Make sure to check out our review of the Microsoft Surface with Windows RT tablet.
At a high-profile press event in Los Angeles yesterday, Microsoft took the wraps off its forthcoming Surface tablets. The devices represent a new kind of blend between the mobile technology world and a traditional PC, and mark the first time Microsoft will be manufacturing its own Windows-based devices and competing directly with its OEM partners (like HP, Dell, Samsung, Lenovo, Sony, and many more) in the hardware market.
Much of the media coverage so far as looked at the Surface tablet as Microsoft’s attempt to make an “iPad killer.” But is that really Microsoft’s game? Or does the Surface tablet represent something else: Microsoft’s best effort to move Windows 8 off boring-old-PCs and into the mobile world?
What is Surface?
At a fundamental level, Microsoft’s Surface tablet products will be slim tablets with 10.6-inch screens and a super-thin membrane keyboard that connects to the tablet with magnets and doubles as a screen cover for the device. The Surface isn’t a tablet as the market currently understands them — as exemplified by the iPad or devices like the Kindle Fire. It’s more akin to a slimmed-down version of a convertible tablet PC. It has a touchscreen and can be used as a Windows 8 tablet, but can also be used like a traditional notebook computer, at least if you’ve got something you can use as a table or a desk, since the Surface’s built in “kickstand” doesn’t seem like it will be very amenable to laps.
Initially Microsoft plans to market two versions of Surface. The first will be based on an Nvidia Tegra processor and run Windows RT. That means it’ll have Microsoft’s new Metro interface for Windows 8, but aside from versions of Office and Internet Explorer for Metro, won’t be able to run Windows desktop apps. A second, slightly larger version will be based around a version of the Ivy Bridge Intel Core i5 processor. That version will be slightly heavier and pack more battery power, but will also run Windows 8 Pro. That means, in addition to the touch-centric Windows Metro interface and apps, users will be able to run traditional Windows desktop applications. (The Pro version will also include a stylus for pen input, a feature which has failed to capture the imagination of the Windows ecosystem for over a decade.) The Windows RT version should hit the market at the same time as Windows 8 — current speculation puts that around October of this year. The Intel versions will follow a few months later, and that seems to mean early 2013.
At the Surface’s introduction, Microsoft’s Windows president Steve Sinofsky summed up Surface as “A tablet that’s a great PC; a PC that’s a great tablet.” That statement truly seems to crystalize Surfaces’ design: It’s a device that tries to split the difference between a tablet and PC.
For all that Microsoft tried to copy a page from Apple’s famed product announcements in introducing Surface yesterday, the company omitted quite a few details.
Processors and battery life
The Windows RT version of Surface will be powered by an Nvidia Tegra processor, and the Windows 8 Pro version will run an Ivy Bridge Intel Core i5 processor. However, the company hasn’t revealed whether either of those processors will be dual-core or quad-core units. An argument could easily be made that most tablet users don’t have a need for quad-core processors. After all, very few applications (other than high-end games) are likely to need four processor cores — even the A5X chip in the latest iPad is dual core. But more cores leads to more power consumption — another major topic Microsoft hasn’t discussed. The Windows RT version of Surface will ship with a 31.5 Watt-hour battery. That’s more powerful than the 25 Watt-hour battery Apple put in the iPad 2. If Microsoft plays its cards right, the Windows RT version of Surface might achieve similar battery life (about 10 hours of use on a full charge) or even a bit more. The Windows 8 Pro version of Surface will apparently ship with a 42 Watt-hour battery — that’s nearly identical to Apple’s most recent iPad. However, with an Intel processor, a Windows 8 Pro device is likely to come in under the third-generation iPad for battery life. Expect to get about six to eight hours of use from a Windows 8 Pro device — maybe enough for a full workday, but it’ll be a close thing.
Microsoft is packing two cameras into the Surface tablets: one front-facing, and one rear-facing, but hasn’t offered any other details. The front-facing camera will obviously leverage Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Skype — if we were to hazard a guess that it will be capable of 720p resolution. Microsoft describes the rear-facing camera as a LifeCam, referring to Microsoft’s existing peripheral camera line, but that’s not really helpful since those run the range from 1080p video all the way down to VGA resolution. With the built-in kickstand, Microsoft is positioning the rear-facing camera as a way for Surface owners to record events or meetings hands-free.
