Microsoft’s transformation into a devices and services company got off to a rocky start last October.
The first entry in the company’s ambitious foray into the hardware market, the Surface with Windows RT, fizzled, earning tepid reviews and moderate sales.
Now, 90 days later, Microsoft is poised to take another crack at the market, with a second member of the Surface family about to go on sale.
A few more pieces of the Surface puzzle snapped into place today. For starters, there’s an official on-sale date: Beginning February 9, customers will be able to buy the Surface with Windows 8 Pro from Microsoft’s brick-and mortar stores, from its online store, and from Best Buy and Staples stores in the U.S.
The company’s hope is that buyers who passed on the Windows RT-powered Surface because of its inability to run Windows desktop software will say yes to the new Surface. It shares the same basic design as the Surface RT, albeit slightly thicker and a half-pound heavier. But it runs Windows 8 Pro, and its Ivy Bridge i5 processor should be capable of running even demanding Windows desktop apps.
Microsoft previously announced pricing for the Surface with Windows 8 Pro. The base model includes 64 GB of flash storage for $899, with a 128 GB model available for $999 (in both models, a significant portion of available memory is devoted to the operating system). Touch Cover and Type Cover accessories are extra, and unlike the Surface RT, the Windows 8 Pro version doesn’t include Microsoft Office.
Today’s Surface announcements also included expansions to the Surface RT’s availability. In “coming weeks,” Microsoft says, customers in 13 Western European markets will be able to purchase the Surface RT. Those markets include Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.
Addressing a frequent concern of Surface RT buyers, Microsoft is also planning to offer the Surface RT in a 64 GB version that isn't bundled with a black Touch Cover. The new SKU will cost $599, with Touch Cover and Type Cover accessories available as an extra-cost option.
In addition, Microsoft is launching some custom Surface peripherals. Three new limited-edition Touch Covers, in red, cyan, and magenta, will be available for $129.99. The new covers include lively patterns that are reminiscent of what Microsoft Hardware has done in the past with its input devices.
In addition, Surface buyers will be able to pick up a custom version of the tiny Bluetooth-powered Wedge Mouse for $69.95. (All prices are in U.S. dollars.)
As with earlier milestones in the Surface family’s evolution, Microsoft has severely restricted the ability of outsiders to spend hands-on time with the new hardware. At the 2013 International CES in Las Vegas earlier this month, I was one of a handful of reporters and analysts given a sneak peek at the new hardware. Based on that brief test drive, I can confirm that the Surface Pro is every bit as elegant as its RT cousin, albeit a bit chunkier.
Hardware –wise, there are a few differences from the ARM-powered RT model. It uses the identical cover/keyboards, but the Surface Pro includes a beefier (although still light) AC power supply, and it has a lightweight pen that snaps firmly into the power connector for transport. It has a single USB 3.0 port (compared to USB 2.0 for its ARM cousin). Its full HD display offers a 1920x1080 resolution, with a mini DisplayPort output capable of driving a large external monitor at up to 2560x1440.
The system seemed fast and responsive, and it generated just enough heat to confirm that yes, there really is an Intel chip inside. I wasn’t able to make any judgments about battery life based on my short hands-on session.
Microsoft’s goal with the Surface Pro is to build a best-of-breed PC that’s fully capable of competing with top-of-the-line PCs from its own partners. Businesses who shied away from the Surface RT because of its lack of legacy support should be much more receptive to this model—in theory, this is the kind of device that can convince corporate buyers to plunk down big orders to outfit an entire fleet.
Come February 9, businesses will finally get a chance to decide whether this is the Surface they’ve been waiting for. I'll have a full review after I've had a chance to spend some quality time with this edition.