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Microsoft Surface 3 tablet

When Steve Jobs took the wraps off Apple’s first iPad, he showed a new class of device. The iPad was neither a new type of PC nor was it a giant smartphone. The iPad opened new territory.
Apple sold the original iPad as a personal digital media device. It stuck with that approach for the first three tablet generations.
 
It wasn’t until the iPad Air that Apple’s marketing bowed to the inevitable. The company admitted tablets are also useful for creating content and as business tools. Even now that’s not the main sales pitch.
 
Google doesn’t sell its own tablets. When partners began selling Android tablets they followed Apple’s lead. Samsung took pains to emphasis the entertainment and media aspects of its Galaxy Tab S. Business takes a back seat.
 

Microsoft Surface Pro — productivity tablet first

That’s not how Microsoft views tablets.
 
Even before CEO Satya Nadella told the world Microsoft is a ‘productivity and platform’ company, it called the Surface a business tool.
 
This explains why Surface evolved fast. It had three generations in 18 months and went from tablet to tablet-cum-laptop. Microsoft’s marketing says the new Surface Pro 3 is a “PC when you need it and a tablet when you want one”. That speaks volumes.
 
The message is “you need a laptop to do real work, but tablets have a place too. Here’s something covering both bases”. It’s no accident that almost every Surface buyer picks up a keyboard along with their tablet.
 
How does this play out?
 
You could argue the Surface, particularly the Surface Pro 3, is the tablet corporate technology buyers always wanted. That’s the market Microsoft wants.
 
And yet, Apple does a great job selling iPads to large companies. Walk into any CBD glass tower you’ll see people using iPads.
 
The iPad took root in business from the bottom up. People who bought iPads for personal use took them to the office and found new ways to be productive. In some cases using third-party add-ons and apps from the iTunes store.
 
Companies had little choice but to adapt to this trend. It explains hence all the hand-wringing you hear about BYOD, bring your own device. I’ve no evidence, but suspect companies buy most Surfaces. They give them to staff as productivity tools. The other market people committed to Microsoft products and services. I also suspect many Surfaces replaced PCs.
 

One device or two?

Microsoft thinks you need only one device to do two jobs. The Surface Pro 3 could be the best Windows laptop. It’s a good tablet, but not fabulous and it is expensive.
 
In Apple’s world, there are two jobs needing two tools. The tablet is a consumption device.
 
If you are serious about creating content, buy a MacBook. You are, of course, welcome to buy both. Apple is doing something right. While iPad sales have hiccupped, sales of Apple laptops continue to rise. Windows laptop sales are falling, attacked from above by Apple and from below by the Chromebook.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 goes on sale in New Zealand on August 28. Two days with the device has convinced me it’s one of the best computers I’ve used, but it’s not perfect. 

Microsoft flagship tablet, the Surface Pro, is already on version three just 18 months after the first version appeared. That’s good, it shows Microsoft is moving quickly, learning fast and responding to market signals.

To a degree Surface Pro 3 fixes almost all the things that were wrong with earlier versions. But there’s more than that.

The first Surface models were tablets with laptop-like qualities. Surface Pro 3 turns that around. It has evolved to become a laptop-alternative with tablet-like qualities. Microsoft does little to hide this, the Surface Pro 3 advertisement shown here makes direct comparisons with Apple’s MacBook Air:

That’s interesting because I was given a brief demonstration of the device and tweeted my first impression long before seeing the advertisement:

While the Surface Pro 3 is a good Windows tablet, it is also arguably one of the best Windows 8 laptops. However, despite what Microsoft says, I’m not convinced it is a direct competitor with the MacBook Air — as we shall see.

Third time’s the charm

It took Microsoft until Windows 3.1 to get its famous operating system right. Since then there’s been a long-standing joke that you have to wait until version 3.1 of anything before Microsoft irons out all the kinks.

That could well be the case with the Surface Pro 3. I liked the earlier Surface Pro 2 a lot, but found a few niggles. The screen was big enough for a tablet, but not for serious laptop-style work. And the screen was the wrong shape for serious writing or spreadsheet work.

The Pro 3 has a better screen. It’s bigger, at 12 inches instead of the 10 inches in earlier Surface Pro models.

Portrait and landscape

Perhaps more important than being bigger, the Pro 3 screen is a better shape for getting things done. Older Surface Pros had a widescreen format that’s optimised for watching HD video, but feels just plain wrong when you hold the tablet in the portrait orientation.

The Pro 3 screen has a height to width ratio of 2:3. That means it works nicely as a tablet in both orientations and makes sense when you’re typing a document down the page while word processing in landscape mode. It also makes working with spreadsheets, photographs and websites easier.

Microsoft tells me the screen is 40 percent bigger with 50 percent more pixels. It certainly looks better.

A bigger screen makes for a slightly larger device, but at the same time the Surface Pro 3 is thinner than its predecessors and lighter at just 800g. Despite this, there’s nothing flimsy about the device, it still has superb built quality. Physically it’s just the ticket.

