by Rob Enderle

Two Microsoft Surface Tablets, Two Processors

Jun 22, 20125 mins
Consumer ElectronicsIT StrategySmall and Medium Business

One Microsoft Surface Tablet will run on Intel processors, the other on Nvidia. One will appeal to end users, the other to IT departments. Which is which isn't as obvious as it seems.

The upcoming Microsoft Surface tablets, announced amid much fanfare this week, will be unique devices in three ways. They are smaller than the smallest successful PCs, they are from Microsoft as opposed to a hardware OEM and they come in two distinct flavors—chocolate and meat. Not literally, of course, but they are made from different ingredients. Microsoft Surface will run Windows 8 RT and Nvidia Tegra technology, while Microsoft Surface Pro will run Windows 8 and the Intel Ivy Bridge core. (For comparison’s sake, Digital Trends examines the specs of the two Surface versions and the iPad.)

This distinction is critical because, while Surface and Surface Pro look the same, beneath the surface they appear to address dramatically different needs. Users may prefer the Nvidia product but might find the Intel product a better buy, since Surface Pro will have twice the storage capacity and support USB 3.0. IT, meanwhile, may initially prefer the Intel version because it is more familiar, only to find the Nvidia-driven offering far more cost effective.

Blog: Microsoft Surface Tablet a Bold Break with Tradition

In short, this decision isn’t cut and dried. Given that users, and not IT departments, tend to drive tablet adoption, figuring out which one you would like your users to bring into work may substantially increase the likelihood that you’ll get the outcome you prefer.

That said, let’s look at both offerings from the standpoint of the user and the IT shop.

Microsoft Surface Specs and End User Preferences

Obviously, the market is currently defined by the iPad, and Apple has trained buyers to look for certain key attributes: price point, ease of use and overall simplicity. Microsoft Surface, running Nvidia, is closer to this standard than Surface Pro and, of the two tablets, is the one that users are more likely to gravitate to as an iPad alternative.

Part of the reason this is the case is because Surface lacks support for legacy code. While this provides a clean, iPad-like experience, it also means the tablet won’t support a lot of legacy hardware (it uses class drivers instead), and virtually all of a user’s existing games and products won’t run on the device either.

Analysis: Surface vs. iPad: The Weight of the World on Microsoft

In short, Microsoft Surface will be the more disruptive change from users’ past Windows experience. The Nvidia-based tablet may be simpler, and more similar to the iPad, than the Intel-based Surface Pro, but the latter provides a Windows experience that users already know. Since users don’t really like change, Surface Pro may be their version of choice.

Microsoft Surface Specs and IT Preferences

IT departments don’t care for change much, either. As a result, you’d think they’d deem the Intel-based Surface Pro as the superior option, since it will be more compatible with the existing ecosystem. However, IT always wants a locked-down PC—and users, except in some financial and geographic markets, have rejected that concept. This has resulted in far more complexity at end points than IT would prefer.

Slideshow: Microsoft Surface in Pictures

The Nvidia-based tablet it basically locked down and tightly tied to Microsoft resources, just as the iPad is so tightly tied to Apple. Essentially, it’s what we at one time called a chubby client, with many of the advantages of a thin client but still capable of running disconnected from the network. In addition, while both the Nvidia- and Intel-based Microsoft Surface tablets can be remotely managed, given that users own these things per se, remote management may not be the best option.

Decisions Ahead for Users, IT Departments Alike

In short, the current consumerization and BYOD environment suggests that nudging employees toward the Microsoft Surface running on Nvidia technology may be more beneficial for IT departments. It’s a more forward-looking tablet, and it’s likely a better representation of the future of BYOD.

At the same time, the Ivy Bridge-based Microsoft Surface Pro is a far less disruptive tablet and likely provides an easier path to adoption. For the first time in nearly two decades, then, both users and IT departments have a choice of platforms. This choice isn’t trivial, either.

Thinking through this decision can help you decide which Microsoft Surface version you want personally and which one you want to point users toward. You may find the result very different depending on the hat you wear when the decision is made. It’s something to think about while you sip umbrella drinks on the beach this summer before Microsoft Surface hits the market this fall.

Rob Enderle is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance and Security. Currently, Rob writes on emerging technology, security and Linux for a variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.

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