The Philadelphia Inquirer Jeff Gelles column
Feb 14, 2013 (The Philadelphia Inquirer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Microsoft's new Surface Pro is tough to pigeonhole. Is it a tablet that doubles as a laptop A teeny laptop that doubles as a tablet An upgrade to last fall's Surface RT that runs actual Windows 8 A svelte solution to the age-old hassle of taking work home or on a plane
On the surface, here's the Pro: an $899 tablet that, with a couple nifty add-ons, morphs into a $1,100 micro-laptop. With its sharp, HD display and Windows 8's "live tile" apps, the touch-screen tablet will keep its owner engaged for four or five hours without a power cord. Outfitted with a $130 compact "Type" keyboard and a tiny $70 "Wedge" mouse, the Surface Pro is a laptop suitable for nearly any professional use.
But dig a little, and you'll realize it's wrong to see the Surface Pro in isolation. To Microsoft, it's less a device than the centerpiece of a strategy born from years of being outshone, if not always outsold, by Apple and pathbreaking devices such as the iPhone and iPad. Microsoft's annual report makes it clear that this isn't a one-off, calling Surface "a series of Microsoft-designed and manufactured hardware devices."
In Microsoft's dreams, its customers will come to see its Surfaces as something else still: as a centerpiece, along with their Windows Phones, of a complete ecosystem, much like the ones Apple has created with iOS devices and Google with its Androids.
It may lack the pizzazz -- or the legendary lines -- of an Apple product launch, but the Surface Pro's debut since Saturday has even been marked by tight supplies, which a Microsoft exec linked to "amazing" customer response but which also may have something to do with disappointing RT sales.
If you can get your hands on one -- as I did last week, courtesy of Microsoft -- here are highlights of what to expect:
The core. The Surface Pro's core is a familiar tablet-style computer, with a 10.6-inch touch-screen display. To accommodate Windows 8, both the $899 64-gigabyte version and the $999 128-gig version come with 4 gigs of random-access memory, twice the RAM of the Surface RT and four times that of an iPad.
At nearly two pounds, the Pro is thicker and a half-pound heavier than the RT or an iPad. In compensation, its depth fits a full-size USB 3.0 port, as well as a microSDXC card slot and a Mini DisplayPort, to accommodate extra memory and peripherals.
What else Front- and rear-facing HD cameras, an accelerometer, gyroscope and compass -- all de rigueur now for an aspiring tablet. And a "Surface Pen" -- a stylus that doubles as a pointer and an input device that captures your scrawls.
The keyboard. Introduced with the RT, Microsoft's Touch and Type Cover keyboards connect via a powerful magnetic strip and transform the Surface into a serviceable laptop. Maybe there's someone who disagrees, but I find it hard to imagine why anyone would choose the Touch to save $10 ($120 versus $130), even if it does come in bright hues.
The Type Cover is an impressive creation -- a close-to-full-size keyboard suitable for pleasing a touch-typist that adds about a half-pound to the package. With it, the Pro weighs in a bit above 2.5 pounds -- between the 11- and 13-inch models of the MacBook Air and lighter than most of the new Intel-powered Ultrabook hybrids.
Battery. With a predicted life of four to five hours, this is the Surface Pro's most obvious shortcoming. That's half the life promised for a lower-powered Surface RT or iPad, and well less than the life of most Ultrabooks, though comparable to the life of an 11-inch MacBook Air.
Windows 8. The Surface Pro's specs may represent a trade-off between weight and battery life, but in Microsoft's view, there was no compromise on software. Unlike the Surface RT, which runs only app versions of Windows programs, the Pro can handle Windows 7 desktop applications as well as anything designed for Windows 8.
Its display may be a bit cramped for a large Excel spreadsheet, but with the Pro's elegant, built-in stand, it should be an easy fit for a jet's seatback tray.
As for apps, Microsoft is still far behind. Hendrik Koekkoek, an analyst at Netherlands-based Distimo, says the Windows 8 store counts about 43,000 apps, versus more than 700,000 apiece in Google Play and Apple's App Store -- including more than 337,000 designed for the iPad.
Microsoft says its offerings should meet most users' needs -- look before you leap if you need a particular app. But if you or your employer is wedded to Windows, the Pro may meet needs you didn't even know you had.
Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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