What do we know about the Surface tablets’ displays? Virtually nothing. Microsoft describes them as “ClearType Full HD Displays” measuring 10.6 inches; they also have a landscape orientation. If Microsoft is serious about the “Full HD” description, that would mean the Surface tablets sport at least 1,920 x 1,080 displays, which would give them a pixel density of about 210 pixels-per-inch.
That’s a dense display, but not quite at the same level as the third-generation iPad (264 ppi) or iPhone 4S (326 ppi). However, it is comparable with the 220 ppi in the latest MacBook Pro. At the unveiling, Microsoft described the display has being constructed in such a way that users wouldn’t be able to distinguish individual pixels during normal use.
The Surface tablets feature dual MIMO antennas for strong Wi-Fi connectivity, but Microsoft hasn’t said a word about whether it will offer versions of the tablets with integrated 3G or 4G mobile broadband. Mobile carriers are, of course, eager to get mobile broadband capabilities built into every device possible; however, 3G and 4G radios still tend to jack up the price and lower battery life. If we were to guess, we’d bet Microsoft eventually offers a version of the Surface tablet with contract-free mobile broadband as an option — that would make the device’s designed-for-Skype functionality that much more compelling to folks who love videoconferencing.
Microsoft has not mentioned whether the Surface tablets will integrate with Microsoft Intune (a cloud-based device management system for Windows PCs) or Microsoft System Center: These will be key elements for enterprises and other larger organizations who might want to consider rolling out fleets of Surface tablets rather than adopting iPads, Android devices, or even sticking with BlackBerry solutions. If Surface tablets, or a version of Surface tablets, can integrate with enterprise mobile-device-management solutions, Microsoft should have an easy time selling Surface tablets to schools, governments, and corporations. If Microsoft does not support mobile device management, it means the company truly is targeting the consumer market — where, aside from Xbox and Kinect, it has had no hardware successes.
Other than headphones, the Apple iPad famously features just a 30-pin dock connector. If you want to use it with other media or devices, you need adapters, cables, a docking station, or a computer. But if there’s one thing the Surface tablets aren’t missing, its ports. The Windows RT version of the Surface tablet will feature USB 2.0 ports, a microSD slot, and microHD video output. The Windows 8 Pro version steps up to USB 3.0, microSDXC, and DisplayPort video output. Bluntly, aside from Ethernet and VGA output, the Surface tablets have all the basic expansion and port options you’d expect on a netbook or ultraportable notebook, and that will make it easier for Surface tablets to fit into the Windows ecosystem.
That Microsoft has omitted so many details is frustrating. It has tried hard to capture the buzz and anticipation that traditionally surrounds Apple product announcements, but lack of detailed information about the Surface tablets conveys the impression that Surface is still isn’t finished. Redmond won’t even commit to the actual size and weight of the devices. Although Apple doesn’t always have products available the day they’re announced, the company never shows a half-finished product, with the possible exception of Siri. It’s understandable that Microsoft may not have finalized all the details of a product it doesn’t expect to put on sale until early 2013 — and that begs the question, why did Microsoft jump the gun?
What about price?
There’s one more thing Microsoft hasn’t disclosed about the Surface tablets: how much they’ll cost. Microsoft has said only that it expects the price of the Windows RT version to be comparable to the price of other consumer tablets, while the Windows 8 Pro version will be comparable in pricing to Ultrabooks.
The Apple iPad seems to set the standard starting price for consumer tablets: $499, with the previous-generation iPad 2 starting at $399. The first generation of Ultrabooks started well over $1,000, but are now hitting prices as low as $750 (like the Lenovo U310), although some are still at $1,400 and higher.
Following Microsoft’s guidance, Surface tablets could run anywhere from $399 to $1,400. To be sure, storage options will impact price: The Windows RT version will be available with either 32GB or 64GB of storage, while the Windows 8 Pro version will pack up to 128 GB. Similarly, if Microsoft offers versions with 3G or 4G connectivity, they’ll cost more: Apple traditionally charges $129 more for an iPad with 3G, so it’s likely Microsoft would target about the same price difference.
