Microsoft Surface Pro 3: What's Missing - InformationWeek

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5/20/2014
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Microsoft Surface Pro 3: What's Missing

Microsoft's latest tablet boasts some dramatic improvements, but the pricey device still lacks some key features.

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On Tuesday, Microsoft unveiled the Surface Pro 3, a tablet that the company says can replace your laptop. It has a larger, sharper screen than the Surface Pro 2, a thinner design, and an improved hinge and keyboard. Microsoft made a ton of improvements to the device -- all with productivity and the ability "to get stuff done" in mind.

That's what leads us to question some of the choices Microsoft made in planning the Surface Pro 3, which arrives just six months after the Surface Pro 2. It is the most powerful and portable tablet yet from Microsoft, but it leaves out some key features that many mobile professionals have come to rely on. Let's take a look.

LTE 4G
The Surface Pro 3 does not support today's cellular wireless networks. According to the official spec page released by Microsoft, it supports 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0, but not LTE. WiFi may be nearly ubiquitous, but it isn't available on the side of the road, out in the field, or in a million other places where people wind up working when they're out and about. Most of today's tablets include LTE options at the very least. It's disappointing to see that no such option exists for the Surface Pro 3.

[For more on Microsoft's newest tablet, see Microsoft Surface, Touch-First Office Details Emerge.]

Affordability
The Surface Pro 3 starts at $799. That price includes 64 GB of storage, a Core i3 processor, and 4 GB of RAM. The top-of-the-line model, which packs 512 GB of storage, a Core i7 processor, and 8 GB of RAM, costs a whopping $1,949. Price points that fall between these include $999 for a Core i5 device with 128 GB of storage; $1,299 for a Core i5 device with 256 GB of storage and 8 GB of RAM; and $1,549 for Core i7 with 256 GB of storage and 8 GB of RAM. To put that into perspective, the top-of-the-line iPad with 128 GB of storage and LTE costs $929. The Surface Pro 3 may be a tablet, but it is being priced like a laptop.

Keyboard
Microsoft made huge improvements to the Surface's keyboard accessory -- it now has a larger trackpad and a more secure magnetic fit to the device itself for improved laptop computing. Too bad it's not included. If you want a keyboard, it'll cost you another $130. Most users agree that true productivity hinges on a keyboard for faster, more accurate typing. It's a stretch to call the Surface Pro 3 the "tablet that can replace your laptop" if it doesn't actually ship with a keyboard included. If you want a keyboard, be prepared to shell out at least $930 ($799 + $130). Of course, the iPad (along with every other tablet) doesn't include a keyboard, either, but Apple isn't really pitching its tablet as a true laptop replacement.

Questionable portability
Microsoft made a big deal about the Surface Pro 3's size and weight compared to certain Apple products. Microsoft executive Panos Panay argued that most people who carry an iPad also carry a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro. He said flat out that the MacBook Air is a best-in-class device in terms of the thin-and-light form factor. Together, though, the MacBook Air and iPad Air weigh more than 3.8 pounds and are fairly thick when stacked one upon the other.

The Surface Pro 3 (by itself, with no keyboard) weighs 1.76 pounds. With the keyboard, it weighs 2.41 pounds. It measures 7.93 inches wide, 11.5 inches long, and 0.36 inches thick (9.1 mm, if you prefer). The device is by no means large, but it is much larger than an iPad Air, which measures 6.6 inches wide by 9.4 inches long by 0.29 inches thick and weighs just one pound. The Surface Pro 3 may weigh significantly less than a MacBook Air and iPad Air combined, but when pitted head to head with the Surface Pro 3, the iPad comes out on top in terms of portability.

Many users will correctly point out that the Surface Pro 3 is a full Windows 8.1 machine, while the iPad is not a full Mac. That's true, but as you'll see in its most recent iPad commercials, Apple disputes the notion that the iPad can't be used to get stuff done. Any way you slice it, the Surface Pro 3 is a tablet that has the price point and the weight of a laptop (with the keyboard included).

