowerPoint: Available
  • Excel: Available
  • Project: It does not appear to be available but I only use it for work, and infrequently, so it is not a show-stopper for me
  • Live Writer: Not available (see below)
  • Snipping Tool: Available
  • Calculator: Available
  • Skype: Metro version available
  • Tree Size: Metro version available
  • Remote Desktop Connection: Available
  • SureStep: Almost certainly not available as a download for RT, but is available online, which is good enough
  • Adobe PDF Reader: The Metro Reader app can display PDFs
  • Notepad: Available
  • Microsoft Money 94: Not available (see below)
  • Zune: Available through updates in Windows 8.1 apparently (not yet tested)

For Microsoft Money 94, while it does work on the Surface Pro (although if you try to tap with the stylus it crashes), it will not work with the Surface 2. I use Microsoft Money to keep track of some stocks that I own. It works really well for this but, being almost 20 years old, it is probably time to find an alternative. Looking at the options in the Microsoft Store, Yahoo Finance seems to be a good replacement and available for the Surface 2.

After two days of using the Surface 2, the only other program which caused me grief was a lack of Live Writer support. You cannot install Windows Essentials and, therefore, the excellent blog-writing tool, Live Writer is not available on the Surface 2.

Searching on the internet I could not find a solution to this until I dug around in the Surface 2’s version of Word 2013. Under the ‘Share’ option in the File menu is a ‘Post to Blog’ option which it claims, like Live Writer, supports Blogger, the home of my blog.


Unfortunately it turns out not to be true. I tried my hardest to register Word with Blogger but it refuses. I even created a new gmail account, added it as an author to my blog and tried that instead without success. Therefore I was forced to use Live Write on my Surface Pro to get the blog out of the door. Hopefully Microsoft will fix this bug but if not I either move to a different blog host or stick to my Surface Pro with Live Writer.

Hard Drive Size

The 32Gb solid state drive is quite a drop from my Surface Pro’s 128Gb drive and, after the operating system took its share, there was about 18Gb remaining. Fortunately, Windows 8.1 comes with its own version of Dropbox in the form of the integrated SkyDrive directory. Everything in your SkyDrive account is visible but you choose what is synchronised to the local drive. Therefore, the need to store local files is greatly reduced and anything that is put on the drive, such as photos through the camera, can be transferred to SkyDrive, freeing up the local drive.

After configuring Outlook, which is keeping a local copy of the previous month’s emails and appointments, I have about 14Gb spare.


As with my Surface Pro, there is also the MicroSD slot on the back of the machine if I need to boost the local storage.

Other Reasons to Consider a Surface

The first reason is the Microsoft Store customer service is outstanding. I reported, in my previous review, the dodgy ‘c’ key on my Type Keyboard. Being back in Seattle, I had the opportunity to take the keyboard back to the Microsoft Store in the hope of exchanging it. I was a little concerned as I had no receipt and it had been nine months.

Going to the Bellevue Microsoft Store I was informed that, while they would be happy to exchange, the popularity of the Type Keyboard meant they were out of stock and could only offer me a Touch Keyboard, which I declined. I noticed that Seattle also had a couple of Microsoft Stores; one in the University district, which was a little out of my way, and another ‘speciality store’, at Pacific Place, near the corner of Pine and 6th in downtown. The speciality store turned out to be a small booth. Even though this was the case, they had stock and Chad was more than willing to exchange. Again, unfortunately, they had run out of the original Type keyboards so, instead, he replaced it with the new edition of the Type keyboard with backlighting. All keys are working like a charm and I can type on the flight back to Sydney, without the overhead light on, letting my fellow passengers get a good rest.

My only criticism of the keyboard is that while the keys are backlit, the touchpad is not, which means you must resort to feeling around the keyboard to find it. Given the original keyboard had no backlighting at all, it is still a great improvement.

The second reason to consider a Surface 2 is the battery life. The efficient CPU used in the Surface 2 machine means it gets much longer battery life than my Surface Pro. I have not had the opportunity to fully test this yet but I have read battery life estimates of nine hours (compared to four with my Surface Pro and around six with the Surface Pro 2).

The final reason is the freebies you get with the Surface 2. Firstly, there is a Skype offer, which appears to give a year’s worth of free international calls, although I have not activated it yet. Secondly, you get 200Gb of SkyDrive storage free for two years. I was looking for somewhere to store my photos where they would be easily accessible (ADrive is great but it is hard to review the photos stored there). SkyDrive is ideal as I can load all my photos up there and share the drive with my family and friends, as needed.


I bought the Surface 2 thinking it was a ‘wannabe laptop’; the laptop you have when you do not have a laptop, but I was completely wrong. Even for a power user such as myself, the Surface 2 provides everything I need (well, except the ability to publish blogs but I will see if I can get around this). While it will be of limited use for people who work heavily with legacy programs, for me, it does the job. The programs I use every day are here and, while it only has 2Gb of RAM I notice no significant difference in speed between it and my Surface Pro with double the memory and a much more powerful processor. I am sure my wife will be very happy with her new Surface 2.


Jukka Niiranen said...

Great meeting you at the Summit, Leon! I'm also in the process of setting up my Surface 2 from Redmond, having just gone and bought the Type Cover 2 with the Nordic keyboard layout from the local store.

I have been quite surprised with the performance of this little tablet. Compared to an Atom based HP Hybrid that I purchased last winter to have a go with Windows 8, this ARM device appears far more responsive in every app. Of course with 8.1 also the OS and app support has matured considerably.

I was also originally planning to get the Pro 2, but having played around with that at work and now holding this much lighter device in my hand (which you can actually put next to an iPad), I have no regrets so far. I'll still carry the workhorse Dell laptop with me for the "dirty work" with CRM, but most of the stuff I do in front of the customers I could probably get away with this tablet alone.

Windows RT has been a big risk from MS and much of the early critique has probably been fully warranted. However, looking at things 1 year after the launch now, it's starting to make more and more sense why tablets shouldn't simply be treated as large smartphones. As great as the iPad has been as a category creator, I just wonder how far it will be in 2 years time in terms of functionality vs. what can be achieved on the Windows 8 OS. It's not merely a race for the most features of course, as history has shown many times, so let's see who mangages to get the right features done right and communicated to the right people to gain an edge over the competition..

Unknown said...

FYI Leon: Office RT can't run any add-ins (nor VBA), so TwinBox won't work

Leon Tribe said...

Hi Eric,

I suspected as much, thanks for the clarification :)