The Microsoft Surface tablet was unveiled to the press in Los Angeles last night to much fanfare. It’s an unusual attempt from the Redmond company to create both the hardware and software itself: its goal in doing so is to take on Apple’s mighty iPad.
It’s a smart move on Microsoft’s part: even if all it does is make the likes of Acer, Dell and HP up their game, it’s done its job. That’s true at least of the launch version, running Windows RT on an ARM processor. The thicker, pricier version on the way with an Intel processor? I’m not so sure.
The first Microsoft Surface tablet, expected out at the time that Windows 8 launches later this year. The 10.6-inch, 9.3mm thin device will run Windows RT (the version of Windows 8 designed to run on ARM processors typically used in mobile phones and tablets) on an Nvidia Tegra processor – like the one inside the zippy HTC One X Android smartphone.
To be clear, I have no problem with this. I think this is the smartest move Microsoft has made in a while. At worst, its slick looks will compel Windows RT tablet manufacturers – Acer, Asus, Dell, Lenovo, HP and the like – to come up with sexy designs of their own, even if the Microsoft Surface itself doesn’t sell well. In that sense, it’s a lot like Google’s Nexus Android phones: compared to Samsung’s Galaxy S series of phones, they don’t sell very well. But they set the bar for each release of Android.
At best? Microsoft Surface tablets prove a hit with consumers, and go on to become Microsoft’s biggest hardware hit since the Xbox 360. With two different smart covers with a keyboard built in, I don’t think that’s beyond the realm of possibility – for the Tegra version.
You see, Microsoft is following up this Surface with the Surface for Windows 8 Pro, due out a few months later. It’ll run full fat Windows 8, on the latest version of Intel’s desktop processor, Ivy Bridge. That means all your current Windows apps, but it’s a touchscreen only affair, that supports handwriting recognition.
Hang on, haven’t we been here before?
Yup. Twelve years ago, another Microsoft CEO, Bill Gates, stood on stage at the Comdex tradeshow in Las Vegas to reveal the company’s vision for the tablet PC. These computers would use a stylus for input, but keep the PC experience.
They didn’t take off. But Microsoft didn’t stop trying. Two years later, Gates tried again with Windows XP For Tablet PC edition. With its small icons, toolbars and corner controls, it made for a fusty experience (One that still hadn’t been fixed in 2009 when I reviewed Asus’ Eee PC T91 netbook), and though it found a place in business, never caught on with consumers.
When Windows Vista rolled around in 2006, Microsoft began pushing “ultra mobile PCs” – much the same thing again. Poor battery life, high prices and difficult input meant they never took off in the same way the iPad now has (67million sold and counting).
But Microsoft still didn’t stop. At CES 2010, with speculation already mounting that Apple was working on a tablet, Steve Ballmer showed off the HP Slate, another Intel powered Windows tablet. Although it did eventually go on sale, it too has found little favour with the public.
All of these have failed to capture the public imagination in the way the iPad has. So as I look at the Microsoft Surface Pro, I find myself asking, what’s actually changed here?
Yes, the Intel version will run full Windows 8. But it’s substantially thicker at 13.5mm. In practice, it’ll be substantially more though, as the Type keyboard cover will add another 5mm, making it effectively 18.5mm thick – two iPads on top of each other.
It’ll also come with all the downsides of an Intel processor, as well as the impressive speed: a fan, high price and a comparatively short battery life (Which of these lasts longer in sleep mode, your laptop or your phone?). Microsoft says that the Surface Pro tablet will be priced competitively with Ultrabook laptops running Ivy Bridge, but that begs the question: why would you buy the Pro instead of an Ultrabook laptop?
It’s effectively as thick as one. It has a battery life comparable to one. It’ll cost the same. To be perfectly honest, it misses the point of why people buy pricey Windows laptops. They do so for performance and a reliable keyboard (look at the loyalty people have for Lenovo’s ThinkPad machines). As smart as the keyboard cover is, it won’t be an efficient replacement for the best Ultrabook (or MacBook Air).
And in the meantime, people will be walking into shops, oohing over the cheaper, thinner Microsoft Surface tablets running Windows RT. That, or just buying iPads.
Microsoft did a lot of things right with its press conference yesterday. Pushing tablet PCs with PC parts inside was not one of them.
Do you agree? Let’s hear what you make of Microsoft Surface Pro in the comments below.