The Surface Pro's available storage problem

The Surface Pro's available storage problem

Summary: Microsoft's Surface Pro tablet/notebook has much less available storage capacity than other tablets. While my ZDNet colleague Ed Bott defended Microsoft, they clearly goofed. Here's why.


Is it a tablet or not? Ed argues, in effect, that the Surface Pro is really an Ultrabook in tablet guise. As an Ultrabook, its usable storage capacity is on par with the market leader, the MacBook Air.

But Microsoft isn't calling it an Ultrabook, but a "laptop in tablet form." And it shares the same root name - Surface - with the Surface RT, which has been out for months and is marketed only as a tablet.

The Surface Pro can also be used as a tablet, albeit a thick, heavy tablet with lousy battery life. So, is it a tablet or an Ultrabook?

Perceptions matter A marketing truism is "perception is reality." Not in the Fox News sense of making stuff up, but in the mind of the customer: if they believe it, that is the reality the seller has to deal with.

Thus it is possible - and all too common in tech - for companies to be honest and correct and still run afoul of customer perceptions. Which is just what Microsoft did here. Their marketing messages are leading to confusion that the capacity fracas highlights.

Where Microsoft went wrong With the Surface Pro Microsoft is pioneering a new PC form factor: the tablet PC. Yes, there have been other "tablet" PCs, but this is the first that attempts to take the best of the iPad - form factor, app store, keyboardless use, vendor integrated - with a touch-optimized full Windows OS.

Here's how Microsoft can start to fix their confused marketing:

  • Call the Surface Pro something that acknowledges that it is a new category of computer. UltraTablet perhaps?
  • Focus the Surface brand only on iPad competitors, not UltraTablets too. Why? Think it through: in 3-5 years UltraTablets - if successful - will probably be the fastest growing part of a shrinking PC market, while Surface tablets will be the consumer platform of choice for people who don't want to manage a PC. Touch will be everywhere and the Surface brand will obscure important differences between Microsoft's touch-enabled platforms. 
  • Give up your non-standard binary measurement of storage as Apple did several years ago  adopt the IEEE/SI/IEC standard meaning of gigabyte as 1 billion bytes. Consumers and your marketing people will be less confused, your apparent capacities will be larger and you'll be supporting standards.

The Storage Bits take The Surface Pro is a worthy v.1 product, much more usable than the first MacBook Air, but it will need a couple of year's advances in CPU, storage and battery technology to become an Ultrabook competitor. But if Microsoft marketing continues down its current confused path the Surface Pro may never make it to v.2.

And for all of us who benefit by robust competition, that would be a real shame. I hope that Microsoft will up its marketing game to match the fine engineering of the Surface products.

Comments welcome, of course. And please, no rants about base 2 capacity metrics being the "standard." They aren't, so move on before the problem gets worse.

Topics: Tablets, Apple, Storage, Microsoft Surface

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  • 64GB is just wrong.

    I put one through it's paces at a store yesterday, had 10GB free brand new as shipped and sitting on the display shelf. I think MS screwed up by installing a 64GB drive in these at all. Should have been a minimum of 128GB with 250+ as the upgrade.

    Also Robin, you do a disservice to ZD in your politically motivated BS comments and analogies.
    Bba Hunter
    • Only 10GB?

      Can you provide some screen for example from diskpart with 'list vol' command? I order 64GB, I should get it tomorrow, salesman assured me that there is 29GB free space available for user. Microsoft says this same:

      For me this is not big problem, I plan add memory card (at least 64GB), this is just enough for me, but I wonder what "eat" so much space on your device.
      • You couldn't possibly be planning to do much with it

        Windows has a habit of growing really fast. Put in Office and Adobe CS, and all that space (SD card included) will be done in no time, between temp files, swap files, and user files.

        I can't imagine getting anything less than the 128 gb Surface Pro.
        • don't worry

          Don't worry about me, I manage to temper my Windows very well. Try use 'quota', this is realy nice feature who can help. Also if you have at least 2GB ram (Surface have) then you can set pagefile lower limit to 128MB and higher to 512MB.
          Windows also have built in tool to backup recovery partition (action center / recovery) to USB, then you can remove it and reclaim ~5GB (what I do in first place).

          I use Windows 8 RTM version from 'day one' on my laptop, and with all my tools (Terminals from Codeplex, tools from sysinternals, office... and bunch of other software --like you see and don't use Adobe and other "hogs") on 50GB root partition I have steel almost 30GB free space... So once again, don't worry about me, I exactly know how much I need.
        • Surface Pro should be marketed as a "Tablet PC"

          Robin wrote "Yes, there have been other "tablet" PCs, but this is the first that attempts to take the best of the iPad - form factor, app store, keyboardless use, vendor integrated - with a touch-optimized full Windows OS."

          There have been previous Tablet PCs that ran earlier versions of Windows. Many were in tablet form, and WERE "keyboardless". The earlier Tablet PCs also WERE "touch-optimized"... it wasn't multi-touch, but it was touch using a stylus, similar to what the Surface Pro includes.

          Earlier Tablet PCs also had a short 4 to 5 hour battery life, similar to the Surface Pro. The difference is that the Surface Pro has 64 or 128 GB internal storage, while the previous Tablet PCs had larger storage using hard drives.

          Microsoft should have called the Surface RT and Surface Pro, Tablet PC RT and Tablet PC Pro.
          Harvey Lubin
        • Wrong!! There is more on there already than you realize!!