Microsoft achieved some significant leaps forward with the Surface Pro 3. It is a thinner, lighter, more functional tablet than its predecessors. In creating a tablet that is meant to serve as both laptop and tablet, however, Microsoft can't help but stumble on the weaknesses of both in terms of size and cost. The Surface Pro 3 may serve as a laptop and tablet replacement for some users, but others will be happy to skip out of the office with a thinner, lighter tablet that costs hundreds of dollars less.

What do Uber, Bank of America, and Walgreens have to do with your mobile app strategy? Find out in the new Maximizing Mobility issue of InformationWeek Tech Digest.

Eric is a freelance writer for InformationWeek specializing in mobile technologies. View Full Bio

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DDURBIN1
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DDURBIN1,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/28/2014 | 5:49:07 PM
Re: It's more portable than a Macbook Air.
When going through the tablet verses laptop decision processes of course these products will be compared including Android and Chrome books just as you stated based on predominance of use.  Particularly since the MacBooks run MS Office, the usage comparisons will be made.  But the Surface Pro 3 will also be competing against other ultrabooks and tablets where a better comparison can be made.  Microsoft's real competition for the Surface Pro 3 is not Apple.  If Apple does bring to market a 12" product most likely I think it will be an iPad, then the Surface to iPad comparison can be made right on.
DDURBIN1
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DDURBIN1,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/28/2014 | 5:28:59 PM
Re: Surface Pro 3 missing pieces
It's quite hard to understand Microsoft's decision process of late.  Everything has a value based on features verses cost.  Microsoft's price points have not been in line with customers' value point (Win8 or Surface) making it hard for Microsoft to properly "guess" the market.  Very strange considering Microsoft trail blazed the marketing and product development processes for technology products.  They are running out of time to get it right at least on the hardware end.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
5/28/2014 | 5:08:43 PM
Re: It's more portable than a Macbook Air.
Interestingly, rumors have insisted for the last few months that Apple will launch some kind of 12-inch MacBook with a high-resolution screen, and possibly (and this sounds interesting/questionable, if true) an ARM-based processor. Apple's invested a bunch in sensors, so who knows... but it would be interesting.

As it is currently, I see your point about direct comparisons, but I think a number of people will end up choosing between the Surface Pro 3 and some kind of MacBook just because of marketing and similar pricing. So the comparison is also unavoidable. The Surface Pro 3 scales content such that you see 6% more on its 12-inch screen than you do on a 13-inch MacBook, and whereas I frankly find the 11-inch MacBook Air too small, the 12-inch Pro 3 seems fine. So I don't think screen size is necessarily a reason to invalidate comparisons.

But the comparisons are difficult for other reasons because the devices overlap and diverge in so many ways. The Surface Pro 3 will be awesome for certain use cases, especially with the pen, and can certainly function as a laptop. But for general users who don't care about convergence and just want a kickass laptop, the 13-inch MacBook Air is an excellent machine. If you're looking at the Surface as a light, thin laptop, rather than some kind of hybrid, it's very nice. But the high-end model costs as much as a MacBook Pro, and I don't think the Surface will match any of the MPs in power. The Pro 3's computing muscle compares better with the Air's, but again, if you're focused on laptop use, rather than hybridity, you have to think about OS X vs. Windows 8.1 too. The Surface has touch, but the MacBook's Track Pad provides a pretty great tactile experience. And so on.
Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
5/28/2014 | 4:38:35 PM
Re: Surface Pro 3 missing pieces
@DDURBIN1

That's a good point. Microsoft produced more first-generation Surfaces than it could sell, to paraphrase Steve Ballmer. I wonder if Microsoft, after taking that big write-down, pivoted to a much more cautious approach for second-gen orders. This shift in strategy, along with the inevitable supply chain growing pains Microsoft had to undergo, might have left some would-be customers high and dry. You're not the only person who wanted a premium Surface Pro 2 but couldn't order one. At face value, that suggests high demand. But the revenue numbers don't suggest Microsoft sold an overwhelming number of units. So either they're having supply chain problems, or they've deliberately constrained production in order to avoid earlier losses, or some combination of both? In any case, they just absorbed a bunch of manufacturing expertise with Nokia, which should lead to at least some economies of scale that benefit Surface.

