Microsoft Surface Pro 3: New hardware but the same old questions remain

Microsoft Surface Pro 3: New hardware but the same old questions remain

Summary: The Surface Pro 3 has refined Microsoft's hybrid vision again, but does it really fit in with our usage of tablets and PCs?

Image: Microsoft

Microsoft's latest tablet PC, the Surface Pro 3, went on sale earlier this month (in the US at least — it doesn't reach the UK until August). With every iteration the Surface Pro improves; this latest version ups the battery life and improves the kickstand to make it easier to type on your lap. And it's great to see Microsoft injecting new energy and thinking back into the PC market again (just don't try to take it apart).

This time around, Microsoft's marketing made the bold move of explicitly putting the Surface Pro 3 head-to-head with Apple's MacBook Air — a brave move, considering that, generally, the Surface hasn't come off very well in many comparisons.

Updating the hardware is good, and Microsoft's continued commitment to the Surface format is likely to make consumers and businesses more comfortable about buying them. The much-rumoured Surface Mini would make a nice addition to the family too.

But for many people, Surface still says more about Microsoft's needs than the needs of its customers: Microsoft needs to make Windows work on tablets, but customers still need convincing that they need to work on Windows tablets.

That's because the way people use tablets is a bit more complicated than just as a straightforward PC replacement. Pitting the Surface Pro 3 against the MacBook Air — and against laptops in general — highlights Microsoft's difficulty in positioning it.

Here's how I think the PC/tablet market is developing.

Consumers: no need for a laptop replacement?

Consumers want multiple screens to use in different ways. For many, tablets are almost (but importantly, not exact) PC replacements. Even a basic tablet will allow consumers to do most things, via a browser or an app. Consumers don't do much word processing or spreadsheet work, but when they do, they've almost certainly still got a PC or laptop somewhere about the place that they can dust down and boot up.

So, for consumers, a tablet that does some but not all of the things a PC can do is perfect — because they've already got a PC. The absence of standard PC features from a tablet is not a limitation, but a selling point (sure, consumers will still buy a laptop at some point, but the refresh cycle will get a lot longer as these devices will be used much less regularly).

The situation is complicated for businesses, too. Many of the tablets in use are brought from home (iPads and Kindle Fires are popular options), but that's accepted because tablets remain additional devices, used for a bit of note taking or the odd presentation.

Professionals: not enough of a laptop replacement?

Windows tablets are undoubtedly attractive to enterprise buyers because these devices will fit in with rest of Windows-powered corporate estate. However, it's unclear how many of those corporate buyers there are these days.

Business users may be happy to use a tablet as an additional screen, but I doubt that the concept Microsoft is pushing, of swapping your laptop for a Surface Pro 3, will appeal to the majority. Read Mary-Jo Foley for a good comparison between the Surface Pro 3 and a Windows 8.1 laptop (spoiler alert: the laptop wins).

If business users don't want to swap their laptop for a Surface, that means Microsoft's hybrid laptop/tablet slips into the category of an additional device. A hybrid tablet that can truly replace a laptop has a decent market to attack. However, a device that will be an expensive additional screen will be a much harder sell.

So where is the use case for something like the Surface Pro 3, and how does it differ from the laptop use case? This is the trickiest part of the problem. Is the ideal user someone who needs a tablet and a laptop, and Windows? Someone who can make notes with a digital pen and do a certain amount of work on a keyboard, but not so much that they need an integrated keyboard? To me, that seems like a relatively limited subset of people (oddly, it matches journalists pretty well). 

Market upheaval

Then again, the existence of Surface is itself a reflection of the ongoing upheaval created by the arrival of tablets, which have forced the PC to evolve, mutate and splinter. Nobody has quite figured out how to respond, which is why we'll see plenty more of these hybrid devices over the next few years. But I don't think the idea of trying to combine a tablet with a laptop is entirely the answer.

At the same time, our use of these devices is evolving. One group that Microsoft has been targeting with the Surface range is students, which makes sense. Students don't have the same desktop PC and laptop heritage as older users, so perhaps, freed from the memories of computing past, they will be more willing to embrace a hybrid PC future.

