Where the Surface stands tall -- and falls flat

Microsoft is gearing up for its second-generation Surface. Here's what it should hold onto, and what it should change.

Microsoft Surface
With Surface, Microsoft offers its own slant on tablets, for better or for worse. Josh Miller/CNET

It's no secret that there are some serious issues around competition and Windows that spell trouble not only for Microsoft's Surface, but for other tablets, detachables, and convertible devices running the latest incarnation of Microsoft's venerable operating system.

But there is also some cause for hope. Recent findings from Reticle Research, where I'm the principal analyst, show that more consumers are interested in purchasing new Windows form factors than traditional notebooks. In fact, more consumers express intent to purchase such devices than actually have them today. As Microsoft's tablet efforts will soon resurface in a next-generation device , Redmond should pay heed to what worked and what didn't in Surface's initial incarnation.

What rose to the Surface
• Looking up. Both of the existing Surface models were panned for the low quality of the images they captured, a frequent weakness with tablets. However, both Surfaces had a unique feature. The camera was installed at an upward angle so that when the Surface was tilted back, the camera would face straight out. Unfortunately, though, the angle was not adjustable, so trying to take a picture or video with the Surface while holding it could force some creative picture-taking angles. The next Surface's camera should be able to compensate for different tablet angles.

• Plugged In. Beyond backward software compatibility (mostly absent in the Surface RT), Microsoft mostly relied on compatibility with legacy devices -- primarily via USB -- to differentiate Windows devices.The girth required for a full-sized USB port has required most tablets with USB to use a mini-USB adapter, but having the full-size connector has a couple of advantages such as enabling easy wired connections to peripherals and flash drives.

What sunk below the Surface
• Top dollar. In its many flirtations with hardware prior to its recent repositioning that includes a commitment to devices, Microsoft has positioned itself at or near the high end of its categories. Beyond any notion of brand pride, this has made sense as historically other companies in the Windows ecosystem have been quick to compete on price. Both Surface RT and Surface Pro, however, had unique pricing challenges. Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said that the Surface RT would be competitively priced against the iPad. It was against Apple's latest, but Apple kept an older model in the market for $100 less to fend off larger Android tablets. Then the company brought the iPad entry point down even further with the iPad Mini.

As for the Surface Pro, the choice of a powerful Intel processor, higher-resolution display, and stylus all helped differentiate the Intel-based Surface from its ARM-based sibling. However, it also put it in the pricing realm of premium ultrabooks that represent a smaller market. Surface Pro's battery life was also disappointing, something that should be addressed with the next round of Intel processors.

• Type-casting. Apple's Smart Cover was a clever and popular accessory, but no one would say that the iPad was defined by it. The same can't be said for the keyboard covers that Microsoft created for the Surface. Defending the Surface's legitimacy as a PC while trying to differentiate it from other tablets led to the snap-on keyboards that became Surface's signature feature, promoted in the break-dancing bounty of its commercials. But this left the Surface with something of an identity crisis and vulnerability to two well-established device classes. Even when using a tablet that includes Microsoft Office, users need to type substantial amounts of text only occasionally on a tablet, while those who really need to hunker down for some serious text generation would probably favor a laptop.

The Surface keyboards had other issues. While the default Touch Cover achieved amazing thinness and a workable typing experience, it was only slightly thinner than the Type Cover, which provided a far more familiar experience. Unfortunately, the Type Cover added even more to the price of the Surface. Both covers also had a comically small trackpad. Perhaps Microsoft anticipated or wanted to encourage people using the touch display to navigate, or perhaps it simply ran out of real estate. But for those who didn't want to keep touching the screen, competitive products provided a better trackpad.

• Big-foot. Because there was no hinge supporting the Surface as it rested on top of its keyboard covers, Microsoft put a kickstand on the back of the Surface. Not only did this add a bit of thickness, it also made for a fairly large footprint when used with the keyboard covers and made it difficult to use in the lap for casual screen typing as with iPad's Smart Cover. The kickstand-and-cover emphasis on landscape orientation reinforced the PC-like qualities of the Surface, while diminishing the portrait orientation with which the iPad has had so much success.

Correction, August 22 at 7:21 p.m. PT: This column originally mischaracterized the kickstand capabilities of the Surface. The kickstand supports the tablet in both landscape and portrait modes.

 

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