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10/25/2013
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Microsoft Surface Pro Docking Station Arrives Early

With Microsoft's docking station -- which hadn't been expected until 2014 -- the Surface Pro can be a three-in-one device: tablet, laptop, desktop.

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Microsoft has quietly made its docking station for Surface Pro available through its online store. The company said last month that the accessory would not ship until early next year.

The $199 dock is compatible with both the Surface Pro and the new Surface Pro 2. In addition to charging the docked tablet, it comes equipped with a display port, audio input and output connections, an Ethernet port, one USB 3.0 port, and three USB 2.0 ports.

Some of Microsoft's new Surface products appear constrained by supply shortages. Microsoft's online store shows that Surface Pro 2 configurations with 256 GB or 512 GB storage drives won't ship until mid-December, for example. This does not appear to be case for the docking station, however; its listing in the online store is not only absent of delay warnings, but also includes an option for next-day shipping.

ZDNet reported that some customers have already received their docking stations. In an email, a Microsoft representative said the docking station is currently available only in Canada and the U.S., and only through Microsoft's website or BestBuy.com. The representative said the dock will be broadly available in early 2014.

[ Should you equip your workforce with tablets? Read The Good And Bad Of Tablets At Work. ]

One of the dock's most intriguing inclusions is the display port, which allows the Surface Pro to connect to an external monitor. With the dock, the Surface Pro is one of an emerging category of three-in-one devices; that is, tablets that can attach to keyboards to become laptops, and that can dock alongside traditional monitors, keyboards and mice to act as desktops. Dell's Venue 11 Pro tablet will also include a dock that facilitates three-in-one use.

The value of laptop-tablet hybrids is still under debate, as Apple recently evidenced when it failed -- despite rumors to the contrary -- to release a keyboard for its new iPad Air. The usefulness of a three-in-one workflow is even less certain.

Still, now that Microsoft and others are embracing the idea, some customers are starting to take notice. In an email, Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi said she is starting to hear interest in tablets that can be docked for a more desktop-like user experience.

Microsoft announced robust quarterly earnings Thursday, but the better-than-expected performance owed more to its business software than its devices. Surface revenue contributed $400 million during the most recent quarter, out of $18.53 billion in total revenue.

The Surface line's $400 million gross is somewhat encouraging, given that the products managed just $853 million in revenue in the entire previous fiscal year. But Microsoft had to slash prices to motivate sales, and the revenue figure suggests sales of fewer than 1 million units, a total the new iPad will likely annihilate in a few days.

Microsoft said during its earnings call that Surface sales are improving, however, and that some would-be Pro buyers have been waiting for the Surface Pro 2, which went on sale Oct. 22. The device delivers substantially better battery life than its predecessor, an improvement industry watchers had forecast for months. With so many news articles reminding shoppers that a newer, better Surface Pro was imminent, it's likely some buyers were persuaded to wait, just as Microsoft claims.

Whether pent-up demand can make the Surface Pro 2 a contender in the mobile market remains to be seen, however. Even if the device is selling better, it's being compared to a very modest baseline.

Microsoft hasn't hurt its cause by getting the dock into interested users' hands. The original Surface Pro's newly reduced base price of $699 -- $200 less than the base Pro 2 -- could help as well. The original model is still hampered by relatively weak four-hour battery life, but the $199 Power Cover will change that when it arrives early next year. With it, Surface Pro users will be able to go up to six hours between charges.

[ Update: As of Saturday morning, the Surface dock was sold out on Microsoft's website. BestBuy.com, however, continues to indicate that the dock is in stock and available for shipping the next business day. ]

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