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Surface 2 vs Surface 3: Should you upgrade?

There are a few key points worth considering before making any final decisions. Let's break it down.

Surface 2

The operating system - bye, bye Windows RT

Windows RT is dead. Long live Windows RT. The new Surface 3 is the first that doesn't carry the 'Pro' title to come with the full version of Windows 8.1. And that's a big deal, because it gives it a longer lifespan than the Surface 2, regardless of how long you may have owned one.

We're talking about Windows 10. The Surface 3 will get the free upgrade to Windows 10 later this year. The Surface 2 will not. Or at least, not the full version. Right now the future of RT based devices is unknown, with Microsoft hinting they'll get some kind of update but not the full Windows 10 treatment.

Besides future software upgrades, there's another huge benefit to the Surface 3 over the Surface 2. Like its bigger brother, the Surface Pro 3, the Surface 3 can be a full Windows workstation at home and on the go. It can be a laptop, it can equally be a desktop PC in conjunction with the optional Docking Station. It can run Windows desktop apps not just modern apps, and for many, that's a huge deal.

However, if you bought a Surface 2, presumably you're fine with running just Modern apps. If that hasn't changed, then getting a Surface 3 may not be necessary. But if you want to future-proof yourself a little better, it's worth considering.

Surface 2

No more ARM chips

While we wouldn't say the general performance of the Surface 2 was bad, there have been critics of Windows running on ARM chips like the Tegra 4 inside it. Microsoft, at least for now, appears to have given up on ARM powered Windows devices. They were exclusive to Windows RT and with that exiting stage left, there's no longer a need.

Instead, the new Surface 3 packs Intel's latest quad-core Atom CPU. It's an unknown quantity still, but performance in the Modern apps you're used to as a Surface 2 owner isn't likely to be any worse. These apps run well on even low power Windows tablets so you're going to be in for a good ride.

In tandem Microsoft is promising "all day battery life." Whether that's true or not in part will depend on how long your day is and how much you're doing with it.

Surface 3

A change in form

The Surface 2 was very much to be used in landscape mode. The Surface 3 follows the 3:2 aspect ratio of the Surface Pro 3 and that makes a difference to how you use it. In landscape it's taller, in portrait it's wider. It makes for a more comfortable experience as a tablet. As a laptop-esque device, the Surface 2 was just fine. Propped up with the kickstand with its keyboard docked. But 16:9 tablets like this aren't as fun to use as a tablet.

The Surface Pro 3 is actually pretty great to use in portrait orientation for reading, despite having a large 12.2-inch display. The Surface 3 is a little smaller and should be even better to use this way.

Surface 2

A few other points to note

  • The Surface 3 has the same support for a digital pen that the Pro tablet has. Albeit the pen is an optional purchase at $50.
  • The kickstand on the Surface 3 has an extra position when compared to the Surface 2. 3 vs 2.
  • The Surface 3 charges using microUSB. Something no other Surface tablet has to date. If you own any phone but an iPhone you'll likely have plenty of microUSB cables lying around.
  • Like the Surface 2, the Surface 3 will eventually be available in cellular form with LTE data support.
  • If you're into taking photos with your Surface for whatever reason, the rear camera in the Surface 3 should be much better. It could even better that in the Surface Pro 3.
  • The Surface 3 has a larger display but is still lighter than the Surface 2.
  • The Surface 3 comes with one free year of Office 365.

Surface 2

The bottom line

No-one can decide whether you should upgrade but you. We can help you with that, but ultimately it's your money and your decision. If you're perfectly happy with the Surface 2 and how it works right now, then you might be fine hanging on to it for a while longer. If you use primarily Modern apps and have no desire to venture into the desktop, the Surface 2 will continue being the device you've enjoyed thus far. Unless you're looking, longingly, at Windows 10.

Ultimately that could be the deal breaker. The Surface 2 will not get Windows 10 in the same way that the Surface 3 will. So if you want to start using your Surface for more, getting into the desktop and even using it as a laptop, it's absolutely worth moving up. There's so much added value with the Surface 3 such as the digital pen, the updated hardware, the change in form factor and even the year of Office 365 Microsoft will give you for free.

Sadly the future is a little bleak for the Surface 2. The future is brighter for the Surface 3. If it's a future you want to be part of, definitely think about upgrading.

Are you making the upgrade or sticking with what you already have? Let us know in the comments below!

