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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.

Don’t underestimate the importance of Microsoft’s decision to make its own hardware.

For the past thirty years, Microsoft dominated software like no other company. Part of its success was down to working with partners like HP, Dell and Toshiba.

Microsoft’s hardware partners often followed the software giant blindly into battle. Some see Microsoft’s move into hardware as a betrayal. HP says as much out loud. Relations between these companies will never be the same.

No choice

Yet the way Microsoft reads the technology business means it has little choice but to damage those long-term relationships.

It needed to make its own hardware for two reasons. First, Microsoft saw that Apple was in danger of eating its lunch. The iPad presented the PC with its first real challenge in 30 years. Making a competitive tablet was Microsoft’s only logical response.

The old Microsoft would have developed a tablet operating system then left partners like HP and Toshiba to build the hardware. I’ve seen tablets from both companies and while they are not without their charms, they are not up to Apple’s standards. And, frankly, they are not as good as Microsoft’s Surfaces.

Microsoft had to get this right. It couldn’t leave the future of technology to its partners, each of whom is struggling with its own long-term strategic problems.

Not the first time

The Microsoft Surface is not the company’s first foray into tablets. There were slate-style pen computers from Microsoft in the early 1990s. Later in that decade, there were devices which switched from laptop to slate format.

They were awkward, slow, hard to use devices with mainly rubbish software and unwieldy apps. One bright spot from this era was the wonderful OneNote app.

By the time Apple reinvented the slate format – as the iPad – Microsoft had effectively given up on the pen project.

Say what you like about Microsoft, the company is not stupid. It almost immediately recognised the iPad as threat to its existence, as a way of bypassing its ownership of the link between each worker and corporate systems. When it moved to address this threat, it simply could not afford to let the project wallow in the mire that dealing with partners can be.

Microsoft Surface reinvents the tablet

So why do I say Surface threatens Apple like no other tablets? Mainly because Microsoft has taken the tablet format and reinvented it in its own image.

The Microsoft Surface represents a stepping stone between a pure tablet like the iPad and thin, mobile PCs like Ultrabooks. Sure, that may be a backward step in some respects, but Microsoft knows its corporate customers well.

Surface was not designed to appeal to end users – although many swear by the device and I recently found it a more attractive proposition than I expected. The product is ideal for businesses where mobile devices need to fit into existing infrastructure – much of it supplied by Microsoft. It ticks a lot of boxes that have long worried CIOs and other senior managers. It’s a relatively secure device, there’s a low total cost of ownership and there’s less scope for users to trick them out with troublesome, hard-to-support applications although they give users the freedom to easily install Microsoft sanctioned apps.

Most people who live and work with Microsoft products are tied to the past.

Many need legacy applications. They may have custom-made software or tools tailored to fit in with work practices that could stretch back decades. They may have developed macros to integrate apps into broader systems. Or they may just have too much old data that’s difficult to move.

Microsoft has always done a fine job of building backward compatibility into its products. You could argue it has done too good a job. Apple and Google are more brutal about cutting old users adrift.

On the other hand, Microsoft’s core customers are corporations who buy the company’s server and enterprise software. They pay a lot of money which they might take elsewhere if Microsoft pulls too many plugs.

 

Surface 2 does almost everything

When I started my week using nothing but Microsoft’s technology, I spent far too much time installing Windows on a laptop.

I need not have bothered. With a few minor exceptions, the Surface 2 coupled with a Lumia 920 Windows Phone handles everything.

The main exception to being able to do all my work was a relatively old, custom-made web-based CMS on a business partner’s website. I also struggled a little with WordPress which has tiny onscreen icons that are tricky to deal with on a touchscreen.

Legacy software, who needs it? I doubt my business partner is in a hurry to upgrade the CMS. I suspect WordPress is either looking or soon will look at offering a touchscreen interface.

Rough edges

These things aside, Microsoft’s brave new world still has a few rough edges.

Two things were necessary for me to hit take-off point on the Surface 2. First, I swapped the Touch Cover 2 for the Type Cover 2. That’s important, my hands were starting to hurt with the first keyboard, things were fine with the second. Within minutes I was working at full speed once more.

The second revaluation was using the Word Web App instead of the bundled version of Microsoft Office 365. Your taste may differ. It probably does.

For my purposes, the Word Web App is more productive – mainly because it’s simpler. It also seems better suited the the touch screen than traditional Office – apart from anything else, touching tiny menu items and other controls is uncomfortable and clumsy.

One day Microsoft will have a touch version of Office and Word. In the meantime, I’d like to see a Metro version of Windows Live Writer.

Overall

We’ll save the direct comparisons between Microsoft and Apple technology for later. And I’ll also report back on the conclusions from the experiment.

I never doubted a week working with nothing but Microsoft devices and hardware would be possible. After all, that’s how most of the corporate world still functions. I was less sure I would find it as productive and enjoyable as it was.

Once I fine-tuned my Microsoft set-up, there were few frustrations and hiccups. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s nothing fundamentally flawed here.