First look: Second-generation Surface tablets and Surface Music Cover

The Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 are faster than their predecessors and are claimed to offer longer battery life

Microsoft's Surface 2

Microsoft's Surface 2

Microsoft's latest Surface tablets boast many hardware and software improvements from their predecessors released last year.

The new tablets, announced Monday, are the Surface 2, with the Windows RT 8.1 OS, and the Surface Pro 2 with Windows 8.1. I got to use the tablets briefly at a launch event in New York and found improved performance compared with the earlier products in graphics and in loading applications. The tablets will ship on Oct. 22.

Both of the new tablets have 10.6-inch screens, and it was difficult to tell the two apart when they were sitting side by side.

On performance, the Surface 2 tablet was a pleasant surprise, loading applications instantly and running a video without any lags. That is a big improvement from its predecessor, the Surface RT, which had good graphics but seemed slow when running applications. For example, Microsoft Office loaded more quickly on the Surface 2.

The Surface 2 has a sharper 1920 x 1080 pixel display, which is an improvement from the 1366 x 768 pixel display on the Surface RT. When playing a video, the screen was more crisp and bright than in the earlier product.

The Surface 2 has a quad-core Nvidia Tegra 4 processor, which delivers better graphics through 72 graphics cores. The tablet has a 3.5-megapixel front camera and a 5-megapixel rear camera. Other features include Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, but it lacks 802.11ac, the latest Wi-Fi technology, which is already used in some smartphones and tablets from other vendors. There's also a MicroSD card slot.

The Surface 2 is priced at US$449 with 32GB of storage and $549 with 64GB. Its primary uses are meant to be gaming, productivity software and social networking, Microsoft said.

The more expensive Surface Pro 2 is intended to be a PC replacement, and a thin keyboard accessory gave it a laptop-like feel. The Surface Pro 2 was slightly thicker and heavier than the Surface 2, possibly because of the PC-like components used in the device. The size and weight of the Surface Pro 2 were not provided by Microsoft. Its predecessor, the Surface Pro, weighed 907 grams.

The screen on the Surface Pro 2 felt similar to that of the Surface 2. The tablet loaded applications such as Microsoft Office almost instantly on Windows 8.1, and it was noticeably faster than the Surface 2 and the previous Surface Pro, which was released last year.

Microsoft claims improvements of 20 percent in application performance and 50 percent in graphics compared with the Surface Pro. The Surface Pro 2 has Intel's fourth-generation Core i5 processor, code-named Haswell.

Perhaps the biggest claimed improvement is 75 percent longer battery life compared with the Surface Pro, which had battery life of about five hours. The earlier product used an Intel third-generation Core processor.

The Surface Pro 2 starts at $899 with 64GB of storage and 4GB of memory. The tablet can be configured with as much as 512GB of solid-state storage and 8GB of memory.

A common feature on the new tablets is a wider kickstand, which is located in the middle across the back of the tablets. When opened up, the kickstand helps the tablets sit securely on a table.

Microsoft is offering free international calls via Skype and 200GB of online storage for two years on the company's SkyDrive service as incentives to buy the tablets.

Microsoft also announced new keyboard accessories for the Surface tablets and a docking station for the Surface Pro 2. But one interesting accessory on show at the event was the Surface Music Cover, which helps users compose their own songs. The Music Cover looks like a keyboard accessory, but it has a host of buttons that could help DJs switch between songs, mix beats or change volume. The right side of the accessory is dominated by a pad with 16 number buttons that can be pressed to add bass, instruments, vocals and other sounds when composing a song. The Music Cover works with DJ software on the tablets that assigns specific sounds to each number button.

The Surface Music Cover required a demonstration from a Microsoft official to figure out. Microsoft will be shipping the accessory along with DJ software to musicians who want to try it out, but the company did not say when it would ship to others, and no price was provided.

The first Surface tablets with Windows 8 registered poor sales, but Microsoft says Windows 8.1 fixes some of those issues. The company is hoping that the second time's a charm with Surface.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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Agam Shah

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