Richard Devine is an Editor at Windows Central. A former Project Manager and long-term tech addict, he joined Mobile Nations in 2011 and has been found on Android Central and iMore as well as Windows Central. Currently you'll find him covering all manner of PC hardware and gaming, and you can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

199 Comments
  • How should I blommin know
  • Insightful. Thanks.
  • Oops shoulda probably read the article first
  • You should always read the article first.
  • First rule of Windows Central. Always read the article. 
  • Seond rule of Windows Central. Always read the article.
  • Butterfly in the sky, I can go twice as high. Take a look, it's in a book - Reading Rainbow. https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=gBJ4MghTi9U
  • What I know is I like that they are putting the Microsoft logo on the back. It should become more prominent on the phones as well IMHO. Cases for these tablets and for phones should leave opening to take pride in the logo as well. It does help build an emotional connection even though some hate on the iPhone case makers that do the same thing.
  • That's the big rumour out there.. that the Microsoft Logo is what will be used going forward on all Microsoft made items, including the phones. they will drop the 'microsoft' word (as on the 43x)  and just have the four squares
  • Panos Panay and the Surface team on a Reddit AMA last week:
    Why did the team decide to ditch the Surface text logo for the Microsoft logo?
    permalink [–]SurfaceTeam[S] 50 points 3 days ago We realized that a Surface contains all of what we as Microsoft has to offer. It is the physical extension of a software experience. To reflect that, we thought it was more appropriate to carry the Microsoft mark. And we all liked this idea :)
    I think it's pretty safe to assume (given their interests in coralling the product lines under a common banner) that we're going to see this is more than just a rumour.
     