Microsoft announced some Surface Pro 3 customers at launch, so they'll need to hit the ground running with their first shipment, unless they want average consumers to deal with three-month wait times. But I think Microsoft knows its has a better product this time, so hopefully they're prepared to deal with it.
DDURBIN1
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DDURBIN1,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/28/2014 | 12:43:57 PM
Re: Surface Pro 3 missing pieces
Agreed but what still remains is if Microsoft can deliver the product.  My business would have liked a Surface Pro 2 256GB version but none have ever been available since release and still waiting.  Not about to preorder the Surface Pro 3 256GB version when MS hasn't delivred the Surface Pro 2 version as yet.
DDURBIN1
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50%
DDURBIN1,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/28/2014 | 12:34:37 PM
Re: It's more portable than a Macbook Air.
There is no 12" Macbook Air, its either 11" or 13", however its Microsoft that keeps compairing the Surface 3 to the Macbook Pro which still doesn't have a 12" model only 13" so direct comparison is kind of pointless,
DDURBIN1
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DDURBIN1,
User Rank: Apprentice
5/28/2014 | 11:25:44 AM
Re: Lost Credibility

Actually Microsoft is the one doing the comparisons (so your credibility loss is with Microsoft not the author) while this author answers this with spot on deficiencies.

Michael Endler
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Michael Endler,
User Rank: Author
5/20/2014 | 5:57:47 PM
Surface Pro 3 missing pieces
I think the Surface Pro 3 is by far the most compelling tablet Microsoft has yet produced, and the most intriguing Windows tablet I've seen, period. But Eric brings up valid points. Microsoft is basically positioning the Surface Pro 3 as a competitor to not only the iPad, but also the MacBook Air and even 13-inch MacBook Pro. The Pro 3's marketed uniqueness is going to invite all kinds of comparisons, especially with the price. It might be the tablet that replaces a laptop, but it's definitely priced the like the latter.  Here's my take on the missing pieces Eric pointed out:

1. Definitely. A mobile device isn't truly mobile if it can't get online whenever you need it to. Really wish they'd included this. Maybe later, like Microsoft did with Surface 2.

2. I'd feel okay about the prices if Microsoft would include the damn keyboard—as Eric said, the Pro 3's been priced like a laptop, and to me, that means Microsoft should include the keyboard. Even so, of all the Surface models, the Pro 3 does the best job justifying its entry high cost. When you compare what you'd get for your money today to what Microsoft wanted for the Surface RT a couple years ago, it's a pretty big leap.

3. See above.

4. We'll see about this. I'm gonna get a chance tomorrow to check out the tablet. I've talked to some people who say it handles surprisingly well. I'm curious. The Surface 2 was light, but still awkward in portrait mode. And both of the first two Pro models were pretty lousy as tablets, which made their size-related shortcomings as laptops all the more glaring. I'll be curious to see how the new aspect ratio, thinness and form factor balance out for handheld use. That said, between the Pro 3's improved laptop capabilities and pen functions, it doesn't need to match the iPad's pure tablet experience. Earlier Surfaces were too compromised, and even though this one surely has its drawbacks too, I think Microsoft has more effectively calculated where to draw lines. It's not gonna make consumers drop their iPads, but I bet business users will like it, and that Microsoft can build respectable share. Even a comparatively modest amount of enterprise market share would offer better margins than all those cheap Android devices combined.

All of the above said, if the pen delivers as advertised, I think these concerns are mitigated.
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