Congratulations Microsoft on the Surface Pro

No this is not a true review.  I’ve had all of 20 minutes playing with a Surface Pro in the Microsoft Store.  I happened to hit the store just before the end of the work day when it was quiet, so I had easy access to various devices and the undivided attention of a staff member (see my granddaughter joke in the previous posting).  So think of this as more general commentary.

My first impression of the Surface Pro was that it is heavy and thick for a tablet.  Of course, the real way to think of the Surface Pro is like being a 11″ MacBook Air that can double as an iPad.  Your primary usage pattern is more as a notebook, but you don’t have to carry around a separate tablet.  Or decide between always having a heavy keyboard dock with you or never having it when you need it.  When viewed in that context the size, weight, and even battery life (pretty comparable to the 11″ MacBook Air from articles I’ve seen) are outstanding.  And in a funny twist, at the end of my visit to the Microsoft Store (after handling the HP Envy x2, Dell Duo, etc.) I went back to take a last look at the Surface Pro.  I picked it up and thought I’d grabbed a Surface RT by mistake.  No, it was a Pro.  After handling lots of other devices the Pro’s 2 pounds no longer seemed heavy.

What is important about the Surface Pro (and indeed the Surface RT) is that Microsoft took a specific point of view and created a device that is true to it.  They did not try to create a device that would appeal to everyone.  And while one can debate how big the niche is for the device they created, they appear to have created the best device one could possibly imagine for that niche.  I like that every detail has been thought through carefully.  You can see some of their explanations on various decisions on reddit.  The attention to detail is evident when you examine the device or its specs.  Or use it.

The first thing I did when I picked up the Surface Pro was launch OneNote, grab the pen, and start taking notes and making a sketch.  Ahhhhh.  I also used the pen to manipulate desktop windows, which is difficult with your finger on any device.  And I used handwriting recognition to enter web site addresses and other data.    I’ve owned three Tablet PCs in my life, and the Surface Pro blows them away in every respect.  It might finally be the right form factor and overall set of capabilities to take the original Tablet PC scenarios mainstream.  However I think pen input is still secondary to other input devices, including a finger.  And for those who say they can do as well using a capacitive pen on their iPad, or Surface RT for that matter, I have one thing to say.  ROFLOL.  Ok, two things.  You don’t know what you are talking about.  Comparing a capacitive pen to an active digitizer is like comparing a hang glider to an SR-71.  Oh, was that three?  Sorry.

In this industry only the fruit company usually thinks things through as carefully as the Surface Pro team has.  It’s a successful formula, meaning you can’t be everything to everyone so make sure you are incredibly good at the thing you are trying to be.  In the case of devices like the iPad this has made Apple very successful even in areas they weren’t designed for (e.g., the use of iPad’s as the basis of cash registers is exploding).  Microsoft can hope for this kind of success with the Surface Pro, but more importantly they can expect the niche they actually targeted to be absolutely in love with the device.

The Surface Pro reviews have been somewhat harsh, but not because of the device itself.  Most of the criticism derives from a lack of belief in the niche that Microsoft has targeted.  The Surface Pro is neither the best tablet you can get for $899 or the best Ultrabook you can get for $1000.  So if you apply either of those lenses to it then it looks bad.  What it is trying to be, and what it probably succeeds at being, is the best Ultrabook + Tablet combination for $1000.  Particularly since all its competitors force you to take a heavy keyboard dock with you in order to compete with the Surface Pro’s Type or Touch Cover.

If you are considering a Surface Pro pay more attention to your own usage pattern than to what the reviewers are saying.  In particular, if you currently carry a notebook and a tablet around and want to ditch one of those then the Surface Pro should be the starting point for your investigation.  Want to dock the device when you are in the office and use it as your desktop machine?  That makes the Surface Pro even more attractive as a 3-in-1 solution.    Think you’ll always have a traditional tablet with you but are looking for a new Ultrabook or Notebook for work?  The Surface Pro might not be your best option.

There are specific criticisms of the Surface Pro that are almost laughable (because they are valid, but way overemphasized points).  For example, the amount of free storage space out of the box is low compared to the quoted total storage space.  There are a number of reasons for that, but if it is an issue that can easily be addressed.  For example, Microsoft chose to include a recovery image on the Surface Pro so that it is very easy to reset the device.  Need several GB more storage on your Surface Pro?  You can copy that image to a bootable USB drive and then delete it from the Surface Pro.  And, of course, you can expand the Surface Pro’s storage with a microSDXC card.  They are running slightly under $1/GB up through the 64GB cards (and 128GB cards are coming on the market, though you’ll pay over $1/GB for those).  You could also try using compression to free a few GB, likely a better option on the Surface Pro with its very fast processor than on the Surface RT.  Finally, when comparing a 64GB Surface Pro to a 64GB iPad it is true that you get more free space on the iPad.  But when you compare the Surface Pro to an Ultrabook the Surface Pro should have as much free space as any Ultrabook with the same size SSD. (Probably more since the Surface Pro doesn’t come with crapware and the other devices usually do.)  Another example of the Surface Pro not being so easy to pin down.

