The verdict on Microsoft’s new Surface tablet has been mostly positive. Reviewers have praised the device’s fit and finish, operating system and Touch Cover keyboards – not to mention Microsoft’s unusual willingness to try something new. But we haven’t heard as much about Surface Pro, Microsoft’s attempt to go beyond the consumer market and make tablets truly useful for business professionals and digital artists.
But the Surface Pro is a lot heavier (903 g versus 676 g), with a battery that’s exactly a third larger in terms of charge capacity. That’s critical, because the Surface Pro foregoes the less powerful, cooler-running Nvidia Tegra ARM processor in favor of a faster Core i5 chip and a more powerful graphics processor. All in all, the Surface Pro’s specs create the impression of a serious business machine.
But will anyone use it? And for what?
While the iPad has found plenty of applications in businesses, those have largely arisen organically as users bring their own devices (BYOD) to the office, and companies – and IT departments – try to figure out exactly what to do with them. Apple has shown little interest in directly attacking the enterprise market. Microsoft is essentially trying to outflank Apple to establish a beach head in an environment it knows better than Apple does.
To date, only two companies have designed tablets specifically for businesses: Cisco’s Cius, now discontinued, and the RIM PlayBook. Cisco had no business being in the tablet market, and its “tablet” was little more than a front end for a VoIP phone. The PlayBook, for its part, has been forced to dig out from under a corporate reputation that’s declining fast. And its initial lack of email support turned the first PlayBook into a punch line, not a viable business tool.
Microsoft’s Surface is different. The BYOD trend doesn’t apply here. Microsoft is aiming the Surface Pro squarely at businesses, and the device includes a number of business-friendly features that separate it from consumer tablets.
It Isn’t Compatible With Windows, It Is Windows
While Android and iOS both offer hooks into Windows environments, for enterprises that have bought into Microsoft enterprise tools like SharePoint, Lync and even Outlook, Windows Surface should be a much more convenient choice. While it hasn’t given word, it’s logical to assume that Microsoft will provide tools that will let Surface tablets be managed by IT departments. The Surface Pro is due some 90 days after Windows 8 launches. Perhaps that time will be used to develop specific Windows integration tools.
The Touch Cover Keyboard
Tablets have been traditionally used to consume content. But with the Touch Cover keyboard/cover, Microsoft has flipped the script. Yes, you can type on a tablet. But with Touch Cover – and especially Type Cover, its thicker, even more keyboard-like cousin – the Surface suddenly becomes able to take on an increasing number of business tasks that now require a laptop.
In fact, the Surface Pro resembles an ultrabook (MacBook Air-style) laptop in many ways. That can be seen as a complement to Microsoft’s work on Surface. But many businesses that really need a notebook will still choose a traditional laptop. Surface offers greater portability than an ultrabook (although the lack of a solid hinge means you can’t really use it on your lap) but not as much flexibility or expansion options.
Digital Artist and Content Creators
Surface and Surface Pro should also merit a serious look from digital artists and content creators. Microsoft products aren’t always an easy sell to creative types, who typically live within the Apple ecosystem. But Windows 8 is fun and vibrant, and the Metro interface brings some new design cred.
There are still a lot of unanswered questions, though. Digital illustrators typically use a “tablet” – a digitizer from companies like Wacom – to sketch out their designs. Steven Sinofsky, the president of Microsoft’s Windows and Windows Live division who helped introduce Surface Monday night, demonstrated the Surface Pro’s digital ink capability. But he didn’t show pressure sensitivity and other features that artists demand. On the other hand, full-fledged digital graphics suites based on Windows 8 should work natively on Surface Pro – a big plus.
The Heat Index?
Tablets are a godsend on the road, and the Surface Pro should be a perfect one-size-fits-all tool for business travelers, providing both entertainment and full access to their standard work tools. But there’s a potential problem: heat.
Remember, notebooks based on Intel Core chips are notorious for running hot. Microsoft said it has designed an innovative cooling system that vents the Core i5’s heat via the “seam” so that the bottom of the device stays cool. Until we can test how well that works, there’s a real possibility that the Core i5′s speed will be severely restricted to keep the device from getting too warm. Or it may turn out that professionals will have to use the Surface Pro primarily in kickstand mode to avoid setting fire to their laptops and desktops.
That kind of annoyance could make the ARM-powered basic Surface – which shouldn’t run as hot – the choice of consumers and most professionals alike, especially those who can work entirely via the Web and don’t need the full range of Windows applications. But that version runs on Windows RT and may not enjoy full software compatibility with Windows 8 programs. And since the Surface Pro does exist, software makers may be in less of a rush to convert their packages to run on RT.
Still, the Surface Pro appears to be the instant leader in business tablets. With software compatibility and a truly useful keyboard, the Surface Pro could appeal to both business users and corporate IT departments. For some business users, it might even replace a laptop as their primary computer.
Put another way, Surface isn’t really about bringing your own device to work. It’s not BYOD, but BYOS, or Bring Your Own Style.
A few minutes spent actually handling a prototype of Microsoft’s new Surface tablet reveals a solid device, combining a slightly bulky chassis with a clever Touch Cover keyboard that appears to work well – all powered by a Windows RT operating system that seems to to be a viable competitor to iOS and Android on these types of devices.
