By Oon Yeoh
Apple’s legendary Steve Jobs famously said there was no use for a smaller iPad but today the iPad Mini is a hot selling item. Instead of going head to head against Apple in this area, and miniaturizing its Surface Pro tablets, Microsoft has gone ahead and supersized it instead!
With its 12-inch screen, the Surface Pro 3 is being touted as a “the tablet that can replace your laptop” that bridges the gap between these two form factors. In other words, you can have your cake and eat it, too. But can you, really… without choking?
To begin to answer that question, we have to first ask ourselves whether the Surface Pro 3 is more a tablet or a laptop. In terms of form, it certainly is more of a tablet than a laptop. But in terms of specs, it’s a full Windows 8.1 computer. So, it’s a hybrid. Microsoft says that means it offers the best of both worlds. But some critics say it runs the risk of being neither here nor there.
Which viewpoint is “correct”? Let’s see, and here’s my frank analysis and in good faith with no disrespect to anybody.
The original Surface Pro and the Surface Pro 2 were also meant to be laptop replacements of sorts because Microsoft emphasized the fact that they could adequately be used for work purposes – something that the iPad is not very suitable to be used for (despite what Apple says, the reality is that the iPad is still mainly a content consumption device rather than a content creation device).
Neither here or there?
While it’s true that the earlier Surface Pros were indeed better suited for work purposes, they were far from adequate for complex work normally done on desktops and laptops. The Surface Pro 3 is designed to make the work experience as close to the laptop experience as possible while still giving users the flexibility to use the device as a tablet if they want to (e.g. for surfing the web on the go or reading an e-book etc).
The two things that help make it more laptop-like are the keyboard and the kickstand. Let’s start by looking at the keyboard. Gone is the Touch Cover and in its place is the Type Cover, which is better for work. It also has a bigger trackpad. But it’s still a relatively small keyboard and this makes for a cramped typing experience, especially for judo players like me with my stubby fingers!
But the chief complaint has nothing to do with the keyboard’s forms or attributes. It has to do with the fact that the keyboard is an accessory that you have to buy separately (US$130 or approximately RM420). Believe it or not, it doesn’t come bundled with the Surface Pro 3.
No doubt, other tablets by other brands (including Apple) do not bundle a keyboard with their devices but those other brands are not touting their devices as desktop replacements. You can’t seriously call your device a desktop replacement if it doesn’t come with a keyboard. It’s a strategic mistake for Microsoft to not have included one, in my humble opinion.
Next up: the kickstand. Another important requirement for a laptop replacement is the ability for the device to be propped up – necessary for heavy-duty typing. The Surface Pro 3 has a multi-position kickstand that allows you to prop up the device at different angles. While it’s easy enough to use the kickstand, it’s not as seamless as opening up a laptop. As good as these kickstands can become, they can never truly beat the laptop’s clamshell form factor. That’s the reality.
Lastly, we also have to look at price. The Surface Pro 3 is not a cheap device. It starts at US$799 (or approximately RM2,600) but can go up to US$1,949 (about RM6,300!) for the highest spec model (512 Gb of storage, Core i7 processor, and 8 Gb of RAM).
That kind of pricing puts it in the same category as laptops and not tablets, which are usually way much cheaper. So, for the consumer, it can be viewed as either an expensive tablet or a moderate-to-highly priced laptop (though one that is not quite as good as a laptop for work purposes).
This won’t please either the tablet or the laptop crowd. It’s really for those who truly want to own just one computing device rather than two.
According to Microsoft’s own research, over 90% of people who own iPads also owned a laptop computer. So, it seems people are used to owning both tablets and laptops at the same time. Will that change significantly now that the Surface Pro 3 is available?
For sure, some people will want to own only one device. But I suspect that it’s not the majority. I still own an iPod and a phone although my phone can double as an MP3 player. That’s because the iPod is still a superior MP3 player than a phone. Similarly, a laptop is still a superior work machine than a hybrid tablet/laptop can ever be.
Oon Yeoh is a new media consultant.