Microsoft's Cheaper Surface Tablet: 8 Key Facts

Jul 16, 2013 (12:07 PM EDT)

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10 Ways Microsoft Could Improve Surface Tablets
10 Ways Microsoft Could Improve Surface Tablets
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Now that Microsoft has slashed $150 from the Surface RT's cost, the base model joins a growing number of devices in the sub-$400 tablet market.

At $349, the 32-GB version of Microsoft's tablet is only $20 more than the 16-GB iPad Mini. It's also within spitting distance of the $400, 8-inch Acer Iconia W3, which, unlike the Surface RT, runs the full version of Windows 8. The iPad 2, which lacks a Retina display, and the Nexus 10, a popular Android tablet, also check in at $399.

The 64-GB Surface, meanwhile, joins the base iPad with Retina display at $499, though Apple's device offers only 16 GB of storage. An influx of cheap Windows 8 tablets and Ultrabooks is also entering the market around this price.

When it launched last November, Microsoft touted the Surface as a transcendent tablet, suited not only to touchscreen apps and media consumption, but also workplace productivity. That tactic hasn't worked out; sales have been slow, OEMs all but abandoned Windows RT, and Microsoft has resorted to dumping inventory at recent conferences.

[ Can renaming divisions and shuffling executives bring a legitimate payoff? See Microsoft Reorganization Signals Big Challenges Ahead. ]

The first Surface wasn't worthless, though; it just didn't offer enough to justify its premium price tag. Now that the cost has come down, is Microsoft ready to shake up the BYOD tablet market? If you're thinking of buying a newly discounted Surface, here are eight facts to consider.

1. Surface's Storage Advantage Isn't As Extreme As It Appears

Have you wondered why Microsoft doesn't offer a 16-GB Surface to match the 16-GB iPads? It's because Windows RT requires too much memory to produce such a device; a little more than half of the 32-GB version's storage is dedicated to the OS. Android and iOS eat up storage space as well -- but Windows RT is still many times larger.

In other words, the 32-GB Surface doesn't offer much more usable space than the 16-GB iPad, but it begins to offer a value proposition as capacity increases. Microsoft's 64-GB tablet easily offers more space for the money than a comparably priced iPad with Retina display, for instance.

2. Surface Doesn't Come With A Keyboard

Microsoft produces two keyboards for its Surface products -- the ultrathin Touch Cover and the more robust, but still slim, Type Cover. They cost $119.99 and $129.99, respectively, and unfortunately, neither comes included with the newly discounted Surface RT.

Most other tablets don't include a keyboard either. But Apple has never made word processing software a key part of its iPad marketing. Microsoft, which bundles Office Home & Student 2013 RT onto each Surface RT, has.

3. Microsoft Office Is Hit Or Miss On A 10-Inch Screen

Microsoft believes that the ability to run Office on a tablet is one of Windows 8's major differentiators, but the advantage hasn't translated into market share.

One reason? The Surface's 10-inch display is fine for light work, but the device isn't a true laptop replacement. The small screen will exhaust power users, and for anything beyond note-taking and brief emails, the cheaper Touch Cover won't cut it.

Windows 8.1 will deliver better multi-tasking, which means it will be easier, for example, to copy information from several websites into a Word document. And even in its current form, the Surface RT could help an on-the-go person be more productive. But that productivity has limits.

4. Build Quality Is Excellent, Battery Life Is Good, And The Screen Is Okay

Plastic construction and shoddy workmanship typify many low-cost tablets, but devices like the iPad Mini have shown the potential for excellent build quality at an accessible price. Like Apple's tablets, the Surface RT is solidly constructed. It weighs about the same as a Retina-equipped iPad but its magnesium alloy construction gives it a confident feel -- sleek but sturdy.

The Surface's screen is serviceable but not as luxurious as the chassis. The display's 1366 x 768-pixel resolution is less dense than the iPad Mini's 1024 x 768-pixel screen, and Retina-level displays, such as the iPad's, are noticeably sharper and more vibrant.

The Surface's eight-hour battery life is respectably close to the iPad's 10-hour rating. The Surface's battery also outshines many Windows 8 tablets, including the Surface Pro. That said, new Win8 devices with Intel's Haswell chips are expected to match or outlast the Surface.

5. Windows Store Is Subpar

Windows 8.1 will offer new development platforms and tools, and a redesigned Windows Store. These enhancements might help the Win8 ecosystem over time, but for the present, the Surface RT's app library pales in comparison to the competition.

Windows 8 and Windows RT now include many of the big names such as Netflix and, soon, Facebook. But it's the smaller apps that often make tablets useful at work -- the ones that make people more productive by keeping them better connected or organized, or that allow workers to do aspects of their jobs, such as documenting evidence in the field, in a new way. Microsoft might be able to counter iOS's FaceTime with Windows RT's Skype -- but without this fuller portfolio of offerings, many Surface users will feel limited.

Compared to comparably priced Windows 8 tablets such as the Iconia, the Surface still underwhelms. It's not clear whether desktop apps such as Photoshop will be useful on 8-inch screens -- but at least the Win8 tablets give users the option. WinRT devices, such as the Surface, are confined to the Modern UI touch apps in the Windows store.

6. Windows 8.1 Will Deliver Important Enterprise Enhancements To Surface RT

At some companies, IT staffs have adapted to manage the full diversity of BYOD devices and platforms. At others, Windows remains the standard. For those environments, the Surface RT's reduced cost could be attractive.

Initially, the Surface RT lacked many business-friendly features. Windows 8.1 will address this, however, with additions that include VPN support and access to Microsoft Outlook.

7. Surface Doesn't Do Much With Its Extra Computing Power

The Surface RT runs on an Nvidia Tegra 3 quad-core, 1.3-GHz processer and 2 GB of RAM. The iPad Mini seems comparatively puny with its dual-core, 1-GHz Apple A5 chip and only one-quarter the RAM. But the Surface RT has been criticized as sluggish, whereas the iPad Mini has been called slow only in relative terms; it's a responsive Apple product, through and through -- just not as snappy as a brand new iPad with Retina display.

The Surface's performance might lag but it's adequate. By the holidays, though, Intel should be shipping its Bay Trail Atom chips. These will fuel fast, ultra-light tablets that run the full version of Windows 8 and are expected to become available for less than $400. A Surface 2 is also rumored for later this year, or early 2014. If you want a Surface-like tablet but can afford to wait, you'll likely be rewarded.

8. Surface Has More Peripherals Than Most Tablets -- But Not Cellular Access

Plugging USB drives into an iPad requires proprietary cables. Cloud storage and mobile apps have made such peripherals less essential than they once were, but for many users, accessories are still mandatory. Some Android tablets offer USB ports, but for its class, the Surface supports an unusually broad range of add-ons: microSD, USB 2.0, micro-HDMI and even a mouse. Unfortunately, the Surface is also laptop-like in that it is Wi-Fi only. Without the cellular plans that competing tablets offer, Microsoft's entry could limit those who prioritize mobility.