Microsoft’s new Surface Pro 3 has received a large amount of good press, and the occasional negative (usually liking the hardware but disliking Windows 8.1). But today’s piece on The Motley Fool warranted a response. The problem with the article is that the author appears not to get “it”. When it comes to form factor, Microsoft’s Surface line is about being a Tablet and a Notebook while detachables like ASUS’ T100 and the new T300 Chi are about being a Tablet or a Notebook.
Anyone who has ever owned any Surface variant prizes the fact that you carry it around as a tablet and then, whenever you need a keyboard, you just use the cover. You never have to think “should I take just the tablet or the tablet plus keyboard dock with me today”. You don’t pay a noticeable weight or thickness penalty with the Touch Cover, and with the Type Cover it is still so minimal as to not alter the usage pattern. You can use the device while in motion, with the keyboard cover folded out-of-the-way, which is the ultimate test of if a device belongs in the mobile category or not. In other words, Microsoft has targeted and achieved a unique balance that is lacking from other devices. It is a balance that is unique across not only all Windows 8.x devices but across iOS and Android devices as well.
With detachables the device can’t be used as a tablet while the tablet is attached to the keyboard dock. It can’t (any more than a traditional notebook) be used while in motion while attached to the keyboard dock. No matter how thin and light the tablet itself is, when attached to the keyboard dock it is the weight and thickness of an Ultrabook-style notebook. And most importantly, when you do want to use the device as a tablet you need to have somewhere to put the keyboard dock, because it can’t stay attached to the tablet. Once detached you have no way to prop up the tablet, severely limiting the scenarios in which it can be used. With a detachable you are always stuck making the decision “do I want to carry a notebook with me today or a tablet”. If the latter, you leave the keyboard dock at home, in your office, or in your briefcase. And probably slip the tablet into some kind of case, both for protection and for a stand mechanism.
If you do take a detachables’ tablet and keyboard dock with you then don’t be fooled into thinking you are carrying around a tablet plus a keyboard, you are carrying around a notebook. As you are walking through the mall, or around the factory floor, or standing waiting to get on the airplane, or sitting in a coffee shop at a table barely big enough to hold your latte cup you aren’t going to pull the tablet off the keyboard dock so you can use it as a tablet. Why not? Because what are you going to do with the keyboard dock? When detached it is a boat anchor searching for bottom.
This is not to say that detachables don’t have a place. They are perfect if you 98% need a notebook but want a tablet option. You can leave the keyboard dock in your office and take only the tablet to a meeting for pen-based note taking (if it supports a pen), for example. Or leave the dock at home when you go on vacation and treat it as a traditional tablet primarily for content consumption. But detachables will never match the balance that Microsoft has gone after with the Surface family.
So now we have a situation where the Surface Pro 3 (SP3) will be compared with various detachables (and other 2-in-1s), with the ASUS T300 Chi being the most interesting contender so far. Of course the SP3 is available in a little over a week while the T300 is months away. The T300 had the option to use Intel’s upcoming Broadwell processor, and in particular the new Core M, while the SP3 is “stuck” using the current generation Haswell processors (probably so they could make the back to school shopping season). Is that really such a bad thing?
We don’t know the relative performance of the Core M vs. Core i3/i5/i7 within the Broadwell lineup. Or how the Broadwell Core M compares to the Haswell Core i5, for example. Yes it will use less power and generate less heat, but if you are looking for performance which will be the better option? The Core M allows for a fanless design, though Intel demonstrated you can get better performance with a fan (in their case, by having the keyboard dock include the fan and actively cool the processor in the tablet). So most likely a SP3 with Haswell Core i5 (never mind the i7) blows the pants off a detached T300 with the Broadwell Core M. Now circle back to my form factor discussion. With the SP3 you are always carrying around a full-powered device, not necessarily so with the detachables.
Or how about thickness and weight of the pure tablet portion of these devices? Yes some of the difference between the SP3 and T300 can probably be attributed to the SP3′s active cooling system. But of course the SP3 comes with a built-in kickstand while the tablet portion of the T300 does not. I will bet that most of the difference in thickness and weight can be attributed to that very unique, and generally beloved as a differentiator, kickstand. It makes the SP3, even without a cover, far more useful as a content consumption device (e.g., watching a movie on an airplane) than a detachables’ detached tablet.
There are numerous other differences of course. For example, the SP3 is featuring a new generation of Pen-based input and Microsoft is clearly aiming to add more inking features to its software. The T300 Chi appears not to support any form of active digitizer pen. These differences all add up to the SP3 and T300 Chi being aimed at very different, if significantly overlapping, usage scenarios.
Comparing the Surface Pro 3 and a detachable makes no sense outside of a discussion of the usage scenarios and which form factor is most appropriate for those specific scenarios. Microsoft is going for a unique form factor with the Surface Pro 3, one that says we compromised the tablet a little and we compromise the notebook a little and have this one device that can be both at the same time. Detachables are a device class that let you have a notebook or a tablet, but not at the same time. That’s a much bigger compromise than what Microsoft has done with the SP3, though probably a good compromise for many people.
It looks to me like the T300 Chi is quite an accomplishment and that ASUS remains one of the most innovative OEMs out there. I will likely be recommending it to many people based on their own needs. But comparing the T300 Chi to the SP3 is more about gaining press attention then accurately positioning one as better than the other. And using the T300 Chi as a justification for why Microsoft should not be in the hardware business just proves that financial writers don’t get it.