24 May 2014

Saving Surface

Reviews of the Surface Pro 3 are in, and they still paint a picture of compromises. It’s sad to see Microsoft not learning from their mistakes.


At one level, they did address and fix many criticisms of earlier Surfaces, producing a beautiful piece of hardware. But, the fundamental problem still remains that they’ve made something that is neither a great tablet nor a great laptop. If you are in the market for a great tablet, you wouldn’t buy the Surface Pro 3, instead buying an iPad or Android tablet. And if you’re in the market for a great laptop, you still wouldn’t buy the Surface Pro 3.


As a laptop:
- The Surface is not comfortable to use in your lap.
- It has too small a screen (12 inches). I find even 13-inch laptops too small.
- It has a small trackpad.
- It has a paucity of ports: only one USB, no full-sized SD card slot, no Thunderbolt, and only one DisplayPort.
- It has a paltry amount of memory (4GB) and storage (64GB). If I think of the apps I use on my laptop, like Lightroom, I’d go for 8GB of memory and 256GB of storage. With those, the Surface costs almost $1500. It’s too expensive for a laptop. For that kind of money, I could buy a Macbook Pro with Retina display, which is a far superior LAPTOP than the Surface.


As a tablet:
- It’s too heavy, much more than the iPad Air (which is its closest point of comparison): 800 grams vs 469 grams. Even taking into account its larger screen, if you were to imagine a hypothetical iPad Air scaled up to have the same screen area as the Surface Pro 3, its weight would be 690 grams, not 800. This is a huge difference.
- It’s too thick, at 9.1mm, compared to the 7.6mm of the iPad Air.
- It has a poor selection of apps compared to iOS or Android.
- It has a battery life of only 8 hours compared to the iPad Air’s 10.
- It’s extremely expensive for a tablet, starting at $800 as compared to the iPad Air’s $500. All the reviews say you should buy the Surface with a Type Cover, which adds up to $930. This is almost twice the iPad Air’s price. And the iPad Air is not a cheap tablet.
- It doesn’t have LTE.
- It probably has a worse camera than the iPad Air.
- It has an excessively power-hungry processor, the Intel Core. Microsoft should have gone with an Atom, for longer battery life in a thinner body and to get rid of the fan.
- You have to deal with desktop Windows apps, which feels like running two operating systems on one device. Ideally, you’d want all your apps to be touch-optimized, responsive, clean and well-designed, and light enough to give you a good battery life, responsiveness, performance, careful network use, etc.


So, the Surface is an exercise in compromise. It’s a jack of all trades, master of none. I can imagine accepting the compromise if it was priced at $700 rather than $1500. But an expensive, compromised machine? No, thank you.


Microsoft should do what I suggested earlier, and decide whether they want to make a great tablet that also works as an okay laptop, or a great laptop that also works as an okay tablet. Face reality, rather than assuming you can have it all. Maybe in the future, we can indeed have it all, but the way to get there is to start with a device that’s great at one role, and gradually add features over time to also make it good in the other role. If they make a compromised, expensive machine that’s great at nothing, people won’t buy it, and they’ll fail.

Instead split the Surface line into two: A Surface Tablet and a Surface Laptop. The Tablet would be a great tablet without compromises: it would have an 8-9 inch Retina-quality screen, be lighter than the iPad Air, and as thin, use an Atom [1] CPU (rather than an expensive, power-hungry Core), have a 10-hour battery life, have LTE, have a great camera, etc.


You could buy an optional laptop dock, into which you could plug the tablet to make it a laptop, albeit one with a small screen. And it would have a port into which you could plug in an external monitor, to use with a Bluetooth keyboard. The surface (pun not intended) of the tablet itself would be a trackpad, or you could use a Bluetooth trackpad or mouse.


It would not be the best laptop. It may not have a fast CPU or lots of memory or storage to run demanding PC apps like Lightroom fast. But, I’m assuming 80% of laptop use doesn’t really require such high power: Microsoft Office, email, web browsing, watching videos, etc. These could be handled just as well by tablet-class hardware and apps optimized to be light on that hardware. The Surface Tablet would be an excellent tablet, and an adequate PC for 80% of its users. It might be priced at $700.


In addition to the Surface Tablet, Microsoft should make a Surface Laptop. This would have a 13-inch or so Retina-quality screen, a comfortable backlit keyboard, a spacious and excellent trackpad (like on the Macbooks), support for driving a 4K monitor simultaneously with the built-in display, multiple USB ports, a full-sized SD card slot, and an 8-hour battery life. You could configure this with 256GB of storage and 8GB of RAM. This might be priced roughly as much as a comparable Macbook Pro with Retina display.


While all this sounds like a traditional laptop, you’ll be able to detach the keyboard, making it a tablet. When attached, it would have a hinge, like a real laptop, and not the kickstand mechanism that makes the Surface a bad laptop. When detached, it would be heavier than an iPad, and perhaps not the best tablet, but an adequate one for 80% of its users.


By splitting the line into two, Microsoft will go from having a device that’s neither a great tablet nor a great laptop, to having a great tablet and a great laptop. The great tablet would also be an adequate laptop for 80% of its users, and vice-versa. But the key thing is that by making a device that’s great at something, Microsoft will get their foot in the door. People who are looking for a tablet will buy the Surface Tablet, and get something more in the bargin, but which doesn’t hurt its use as a tablet. Likewise for people looking for a laptop. As opposed to the situation today, where the market has by and large rejected the Surface. Once Microsoft gets its foot in the door, it can iterate over the next few years, perhaps eventually reaching a point where there’s an 8-inch and a 13-inch Surface which are otherwise very similar. But to reach that goal, we have to start with the reality of today, which means accepting that trying to make a device that’s a great tablet and a great laptop at once is impossible, and leads to a device that’s neither, and that a more feasible and sensible starting point is to make a device that’s a great tablet OR a great laptop.


So, split the Surface line into a Surface Tablet and a Surface Laptop, and start from there.



[1] Stay away from ARM, since it gives the user nothing that Atom doesn’t already give.

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