New Surface tablets still don’t have a market: Peter Nowak

It's not the hybrid device it wants to be


With Microsoft launching its second-generation Surface products and Apple announcing a refresh of its iPad line today, we might as well call this Tablet Tuesday. Yet, while Apple is certain to get the majority of the day’s headlines, it’s actually Microsoft’s products that are more interesting, mainly because they illustrate the rather decided state of the market and how difficult it’s going to be to crack.

I got to play around with the two new Surface tablets last week at an event in Toronto and I generally liked what I saw. Microsoft is bringing two new products to bear, with each apparently aimed at different markets, although both are being billed as productivity tools. The lighter and cheaper Surface 2 is the company’s main tablet competitor to the likes of the iPad or Nexus 7 while the Surface Pro 2 is the next iteration of its effort at tablet-laptop hybrids.

However, despite both devices having some neat features, upsides and improvements over their progenitors, I’m still not sure whether there’s really a market for either. I don’t think I would buy either of them for their intended purposes, if at all.

The Surface 2, to start with, is aimed mainly at students and professionals who need to do a bit of work but who also want a tablet for play purposes, largely because it comes bundled with Office RT, which has versions of Word, Excel and so on.

That’s a nice throw-in but it’s hardly a game changer considering the plethora of iOS and Android apps – many of which can be had cheaply or for free – that perform the same functions. While Office used to be the best or only game in town, the reality is that it’s not at all necessary for many users today.

The Surface 2, like the Pro 2, has another bonus over many competing tablets in that it has a USB port for plugging in peripherals, but again, I’m not sure that’s much of a selling point. I can’t think of too many situations where carrying a printer or game controller along with the tablet is really all that practical.

Conversely, a starting price of $449 is simply too steep for what is otherwise an entry-level tablet. Although the Surface 2 is comparatively priced to similar 10-inch rival tablets, it’s significantly underpowered in terms of what it can do thanks to a lack of apps. Unlike the Pro 2, it can generally only run apps that are custom-made for it, of which there are few compared to iOS. The Windows Store has certainly come a long way since launch and is up to about 100,000 apps, but that’s still only about a quarter of what Apple has for the iPad.

And never mind the old quantity-versus-quality debate – the spread of ubiquitous computing and the Internet of Things is so far happening mainly on Android and iOS, with other platforms such as Windows largely being left out in the cold. Getting in on this action is perhaps the biggest challenge facing Microsoft today.

The Surface Pro 2 is an even more interesting beast. I’ve been positively negative on it ever since it was announced a year ago. When I finally got my hands on it earlier this year, my suspicions were confirmed: it was too heavy, too short on battery life and, at around $1,000 with its optional-but-actually-necessary keyboard cover, too expensive.

The update supposedly improves on battery life – Microsoft representatives last week declined to give an exact estimate, but said the new device doubles the old one and will “last the day.” Even if it does, the Pro 2 weighs the same and still comes in at $899 without a keyboard cover – in other words, it’s still too costly.

The heftier tablet’s advantage over rivals, of course, is that it runs a full Windows 8.1, so you can download pretty much any programs onto it that you want, just as you’d do with a PC. It’s also got the USB port and, like the more basic Surface 2, a dual-angled kickstand for more comfortable lap-top use.

Microsoft is strongly pitching the Pro 2 as a hybrid replacement for the laptop-and-tablet combo, arguing that it’s better to replace two devices with one.

In some cases that’s true, but not necessarily so in this one. I’m actually writing this while traveling and I’ve got an ultrabook and seven-inch tablet with me; the laptop is great for work while the tablet is equally good for play. They are each super light and portable, to the point where I don’t consider it a hassle to carry them both – and I’m very conscious of weight while traveling (I almost never check luggage).

Would it be awesome if I could have one device that replicated both those experiences without compromising on either? Sure, but the Pro 2 isn’t that device. It’s not as good or comfortable to type on as a laptop and it doesn’t have the same breadth of entertainment options or comfort of use as a small tablet.

Hybrid devices inevitably incur tradeoffs, but they also raise the value of dedicated gadgets because they heighten the user’s awareness and need for a better experience in a given task. A certain portion of power users will be willing to accept the Pro 2′s tradeoffs, but because the quality and respective prices of those rival dedicated devices is relatively good and continually improving, Microsoft is going to continue to have trouble attracting a wider audience to this particular strategy.