  • I love it as well. Logos also look better than words imo. Simple.
  • Lol an emotional connection Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • It also makes sense than the word "Surface" as MS sells in markets around the world and using English is a bit ethnocentric.
  • I'm getting one for my girlfriend to replace her Surface 2. Seems like a logical step and since it runs everything it will get more use and actually replace her laptop.
  • You should pop the question, before you spend more money on expensive gifts for her
  • He is getting her the 3 not the Pro3 ;)
  • Now now ;) no need for the Pro as it's primarily for her uni studies and occasional browsing. No need to pop the question yet. Plenty of time for that :)
  • Why buy the cow, when you can get the milk for a Surface 3?
  • Cow might leave...
  • I almost died from laughing.
  • Lol
  • You all have such cruel minds lol
  • Goats are easier to manage and the milk more digestible.  Wait, what were we talking about?
  • Windows RT is dead. Long live Windows RT?? WTH?
  • You're obviously not familiar with the phrase xxx is dead, long live xxx. Which is fine. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_king_is_dead,_long_live_the_king!
  • LOL . Get it now.
  • I understood the phrase differently and never looked up it's origin. I like that explanation a lot better.
  • Yeah but you're still using it wrong... Its about sucession.  The old king is dead long live the new king.  Even as a joke or whatever it still only works if you're using things that aren't really dead. Nokia would be a good example.  Nokia is dead. Long live Nokia. (They're still around even after the MS deal).  Blackberry is dead.  Long live Blackberry (everyone always talks about how the compay is done for, but they're still putting out phones).  It also works as a quantum theory joke... Schrödinger's cat is dead.  Long Live Schrödinger's cat.   Windows RT is dead.  Long live Windows.
  • Haha
  • I came to say the same thing. The replacement for Windows RT is Windows 10 for mobile devices, right? There is no longer an OS called Windows RT.
  • This should be almost obvious since RT is dead. Having a device with full Windows OS is much more advantageous than with RT.
  • I have a Surface 2.  It does what I want.  I can't imagine wanting to do any desktop stuff on like I would with my larger laptop.  But it is great for the couch, web, email, a few games, etc.  Anything else and I'd want a bigger screen anyway.  I guess the Surface 3 with a dock and monitor would be nice, but I'm still happy with my Surface 2 and I also have a PC.  
  • Thats great for you. But regardless, having full OS is better than a gimped one
  • Sure, these are all nice improvements ... the question is whether they're $500 better (or $500 less whatever reselling a Surface 2 might garner).
  • As long as my surface 2 can run new windows 10 store apps or whatever they will be called. I will not upgrade. I also have an Asus Vivo Tab Note 8, so have no need for a new atom tablet.
  • Sticking with my Gen 1 Surface RT. It may be old and uses ARM but it has a full office package, it surfs the net fine, its not slow (although everyone seems to think it is), and there are all the apps I need. I will not be making the switch any time in the near future, but thanks for asking.
  • Have you used apps on the newer Surfaces? Going back from that to the RT makes it seem all the more slower. 
  • But if you make sure you stay away from all newer surface models then you will never know the differences! Ignorance is bliss. I understand the need to progress with competition in mind, but for me the gains in performance over my original RT don't quantify the massive cost. I was almost sick handing over nearly £300 for the RT when I bought it, theres no way I'm handing over £420 for something which has performance and features I will never appreciate or use.
  • Same with me. My Gen 1 Surface RT does what I need and want it to do. Sure, having full Windows 10 and the ability to run desktop programs would be nice, but I'm just not willing to pay $500+ (closer to $700 after keyboard and taxes) for those features. I'll be sticking with my Surface RT until it croaks or I desperately NEED additional features.
  • If I desperately need to run desktop apps (I'm not a design engineer, or a computer whiz so I wont be running anything really power sapping) then I will purchase something like the Linx 10 which is CONSIDERABLY cheaper.
  • I have a SP3 and my goto device is still my Surface RT for consumption use. After using Windows 10 on my Dell XPS Duo I feel there is so much work for tablet mode that they are going to kill the experience from Windows 8 anyways, I have no issues sticking with Windows 8 on my RT. If I do any upgrade it will be from my RT to a Surface 2 that can be picked up on the cheap.
  • I agree. I wonder if Windows 10 will give a better tablet user experience than Windows 8.1. Hopefully it does, but till now W10 feels more like a desktop OS.
  • Not so far, IMHO. Running the preview on an 8", 11", and 15" device. All with touch screens. Personally I think they have gone backwards in tablet/touch functionality. Many of the tablet UI elements have transitioned to UIs that are more targeted at mouse and keyboard. In the decision to move from a Surface 2 to a Surface 3, I personnaly wouldn't consider it's upgradability to Win 10 as a plus, outside of the ability to run desktop applications.
  • I'm sorry to spoil that, 4 months later... but Windows 10 for a Surface is a real disaster so far.  Good news is, you can upgrade to Windows 10, spend a week or two trying to use it and then go back to Windows 8.1. You will feel exactly as if you had just got a brand new machine with a sleek OS.   Windows 10 comes with the ability of downgrading to your previous system - which is, so far, best feature.
  • I'm sorry but the Surface RT is not fast. I love mine to death and still use it, but if I want to do web browsing I'm going to use any other device I own before I turn to my Surface, including my phone.
  • I like my Surface RT. I use it mainly to stream XBox Music and browsing the web. I don’t use app a lot. The OS feel fast but the web is slow. I don’t know if it’s the wireless driver or IE but something make it slow. I usually use my phone (on Wi-Fi) to get info. Its way faster! Don’t take me wrong, I like everything my Surface RT his. It’s a nice piece of hardware, USB, kick stand, touch cover, screen size, price, integration with outlook.com... If the browser was more responsive this would be the best tablet.
