How to Decide between the Microsoft Surface Tablet Options

Microsoft has sold four types of Surface tablets that look and behave very similarly. (A fifth Surface, available sometime in 2014, will have cellular Internet access.) All of them share many features:

  • The tile-filled Start screen introduced in Windows 8

  • The Windows desktop

  • Downloadable apps from the Windows Store

  • A USB port and memory card slot for adding storage

  • The ability to create different accounts for different users

Yet the tablets differ in subtle ways that let them each serve different niches.

Surface 2

The Surface 2 works best during your leisure time, letting you watch movies, listen to music, browse the web, and connect with your friends.

Should you need to work, open the Desktop app. There, the built-in Microsoft Outlook, Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote apps should carry you through until you can get back to the office.

The minimalist Surface 2 doesn’t run Windows 8.1 but an operating system called Windows RT 8.1. In plain English, that means that the Surface 2 can’t run traditional Windows desktop programs. Like the iPad, it’s limited to apps, small programs downloaded from the Windows Store.

Although it can’t run traditional Windows programs, the Surface 2 offers these perks:

  • Low price: The Surface 2 comes in a 32GB version that costs $429; adding a Touch Cover keyboard adds another $79. (The newer Surface keyboards cost more.)

  • Long battery life: Depending on its use, the Surface 2 averages between eight and ten hours of battery life.

  • Thin and light: The Surface 2 weighs less than 1.5 pounds and is 8.9mm thin. That makes it easy to toss into a backpack or keep by the bedside table.

  • Better camera: The Surface 2 sports a 3.5-megapixel camera in front and a 5-megapixel camera in back. (The Surface RT also includes that camera, but the Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 include only 1.2-megapixel cameras for the front and back.)

  • USB 3.0 support: The Surface 2 works well with natively recognized USB gadgets. That means you can plug in storage devices (flash drives, portable drives), USB hubs with more USB ports, mice, keyboards, cameras, some headsets, and some USB printers. Because it uses the new USB 3.0 standard, your information transfers much more quickly with USB 3.0 gadgets.

  • Bluetooth support: Nearly anything that connects wirelessly through Bluetooth works well with the Surface RT and Surface 2. Your wireless headsets, mice, keyboards, and other Bluetooth gadgets should work without a hitch.

  • Memory card slot: To add storage, slide a memory card into the built-in microSDXC slot. That slot works with microSD, microSDHC, or microSDXC cards, which let you add up to 128GB storage space.

  • Microsoft Office RT: The Surface RT and Surface 2 include Microsoft Office RT, a suite of programs including Outlook, Word, PowerPoint, Excel, and OneNote. That’s one less thing to buy to stay productive.

  • OneDrive: Your Microsoft account gives you 7GB of free storage on OneDrive, an online cubby hole for files. (OneDrive was called SkyDrive until early 2014, when Microsoft changed its name.) The Surface 2 contains a certificate to increase your OneDrive storage to a whopping 200GB, free for two years.

  • Apps: The Surface 2 can run only apps downloaded from the Windows Store. The Store doesn’t have as many apps as Apple and Google offer, but the stock grows larger every day.

The Surface 2 differs from the Surface Pro 2 version in many subtle ways too numerous to mention here. If you own a Surface 2 or Surface RT, keep an eye open for this Windows RT icon, like the one in the margin. Paragraphs with this icon explain other ways Windows RT differs from traditional Windows.

Surface Pro 2

Whereas the Surface 2 aims to meet the consumer’s needs, the Surface Pro 2 gives you the power of a desktop PC in a rugged tablet. You could say that it’s two computers in one. On one hand, you have the Start screen apps for casual, on-the-go computing and staying connected while traveling.

And, when work calls, you can load the full-powered Windows 8.1 Desktop app to run the same Windows programs you run on your desktop PC.

Windows 8.1 Pro also lets you pony up an extra $15 for the Windows Media Center Pack. This pack lets you play DVDs if you plug in a USB DVD drive. Plug in a TV tuner, connect a TV signal from cable or an antenna, and you’ve turned the Surface into a complete digital video recorder, ready to record TV shows for watching later.

The Surface Pro 2 comes with all the perks given to Surface 2 owners, including the 200GB of free OneDrive storage for a year.

It’s difficult to list all the advantages here because the Surface Pro 2 is basically a powerful desktop PC flattened into a tablet. Any software that runs on a Windows 8.1 desktop PC runs on a Surface Pro 2.

The same holds true for gadgets you plug into the Surface Pro 2’s USB port: network ports, bar code readers, scanners, MIDI gadgets, and other specialty items.

But all that power brings a few compromises:

  • Battery life: You can expect six or eight hours of battery life, perhaps more, depending on your use. But the battery probably won’t last as long as it does on the Surface 2.

  • Higher cost: Surface 2 pricing begins at $449 for a model with 2GB of memory and 32GB of storage. The Surface Pro 2 begins at $899 for 4GB of memory and 64GB of storage.

  • No Microsoft Office: Unlike the Surface 2, the Surface Pro 2 doesn't include Microsoft Office. If you need that program, you must buy and install it separately.

  • No connected standby: When the tablet’s asleep, it’s really asleep. It won’t collect your e-mail in the background.

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