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Microsoft Surface: 10 Best And Worst Changes

Sep 26, 2013 (07:09 AM EDT)

Read the Original Article at http://www.informationweek.com/news/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=240161743


Despite the fanfare with which Microsoft launched its original Surface tablets, consumers and enterprises have responded with indifference. Undiscouraged, Microsoft doubled down Monday by announcing the Surface Pro 2 and Surface 2, updates that offer faster processors, better screens, refined hardware designs and 200 GB of free storage, among a variety of other enticements.

Some analysts were unimpressed by the new devices, but others were cautiously optimistic, noting that although some of the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2's respective enhancements are iterative, they address many of the first devices' most glaring gripes. Still, many have been hesitant to characterize the new devices as a clear victory for Microsoft--and given the odds the tablets face, it's easy to see why.

Separate studies by research firms Gartner and Forrester indicate many people are interested in tablets that can be used more like laptops, but this interest has done little for the original Surface and Surface Pro. Poor sales forced Microsoft not only to significantly discount the original devices, but also to take a $900 million write-down related to unsold inventory. That the new Surfaces' pricing hews closer to the original prices than to the discounts doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

Neither does the performance of Windows 8 tablets in general. Research firm IDC calculated in August that Windows 8 and Windows RT slates account for a measly 4% of the rapidly-growing market. The products have been on the market for less than a year, which somewhat explains their low share. But Microsoft and its OEM partners spent a fortune advertising the devices; given that Windows tablets have struggled while shipments of iPads and Android slates are soaring past those of PCs, it's no surprise that some Microsoft investors and customers have been critical of the company's "devices and services" game plan.

Still, IDC noted Windows tablets are making progress. Earlier this month, Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi told InformationWeek that laptop-tablet hybrids such as the Surface Pro could become more popular with enterprise customers in 2014. In an interview this week, Milanesi elaborated that the Surface Pro 2's $899 base price won't necessarily deter businesses, who like that hybrids allow them to deploy a single device in place of two.

Surface director Cyril Belikoff told InformationWeek on Monday that the Surface 2 could succeed in the enterprise as a line-of-business device while the Surface Pro 2 is more of a do-it-all device that puts top-flight PC power in a sleek, portable size. In a blog post published after the products debuted, Forrester analyst JP Gownder affirmed the Pro 2's multifaceted appeal, noting that the newly-introduced Surface Docking Station allows the Surface Pro 2 to serve as a desktop replacement.

Last week, Microsoft execs told an audience of financial analysts that it remains committed to its core business products but will continue to make its own hardware, and to target consumers. Microsoft VP Panos Panay made similar remarks when he introduced the Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2, referencing future generations of Surface devices that are already under development.

Are the new devices the first step on Microsoft's path back to the top of the personal computing world? Check out the rest of our slideshow to find out.




On the outside, the Surface Pro 2 and Surface 2 look a lot like their predecessors, but internally, both devices boast significant upgrades.

The Surface 2 uses Nvidia's Tegra 4 processor, which means the new device should leave its lagging predecessor in the dust. Microsoft VP Panos Panay demonstrated during the product's debut that it adeptly handles multitasking, even if one of the open apps is a game or some other computationally intense activity. It should achieve more than 10 hours of battery life.

The Surface Pro 2 uses Intel's i5 Haswell processor. Panay said the chip contributed to a 20% increase in overall performance and a 50% increase in graphics performance. He also said the device would be faster than 95% of all laptops. "I cannot believe how many [laptops] I see that are not as fast as Surface Pro 2," he jokingly said to journalists at Monday's announcement event, many of whom were toting MacBooks.

Perhaps most important for current Surface Pro users, the Haswell chip also boosts battery life by 75%, meaning the Surface Pro 2 should last seven to eight hours between charges. The original Surface's four-hour battery life fared poorly against some laptops and virtually all other tablets, limiting its usefulness as a mobile device. For some who considered the Surface Pro and opted against it, the Haswell upgrade alone could make a difference.

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The original Surface Pro and Surface RT both featured a 10.6-inch screen, but the Pro's was a vibrant 1080p display whereas the RT's was a relatively lackluster 1366-by-768-pixel resolution. The Surface Pro 2 and Surface 2 are no longer differentiated by display quality; they will both use the same 1080p screen. Microsoft VP Panos Panay, who introduced the refreshed Surfaces on Monday, said the new screen renders colors almost 50% more accurately than the one in the current Surface Pro.

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Last fall, Microsoft trumpeted the Surface RT's kickstand, which underwent upward of 70 revisions and was later translated to the Surface Pro. Despite all that work, the kickstand wasn't perfect; though great for propping up the device to watch videos, it didn't balance well in one's lap -- a serious strike against the Surface Pro's credibility as an alleged laptop replacement. The kickstand also made for awkward viewing angles for those who are above or below average height.

Microsoft VP Panos Panay acknowledged as much when he introduced Microsoft's revamped Surfaces, joking that the original kickstand provided a perfect viewing angle for people who stand, like him, around 5 feet, 8 inches tall. The new devices feature a two-step kickstand that gives the user more options and, in conjunction with sturdier keyboard accessories, makes the devices easier to balance in one's lap.

Gartner analyst Carolina Milanesi said in an interview that she finds the new kickstand helpful, noting that with the original version, "I felt I needed to push [the device] away because the angle was too sharp." Panay said the new kickstand would change the product in ways people won't expect.

