Additionally, Microsoft says the Touch Cover has a more rigid underlying panel, designed to make it more comfortable to use in the lap, and that the keys have better stroke accuracy too. It's on this last point that we beg to differ with the folks in Redmond. While the keyboard does indeed feel less bendy, and is fine to use in the lap, I found I made just as many typos as I ever did. To be clear, there is a learning curve here, and you will, over time, find yourself pecking away at a faster clip. But even now, after two generations of Type Covers, I still struggle to capitalize letters using the Shift key; I often have to go back and try it again. I'm no worse at typing on the Touch Cover 2, but I'm not really better at it, either.
With the Type Cover 2, none of the promised changes have anything to do with typing accuracy (that's probably because these clicky buttons were already pretty easy to use). Still priced at 0, the Type Cover also boasts a more rigid base, and Microsoft says the keys are now quieter too. As we said in our Surface Pro 2 review, we didn't have an old Type Cover lying around, which made a side-by-side comparison impossible for us. That said, the new keyboard does make a low, pleasant sound that isn't likely to be distracting while you're trying to get work done. All told, we find it easier to type on, just because it's more akin to a regular notebook keyboard. That said, it adds more heft (it measures 6mm thick), and the fact that the keys are squished so close together means you might still make some typing errors. Just something to consider when you're trying to decide which keyboard to pick.
Whichever keyboard cover you choose, both have a tiny touchpad that's difficult to use for clicking and dragging, but that works surprisingly well for single-finger tracking, tap-to-click, two-finger scrolling and even pinch-to-zoom.
Finally, there are a few additional accessories you might want to look out for, though most of them won't ship until early 2014. If you can wait that long, Microsoft is coming out with a Power Cover, a 0 keyboard case that packs a built-in battery. Around that time, there's also going to be a car charger with a USB port. Lastly, Microsoft has already started selling a wireless adapter that latches onto either the Type or Touch Cover and effectively turns it into a Bluetooth keyboard.
Display and sound
When the first Surface came out, Microsoft had to do some verbal gymnastics to get reviewers to give its 1,366 x 768 screen a chance. In fact, it really was a lovely display -- not only was it IPS, but it was optically bonded to keep glare at a minimum. But that didn't stop some people from complaining about the mere HD resolution, especially in places like the Engadget comments section. So this year, Microsoft's kept everything we liked about the display -- and bumped the pixel count to 1,920 x 1,080. In essence, then, this is the same 10.6-inch, full HD panel used on the Surface Pro 2, except there's no active digitizer for pressure-sensitive pen input. That means the quality is as good as on Microsoft's higher-end, 9 tablet; colors are bright, contrast is good and viewing angles are wide (especially now that the kickstand is more adjustable). As ever, too, lettering and other on-screen objects look smooth, thanks to Microsoft's ClearType sub-pixel-rendering technology, which helps iron out jagged edges.
Unlike the Surface Pro 2, whose speakers are hidden inside the chassis, the Surface 2 has two small speaker grilles on the outside of the device: one on the left edge and one on the right. Conveniently, they're both placed toward the top, where you're unlikely to cover them with your hands in either landscape or portrait mode. As on the Surface Pro 2 (and even the previous Surface tablets), the sound doesn't get too loud, and there isn't much of an emphasis on bass notes, but the audio quality is still pleasant. Even the volume is still robust enough that you should have no problem carrying on a Skype call or watching a movie with a little bit of background noise. But if your plan is to fill a room, you'll want to add an external speaker to the mix.
The Surface 2 goes on sale just days after Windows 8.1 came out and indeed, both this and the Surface Pro 2 are meant to be ambassadors for this new version of the OS. In particular, the Surface 2 runs Windows RT 8.1, which, as you're probably aware, has many of the same trappings as full Windows -- same UI elements, same new built-in apps. Like 8-inch tablets running full Windows, RT devices come with Microsoft Office installed, though in this case, the software has been modified to play nicely with that ARM processor inside. RT even has a desktop, not that you'll use it for more than clicking on file and webpage shortcuts. The main difference, as we all know by now, is that you can't install legacy x86 applications on it; only apps downloaded from the Windows Store.
Speaking of the sort, the Windows Store deserves a little credit here. Officially, the store now has "more than 100,000 apps," according to Microsoft, including many that were missing this time a year ago. Let's do a roll call, shall we? When we reviewed the original Surface, we complained about these omissions, among others: Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Dropbox, Mint.com, TripIt, NPR, Angry Birds, Draw Something, Words with Friends, Temple Run, Spotify, Amazon, Instapaper, Pocket (Read it Later), Flipboard, Instagram, Nook, Zinio and Rdio. Of those 20 apps, nine are now in the store.
