Feature Article

September 23, 2013

Surface 2 Tablets Better, But Are They Good Enough?

Given Surface was Microsoft’s first attempt at building its own tablets, they weren’t that bad. Having said that however, sales clearly underperformed expectations and that means they weren’t good enough. Surface 2 tablets are dramatically improved and they generally address the complaints folks made about the first generation product.   However, they still have to rise above the noise of a market awash with tablets, most of which are pretty cheap.   Let’s take a look at the problems with Surface 1 and the promise of Surface 2.

Surface Generation One

The first generation of Surface tablets forced an ugly choice.   Part of it was that the technology wasn’t really ready yet and the other part was that Microsoft made some foolish decisions.     The technology that wasn’t ready yet was Intel’s processors.   Atom, the product designed for tablets, didn’t have enough power and Core, the product designed for laptops, was too expensive and too power hungry. This resulted in the Pro tablets being expensive, heavy, and lacking in battery life.   Not a good combination at all and the creative industrial design with the removable keyboard and magnetic charging plug couldn’t overcome the limitations. 

The Surface tablet based on Tegra 3 was priced in range, was light, and it was very thin and Microsoft even tossed in Office. Problem was the Office version they tossed in didn’t include Outlook one of the keystones of Office effectively crippling the product. In addition, Windows 8 was new to ARM and clearly not well tuned for it because it did drag a bit.    I think this part was livable but the lack of Outlook made the product a non-starter for most in what otherwise might have been a great product.

The lesson vendors don’t seem to want to learn is that folks won’t buy a product they perceive as crippled.  

Surface Generation Two

While Surface was struggling in market both Intel and NVIDIA were busy and their next generation offerings are far more capable.   It comes with a better screen and has Windows 8.1 (which addresses many of the initial complaints of 8.00. Surface Pro 2 now has better battery life and it is thinner, price has come down about $150 and they have improved the display and you can now even angle the screen (first generation had a fixed angle kickstand which was particularly annoying if you used Skype to video conference).   It comes bundled with a year of Skype calling showcasing this last change.   While battery life still lags the ARM version, there is an optional battery keyboard option which adds 50 percent battery life. This option should also work with the old Surface Pro.

The ARM version of Surface is not crippled. It gets Outlook as part of the 8.1 Windows release and most of the hardware changes of Surface Pro. This is a Tegra 4 based product which provided a significant bump in performance and they are reporting a gain in battery life as well. Unlike the first generation of this product it will take the battery keyboard which should give the product battery life approaching 15 hours.   As before the ARM version of the product starts at under $500 and won’t run legacy applications other than Office which still comes bundled.  

If you want to step away from legacy applications, much like you would with an iOS or Android tablet, then Surface is right for you and you get Office as a bonus.   If you need legacy apps you pay more and take a battery life hit - but neither is as severe as it was with the first generation of Surface Pro and you should be happier with both products.  

In my own personal case for a tablet, weight and battery life are key, and that has me favoring the Tegra ARM product for personal use but I know a lot of folks that want this to replace their laptops and the Pro version has performance and backwards compatibility in line with an Ultra Book.

Wrapping Up: Is it Enough?

Microsoft is pounding on the iPad with the current Surface campaign and it clearly is hurting Apple sales but doesn’t seem to be driving a lot of interest. I think this is largely because the current version of the ARM product is crippled and the Pro product really isn’t competitive with a Tablet being more of a Notebook like product.    Surface 2 is far closer but folks have long memories - and given how the first generation performed - will have to overcome their perception of that product to see the new one fresh.   That’s a big task for marketing and Microsoft has traditionally underfunded efforts like this.   If they step up Surface 2, particularly the Tegra 4 version could be a success, if they don’t, it will be an opportunity missed. 

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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