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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.

Microsoft Surface Pro 3Microsoft launched the Surface Pro 3 at an event in New York overnight New Zealand time.

The new Surface Pro blurs the, already slim, distinction between tablet and PC. The Surface 3 has a 12-inch display, is  9.1 mm thick and weighs 800 grams. These dimensions are for a keyboard-less device.

Inside the case is an Intel Core i7 processor.

This sounds more like a keyboard-less touchscreen laptop than an iPad class tablet.

And that’s a good thing. Recent Windows laptops from third-party hardware makers have been largely disappointing. Microsoft is breathing fresh life into the segment.

Surface Pro 3 not for consumption

Microsoft emphasises the Surface Pro 3 is a productive tool, not a consumption device.

US prices start at $800. A keyboard is extra. Even so, allowing for currency, GST and the usual NZ markup, the Surface Pro 3 should land in New Zealand at Apple MacBook Air-like prices.

I’m hoping to take a look when the first models arrive in New Zealand.

update

It may still have a small market share, but Apple dominates the hardware market like no other company in history. Like it or not, the Californian company is the top brand in smartphones, tablets and PCs. It is ‘the one to beat’.

Now, for the first time this decade, Apple faces a real competitor.

Microsoft’s Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 devices offer a clear, credible alternative to the iPad – at least in the business market.

Microsoft Surface 2 Pro comes from another place, does different things

Microsoft’s Surface range is not a direct iPad replacement. It is an alternative path from laptops to a more mobile feature. For the many businesses, it represents a smoother, more easily managed path from PC technology.

While Apple’s tablets do 80 percent of the tasks you might have once done on a laptop, Microsoft’s Surface 2 does closer to 90 percent of those tasks. The Surface Pro 2 brings that to 100 percent. There’s little a Surface Pro 2 can’t do, that, say, a UltraBook can.

The Surface Pro 2 is as much a reboot of the laptop as a reinvention of the tablet.

Where the Surface Pro 2 scores

It may be a tablet, but the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 has a Windows computer pedigree. That makes it an ideal choice for anyone who needs to run Microsoft software – particularly for people who run multiple Windows applications.

Windows 8 is quite different from Windows 7, but most users will quickly adjust to the new operating system and its user interface.

Let’s put aside questions of whether moving to a new OS makes sense. For most users coming from Windows PCs, there’s less of an adjustment moving to a Surface Pro 2 than moving to, say, iOS or Android.

Disrupting the PC model

Although it has a Windows pedigree and moving from a PC isn’t disruptive, the Surface Pro 2 manages to disrupt the laptop and tablet markets.

There are optional docking stations adding extra input and output ports. You can connect to a large screen monitor and a BlueTooth keyboard. In other words, you can replace an entire traditional desktop system with something that also functions as a tablet. In other words, it is a single device that can be a desktop, laptop or tablet.  That’s a powerful drawcard for businesses.

Don’t underestimate how much company CIOs and technology professionals will prefer spending money on something that takes users to the next level of mobility while also slotting right into existing systems.

My Surface Pro 2 experience

As a journalist, I often have to work on the move. The Surface Pro 2 is lighter and at least as portable as any UltraBook. The 10.6-inch touch screen compares with the displays on smaller UltraBooks. For simple tasks like writing or number-crunching, while surfing the web and dealing with incoming messages, it’s more than enough to get the job done.

You have to spend extra to buy a keyboard for the Surface Pro 2, the only sane choice is Microsoft’s Type Cover 2, which is close to the kind of keyboard you see on UltraBooks. It sounds like a trivial matter, but the two position kick-stand which props up the tablet on a desk is a smart addition to the tablet format.

While Windows 8 (or 8.1) is an acquired taste on conventional computers, it makes sense on the Surface Pro 2. It’s as if the software was designed to work on this hardware.

What’s not so hot?

The Surface Pro 2 works as a tablet, but I’d rate it behind the iPad Air in the pure tablet stakes. At 900g it’s heavy and uncomfortable for extended hand-held sessions. I also find the 16:9 screen format works fine on a laptop but isn’t so nice on a tablet. You may feel otherwise

Although the Surface Pro 2 can, in theory, run most Windows apps, they don’t always run like well-designed tablet apps. And the tablet app store is relatively skinny. You’ll find replacements for all your favourite apps there, but be prepared for compromises.

Sometimes it feels buggy. Apps can crash and there’s inconsistency about the way things work, a gesture that works in one app might do something different elsewhere.

The Surface Pro 2 is expensive, especially when compared with the Surface 2. You can even argue it’s expensive when compared with Apple kit.

Microsoft hasn’t pitched its tablet as a head-on competitor with Apple’s iPad. The company is aiming at a different target with a different approach to mobile computing. But it is the first serious competition Apple has faced since it launched the first iPad.

Surface Pro 2 start menu

Surface Pro 2 prices start at $1300. For that you get 64GB of built-in storage.

You may need more storage. The Surface Pro 2 is designed for heavy-duty computing and that often means lots of data.

A 64GB model only leaves 37GB of usable storage. A 128GB model is $1500. There’s also a 256GB model at $1880. If you can spare $2600, you could go all the way to 512GB.

Let’s settle for a moment on the $1500 128GB model.

Keyboard as an optional extra

You also need to spend another $200 on a Type Cover 2 keyboard. The Touch Cover 2 is less at $125, but I don’t recommend it for serious users.

So to buy a properly equipped Surface Pro 2 you need to spend $1700.

That’s exactly what I paid for my 13 inch 2013 MacBook Air. My MacBook has 256GB of storage, a bigger screen and a better keyboard. The MacBook doesn’t have a touch screen.

It also comes with Apple’s iWork apps. Sure, the apps might not be as comprehensive as Microsoft Office. On the other hand, they satisfy my needs. And anyway, Office is not included in the $1700 price of a Surface Pro 2.

Maybe a Windows UltraBook?

The same money buys a lot of Windows UltraBook. In fact you’d be hard pressed to spend $1700 on an UltraBook at JB HiFi. Prices start at around $1100.

With an UltraBook you usually get a bigger screen, more storage – not necessarily solid state, and, hopefully a better keyboard. Don’t forget to budget extra to buy Microsoft Office, it’s not included with the Surface Pro 2.

Other Windows tablets

Microsoft isn’t the only option when it comes to Windows tablets. There are cheaper alternatives:

A number of tablet makers offer products with a similar specification to the Surface Pro 2 for lower prices.

Surface Pro 2’s biggest competitor?

Perhaps the most important rival to the Surface Pro 2 is the Surface 2. That’s right, the tablet with a cut down version of Windows.

It only costs $650 for a 32GB model, that’s all the storage you need, plus $200 for a decent keyboard. That comes to a total rice of $850, half the price of the Surface Pro 2 for 90 percent of the functionality.

Plus the Surface 2 comes with Microsoft Office.

To answer the question, if you need a Windows PC in a tablet, $1700 Surface Pro 2 is a fine choice but you’re paying a premium for the Microsoft brand.

If I was in the market, I’d  choose the less powerful Surface 2. The Surface 2 Pro can manage a heavier workload, but thanks to cloud computing and lightweight apps, that’s less important than it was.