In general, the catalog feels fuller than it did a year ago; you're now more likely to find what you want. Still, the selection remains hit-or-miss across every category. In the fitness section, you'll find Fitbit and Endomondo, but not RunKeeper, Map My Run or Weight Watchers. There's Yelp and OpenTable, but not Seamless. You've got Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare, but not Tumblr or Instagram. Pandora, Rhapsody and Slacker Radio are there, but not Rdio and Spotify.
On the gaming side, you'll be able to find Bejeweled, Halo: Spartan Assault, Brave and multiple editions of Angry Birds, but Draw Something and Words with Friends are still missing. Fortunately, the news/media category seems especially fleshed-out, with NYTimes, Wall Street Journal, Hulu Plus, Netflix, ESPN, ABC Family, ABC News, NBC News, CBS, CBS Sports, CNN, MTV and the AP all on board. The BBC's also represented, albeit in the form of several third-party offerings. Throw in first-party NPR and HBO Go apps and we'll be even happier. If there's one category that seems especially neglected, it's travel. Searching in the US version of the store, we couldn't find any major airline app, which is something we complained about last time too. Also no sign of TripIt for organizing itineraries, or Concur for keeping track of expenses.
We point all this out not to impugn the strides Microsoft has made, but to show how the selection has steadily grown. We can't guarantee all of these holdouts will make their way onto the platform (we've been waiting on Instagram for Windows Phone for ages now), but we have more faith in the store's momentum than perhaps we did a year ago.
Windows RT 8.1
For a refresher on all the apps that come pre-installed on Windows 8.1, we suggest you revisit our epic screenshot tour, which breaks down just about everything you need to know about the new OS update. For the "tl;dr" set, though, here's a quick primer. First and foremost, the Start button is back -- sort of. Not back, like you're suddenly going to get the old fly-out menus, but back in the sense that there's now a Start button fixed in the lower-left corner of the desktop. Clicking it just brings you to the Start menu. Of course, that's really just a concession to creatures of habit, since you could otherwise just press the Start button on your keyboard to achieve the same effect.
What's really nice is that you can now set up your tablet so that your Start screen background matches your desktop wallpaper. Now, again, you're unlikely to be spending much time in the desktop on RT, specifically, though it's still a neat setting to play around with, even if you don't have a heavy-duty productivity machine like the Surface Pro. Either way, it goes a long way in making the transition between the Start screen and traditional desktop feel less jarring.
Other changes: Microsoft has added some shortcuts to the on-screen keyboard that make it easy to select spelling suggestions, as well as enter punctuation symbols that would otherwise require a few extra taps to get to. The Modern version of IE 11 now supports unlimited tabs, which is especially good news for RT users, since that's all you guys have. You've now got more flexibility in terms of how you snap windows into place side by side; it doesn't have to be an 80/20 split, with one window getting relegated to a narrow pane. Wanna have each window take up half the screen? Go for it. Additionally, you can now take photos from the lock screen, as well as answer Skype calls. (Don't worry, you can't actually access your photo gallery from the lock screen, so it's OK if you hand your tablet to a friend to take a quick shot.)
Microsoft's also added a handful of new apps, including Food & Drink (a repository for recipes and cooking tips), as well as Health & Fitness (a place where you can track workouts and food intake, and attempt to self-diagnose whatever ailments you may have). Additionally, Windows 8.1 brings native calculator, alarm and sound recorder apps on the Metro side. Some of the older apps, meanwhile (most notably Mail), have gotten a mix of new features and UI tweaks. Finally, Windows search has been overhauled so that once you've got a list of search results in the right-hand pane, you can do all sorts of things like jump to specific settings menus, open certain apps or files, view web results or even play songs from Xbox Music.
Also, depending on what you search for, you may also see what Microsoft has previously referred to as a "search hero" -- a custom app that's been built on the fly, and that basically tells you everything you ever wanted to know about your subject. Search for Egypt? You'll get a mix of maps, news, images and a Wikipedia entry, all laid out in the same format as Bing News or any of the other built-in Windows apps.
Whereas the cameras on the Surface Pro 2 have remained untouched, the Surface 2 ditches its original 720p cameras and takes a big step up to a 3.5-megapixel front-facing webcam and a 5MP rear camera. In particular, Microsoft added a one-third-inch sensor to the front camera to better manage light in webcam videos, especially those shot in low light. As you can see in the sample above, these won't be your most detailed shots, but the sensor does help make photos look brighter than they would have otherwise. For context, I was sitting in my living room with the lights off when I took that selfie; it was so dim, in fact, that even the Type Cover's subtle backlighting was going strong. And yet, you can see the texture of my velvet couch, and the slight sunburn on my face.