Microsoft’s pricing for Surface tablets will be telling. If the company matches or beats Apple’s pricing on the iPad, the company will be sending a clear message that it wants to compete in the consumer arena, where the iPad is its competition. If, on the other hand, Surface tablets start at prices higher than Apple’s entry-level iPads, Microsoft is sending a different signal: Surface is a high-end product that can compete with notebook computers.
Microsoft to OEMs: You must be this tall to ride
The Surface tablets represent a major change of focus for Microsoft: For the first time, the company is making Windows hardware, rather than designing software that runs on other company’s devices. In a way, this can be seen as an evolution of Microsoft’s growing concern over hardware platforms. After all, with Windows Phone, Microsoft laid down a pretty specific set of hardware requirements that, arguably, have led to a fairly generic ecosystem of Windows Phone devices.
At the Surface tablet unveiling, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer noted that hardware and software have a dynamic relationship, each pushing and pulling the other forward. Ballmer opined that Microsoft has a “unique” perspective of what a Windows 8 device can be, and felt the time was right to step up and create devices that, perhaps, hardware makers hadn’t considered.
So far, Microsoft’s major OEM partners haven’t had anything to say about Surface, but it’s hard to imagine they’re terribly pleased. Microsoft is reportedly charging OEM’s anywhere from $80 to $95 for a license to Windows RT — a licensing cost that Microsoft doesn’t incur if it makes the hardware itself. Let’s say Microsoft can make the Windows RT version of the Surface tablet for $400 and sells it for $500. To match Microsoft with a competing product, hardware makers would only be able to put about $310 to $320 into their product’s hardware in order to match Microsoft’s pricing and margin. That’s going to mean omitting things like cameras, reducing storage and RAM, going with less expensive (and perhaps less effective) battery technology, or going with cheaper (and slower) processors. Alternatively, that $80 to $95 per unit might give Microsoft the money to offer 3G and 4G capable versions of its products for the same price its competitors can manage for Wi-Fi only.
Effectively, the Windows RT version of Surface looks like it will be setting the baseline for Windows RT devices. Think of it like a sign outside the Windows 8 rollercoaster that reads “You must be this tall to ride.” If the Windows RT version of Surface is truly priced to be competitive with consumer tablets, the price of Windows RT licensing fees will make it impossible for OEMs to compete effectively. There will undoubtedly be less-expensive Windows RT devices on the market, but they will be clearly inferior to the Surface tablet.
Is Surface an iPad killer?
During last April’s conference call discussing Apple’s first-quarter earning’s call, Apple CEO Tim Cook was asked about a convergence product that combined an iPad with a traditional notebook computer. Cook didn’t discuss Apple’s future product plans, but offered a now-famous observation: “Products are about tradeoffs. You begin to make tradeoffs to the point that what you have left at the end of the day doesn’t please anyone. You can converge a toaster and a refrigerator, but you know those things are probably not going to be pleasing to the user.”
Microsoft’s Surface tablet is exactly that “ToasterFridge.”
Sure, the Surface tablet will function as a typical consumer tablet. Users can touch the screen, use gestures, load apps, and tap into the Internet, social media, the Web, and all their media. But with Surface Microsoft is tacitly admitting that it doesn’t envision any Windows 8 experience is complete without a keyboard. (And, frankly, it remains to be seen how effective the Surface keyboards are. Reports from Microsoft’s introductory event are mixed.)
If the Surface tablet’s build quality is as good as Microsoft claims — and they do look very good — the devices ought to win over many fans, particularly amongst folks who need a full Windows desktop experience without the bulk of a traditional Windows notebook. Windows users who looking for highly portable productivity solutions like corporations may be thrilled to pieces.
Only time will tell, but literally tens of millions of people who have purchased iPads, Kindle Fires, and other devices may disagree that a tablet needs a keyboard. As innovative as the Surface tablets may turn out to be, they may come across as a device stuck in the past rather than expressing a bold new vision.
For a closer look at how the Surface and iPad stack up check out Microsoft Surface vs. Apple iPad (Retina): Spec showdown