With Pro 3, Can Microsoft's Surface finally break through?

The Surface has steadily improved since launch, but it remains to be seen if the Surface Pro 3 can finally get people excited.

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It's been just over six months since Microsoft unveiled the Surface Pro 2. It was the second iteration in the Surface line, a series of devices meant to take all the things we love in our tablets, and all the things we need out of our laptops, and merge them into one happy device that's all things to all people. That was the intent two years ago when the first generation was launched, and today, at the unveiling of the Surface Pro 3, it was the same story.

Panos Panay, Microsoft VP and very much the public face of Surface, took to the stage to remind us that the new Surface is thinner, lighter, (arguably) better looking, and more convenient than any tablet and laptop combination you can buy. To prove that point, he briefly resorted to props, pulling out a balance scale, slapping a MacBook Air on one side and, on the other, a shiny new Surface Pro 3. The Surface, at 800 grams, was naturally lighter -- even with a Type Cover. He showed how the stylus made for a natural user experience, how the reprofiled display and thinner device meant something more comfortable to hold, and how the additional performance meant you can do just about anything you can do on your desktop.

So, then, is it time for everyone to give up their laptops? According to Panay it is, but then so too was it time to give up those devices when the Surface Pro 2 launched last fall...and when we first saw the original Surface before that. You could call this consistency in messaging -- or you could call it doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result.

Panos Panay Surface Pro 3
Panos Panay, VP of Microsoft Surface (right) Sarah Tew/CNET

Was the kickstand in the first Surface not flexible enough for you? The Surface Pro 2 gave you more positions. Now the Pro 3 lets you position the thing at any angle you like. The Type Cover was considerably improved in the Pro 2, but now the new one is even better, with a larger trackpad and more rigid surface. Many said performance wasn't enough in the original Pro, so the Pro 2 got a 1.9GHz Core i5 chip. Now with the Pro 3, you can step all the way up to Core i7 if you like.

Gradual improvements; steady refinement; careful honing and optimization. Hallmarks of good design, and few would deny the Surface is indeed a very well-designed piece of kit. The problem is, even if nothing was outright broken in the first generation, those who decided to buy something other than a Surface didn't do so because of minor complaints. Nobody turned away after deciding the kickstand wasn't quite flexible enough. Nobody said they needed another 10 percent or 20 percent performance before they would pull the trigger, or said, "You know, I really love this, but it needs to be four millimeters thinner." Those who went with something else had bigger concerns.

Like the software. Windows 8 launched with far from universal acclaim, a divided experience and bisected application platform that pushed many longtime Microsoft users away. With Windows 8.1, the experience got nicer, and with the recent 8.1 Update it's better yet. But still, for many, the bad taste of that first version of Windows 8 still lingers.

Surface Pro 3
Sarah Tew

We've seen gradual refinement driven by user feedback. Credit Microsoft for listening and reacting quickly, but such incremental improvements make it awfully hard to sell to a population that wasn't in love with the first iteration, especially given that many of those tuned out because the second go-round didn't rock their worlds either. The hardware is better than ever and the software nearly there, but is anyone still paying attention? Could the third time be the time for Microsoft?

 

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