  • Maybe I received the fastest RT? Or maybe my expectations are loads lower than everyone else's? I did find that doing all the 'speed up' tricks listed for the surface 2 on my surface RT sped things up ALOT. Hopefully if the 'some W10 features' includes Spartan browser then things will speed up more. But I agree with previous comments regarding 8.1 vs W10 on tablet mode. I really like W8.1 RT and I wont be rushing out to buy or updating until ALL the little kinks are ironed out with W10 and its been extensively reviewed (I know I wont get full W10 on my RT, but o Ly some features whatever they may be)
  • I hate to be 'that guy' and ask, but what 'speed up tricks'? Ps: I have a RT 1 that I use alot for school and entertainment. To browse web, transfer files on hard drive, stream Netflix/IE shows to my tv, torrent (allegedly), back up phone, MS Office, ECT. Handles everything I throw at it well. My internal storage is almost full for some reason tho.. Only complaint.
  • The reason most people think that the Surface RT is slow is because on opening day it was slow.  It was really a dog of a device for a while but MS kept sending out firmware updates and the 8.1 update and today I would say its 30% faster and the battery lasts almost 50% longer plus now has Outlook and OneNote.  I use mine at work as a companion device every day and still like it.     You can do some tweaks to make it even faster.  You can turn off some of the Performance settings under System Properties.  There is a How To out there that shows you how to disable Defender from running (its a DRM, ARMS locked down device, not likely to get infected anyway).   Speaking of tweaks, you can also turn on the Server service which allows you to make shares in File Explorer available to other machines on your LAN.  There are lots of cool things you can do with a Surface RT.
  • This
  • I love my Surface PRO 2...,
  • I'm hoping they maybe have a trade in deal for surface and surface 2 owners. However, if they do give Windows RT users an updated spartan browser and Music app then I would be happy for a while sticking with my Surface RT. Posted via the Windows Central App for Android
  • MS did say that there would be an "update" for RT, just not a full Windows 10 update.  My hope is that the update gives RT the Spartain browser and updates Metro/App store to allow the new Universal apps to run so we can get some of those new apps.
  • I'm almost certainly going to trade-in my Surface Pro 2 for the Surface 3. It looks like a great little x86 device. Wondering what I can get in trade in for the Pro2. They used to have an online calculator.
  • The SP2 has a much better processor and graphics than the Surface 3. The advantage of the 3 is that it's a little bit lighter, it has one more kickstand position (which I would never use) and - maybe - has a little bit more battery life. Personally, I think the Surface 3 is not a worthy upgrade from the Surface Pro 2.
  • I own a Surface RT and I agree. SP2 > S3 >S1
  • Usually articles like this contain buying decisions that also weigh in the pros and cons against waiting altogether for the next model, Surface 4. Those who today use the Surface 2 may or may not find the performance bump between second and third generation Surface big enough. It all comes down to the user, what kind of applications you want to run. Games, as everyone knows in general, usually perform a lot better on newer hardware. Other applications may vary performance-wise if you compare the two models. I am only speaking in general about how different iterations of tablets and tablet hybrids perform from one model to the next. You usually also see this noticable difference in performance a year or a couple of years later, after you have upgraded the software, games and firmware. That said, they really seem to have lowered the price to point where it is a bargain to buy the Surface 3 despite the inevitable Surface 4 "surfacing" later, at an unknown future date. With all this said, I can definitely see people upgrade from the second-generation model with RT hardware, finding their way to a brand "new" out of the box third-generation model for a cheap "upgrade" price.
  • I'd say no unless MS offers some trade in. Your cover wont cover it entirely so you'd have to fork out another 130$ on too of that. I'd wait for at least the next one to at least make the Surface 2 worth what you paid for.
  • This!
  • Not sure a year of O365 is better value than full Office builtin. In fact, I bought Office Home & Student outright a few years ago for $150, if I had taken out an Office 365 sub I would have paid at least $210 (probably more since the Personal edition was introduced not too long ago). Even with the tacked on storage, thats not worth it. And not getting Windows 10 is probably the best thing RT users can get, since as a tablet its complete rubbish compared to Windows 8. Not a fan of RT but it seems to me they come out ahead here.
  • Its the full built in office on my RT that's the main reason for keeping me from purchasing the surface 3.
  • Since you have the license why can't you unregister Office on the RT and then use the code on the S3?
  • It does not work that way, you cannot transfer a RT's (or other smaller 7" tablet) Office license to another device, its tied to that device.  The OEM version of Windows is non-trasferable as well. 
  • That's interesting, I didn't realize the Office versions on RT are like the Windows OEM licenses.
    Rather strange considering that most RT devices are actually MS products.
    I have 10" Windows 8.1 tablet and as far as I can tell I received a full license. Perhaps MS should consider providing full license keys to Surface RT owners as an incentive to upgrade to Surface 3, so they don't to feel too shunned. I know they are trying to push 365 as a better deal but personally I prefer to own something.
  • Yep.
  • Don't forget though, Office 365 gives you one PC and one tablet to use it on.
