Surface Pro 3: It’s all about the form factor

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.

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12 Responses to Surface Pro 3: It’s all about the form factor

  1. Max Wild says:

    I have an original Surface RT with which I am very pleased.
    The SP3 seems to be an authentic flagship for the Surface Range. With Windows 8.1 Upgrade 1 the anti W8 comments are diminishing at a great rate so it seems that MS might have a winner on its hands. Windows Phone 8.1 will strengthen this trend particularly as the far less expensive (compared to rivals) Lumia 520 gains traction.

  2. Edgar says:

    These guys at Motley Fool one day they say that Microsoft is doing wonderful and you have to rush to buy stock, and then the next day say that they are doomed and you have to get rid of the stock.
    Their articles are useless garbage, and their headlines pure click bait, since months they are in my list of click bait sites and I don’t read anymore, I didn’t even bother to read the article you link.

    You are right in your analysis, SP3 stand on his own and is the living proof for what Microsoft have to enter in the hardware business, and how well they are doing, I wonder what would happened if Microsoft have relied in OEM’s alone to launch the new generation of win i devices.

  3. Mr_Data says:

    Sorry, but the guys at the Fool are right. I owned a tablet Asus Transformer with the same design as the Chi. There was never a problem carrying the tablet together with the keyboard and attaching or detaching the keyboard as needed. Where the Transformer fell short was the Tegra 3 CPU. Practically was impossible to use. With the Chi I’m sure there will not problems like that. But when used with the keyboard, the Transformer was giving a better experience than the best iPad’s 3rd party cover. And about the digitizer. I know lots of people owning a Samsung Note, and I never ever I saw them using the stylus. I doubt there is a real use for a digitizer for the average consumer(99% of them). So if it’s well made, the Chi will make the Surface 3 obsolete. Asus being a Taiwanese company I’m sure that also the price will be much lower. Especially without the digitiser.

    • dafowler says:

      I have to disagree; I’ve seen and played with many a transformer and there is an issue using them as tablets. Most non-iPad tablets work fine in landscape, but are awkward in portrait for most users. Also to be honest most OEM devices are uninspiring. The Fool article was arguing that OEMs had it worked out but in my opinion they don’t.

    • Edgar says:

      Well, no.

      As for the peview of the device it looks no better than the samsung devices, that feell and look very cheap, also some major design flaw make it no contender of the SP3, the lack of a full size USB port.

  4. GregP says:

    “But comparing the T300 Chi to the SP3 is more about gaining press attention *THAN* accurately positioning one as better than the other.”

    -There, fixed that for you.

  5. guest says:

    if Dell can revise their Veneu 11 Pro series to compete with SP3 and T300 Chi it will be worth to watch

  6. Geoff Coupe says:

    “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.”

    This is a good point, although Lenovo’s ThinkPad 10 with the promised Touchcase is a similar idea to the SP3 + Touch Cover. There the compromise is that the TP10 is Atom-based, rather than Core, but on the other hand, it does mean it is lighter and fanless. Personally speaking, fanless might well win the day for me. I don’t need to carry a powerful laptop/tablet around.

    • halberenson says:

      Keep in mind that the SP3 doesn’t offer the Touch Cover, just a Type Cover. So the comparison is probably closer to the TP10 with Ultrabook Keyboard, which is more like a detachable. The TP10 is also a 10.1″ device vs. the SP3 at 12″, making them target somewhat different areas. 10.1″ is just too small for a primary notebook replacement. Atom vs. Core does mean you aren’t going to be doing Photoshop or running Visual Studio on the TP10. But no one will notice the difference for running Microsoft Office.

      The TP10 is looking like another great option in the Windows 8.1 tablet space and with the Touchcase might turn out to be best in the 10″ class. Especially since it also offers pen input.

  7. Meanwhile, I have been using my Sony VAIO Tap 11 for half a year already, which is exactly what the Surface Pro 3 is announced to be. Core i5, 8.9 mm thick, 11″, digitizer pen, kickstand, excellent camera, razor-thin keyboard, you name it. I have no issue using it as a tablet with keyboard on the other side, turned off. It’s both a tablet *and* a notebook.

    My only gripe is, a tablet should have a 4:3 screen ratio, not 16:10 or 16:9. Hope they get it some day. That’s one thing Apple got right., but iOS is not for me because I actually work & create on my devices.

    • halberenson says:

      Surface Pro 3 aspect ratio is 3:2.

      Unfortunately Sony has left the building.

      • Granted. But 3:2 is a compromise between hardcore 4:3 (iPad) and 16:something. So, SP3 is sitting on the porch. Anyway, unless there are excellent contenders around year’s end (Asus T300 chi? Sony Xperia Windows?), I’ll probably move to SP3. To me, the ideal all-round tablet is a Sony Xperia Z2 running Win64. C’mon Sony, cram a Broadwell into the Z2!

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