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The Microsoft Surface 3 is a hybrid combination of laptop and tablet, claiming to deliver the capabilities of both in a single device. Does it achieve its goal? It exceeded my expectations by a surprising distance. But… 


Microsoft is in the process of launching their Surface 3 device, the third release of a hybrid PC-tablet that combines the touch interface and portability of a digital tablet with the full computing power of a traditional laptop computer. And I managed to get some hands-on time with one this week.

Whenever a device attempts to straddle two markets, there are always going to be trade-offs. And it is the trade-offs that will determine whether or not the device is for you.

Microsoft-Surface3

Image: Microsoft Surface 3, picture by Wired

The Laptop Perspective

The Surface 3 runs a full version of the Windows operating system used to power desktops and portable computers. Currently Windows 8.1. It means the Surface can run all the same software as a traditional computer.  Something that dedicated tablet devices cannot do today.

The Surface is incredibly thin and lightweight, and beautifully so. The fan that is necessary to cool the innards of a full computer has been completely redesigned and integrated as a thin venting around the display. It helps reduce both the depth of the screen and noise levels when in action.

Microsoft made a bold claim that the Surface 3 is 30% thinner than a Macbook Air. Well…

macbookair1

The image above shows my Macbook Air. It’s not exactly the same depth from front to back. The screen is wafer thin (but not detachable or touch-enabled – the computing power is under the keyboard), and the keyboard tapers to match the depth of the screen.

iPad-Macbook

The image above shows my iPad Air next to my Macbook Air. The Surface 3 depth sits between the two but closer to the iPad Air than the thickest part of the Macbook Air. And like the iPad Air, it is the same thickness end-to-end.

To be honest, I think Microsoft shouldn’t have used the Macbook Air as a reference point. The form factor of the current Macbook Air range is three years old and overdue a significant refresh. Making a weak claim that your shiny new device is better than a three-year old design isn’t the greatest achievement.

So the trade off… It was always going to be the keyboard. To be able to function as a tablet means being able to detach the keyboard. The Surface keyboard is attached by magnets, similar to the use of external keyboards with iPads and other tablets. Whilst a number of improvements have been made to strengthen and stabilise the attachment, the Surface is never going to be as easy to use in true laptop mode as a traditional clam-shell design. The kick-back stand is still better on a flat surface than when balanced on a pair of wobbly knees.

The keyboard itself is better than previous versions of the Surface but I’m not a fan of the alignment design, with all the keys flush. But that’s really down to personal preference. I’m used to feeling a slight spacing between keys and having a bit more feedback from them when pressed.

The biggest challenge with the design is that it limits your options. If you decide you want a different keyboard, it may or may not also be suitable as a cover. And your cover options are limited by the kick-back stand.

The Tablet Perspective

The design work at making the Surface as thin a laptop as possible also benefit its capabilities as a tablet. It’s not as thin as Apple’s iPad Air but it has certainly lost that bulky blocky feel that blighted earlier incarnations of the Surface. This one does truly feel like a tablet when you hold it. It’s a massive improvement.

But… It’s big. For use as a tablet in the workplace, and even at home, that probably isn’t a problem. But for on the move, it’s not a quick drop into a bag and off you go, or for carrying one-handed for long periods of time. The same is true for earlier versions of the full-size iPad. Only the last two releases – the iPad Mini and iPad Air – have become light enough for holding in one hand for extended periods of time. The most common use cases for tablets involve reading, and favours small, light and thin tablet devices.

And then there is the stylus. The Surface is not the only tablet to have a stylus but this is something the Apple range absolutely does not do currently. And I have remained firmly on Apple’s side of the fence on this one. I’ve tried many styluses over the years and have never found any of them to be suitable for quick hand-writing on a digital screen. If I want to hand write, it’s traditional pen and paper for me. Well… the handwriting feedback on the Surface 3 is another significant improvement over previous versions and a leap ahead of anything Microsoft has managed in the past. I was able to scrawl on screen and the output was very close to normal paper-based notes. Very impressed.

But… there’s nowhere to stow the stylus. A little sleeve can be attached to the keyboard but that risks the stylus getting caught up when you quickly drop the Surface back in your bag. I have no answers for this one. There is never going to be space to securely insert the stylus into the tablet because that would require the tablet to get thicker and we all want thinner to the point of flexing like paper. And because the stylus is digitised, you can’t use any old implement in its place so you have to look after it. But I am beginning to waiver in my conviction that styluses just don’t work.

The Hybrid Trade-Off

Does the Surface 3 achieve its goal and enable a single device to replace the need or desire for the capabilities of both a laptop computer and a mobile tablet device?

I have to give the classic consultant answer of ‘It depends’.

From a technical form factor perspective, the answer is ‘Yes – but with some limitations’. The laptop trade-off is a concern with the stability and effectiveness of the keyboard compared to the traditional clam-shell design. The tablet trade-off is that the size and weight may be an issue for the more mobile usage scenarios that are currently dominated by the 7 – 8 inch smaller tablets and that the 10 inch iPad Air has moved into. For people who are given a work device for computing requirements, a separate small tablet is likely to remain preferable for personal use unless they are comfortable with using a ‘phablet’ (over-sized phone) for reading, games and multi-media.

From a choice perspective, Microsoft’s design decisions have greatly limited the market for cases, covers and keyboards. The kickback stand will be rendered out of use if you try applying a skin cover to protect the back of the tablet. Portfolio cases tend to have their own built-in stands but can add a lot of bulk. It will be interesting to see if Logitech considers producing a Surface-compatible version of their Ultrathin keyboard. But Microsoft seems intent on people buying the Surface with its own keyboard and nothing else other than perhaps a sleeve cover to protect the entire device when not in use.