However you look at it, Microsoft’s new , Surface tablet released at a heavily hyped event in Los Angeles on Monday, is undeniably the most interesting product the company has revealed since the Microsoft Kinect motion-based controller. A very quick hands-on examination revealed real strengths, as well as some flaws.
First Impressions Only
First, a very large caveat: Microsoft allowed journalists and analysts hands-on time that could be measured in seconds. I mean that literally: groups of seven reporters were shuttled in at about 90-second intervals to listen to short presentations, take pictures and otherwise play with the device. I was able to handle the smaller Windows RT version of the Surface twice. (I didn’t get to touch the bigger and heavier business-oriented Windows 8 Pro model that will run Windows 8 on Intel Core i5 processors.)
Based on those limited interactions, I’m pretty sure users will be surprised by two things: one, how thick and somewhat bulky even the smaller Surface tablet feels, as well as the unusual integrated Touch Cover keyboard.
Solid as a Tank
If there’s one word to describe the Surface, it’s “solid”. Microsoft executives said that they engineered and iterated the Touch Cover to “sound like a car door,” with a solid snap that indicates bulletproof engineering.
Apple’s iPad evokes a feeling of luxury, while top-of-the-line Android tablets like the Galaxy Tab feel fast and efficient, but not overly polished. The Surface feels like a Cadillac: powerful, luxurious… solid. There’s nothing flimsy about it.
That said, at 1.49 pounds (676 grams), the Surface feels surprisingly heavy and and a bit bulky. Compared to the Surface, an iPad or Galaxy Tab seems significantly thinner and lighter. (The Windows 8 Pro model of the Surface will weigh almost 2 pounds – 903 grams, while a new iPad weighs 1.44 pounds – 652 grams.) The built-in kickstand, I suspect, will be a necessary crutch.
Lead photo by Mark Hachman.
Microsoft characterizes the Surface as an “HD tablet,” but didn’t disclose the resolution of the display. It will show 16:9 video natively, and the widescreen aspect ratio worked nicely running a Web browser and a mail application simultaneously. I thought I noticed a bit of jitter when the product manager scrolled the screen horizontally, but the slowdown was momentary, if at all. The touchscreen appeared responsive.
While the iPad has evolved from a content consumption device to include content-creation applications, Microsoft seems to have deliberately designed the Surface for both content consumption and creation. Key to that are the unique Type Cover and Touch Cover.
Unique Touch Cover Keyboard
Although only time (and repeated pounding) will reveal if the these innovative keyboard/covers hold up as well as a typical Bluetooth keyboard, Microsoft executives swore that they could touch-type on them nearly as fast as on a normal keyboard. And I can believe it.
I briefly tried the thinner Touch Cover. Although the key travel looks to be minuscule, I’d guess that it’s roughly similar to the “chiclet” keyboards used by the MacBook Air. Slight dimples in the “J” and “F” keys allow users to align their fingers for true touch typing. And, of course, there’s the connection – the magnetic clasp seemed solid enough to require a bit of force to remove it. (The thicker Type Cover offers a more traditional keyboard feel.)
I haven’t used Windows RT in a tablet environment before, and I was quite impressed. At first glance, it looks like Windows RT tablets will offer a robust experience.
Microsoft obviously couldn’t show off the components within the Surface tablet – and there has been no indication of where the device will be manufactured – but Steven Sinofsky, who oversaw the Surface’s development, bragged that its 2×2 MIMO internal antenna configuration would enable best-of-class Wi-Fi performance. It certainly appeared so; the demonstration tablets loaded content without a hitch. However, the demo didn’t show off the unit’s video port, a nice touch rival tablets lack.
Microsoft appears to be trying to position the Surface as a brand new class of device: the content-creation tablet. While I didn’t fall wildly in love with the hardware, first impressions of the Windows RT tablet OS suggest that Microsoft has a winner.
Microsoft demanded the takedown of a phony Twitter account purpoting to be that of Windows Division President Steven Sinofsky.
Over the weekend, Microsoft used its @BuildWindows8 account to send a message to the account owner, saying “@StevenSinofsky please see guidelines on parody and impersonation. Your account is not following them them and has been reported.”
By Saturday evening, the phony account had been removed, but a new one that was strikingly similar to the original had seemingly taken its place.
Unlike Facebook, Twitter allows users to post under pseudonyms, which has led to high-profile spoof accounts for tech celebrities, including now fewer than half a dozen for Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. But rarely has a prankster gone as deep-down the corporate food chain to parody an executive that few outside of diehard Windows geeks would know by name.
And while many of the accounts are harmless, Microsoft had reason for concern: the person or persons behind the hoax were using the fake Sinofsky Twitter account to answer questions from customers and journalists. The bio on the account did have a clear-cut disclaimer (“”I’m all about Windows 8 right now. And having a laugh. Oh, I’m not ‘the’ Steven Sinofsky by the way. He’s got a little project to focus on for now”) but that wasn;t enough to tip some people off to the satire.
Neither Twitter or Microsoft have responded to a request for comment, but we’ll update the post if they do.