          A full version of Office 2013 is already on the drive. You do have to buy a license but Outlook, PowerPoint, Publisher, Word, Excel and Access are all loaded and will take up no additional space. There is also antivirus already loaded and there is a full recovery image. If you use Office 365 for the license you also get an additional 20 Gb of SkyDrive. I just got one and so far I love it. I have no intention of using it as my main computer but as a Tablet that will also let me do some work unlike the iPad which does not even have a USB slot. Also the 1080p screen on the Surface Pro provides an amazingly clear and detailed image.
      • Re: Only 10GB?

        Well if you add it all up. Pre-installed programs + Windows 8 apps + recovery partition (which can be moved to USB) = less free space. But at least you can change that so you're not stuck with little space left.
    • It is true that the Best Buy display models only have 10GB free

      I have noticed this on a few of their windows8 models, where an insane amount of space is taken up by something they install. Not sure what it is, but it seems pretty common on their display models.
      • Best Buys install their demo crapware

        which talks about their GeekSquad and their lousy services with some stupid videos they have sewn together. It takes up to 10GB of space. Also there is trail version of full Office 2013. Also Microsoft Popup stores and some Best Buys have Chrome, Firefox, Steam Client installed in the demo units, just to prove that the claims made by Steam CEO and others totally wrong.
        Ram U
      • Re: It is true that the Best Buy display models only have 10GB free

        I know for sure that apart of it is for the recovery partition. That, with the pre-installed programs would probably take up some space. The good news is, you can change that by moving the partition to a USB drive (from what I've heard) and you can remove the programs you don't want.
    • Micro SD

      Just pop-in a 40$ 64gb Micro SD... and everybody will be happy. Even whining bloggers.
      • You Seem Not To Own One...

        Unfortunately, the solution is not that easy.

        Microsoft did a REALLY BAD job with the SDXC expansion. Unfortunately, aside from the Libraries trick that allows to somewhat use the expansion slot (with the OS indexer that doesn't work properly in this case), downloaded apps from the store just cannot be stored there (yet).

        It would indeed be the ultimate solution that would have shut all the whiners down. Microsoft just missed this incredible opportunity. Again.
        • *chuckle*

          "Unfortunately, aside from the Libraries trick that allows to somewhat use the expansion slot (with the OS indexer that doesn't work properly in this case), downloaded apps from the store just cannot be stored there (yet)."

          Yea, the library trick is for the RT.
          • Trick for RT

            For RT is simply 'workarround', junctions.
        • Format as NTFS

          and map the partition(s) to an empty folder(s) on the C drive. Seems to be working so far.
          Will Herrmann
        • Sorry... I own one

          I bought a Surface RT 64gb on day one... And I luv it. I'm getting ready to order a Pro as soon as it is back in Stock. I bought a 32Gb Micro SD and use it for pictures, videos (mp4, avi, and fkv), and docs. Since you can't add additionnal Windows softwares, besides Win8 Apps, you don't need that much disk space.

          For the Pro model howevever, everybody should buy the 128gb and still put an SD for comfort.
      • Micro SD is not the solution


        I know you feel clever in saying the $40 64gb SD will be a good work around for you, but that's just it. It is a work around. So basically every person that wants to buy the (very expensive) Windows Surface, they have to add the price of an SD card in at the base price.

        Microsoft has to prioritize shrinking their install foot print. An OS that requires that much space is ridiculous. Seriously ridiculous! I would say almost an environmental issue, as the natural resources required to make memory is finite on this planet. Every time a tablet is charge, or memory is used, that requires energy. That energy might seem insignificant, but with millions of users and computers running, that add's up! and to cover a massive OS install like Windows 8 and the power it requires to running it, could be considered worse for the environment than the Hummer V!
        • fanboi

          You cant even do that on an iPaid
          Master Wayne
          • Unreal

            Wow. Just wow is all I can say on a bunch of these comments.

            First off. Most of you are speaking from an experienced and seemingly self service perspective. You seem to think that because YOU know how to move a recovery partition to an SD card that 100% of the rest of the people would know how. Because YOU think something is easy or trivial that 100% of the rest of us will see it the same way.

            The negative arguments you are seeing about the DEFAULT AVAILABLE SPACE affects the majority of people buying this device. There will be countless of those that are just frustrated and annoyed that out of the box they are not even getting half of the labelled space on the box. They won't understand these "easy" workarounds you all keep bantering about.

            As for your comment about "you can't even do that on an iPad". Well it doesn't NEED to. The Surface seems to NEED to do this right out of the box and you pundits defend it just like the iPad fan bois defend their choice.

            There are serious flaws in the design and implementation of the Surface that may break it. There are also many advancements that may make it a valuable tool. Time will tell as will sales.

            The other comments here are rediculous. 'you should buy the 128 GB model AND an SD card to be safe'? Buy an SD card. $40 for an SD card - come on that isn't much.

            So basically I am annoyed that to defend the product OUT-OF-THE-BOX the suggestion is to spend more money? Wow. You guys are gluttons for punishment.

            I do not dislike the Surface, but seeing all this just makes me wonder who the Cult followers really are.....
        • Surface Pro Bad For Environment?

          Wow, that is the most ridiculous comment aimed at the Surface Pro. If what you say were true then all laptops should be considered bad for the environment. Windows 8 takes no more memory then OSX Lion. Microsoft has added a recovery partition, which can easily moved to a flash thumb drive.