  • But its only for a year, Richard. So with the RT you're paying once for a perfectly good word processor. With the Surface 3 you're paying more and then paying again every year. One USB mouse and all your office touch compatibility issues found with RT are gone. Is it worth the extra cash to have the touch optimised office pack? If you have a laptop already and can use office 365 on that then £420 for a surface 3 is pretty steep don't you think?
  • You aren't getting a "touch optimized office" with the Surface 3. Office 365 Personal is a more complete suite of Office applications with more capabilities than what comes on a Surface 2. Surface RT/2 Office is not fully functional compared to the Office you get in a box, or with O365. There are new Office apps that are in preview under Win10, which are touch centric, just as there is a touch OneNote along with the regular desktop OneNote. There are also touch Mail, Contact and Calendar apps to complement Outlook on the desktop. The new touch Office apps are very much like those that have been available for iOS and Android for a while, and will be targetted at Phones and tablets. They are not replacing the regular desktop Office Suite. You could install them in addition to the desktop Office apps if you chose to.
  • The only noticable difference between the versions of Office 2013 on a Surface RT and the full version running on a x86 processor is mostly you cannot run macros on RT.  There are some other limitations that a very few people might run into like Office Plug-In issues but frankly I never have with my Surface RT and I use it in the enterprise every work day. With the 8.1 update, MS also put full Outlook and OneNote on the RT and Office is free on RT for the life of the device. 
  • One year office 365 is not a reason for buying the Surface 3! With the Surface 2, you habe unlimited Access to the whole Office Package!
  • Office on RT is not the whole Office Package. It does not include Access or Publisher at all which come with O365, and you can't get them. It does not support macros, add-ins, VBA, forms and ActiveX controls. Additionally the ability to perform screen recordings in PowerPoint and OneNote is not there. OneNote is missing the ability to search audio and video recordings. PowerPoint lacks the ability to play legacy media and flash videos. Finally, the Equation Editor is missing. It may be perfectly fine, but it is not the same Office you get on a desktop or with O365.
  • I was not aware if this. Everyday's a school day!
  • And that is sort of a testament to how few people miss those features. Their being the same is all over this thread. This isn't really to say O365 is better than Office "RT" but that they are significantly different. The included OneDrive alone can make a big difference to some. If you have never noticed things missing, because you don't use them, paying more, or changing, to get them might be silly.  That is sort of how I view the app gap in Windows phone. I understand it, but it doesn't affect me. The one or two things I miss, aren't worth leaving the superior experience (IMHO).
  • I have full Office 365 on my work computers and I carry around my Surface RT as a companion device.  I don't miss any of the missing features on my RT because I use Office in a very limited way with it.  I would totally miss it on my desktop.
  • Anyone got a benchmark on the new Atom Cherry Trail processor?
    ​I'll upgrade eventually, but I'd like to future proof for a longer period.
  • tl;Dr YES
  • Think I'm more curious as to what "all day battery life" truly entails.  Even so, I'll wait for the 4 with the USB type C charger.
  • Definitely getting one of these to replace my Surface RT that's 2 years old, getting a little unbearable to use some apps that run so slow on it. Now I have the decission of whether to get the 64 or 128 GB one...
  • Go big or go home.
  • Does surface 3 have GPS? Does it still have the crappy fixed focus lens like the surface pro 3? Otherwise I would buy it
  • LTE one will apparently. Not so sure about the Wifi only one.
  • Windows RT gives free Home & Student office for life
  • Which you have to use on your Surface, no?
  • For the life of the device, yes.
  • Nope, my Surface 2 is still a great tablet, does everything I need.
  • ^^^ THIS.
  • Will keyboard cover for S2 fit S3?
  • No, they are differently sized devices, so the S2 covers would not fit on the S3. 
  • Is connector designed differently? I remember S2/SP2 covers fit SP3 even though it doesn't cover the whole screen.
  • I assumed it didn't "fit", meaning it didn't completely cover the screen when closed.  But the real question is "will it work with the S3"?
  • They just said in Reddit AMA it will connect just fine, just won't cover the whole screen perfectly because of screen size difference.
  • I assume that it'll function as a keyboard, the footprint is just different, so it wouldn't cover all of the screen when closed - at least, I believe from an older WPCentral article that that's the case with the Surface Pro 3
  • It should connect and work but it won't be a perfect as a cover since the devices have different aspect ratios (sizes). 
  • Why long live rt? Rt was horrible. We shouldn't miss it.
  • I have no complaints about Windows RT on my Lumia 2520. It does everything I need my tablet to do.
  • Agreed. RT was good. Just lacked apps and user acceptance. Just like windows phone!
  • Agree.  I'll be keeping my 2520... I can't justify replacing it
  • His statement was a joke that apparently a few people got
  • Only benefit in S2 is battery life. Mine goes for days without a charge sometimes. Other than that, it underperforms in just about everything. Seriously considering replacing it with S3.
  • $250 trade in for my Surface 2 and I'd consider it.
  • Am still with my Surface RT, no need to upgrade yet.... That said LTE support would be great. L820, UK
  • Definitely need this to replace my aging surface rt
  • frankly, having paid full retail  of £400+ for my Surface 2, and having been absolutely shafted by Microsoft's abandonment of its platform almost 12 months later, then no... not in a million years. I cant believe i went through the warrently replacement of 3 devices all with faulty screens to get to this point. In the interests of balance however, it has done what i wanted it to do admirably. I look forward to whatever crum of an upgrade comes my way with the bastard child of RT and W10.
  • It does not appear it is total aba