Starting tomorrow, a new version of Microsoft's Surface 2 tablet goes on sale at Microsoft Store and Best Buy locations. Don't get too excited: It's just a variant of the current model, but with built-in 4G LTE wireless networking. Microsoft said that such a model was in the works back in October, when the Wi-Fi-only Surface 2 debuted.
This version of Surface 2 comes with 64GB of storage and costs $679; it's unlocked, but designed for use with AT&T and supported by all of that carrier's pre-paid and post-paid plans. You can pay as little as $15 a month for 250MB of data, or tap into the same data bucket you use with your AT&T phone by adding the Surface to a Mobile Share plan for an additional $10 a month.
In case you're doing the math, the $679 price is $130 more than a 64GB Surface 2 without LTE, and $150 less than an iPad Air with 64GB and LTE. Microsoft hasn't said anything about there being plans for an LTE version of the more potent Surface Pro 2.
Did I say not to get too excited about the Surface 2 with LTE? Let me clarify. Tablets with built-in mobile broadband are a niche market: Most buyers prefer to save a few bucks by buying Wi-Fi-only models. So I don't expect the new model to have a major impact on Surface sales. (AT&T, curiously, won't be selling the tablet in its own stores.)
But Microsoft pitches the Surface 2, with its built-in copy of the Microsoft Office suite, as a productivity tool. And after spending the past two and a half years using an iPad with LTE as my primary computer, I'm convinced that embedded LTE is one of the biggest productivity-boosters that a computing device can offer. While other people are hunting for Wi-Fi hotspots or futzing with phone tethering, I'm online, getting stuff done.
For the things I like to do with a tablet, the ideal configuration is a screen size of nine inches or more, a weight under 1.5 pounds, 64GB or more of storage, built-in LTE and a keyboard case or cover that doesn't add too much bulk. The pickings are surprisingly thin in that category, but this new Surface is now part of it once you've added one of Microsoft's keyboard covers. When I look at the Wi-Fi-only Surface 2, my instinctive reaction is, "I can't imagine being as productive on that as I am on my iPad Air." With the Surface 2 with LTE, it's more like "Hey, that's a plausible alternative, at least."
The Surface 2 still has its issues. Windows RT 8.1, its operating system, remains short on apps so enthralling that you'd choose a Surface over an iPad just to get them; Office, its theoretical killer feature, has not yet been totally reimagined for touchscreen use. But the app situation is improving, gradually, and Microsoft's working on more touch-centric versions of the Office apps. I'm intrigued enough by the concept to hope that it eventually lives up to all of its potential -- and the availability of LTE is part of that process.