ZDNet's Monday Morning Opener is our opening salvo for the week in tech. As a global site, this editorial publishes on Monday at 8am AEST in Sydney, Australia, which is 6pm Eastern Time on Sunday in the US. It is written by a member of ZDNet's global editorial board, which is comprised of our lead editors across Asia, Australia, Europe, and the US.

Previously on Monday Morning Opener


Topics: Mobility, Emerging Tech, Microsoft

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  • Never been a tablet person

    I tried to like tablets, buying the first iPad and then a Nexus 7. Both were good at what they did. But I found myself always gravitating back to my laptop. I actually found a second device I like over my laptop. But to my surprise it ended up being a Chromebook. I'm still not convinced the Chromebook is what I want it to be. But I do not plan on paying over a grand for a Surface Pro and keyboard to replace any laptop. In fact I don't even pay over $600 for a laptop of any kind anymore. I am not ready to say a $250 Chromebook is all I need. But I can say a Surface Pro is not on my list for a primary or secondary device. Neither is a Macbook Air, or anything else at that price range.
    • Chromebook + Tablet is good ... and a bargain.

      I found having both has widened my options, and I use both; which one depends on whether I'm watching tv / on a day trip / travelling well away from home etc., etc.

      I can't imagine ever going back to a laptop, and I see absolutely no need for a laptop with a detachable keyboard. Good luck to those that do!

      Nexus 7 + Chromebook = about half the subsidized cost of a Surface; waaaay under half full price (+essential extras). And my battery life is infinitely better.
      • Limited needs...

        If a Nexus 7 and a Chromebook serves all your needs, more power to you. But that in itself speaks far more to the limited nature of your needs than any inherent advantage of those devices over the Surface.

        I can walk to literally every food, clothing, goods store, and every doctor's office I need to visit. That doesn't make the capabilities of an automobile any less adventitious to everyone else, and it would be ignorant and arrogant for me to suggest it did.

        My grandmother could handle all her computing needs with a calculator watch. Does that mean your Nexus 7 and Chromebook are superfluous?
        • There is a big difference

          Chromebooks limitations are basically related with the availability (lack of apps) of software when compared with a traditional pc. Even the best calculator - that is more expensive than many chromebooks - will always be limited when compared with other computing devices.
          But calculators are very good at what they do best, understanding why a calculator has its place would be a good example for teaching Microsoft - is not just about doing more, is about doing it better.
          • Yes and no

            Yes, Chromebook's primary limitation is one of software, but many/most are based on very modest hardware - low-power Intel or ARM processors and usually no more than 16 gigs of storage. Specs like these will place serious limitations on the type of applications developers can, or would be willing to, develop for ChromeOS.

            And I'm not knocking ChromeOS or Chromebooks, they're great for tasks which are in-line with it's capabilities. I have small Android sticks attached to each of out TVs, and they're perfect for such use.

            " not just about doing more, is about doing it better."

            You're falling into the trap so many others do - offering a personal opinion as unequivocal fact. There are cases where doing more IS doing it better, and there are ways in which, for the right person, the Surface both does more AND does it better.

            You're holding the Surface to a standard which you impose on no other device. Laptops are essentially PC's that have sacrificed much to gain portability. Laptops aren't expandable/up gradable with the exception of memory and storage, they have limited available ports, and their processors are inherently far less powerful than desktop ones.

            You could make the very same argument of doing better over just doing more with laptops - there's a myraid of ways in which a laptop does worse than a desktop to gain the ability to do more through portability. The very same thing is true of tablets and Chromebooks - they make great sacrifices in terms of capabilities to gain portability and ease of use for simple tasks.

            So you readily accept limitations and compromises in these other devices, but when it comes to the Surface, it has to exceed the capabilities and effectiveness of *all* other devices *combined* or it's deemed a failure.

