Microsoft’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:
My first impression of Microsoft’s Surface Pro tablet is that it makes a lovely Windows 8 laptop
— Bill Bennett (@billbennettnz) August 11, 2014
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.
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.
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.
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.