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Tech Lab

Microsoft’s tablet won’t win the war

On Aug. 2, 216 BC, an army of 80,000 Roman soldiers was nearly annihilated by Hannibal of Carthage. Others would have surrendered; the Romans just got mad.

Which brings us to Microsoft Corp. Its Surface tablet computer, designed to challenge Apple Inc’s iPad, has rung up a $900 million loss — that’s real money, even for Microsoft. Any other company would have retreated; Microsoft chose to reload.

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And here’s where the analogy fails: The Romans ultimately beat Carthage.

Microsoft’s new tablet, the $449 Surface 2, won’t be nearly as successful. It’s a nice upgrade to a product that was halfway decent to begin with. But consumers can choose between the superb iPad and a growing roster of strong competitors that run Google Inc.’s Android operating system. That leaves little room in the tablet market for a product that’s already perceived as damaged goods.

At less than 1.5 pounds, the Surface 2 is a tiny bit lighter and thinner than its predecessor, and done up in silvery gray instead of the original jet black.

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Microsoft has retained and improved upon smart features from last year’s Surface, such as the optional snap-on keyboard. For $119.99, there’s an inflexible touch-based keyboard that’s not ideal for extended use; the $129.99 Type Cover 2 uses traditional spring-mounted keys and provides a comfortable typing experience. Both now include backlit keys for use in dimly lit rooms.

With a keyboard and its built-in “kickstand” for propping the tablet upright, the original Surface worked well on a tabletop but would topple over if perched on your knees.

Microsoft found a remarkably simple solution: a second kickstand setting that leans the tablet farther back and makes it balance nicely on your lap.

Next year, Microsoft will offer Power Cover, a keyboard with a built-in battery pack that roughly doubles the weight of the Surface, but should also double the time between charges. But even without Power Cover, the Surface 2 should easily see you through a cross-country flight. After my usual battery test — streaming the four-hour movie “Cleopatra” over Netflix using a Wi-Fi connection — the battery was still a little over half charged.

By the way, the movie looked gorgeous. The original Surface tablet had a good screen, but the upgrade offers substantially higher resolution.

And while the first generation’s quad-core processor was a little on the sluggish side, the new Surface uses a faster chip that boots up fast and launches apps almost instantly.

Those apps are running under a tabletized version of Microsoft’s controversial Windows 8 operating system. Actually, it’s the new and improved Windows 8.1, modified over the past year in response to well-founded complaints that the original is often confusing and difficult to use.

Windows 8.1 makes things better. You still find yourself flipping between an interface designed for use with touchscreen devices and the traditional Windows desktop. But the transitions are now far less jarring. The desktop icon that once cluttered the Start screen is gone. Instead, you’re taken to the desktop automatically when an app requires it.

When you launch the free version of Microsoft Office that’s included with Surface and leap into desktop mode, you’ll barely notice the change.

In addition, Microsoft has backed off a little from its absurd decision to get rid of the classic Windows Start button. Now there’s a window-shaped icon that at least hurls you back to the main Start screen.

And if you touch the keyboard mouse pad with two fingers, the icon displays a handy menu, giving access to the Windows Control Panel and other vital features.

It’s a lot easier than trying to activate those “charm” icons that Windows 8.1 still hides on the right edge of the screen.

On the downside, the Surface 2 runs a “light” version of Windows 8.1. This means it’s incapable of running standard Windows software. For that, you’ll need the Surface Pro 2, a heftier machine with a fatter starting price of $899.

If Microsoft’s first tablet had worked as well as the new Surface 2, the company might have lost only $450 million on it. For while it’s certainly improved, the new Surface still hasn’t got a prayer. About 475,000 apps were built especially for the iPad; Microsoft says there are about 100,000 Windows apps.

Android tablets are also short on good apps, but their low prices — $229 for the excellent Google Nexus 7, for instance — are attracting millions of buyers. A cheap Surface might find a niche; instead it’s nearly as costly as the $499 iPad Air, which arrives in stores on Friday. But the Surface is heavier, thicker, less powerful, and much less useful.

With its deep pockets, Microsoft can afford to lose the tablet wars. And I think it just did.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, an earlier version of this column gave the wrong starting price for the Microsoft Surface 2 tablet computer. The Surface 2 sells for $449.

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