Third time's the charm: Buyers might choose new Surface over laptop

Panos Panay

Panos Panay, Microsoft's Surface chief

Credit: Microsoft

Microsoft is still pushing hard on the laptop replacement angle.

Despite months of rumors suggesting that Microsoft would unveil a smaller Surface model, it instead announced a larger one today. While that might disappoint some who were hoping for a Microsoft answer to the iPad mini, Microsoft executives made a strong argument for a larger device, particularly in combination with some new accessories.

Microsoft has been pushing Surface tablets as laptop replacements since they first launched in 2012. With Surface Pro 3, introduced today, Microsoft now has a tablet that could really replace a laptop.

The laptop replacement argument is particularly important now that tablet sales are slowing. If Microsoft can convince laptop shoppers to choose a Surface instead, it may not suffer from the tablet trend.

Given the specs of the Surface Pro 3, the device is clearly targeted at business users and not the competitive consumer or BYOD market, said analyst Jack Gold.

"This is a smart strategy, clearly differentiating Microsoft's product from other tablets and the best hope for Microsoft to finally have an impact on this space," he wrote in a research note after the announcement.

Surface Pro 3 seems to solve some of the problems that prevented previous versions of Surface from serving as a laptop replacement.

One is that it has a slightly larger screen than previous models. The Surface Pro 3 has a 12-inch diagonal screen. That compares to 10.6 inches on the Surface Pro 2. That bigger screen puts it the same league as many laptops.

Microsoft has also tweaked the snap-on keyboard yet again, but in ways that might actually allow people to use the Surface Pro 3 instead of a laptop. The new keyboard has an additional magnetic strip that lets users fold the keyboard slightly so that it makes a stronger bond to the edge of the tablet. The addition strengthens the hinge in a way that stabilizes it for comfortable use while sitting, Surface chief Panos Panay said.

Panos Panay with Surface Pro 3 on his lap Microsoft

Panos Panay demonstrates using the Surface Pro 3 on his lap. 

In addition, the kickstand on the Surface Pro 3 can be positioned at any angle. The original Surface took some criticism for having a kickstand that clicked into a position that was uncomfortable for using on your lap. The new keyboard also has a much larger trackpad.

"I am sure that this is the tablet that can replace the laptop," Panay said.

He also boasted of long battery life on the new tablet; the spec sheet shows nine hours of "Web-browsing" battery life.

Microsoft will offer a new docking station that lets users slip the Surface into the dock at their desks in order to use a full keyboard and mouse. Given the larger screen size, some users might be content to use the Surface at their desks.

The Surface Pro 3 will also come with a pen. Pens have been tried many times over the years with little success -- Steve Jobs famously said "if you see a stylus, they blew it," when he introduced the iPad in 2010. But Microsoft has added a few neat features to this one in hopes of offering better reasons for people to use it. For instance, clicking the end of the pen, in the same way you'd open a regular ink pen, automatically saves whatever you've been working on to OneNote.

Anyone can pre-order the Surface Pro 3 starting tomorrow. Microsoft didn't say when they'd ship.

It's definitely priced as a laptop replacement. The least expensive model, running on an Intel Core i3 with 64 GB of storage and 4 GB of RAM, will cost $800. On the high end, a Surface Pro 3 with an Intel Core i7, 512 GB of storage and 8 GB of RAM runs $1,949. Add to that the detachable keyboard for $130. The docking station costs $200.

As word that Microsoft would introduce a larger tablet rather than a smaller one leaked out in advance of the announcement this morning, the company was being praised for the decision. Smaller tablets have been losing momentum and so it makes sense for Microsoft to focus instead on trying something new.

Also, a smaller Surface would probably run Windows RT, the version of the operating system designed for ARM chips. Since Windows RT requires app providers to re-write their apps to run on the platform, it currently lacks many of the apps that people want for work or play. Microsoft took a $900 million write down on Surface RT after failing to sell many of the tablets a year after launch.

Panay and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella both pushed hard on the laptop replacement angle when they introduced the product this morning. If they can convince laptop buyers to consider the Surface, they might avoid some of the pain facing other tablet makers that are now wallowing through a slow-down in sales.

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