Keyboard good, not perfect

Because Microsoft sells the Surface Pro 3 as a tablet, it doesn’t come with a keyboard as standard. The Surface Pro Type Cover costs another $200. For your money you get a good tablet keyboard. It’s thin, with proper physical keys and backlighting. In theory the $200 turns your tablet into a laptop.

However, the Type Cover is still a tablet keyboard. While you can work, even touch type on the keys, it isn’t as good for sustained writing sessions as a the keyboard on a full-price laptop. This, for me, is where Microsoft’s comparison with the MacBook Air falls short. All the functionality is there, but the experience isn’t the same.

Understanding the Surface Pro 3

And that’s the key to understanding the Surface Pro 3. It’s the perfect device for certain people in certain niches, it can be both the functional equivalent of a good quality tablet and a laptop.

Generally attempts at hybrid devices end up with something that’s not the best of both worlds. There are compromises. In this case, you end up with a less than perfect laptop keyboard — if you don’t spend all day typing, that’s not going to matter.

I’m not one for sticking a laptop on my lap. I work at desks and tables. When I don’t I use a tablet without a keyboard. When Microsoft says the Surface Pro 3 can be used on your lap, it is telling the truth, but I found it uncomfortable and the weight is distributed in an unnerving way.

Price

New Zealand prices for the Surface Pro start at NZ$1200. That’s for a tablet with 64GB of storage and an Intel i3 processor. The model I’m looking at had 128GB of storage and an i5 processor — I suspect this is the sweet spot at NZ$1450. There are other options, the top of the line model with an i7 and 512GB will set you back a hefty NZ$2829. You’ll need to budget another $200 for a keyboard and NZ$310 for the docking station — I’ll write more about these in a later post.

In effect, Microsoft prices are roughly in line with premium laptops including the MacBook Air. I don’t think it directly challenges Apple, nor do I think it threatens high-end Windows laptops for people who need solid keyboards.

If you want a lovely Windows laptop that doubles as a tablet, this is the best way to go. If you like the idea of a pen, then it is an even better bet.

Microsoft Surface

As Microsoft prepares to launch the Surface Pro 3 in New Zealand, overseas news services report the company may pull the plug on its tablet.

Gregg Keizer at Computerworld says Microsoft’s Surface lost money every quarter since first appearing in 2012. To date, the total loss is close to US$2 billion.

Keizer quotes Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson, who says: “Continued losses will make it harder and harder for Microsoft to keep the Surface project going, so a good performance in the next quarter or two will be critical to justifying its continued existence”.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella hints at impatience with Surface. In July he said: “We are not in the hardware for hardware sake and the first-party device portfolio will be aligned to our strategic direction as the productivity and platform company”.

Risky Microsoft Surface

Surface was a gamble on Microsoft’s part. Apart from anything else, moving into hardware alienated traditional partners like HP, Dell and Toshiba. Because Surface is a tablet with laptop-like characteristics, there was a risk it would undermine the entire Windows PC market.

When I looked at the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 last year, I said it doesn’t compete directly with Apple’s iPad but is a credible alternative for business users.

Surface is suited to those who rely on Microsoft Office and other Windows software. It is well made and a pleasure to use. However, with Surface Pro prices starting at NZ$1300, the Surface is expensive compared to the iPad — although good value by laptop standards.

And there’s the problem. Surface sits somewhere between an iPad-like tablet and a traditional laptop. Or perhaps, given the financial evidence, we should say it is lost somewhere between a tablet and a laptop.

Surface Pro 2 start menu

Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 launch triggered a discussion about the nature of tablets, laptops and whatever spaces exist between these categories.

It’s a discussion worth having. We need to think more about why we make certain decisions about the technologies we buy and use.

Technically a Surface is a tablet. That’s how Microsoft pitches them in its marketing. Yet most Surfaces leave a shop or online store along with a keyboard. Usually the official Microsoft Surface keyboard. At this point, they become something else. That something is closer to a laptop than a tablet.

Has anyone seen a Surface Pro without a keyboard?

If you have any numbers on this I’d be interested to hear what proportion sells with or without a keyboard.

When I got my first iPad, I ordered a keyboard within days of receiving the tablet. At the time I saw a keyboard as the route to productivity. Since then my iPad keyboard has sat in a cupboard gathering dust. It still gets used, but rarely with the iPad and not in the last six months.

I’m writing this on my iPad while sitting on the sofa. I often write stories on the iPad in cafés. The on-screen keyboard isn’t perfect, but that’s not important. What I lose from not being able to touch type, I gain in portability and mobility from working with a pure tablet. It has become natural.

On the other hand, working on a Surface Pro 3 without a keyboard is unnatural. As unnatural as working on a laptop without using a keyboard.

Of course, that may change over time, just as the way I work with an iPad has changed. But I don’t think so, I think the Surface belongs in a different category to the iPad. The distinction between the two may be slight, but it’s real.