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The Surface Pro 2 and Surface 2 will ship with Windows 8.1 and Windows RT 8.1, respectively. The OS upgrades will deliver meaningful enhancements to each device. Windows 8.1 will no longer force users to jump between the Modern UI and desktop to access certain controls, for example, and Windows RT 8.1 will support Microsoft Outlook, which, like the rest of the Microsoft Office suite, will come preinstalled. Both versions of the update will also support much more robust multitasking, including the option to snap together more apps in the Modern UI.

That's all great but it doesn't make up for one of the most persistent gripes about the Modern UI's touch apps: they lack both the volume and quantity of those available to Android and iOS tablet users. Microsoft VP Panos Panay touched on this dilemma, and suggested that the Windows Store is on the rise.

The Windows Store is "coming to life," he said, noting that Microsoft's app marketplace debuted last year with about 10,000 apps but now has over 100,000. He said Microsoft understands how to balance quantity and quality, noting that the Windows Store continues to add the most popular titles from other platforms, as well as unique titles. But Microsoft's app offering is still a work in progress -- given that both iOS and Android customers can choose from around 1 million individual titles. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Panay pivoted off of Modern UI apps, tongue firmly in cheek, to "the one app we don't talk about enough: Office!"

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In an emailed statement, Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps said the Surface tablets are "not just a stage for Windows, but also Office, Skype, Bing and SkyDrive."

Microsoft VP Panos Panay made that point abundantly clear on Monday, announcing that the Surface Pro 2 and Surface 2 will provide users 200 GB of free SkyDrive storage for two years, free Skype calls to landlines in more than 60 countries, and free Skype Wi-Fi at more than 2 million global hotspots.

Panay said that if a device is lost or stolen, SkyDrive can help a user put his or her data on a new device within minutes. He also suggested SkyDrive makes up for the relatively limited storage space available on lower-end Surface models; over half of the 64-GB Surface Pro's hard drive space is occupied by the OS, for example.

"We want you to believe in our services," Panay said, adding that buying a device with 32 GB of storage is "interesting," but that a device with 232 GB of storage is "powerful."

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Microsoft had already positioned the Surface Pro as a laptop-desktop hybrid, but the company's new docking station takes the Pro line's versatility to a new level: as Forrester analyst JP Gownder pointed out in a blog post, Microsoft's tablet could soon qualify as a legitimate desktop replacement. The dock includes one USB 3.0 port, three USB 2.0 ports, an Ethernet port, 3.5-mm audio input/output connections and one DisplayPort video output.

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Some are no doubt disappointed that Microsoft will continue to sell keyboards and Surface tablets separately, but there's a silver lining: the new Surface keyboards are much nicer than the old ones.

The Touch Cover 2 is slightly thinner than its predecessor, which Microsoft VP Panos Panay said will allow users to type faster. It also now features backlit keys and comes in cyan, purple or magenta, in addition to the original black.

Another keyboard choice, the Type Cover 2, contains over 1100 sensors, which Panay said will ensure it registers what the user intends, despite its nearly paper-thin form. The original Type Cover had fewer than 100. Type Cover 2 also will have backlit keys.

Finally, for those who do a lot of on-the-go typing, or who just don't like fighting over power outlets at Starbucks, the Power Cover will be a welcome addition. It's heavier and thicker than the others but adds only a little depth and weight to the overall package. More importantly, it increases the battery life of the attached Surface by more than 50% -- meaning that even today's energy-hungry Surface Pro would achieve a respectable six hours, and that the Surface Pro 2 should last for around 10 hours.

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Microsoft is, as the previous slide attests, enthusiastic about keyboard-equipped tablets. In fact, Microsoft thinks keyboards should do more than type. These more-versatile covers, which the company is currently calling "blades," are still more of a science project than a sign of imminent products but their potential is intriguing. As the last slide mentioned, Microsoft has packed its keyboards with substantially more sensors. The result is not only better typing, but also a new kind of input surface -- like a touchscreen without the screen.

On Monday, Microsoft demonstrated a blade that can remix music with simple taps, with the user controlling the flow by applying varying degrees of pressure to different points on the pad. So if you've grown tired of wannabe DJs who use nothing but an iPhone, be prepared to see a few Surface-toting musicians.

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The Surface 2 and Surface Pro 2 improve on their predecessors more in some ways than in others. One of the areas of least improvement? Price. The Surface 2 starts at $449 for the base 32-GB model, $50 less than the original Surface RT's launch price. The 64-GB Surface Pro 2 with included pen starts at $899 and includes 4 GB of RAM. Those who want 8 GB of RAM will have to jump up to the Pro 2's 256-GB or 512-GB options, which run $1,299 and $1,799, respectively.

These prices don't include keyboards or other accessories, so most users should probably budget for more than the cost of the device alone. The Touch Cover 2, Type Cover 2 and Power Cover keyboards will cost $119.99, $129.99 and $199.99, respectively. The Docking Station for Surface Pro will run another $199.99. Surface Pro 2 users might also need to shell out for some version of Microsoft Office, but the Surface 2 still comes preloaded with Office 2013 RT.

Microsoft is also leaving the original Surface RT on the market for $349.

Some might balk at the high cost, but for Microsoft's core business customers, the Surface 2 and Surface Touch 2 might turn out to be pretty good deals. In an interview, Gartner analysts Carolina Milanesi said some companies are interested in devices like the Surface Pro because it allows them to deploy one device instead of two.

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