            Lastly, I'd really love for people who criticize the Surface in these comments to offer whether or not they've ever actually seen or used one. Given the fact that Microsoft isn't raving about sales numbers, it's pretty save to say most people haven't. That being the case, their complaints really need to be seen in a different light when contrasted to the generally favorable opinions of those who actually own and use the device.
          • I my get tired of the Google world

            So far my only concern with a Chromebook is getting tired of being in the Google world.
            I am waiting to see how the Android/ Chrome OS thing plays out. I personally don't expect the Chromebook to perform as my Windows laptop does. I still need a Windows laptop for several things for my work. But the Chromebook gives me a very light mobile platform when I know that I won't need much more then a browser. Yes, the ARM CPU is limiting but not as much as I once thought. The Mali GPU does 1080p very well and even works using HDMI on my TV. Not a Chromecast fan I prefer Roku so I am not Google Play committed. The Surface is not without compromise to gain portability. Again, it pushes the user towards cloud based storage and while able to still use traditional programs. Its local storage is limiting unless you pay a premium for more.
          • I too am waiting for a 'windows' moment.

            All of these seperate ecosystems detract from user experience. Just like the early days of the home pc and the internet, everyone is jostling to own your usage of their product. Historically this has always eventual fell to an open policy.

            I think this is why the very idea of a chromebook grates a little bit with me. I think it's fantastic that a company like google is able to offer a low, price, low performance laptop for the masses. The fact that it is intentionally held back to be more limited than what came before is just nonsensical to me.

            Had the chromebook come to a world of only MacBooks, I'd probably have owned a couple by now. But the reality is they are replacing netbooks and ultra budget laptops which had a great deal more functionality. It's like the grounding of concord - we went backwards technologically.

            The trouble is that at the moment, there is no one opening up the ecosystem model - all just trying to create their own. This will change eventually - people want to have an iphone and an android tablet and a windows laptop (or any mix there of) and have all their data sync. This will happen. All that remains to be seen is who implements it first.

            As for the surface - that's a bother strange product. The surface pro makes a lot of since and when it was first unvailled I was impressed. It should be priced up with mba's. However what microsoft have seemingly forgotten is that their existing market base was not too spec gaming laptops and such - it was the low end; sub $600 laptops. This was a huge percentage of their current user base. It's also the proportion of the username they basically gave up on - surface rt? Sure it has limited appeal, but it didn't have any advantage of windows, and offered less than android and ios. AMD and intel do make super mobile chips like atoms and G-series chips that are a more sensible option for entry level windows tablets.
          • You ignore the linux foundations...

            You can use a Linux based system for whatever you want, and not be tied to a specific vendor, or even CPU architecture.
          • Wow!

            Something I didn't know. :-)


            [And it take Itanium then?]
          • Not at all

            I'm an open suse guy.

            M&s I'm glad you brought up the linux subsystem - it's what I'm talking about. You take a fully featured unix derived system like linux and then you restrain the heck out of it's gui. It's bonkers.

            As for the mint box, or even just getting a chromebook and running ubuntu on it I'm in. But then I do that with all my machines anyway. Chrome's litterally just taking linux and making it worse.
      • $299 asus transformer T100

        Less expensive than your option, offers all the functionality and more.

        No need to juggle between two different operating systems with two different ecosystems trying to sync and convert things between the two over the cloud and none of the limitations of ChromeOS or Android.

        Full powered operating system notebook and tablet.

        Simple, powerful, flexible and affordable. I no longer need to worry about which device to take anywhere, which device will or won't allow me to do what I need to do. Which device has the program I'm looking for. Which device will connect to peripherals. Which can do work or play.
        • This will be interesting...

 see how people respond to the fact that you can get a full Windows convertible for the same price as a Chromebook, let alone a Chromebook AND an Android tablet. Especially when you can run the Chrome browser on Windows in a full-screen ChromeOS "desktop" mode, it's hard to see what advantages a Chromebook provides that would justify the limitations.

