by Shane O'Neill

Why Surface Pro Can’t Replace an Ultrabook (or a Tablet)

Jan 13, 20134 mins
Computers and PeripheralsLaptopsOperating Systems

For most users, the upcoming Microsoft Surface Pro is too expensive and power-hungry to bridge the worlds of tablets and ultrabooks, writes's Shane O'Neill.

The Microsoft Surface Pro tablet is set to release in “late January” — can we have a specific day already?? — and the anticipation is running high, something Microsoft needs after the mild reaction to Windows 8 and lame PC sales for 2012.

But don’t we already have a Surface tablet? Well yes, but the $500 Surface RT running the ARM-based Windows RT doesn’t have the horsepower of the upcoming Surface Pro. Not that it needs it. Surface RT is designed not to run any Windows legacy desktop software such as Photoshop and Outlook. It’s essentially an app store-based consumption device in the same vein as the iPad, just with more ports.

The Surface Pro is a whole lot more. David Pogue of the New York Times gave the Surface Pro a mostly glowing first impressions review — he only had an hour or so with it – applauding it as a speedy multi-touch tablet with all the specs of a PC that can run all legacy Windows desktop software. It comes with the Professional version of Windows 8 so it’s directed at enterprises and SMBs. And what really makes the Surface the Surface is the snap-on keyboard cover, whether it’s the flat, clothy Touch Cover ($120) or the more authentic Type Cover ($130).

Microsoft Surface Pro

Indeed the Surface Pro does shake up the tablet vs. laptop debate, and is something bold and new.

However, the argument that the Surface Pro can replace both a tablet and a PC at once does not hold much water.

Why? It’s mostly because of the Pro’s high price, but also its inability to satisfy what people have come to love about the modern tablet and the modern ultrabook. It’s trying to be two conflicting things at once, and there’s no strong evidence that tech-savvy users even want their tablet and laptop to be mashed up in the same device, although that does seem convenient on the, um, surface.

The tablet-craving public has fallen hard for super-lightweight devices with 10-hour battery life and app stores where you will always find the app you’re looking for. You can put a tablet in your coat pocket or a slim bag. Android, and more so iOS on the iPad, have been dominating the tablet market. And the iPad is increasingly finding its way into enterprises as IT departments figure out ways to make it work as a business device.

The Surface Pro, on the other hand, will only have four hours of battery life due to its power-consuming Intel Core i5 processor and will be expensive at $899 for 64GB and $999 for 128GB – and that’s not including the $100-plus keyboard-cover.

Also, compared to how the small and sleek tablet form factor of the 7.9-inch iPad Minis and 7-inch Kindle Fires have affected the consumer tablet experience, the Surface Pro will seem too big for brisk tablet-like portability at 10.6 inches. On top of that, the Windows Store is still lacking in app quantity and quality compared to Android and iOS — although it is growing.

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The Surface also stumbles as a laptop/ultrabook replacement for business users. Most workers will need to use the “Desktop” mode of the two-headed Windows 8 much of the time. Yet multi-touch on a standard desktop UI simply Does. Not. Work. Desktop apps and traditional browsers were not designed for touch navigation unless you want to use your pinky finger and be consistently frustrated.

So for the Surface desktop UI to be useful for productivity you would need the Touch or Type Cover and a mouse. A business user would need the Office 2013 suite, which you would also have to buy because it does not come free on the Surface Pro. And let’s face it, most business users are going to need more than 64GB, so the more expensive 128GB version is preferable.

Before you know it you’re paying about $1,200 for the Surface Pro. For $200 or $300 less you could buy a sleek Windows 8 touchscreen ultrabook or hybrid from the likes of HP, Sony or Toshiba with a bigger screen, much more storage, an actual keyboard and better battery life. Maybe Microsoft should have just designed the Surface Pro as an actual ultrabook; it doesn’t have the specs of any tablet I’ve ever seen so marketing it as a tablet feels false.

I don’t mean to cut down the Surface Pro before it’s even released. It certainly merits a chance to win over businesses and consumers and it might have the flexibility to change user behavior. But don’t be surprised if the Surface Pro ends up stuck in purgatory because it tried to solve too many problems at once.