The news adds to recent momentum for Microsoft's maligned tablets, including several major enterprise and institutional deployments and increased developer support for Windows 8's Modern UI. Still, Microsoft's refreshed slates could struggle to stand out in the crowded field. Competition will include not only familiar foes such as Apple's iPad, but also other Windows tablets, including Dell's just-announced Venue Pro line.
Forrester analyst David Johnson said in an email that whereas Microsoft is still finding its identity as a device maker, partners such as Dell and HP are now "getting their supply chains for tablets ironed out." The result, he said, is thinner, lighter, and higher-quality Windows tablets that should be more attractive than earlier models.
Johnson said Dell's Venue models in particular are "compelling at first blush" and that he doesn't see Microsoft's Surface line gaining significant ground amid so much competition.
[ Trying to integrate tablets into your workforce? Read The Good And Bad Of Tablets At Work. ]
The Venue 11 Pro delivers many of the Surface Pro 2's features without the Pro 2's high $899 base price. Dell's tablet offers a 10.6-inch 1080p screen, slightly bigger than the Pro 2's equally high-resolution display; up to 8 GB of RAM, same as the Surface Pro 2's top configurations; and up to 256 GB of SSD storage, not quite as big as the 512 GB drive found in Microsoft's highest-end model.
Venue 11 Pro buyers can choose either Intel's new "Bay Trail" Atom chip or one of Intel's most powerful fourth-generation "Haswell" chips, a version of which also powers the Surface Pro 2. The Venue 11 Pro also supports most of the same accessories as the Pro 2, including a stylus, an attachable keyboard and a docking station.
It's not yet clear how a Venue 11 Pro will perform relative to an equally well-equipped Surface Pro 2. Microsoft VP Panos Panay said last month that the Surface Pro will be faster than 95% of laptops, and Microsoft representatives have repeatedly characterized the device as an ultrabook, not a tablet. Surface director Cyril Belikoff told InformationWeek that the device's speed comes not only from Intel's Haswell processor, but also from the Surface Pro 2's engineering.
But even if Dell's tablet offers only 90% of the Surface Pro 2's performance, the Venue Pro 11 starts at just $499, well below the Surface Pro 2's $899. Dell hasn't yet disclosed the price of more powerful configurations or accessories, so it's not clear how cost will compare when the devices are comparably equipped. But would-be Surface buyers could be persuaded if Dell follows through by undercutting the Surface Pro 2's prices.
As for the 8-inch Venue 8 Pro, it doesn't compete in the same market as the larger Surface 2, per se, but both devices will be competing for many of the same buyers looking for a low-cost, ultra-mobile Windows tablet.
Several factors make the Surface 2 and Venue 8 Pro tough to compare. The 8 Pro lacks the Surface 2's screen real estate, and it's also hard to say how Dell's tablet, which uses an Intel Bay Trail processor, will perform relative to the Surface 2, which uses an ARM-based Nvidia Tegra 4 processor. It's also unclear how popular traditional Windows software will be on the Dell tablet's relatively small screen.
Nonetheless, the 8 Pro boasts a 1080p display, is less than 9 mm thick, weighs under a pound, includes a mini-USB port and runs the full version of Windows 8.1, desktop apps included. The Venue 8 Pro starts at just $299 and -- unlike the execrable Acer Iconia W3, the first Windows mini-tablet -- might be a product people actually want to use.
The same might be said of the Surface 2, which is much nicer than its predecessor. However, it starts at $150 more than the 8 Pro, still doesn't come with a keyboard, and is limited to Modern UI apps. To buyers that want an ultra-mobile Windows tablet, the Venue Pro 8 might offer a more compelling package.