          I suspect it all boils down to an "Anything but Windows" mindset, which is fine, I no longer consider buying Apple products, but I'll readily admit it's because I disagree with the practices of the company, I won't try to fabricate criticisms of their products.
        • Yes, I agree

          I have considered something like the T100 because its less expensive and does Windows well. The 2 in 1's look interesting but I have decided that my next laptop/hybrid will not have a screen smaller then 13". The 11.6" Chromebook is too small and even though you can run two windows side by side, its pretty much worthless doing so on a small screen.
          • Steve Ranger, you don't even have a clue!

            Folks I bought the first Surface which means RT, nor a Windows 8 computer but with the same limitations as Android tablets. Had they supported IMAP email in that first Surface RT model with the Office "Apps" on the limited desktop I might have kept it. At that point in January 2013 I wanted a tablet that would replace my Galaxy Tab which was nothing more than a glorified cell phone that did not make calls just like the iPad.

            I got a deal on one of the first full Windows 8 tablet hybrids, the 11.6" screen HP Envy X2, which did, and still does everything my Windows 8 All In One desktop does. (Dell XPS 2720 high end touchscreen machine) We kept the Surface for awhile and sold the Galaxy Tab 10.1. Then we bought the Lenovo Lynx 11.6" tablet for my wife and sold the Surface RT that she inherited from me. Then we both in April 2013 had 11.6" tablets, both ultra light, and full computers. A month ago I decided to get the new Dell Venue 11 Pro and love it. See last year's Atom SoCs (SoC=System on a Chip which means the CPU and Graphics are on the same die or chip) were dual core, turbo boost to 1.8 GHz max, and had only 1 MB of secondary cache. The new Atom 3770 /Haswell/BayTrail SoC is a quad core, has a speed of 2.3GHz in turbo boost and 2 MB of secondary Cache. So I now have three full windows tablets, on a hybrid but really all of them with a USB port are hybrids.

            Mr. Ranger, you and the others who own Android tablets and iPads have no clue. Since that first Windows Tablet (Not the Surface which is RT) we loaded all our windows printer programs that scan and print and copy from the computer on each Windows tablet, I loaded our licenses of full MS Office 2010 on each tablet, and like any laptop or desktop we can install all our CCleaner, Clear Text and image resizer tools, and photoshop, along with all of opur MP3s on Windows Media Center on the Windows 8 and 8.1 Pro.

            I get so tired of reading the reviews from self satisfied writers and the chest thumping trolls who trash with no knowledge too.

            Let me help y'all instead of being ignorant or obnoxious back.

            If the iPad ran the EXACT SAME OSX that the MacBook Air runs, and had USB ports, and/or Thunderbolt ports, HDMI out ports, and micro SD card slots to add 64GB of storage and to be able to swap out cards/data in no time, then they would be the same as a Windows Tablet.

            All full Windows Tablets have all the above ports, some two USB ports, one micro for charging only and another full size USB like my Venue 11 so I can work with the power plugged into its micro USB (or charge port on others) with a full size keyboard and mouse set that connects via the full size USB port with the little wireless keyboard/mouse set USB receiver.

            I use the same desktop Logitech wireless keyboard/mouse that I bought for my last desktop and kept when I sold it. I just plug in the Logitech unifying receiver dongle and it connects instantly via 2.4GHz. NO SEARCHING FOR, PAIRING, AND CONNECTING TO BLUETOOTH! I am not locked into a tiny keyboard that lags and is hard to type on.

            Yes my Windows tablets all have Bluetooth and I use that to stream my music top my Bose Wave radios which have the Bose Bluetooth adapters on them so that they play in the background.

            For those with very bad eyesight they can ditch the tiny stands and get one of the stable tablet holders that clamp to the desk or wall and swing out of the way when not in use. Then just hook up any full size Windows desktop wireless kb/mouse set with the one USB receiver, and you are way beyond trying to type on those tiny keyboards that are supposedly mobile. If traveling I bring a Logitech K-400 which is tiny and USB with a built in on the right side touchpad. But I prefer the full size keyboards and mice so I just take them along on any trips.

