Microsoft Surface: The Game Changer

I’ve previously noted the cool reception the Windows 8 previews have received, and I still think upgrades from Windows 7 will hover close to zero. However, this may no longer matter. The new Microsoft Surface is a shockingly well-designed, forward-looking device. Frankly, I had not thought Microsoft capable of this step. Let’s see how it compares to Apple’s iPad:

  • Two versions, ARM and x86. The ARM version could sell at a price below the iPad; the x86 version (called Pro) can run all existing Windows desktop software.

  • Both versions offer the new locked-down, touch-optimized Windows 8 app store. At present this is clearly less attractive than either iOS with its vast app selection or the open Android architecture. That may change quickly if Surface gains traction, though.

  • Both versions come bundled with Microsoft Office – the real thing, not some limited clone, although the exact functionality of the ARM version is not quite clear yet.

  • Somewhat bigger capacitive multitouch screen, although not “Retina” resolution – Apple still has that manufacturing process locked down. The Pro’s 1080p resolution is good enough, but the ARM’s mere 1366×768 is rather disappointing.

  • Connectivity. USB 2/3, HDMI/DP, and even microSD. Unlike Apple, Microsoft is not afraid of third-party hardware. You should be able to connect an Xbox 360 controller for games – which includes all Windows games on the Pro. (Intel’s mobile HD 4000 is not fantastic but sufficient for current games.)

  • Keyboard. Every Surface comes with an optional separate keyboard that folds behind the tablet when not in use. The lighter thinner “Touch Cover” is a rubber keyboard while the “Type Cover” offers real moving keys. A separate keyboard is absolutely essential for doing anything resembling real work on a tablet, and the physical keyboard makes the Surface competitive with notebooks.

  • Stylus. The Pro supports a 600 dpi stylus with its own input system, separate from the capacitive touchscreen. Drawing and hand-writing on a tablet is such a natural desire that there’s an entire cottage industry for iPad stylus production, even though the results are barely better than just using your fingers. The Surface stylus brings the technology of professional drawing hardware to consumer tablets. Professional artists may mock its limitations, but it should be a revelation for anyone who tried to use an iPad stylus. Moreover, it’s precise enough to act as a mouse substitute for Windows desktop software – and likely a much better one than the usual notebook touchpads.

This is all excellent. Microsoft plugs all the functionality holes that Apple has left in the iPad – quite deliberately because they want you to buy an iPad and a Mac. Both Surface versions should be fully usable as stand-alone devices, without requiring an iTunes-like umbilical cord to an existing PC.

So what are the caveats? The prices have not been announced; this is especially relevant for the Pro version which is by far the more attractive of the two. The ARM version will be the best choice for low-cost mobile Office work but that’s about it. I see the Pro version as the lever that could move the entire computing world to tablets, in accordance with Microsoft’s grand Windows 8 strategy. To quote Lispian’s analysis,

If my beliefs are right it’s sheer genius and Microsoft will sell boatloads of this thing. It’s going to be unbelievably popular. I would just love to only have a monitor at home and at work and a powerful tablet that I can use as the “brains”. Throw in storage in the cloud for backup and this thing would be better than anything Apple’s produced. […]
So I’m eagerly awaiting announcements concerning the Pro. It might be the thing I’ve been waiting for for 10 years: a single device that can be used everywhere, anytime and replaces all my computers with one, single box hooked perpetually to the web.

That’s exactly what I’m hoping for. Managing and synchronizing multiple machines is a huge drag, but so is having all your work chained to one clunky big computer. The Microsoft Surface Pro could be a game changer: the only personal computing device above smartphone size you’ll ever need. If the price is reasonable (say up to $999), the Pro could obsolete all existing tablets and traditional computers – all of them, notebooks and laptops and desktops, save for some high-end niches – and turn Windows 8 into a huge success.

2013-03-14: After the release of both Surfaces, many online reviews, and seeing the RT for myself, I’m forced to conclude that the Surface in its present incarnation is pretty but useless. The convergence revolution will have to wait.

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