There has been some criticism of the lack of a way to store the Pen in the Surface Pro’s body.  That’s valid, but less of a deal breaker than reviews make it out to be.  The pen can be carried magnetically attached to the power port, or clipped to the Touch or Type Cover.  My guess is that clipping it to the cover will make more sense and be more secure.  And having lost pens with my Tablet PCs, despite those pens being stored inside the device body, my advice to anyone who really relies on pen input is to get a spare to keep in your briefcase.  Even the in-body storage has its limitations, from leaving the pen on a table after use to having something bump and release it from the device body lock so it can fall out later.

Finally, the Surface Pro team has hinted that more hardware options are coming.  Those hints suggest either a desktop dock and/or (hard) keyboard dock option.  The reason for this is that the peripheral port has the ability to take power from the peripheral to power the Surface Pro.  In the case of a desktop dock sitting in an office this would simplify the use of a Surface Pro as a 3-in-1 device.  In the case of a more traditional keyboard dock this would allow for a second battery in the dock to extend overall battery life, as well as further optimize the device for Ultrabook-like usage.

So will I be getting a Surface Pro?  I don’t know.  I love my Surface RT and it has been meeting my needs.  If a major consulting project comes along that requires me to travel with a full Windows 8 PC then I might very well turn in my Toshiba R705 for a Surface Pro and leave the Surface RT at home when on business.  What I really don’t want to do is drag both the Surface RT and another device around all the time.  Right now the R705 comes along only occasionally so I’m ok.   Besides, waiting until I need a new device might open up additional options.  I love what Microsoft has done with the Surface family, but if they’ve challenged their OEMs to do even better then I’m quite happy to benefit from OEM efforts to top the Surface.


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7 Responses to Congratulations Microsoft on the Surface Pro

  1. Wiley says:

    Thank you for providing your insight. It’s a breath of fresh air compared to all the other analyses of the Surface Pro I’ve read so far.

  2. Brian says:

    I get the impression that Microsoft could have shipped World Peace as a standard feature with the Surface and reviewers would be complaining that it makes the evening news boring.

    It appears that the Surface RT (one of which I own and love) is tablet that competes with the iPad, has several compelling features that distinguish it from the iPad (e.g.: built-in Office, an integral/amazing keyboard and expandable storage). However, according to reviewers, no one should think about buying it because it won’t run AutoCAD or Photoshop (unlike the iPad, I guess).

    The Surface Pro, on the other-hand is a two-pound Ultrabook that’s thinner than a Dr. Suess book. It also has all the features of a Tablet PC and works in a dual monitor setup. However, because it runs Windows and has a small SSD (which means it has as much space as any other Ultrabook with the same drive), it’s a case of false advertizing. And, because it runs a Core i5 and uses a small battery, it gets Ultrabook class battery life, not tablet class battery life.

    All in all, it seems that the Surface RT is a failure because it runs an ARM processor and the Pro is a failure because it runs an i5 (which gives it less battery life).

    The two best things I’ve read today were Ed Bott’s (roughly) “Hey, wait, a MacBook Air has the same disk overhead as a Surface” and this exchange on the Reddit AMA:
    Q: Why are there so many damn compromises!?
    A (though not from a Microsoft person): Because reality and physics are hard to overcome.

    I’m really hoping that Microsoft pushes the Surface hard into the University student market. A two-pound Tablet-PC seems to be an ideal student solution.

    • halberenson says:

      You do nailed it 🙂

    • Abdullah says:

      Nailed it indeed.

      The double standards and biases are so astonishing sometimes. It seems no matter what Microsoft does, they’ll always have “messed up” and no matter how compelling, integrated and comprehensive the ecosystem and products portfolio are looking, “Microsoft has no vision! and they’re lost and don’t know what they’re doing!”

      Not denying the problems that Microsoft has, it is just astonishing when you see the bloggers change to their special dark sunglasses when they want to discuss Microsoft.

  3. jcallahan says:

    Don’t know if you see this comment (depending on your comment notifications), but I was curious if your view has changed on the RT relative to the Pro version of the Surface. What I’m asking is whether you feel like the RT is a better fit for a “carry everywhere” tablet than a Pro. Sometimes it just takes a little while for opinions to become steady state and I assume that you’ve had more interactions with the Pro (as well as the RT). Thanks.

    • halberenson says:

      I carry the RT with me every day while I’ve only had brief interactions with the Pro, but my opinions haven’t changed much. The Pro is a bit on the large and heavy side for me to carry around as casually as I would the RT, though I expect if I had one I would get used to it. On the other hand, I’d be much more likely to pair up the Pro with something like a Kindle Paperwhite because the Pro would definitely be too much for more than the most casual reading. And that kind of defeats the idea of one device that can serve all my needs. I wouldn’t mind having both when I had my briefcase with me, but I wouldn’t carry both around constantly.

      Watching other users gives a clue on how people might find the Pro for portability. For example, ever since the Surface came out I’ve seen a lot more people carrying around an iPad with third-party covers that include a keyboard. Those suckers weigh quite a bit and thus they are probably hovering around the same weight as a Surface Pro + Type keyboard. Also, I ran across a Pro owner the other day who had replaced both a notebook and Android tablet with it. I noticed they were running Frontpage (!) on the Pro, definitely not something you can do with an RT. And they had a bunch of other older legacy apps on the device. For them the additional weight was well worth the capabilities it brought.

      Basically I do think the split is that the RT is equally fine for hand-held or surface-top use while the Pro is really a surface-top with modest hand-held use device.

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