            You folks have obviously not connected the dots. The new Windows start screen is similar to other tablets in that there are apps there and others you can download. But then you click on the desktop icon and voila! You are in Windows 7 pretty much. Whether you choose to use the virtual keyboard on screen because you are just entering a few lines for a search or a quick email reply, or choose to plug in the USB receiver and at your desk with the tablet on a stand, use the full size kb/mouse set for long work papers or school stuff there is no difference than using any other desktop.

            I did try a Surface Pro which is the full computer with an i5 and 256GB SSD etc. but it had much less battery run time and much more heat than my Atom Windows machines have. ( Yes, by machines I meant the tablets which are the same as any other Windows 8 Desktop or laptop) I get 8-16 hours on my different tablet systems.

            So please before you write, know what you are talking about. Windows 8 machines now come in three form factors which all share the same ports, use the same peripherals (External drives, Thumb drives, SD cards, speakers, wireless USB kb/mice,) the same identical operating system, (Windows 8 or 8.1.) Those three form factors are the laptop, desktop, tablet, all interchangeable. The desktop cannot sit in your lap but you can see the screen on a large screen TV. The tablet needs no external screen and can sit on your lap. Or connect to the large screen.

            I sold all my hot laptops and Netbooks. My atom tablets run dead cold. The i5 and i7 newest Windows tablets run pretty much cool, and have decent operating run times on battery. They all boot in under ten seconds save one that takes 15.

            All Windows Tablets outperform the Laptop form factor IMO. Heat, awkward, no touch speed, and very dang heavy!
          • Addition

            The hoy surface I bought and returned because of the heat and short comparatively to the Atoms machines battery run times was the original Surface Pro, not the Pro 2. I have played with the Surface 3 and love it. It does not get hot like its predecessors, and run times are essentially the same or just a bit under the Atom machines.
          • correction not hoy but hot

            I have some in the first one too. I was on a full size keyboard on my desktop. I am now better on a virtual keyboard.
    • Notebooks vs Tablets

      I also have a Chromebook and a Nexus 7. As you say, both are good at what they do, but after the novelty wore off, the Nexus gets very little use. It's good for casting audio or video to a Chromecast, and I am utterly addicted to a good solitaire app, but other than these, I have very little desire/need to use it. There are tablet people and there are laptop people, which is fine.

      Microsoft's problem is that they are trying to pitch a hybrid device that, for most people, isn't as good as either of the two devices it tries to replace, so rather than synergy in which the sum is greater than the parts, they have the opposite situation, which is a tough sell. The new Surface Pro is an enormous improvement over the original, but is Microsoft making any money on them, or are they losing money hand over fist, as they did with the Surface RT?
      • Digial Ink For Many

        "Someone who can make notes with a digital pen and do a certain amount of work on a keyboard, but not so much that they need an integrated keyboard? To me, that seems like a relatively limited subset of people (oddly, it matches journalists pretty well)."

        It also matches students well. It matches managers that spend most of there day in meetings. It matches a lot of people that do not have good keyboard skills (that is a lot). I think the author severally under estimates this group.

        I was able to get rid of my 3 pound portfolio of paper. Now I carry around much less weight. Digital Ink is the killer app.
        • Good keyboard skills

          Any device capable of sending text messages has a QWERTY keyboard, so even the very young are used to this layout. I don't know anyone (other than people who predate televisions) who aren't well familiarized with a keyboard, or at least, the layout.

          I'd be interested in knowing who this group of keyboard-challenged individuals are.
          • Keyboard Skills

            The vast majority do not have good keyboard skills. They have to watch their fingers as they type. Many are of the single finger hunt and peck variety. Some are reasonably fast but many do so slowly.

            Are you a touch typist (types without watching your fingers)? Given a typing test can you hit at least 50 words per minute? These are minimum criteria for reasonable keyboard skills. Still, 50 words per minute is relatively slow compared to many that can hit well over 100. Can you type in numbers on the numeric pad without looking? Whey you can go over 50 and use other parts of the keyboard with out look we are starting to consider good to excellent typing skills.

            For the new generation I saw someone using both thumbs on a desk top keyboard once. They transferred there cell phone skill to a large keyboard. They were true touch typists. It was amazing to watch.