From a design perspective, my one major reservation with Microsoft taking this approach has stuck since first seeing a preview of Windows 8 in 2011. By insisting that tablets should be able to run the full Windows operating system, it risks allowing lazy development of applications instead of being forced by the constraints of a tablet to design simpler more elegant solutions suited for mobile scenarios. If in doubt, developers can fall back to traditional methods from the desktop-era. I think convergence of laptops and tablets is inevitable. Microsoft is on the right track. But by continuing to start from a desktop-perspective, the lessons in app design are not being learned and that will lead to clunkier solutions than those being designed ‘tablet-only’ in the first instance. It’s been interesting to watch Apple redesign Mac applications to more closely mimic the tablet versions over the past 12 months.

And finally, there is the cost perspective. The Surface 3 is expensive. Not as expensive as buying two separate devices but the benefit of having two separate devices is that you only take one – usually the cheaper one – when travelling and doing the sort of frequent interactions that don’t require the full capabilities of a laptop. Breakages become less of a concern. Since purchasing a keyboard for my iPad Air, I’m happy to leave the more expensive Macbook Air at the home/office as much as possible. Whilst there is a range of models available for the Surface 3, if you are really intending to use it as a single device, you will end up needing to purchase the higher-end models targeting laptop scenarios.

Tablet Price Comparison: Surface 3 vs iPad Air

Specs Surface Pro 3 iPad Air
Display Size 12″ 9.7″
Total Storage 64GB 32GB
Available Storage 36GB 29GB
Weight 1.76 lbs (798gs) 1 lb (484gs)
Price $799 $599

Note: We have to compare the 64GB Surface with the 32GB iPad Air because the 64GB Surface only has 36GB available storage due to the size of the operating system. For tablet-only scenarios, the Surface Pro 3 would be an odd choice compared to Apple or Android alternatives that are cheaper and lighter.

Laptop Price Comparison: Surface 3 vs Macbook Air

Specs Surface Pro 3 Macbook Air 11″
Processor i7 i7
RAM 8GB 8GB
Storage 256GB 256GB
Keyboard    $130 included
Base Price $1,549 $1,349
Total Price $1,679 $1,349

Note: storage is using solid-state drives, SSD. For laptop-only scenarios, yes there are far cheaper alternatives out there. But for this specification, you are likely to be spending over $1K regardless of vendor or operating system. But the Surface is $300 more expensive than a Macbook Air. 

Hybrid Price Comparison: Surface 3 and keyboard vs iPad Air and keyboard

Specs Surface Pro 3 iPad Air  Macbook Air
Total Storage  128GB  128GB         128GB
Available Storage    96GB  115GB         115GB
Device Price    $999    $799           $898
Keyboard Price    $130      $99      included
Total Price $1,129    $898           $898

Note: Have gone up to the maximum iPad Air storage spec because a single hybrid device is likely to have larger storage needs than a dedicated tablet. Have used the Logitech Ultrathin keyboard for a price comparison (retail price). There are cheaper alternatives on the market but that happens to be the keyboard I use. Have included the nearest Macbook Air spec for price comparison but the MBA is not yet suitable as a tablet

The Market

The Surface Pro 3 is a lovely device. The improvements over previous versions are significant. The stylus interaction is the closest I’ve experienced to matching pen and paper. It’s incredibly lightweight and thin, and feels more like a tablet than a laptop whilst still being able to perform all the traditional functions of a laptop. It really is an impressive device.

But to close out, the one question I still have is: “Who is the target audience?” It seems to be a fabulous choice for a niche market. Perfect for business travellers, particularly tech-savvy ones, who previously would have purchased a high-end ultra-slim laptop and are happy with using a phablet as a phone/mini-tablet combination for the more consumer-style mobile interactions. But that is a limited scenario. I honestly don’t know if that is Microsoft’s intent – establish the potential in a small market and hope for others to pick up the baton elsewhere versus become a serious player in tablet devices and hybrid form factors.

References


Flickr image at the start of this post: ‘Amphicar Postcard’ kindly shared by Alden Jewell

Microsoft Surface 3 image by Surface Tension by Wired (forgot to take some pictures yesterday – doh!)

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Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. Hello Sharon,

    Thanks for the review – I hadn’t realized that there even was a third generation of the Surface until I read this. Having acquired its predecessor, the Pro 2, last year, I won’t be upgrading any time soon (though the new screen size and ratio would be a definite improvement). The Surface life-cycle is a bit too rapid and pricing a bit too steep for such casual new-toy buying …

    I just really wanted to pick up on your comments about the possible product audience: I’m currently a grad student, and the Surface Pro is the nearest thing to an answer to my prayers that has ever come on the market. The combination of running full MS Office and the note-taking capabilities offered by the stylus leaves it with no competitors, at least for those who are wedded to MS through preference or necessity. Perhaps grad students occupy another niche of tech-savvy users who need serious functionality rather than a smart-phone on steroids?

    Best regards,
    Rachel

  2. Hi Rachel

    Thanks so much for your comment and perspective. I wondered if the Surface would be a good option for students and confess I assumed it might be priced too high. It’s good to hear that it is indeed working out well in that scenario. And no, don’t upgrade if you’re on the 2 🙂 Well, maybe as a graduation present? Good luck with your studies!

    Thanks again

    Sharon.

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