F or decades, Microsoft has subsisted on the milk of its two cash cows: Windows and Office. The company's occasional ventures into hardware generally haven't ended well: (AST)cough (AST) Zune, Kin Phone, Spot Watch (AST)cough(AST).
But the new Surface Pro tablet, which went on sale yesterday, seemed to have more going for it than any Microsoft hardware since the Xbox.
Everybody knows what a tablet is, right? It's a black touch-screen slab, like an iPad or an Android tablet. It doesn't run real Windows or Mac software — it runs much simpler apps. It's not a real computer.
But with the Surface Pro ($900 for the 64-gigabyte model, $1,000 for a 128-gig machine), Microsoft asks: Why not?
The Surface Pro looks like a tablet. It can work like a tablet. You can hold it in one hand and draw on it with the other. It even comes with a plastic stylus that works beautifully.
But inside, the Pro is a full-blown Windows PC, with the same Intel chip that powers many high-end laptops, and even two fans to keep it cool (they're silent). As a result, the Pro can run any of the 4 million Windows programs, like iTunes, Photoshop, Quicken and, of course, Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
The Surface Pro is beautiful. It's clad in matte-black metal, beveled at the edges like a Stealth helicopter. Its connectors immediately suggest its post-iPad capabilities, like a memory-card slot for expanded storage. The screen is bright and beautiful, with 1080p high-definition resolution (1,080 by 1,820) — but when you connect the tablet to a TV or desktop monitor, it can send out an even bigger, sharper picture (2,550 by 1,440).
There's one USB 3.0 jack in the tablet, and a second ingeniously built into the power cord, so you can charge your phone as you work. Or you can connect anything you'd connect to a PC: external drives, flash drives, keyboard, mouse, speakers, cameras and so on. Are you getting it? This is a PC, not an iPad. As though to hammer home that point, Microsoft has endowed the Surface Pro with two unusual extras that complete the transformation from tablet to PC in about two seconds.
First, this tablet has a kickstand. It's a thin metal flap that disappears completely when closed, but holds the tablet at a nice angle when you're working or watching a movie. Second, you can buy Microsoft's now-famous keyboard cover. There are two models, actually. One is about as thick as a shirt cardboard. You can type on it — slowly — but you're tapping drawings of keys, not actual keys. It's called the Touch Cover ($100 with Surface purchase).
The other keyboard, the Type Cover ($130) is thicker — a quarter-inch — but its keys really travel, and it has a trackpad. You can really type on this thing.
Either keyboard attaches to the tablet with a powerful magnetic click. For tablet use, you can flip either keyboard around to the back; it disables itself so you don't type gibberish by accident.
And if you really want to go whole hog with the insta-PC idea, you should also spring for the matching Wedge Touch mouse. It's a tiny $40 cordless wedge, not much bigger than the AA battery that powers it, with supercrisp buttons and a touch surface on top for scrolling.
Now, when I wrote a first-look post on my blog last month, I was surprised by the reader reactions. Over and over, they posted the same argument:
"For that money, I could buy a very nice lightweight laptop with a dedicated keyboard and much more storage. Why should I buy Surface Pro when I can have more for less?"
Why? Because the Surface Pro does things most laptops can't do. Like it weighs 2 pounds, with touch screen. Or work in portrait orientation, like a clipboard. Or remain comfortable in one hand as you make medical rounds, take inventory or sketch a portrait. Or stay in a bag through airport security (the TSA says tablets are OK to stay in).
You also hear: "But haven't there been full-blown PC tablets before?"
Yes, there are a couple. But without the kickstand and keyboard cover, they can't change instantly into a desktop computer.
So it's true: For this much money, you could buy a very nice laptop. You could also buy a five-day cruise, a Gucci handbag or 250 gallons of milk. They just happen to be different beasts.
All right then: The Surface Pro is fast, flexible and astonishingly compact for what it does; that much is unassailable. But in practice, there are some disappointments and confusions.
The Surface Pro runs Windows 8, which is two operating systems in one. You get a tablet operating system, whose Home (Start) screen is filled with colourful tiles that represent apps and real-time information. (Since Microsoft refuses to give this environment a name, let's go with TileWorld.)
TileWorld has been jarringly stapled to the regular Windows desktop underneath it. You wind up with two Web browsers, two control panels, two Mail programs, two completely different looks.
That weird duality makes zero sense on regular desktop computers, but it's somewhat more reasonable on the Surface Pro. This machine has two modes — tablet and laptop — so its two operating systems each serve a purpose. But you still have a lot to learn.
There are two Surface tablets. One came out a few months ago. It's called the Surface (not Pro), it costs $500, it weighs 1.5 pounds and it's 0.4 inches thick.
It runs only TileWorld apps — full-screen, generally simple apps, not real Windows software — which is not very compelling. If you're going to buy a tablet that doesn't run real software, why not just get an iPad and enjoy its library of 300,000 apps? The Surface Pro is thicker and heavier (just over half an inch thick, and 2 pounds). But — glory be — it runs both TileWorld apps and all those traditional Windows programs, which makes it fantastically versatile.
Unfortunately, the confusion isn't the only dent in this Surface. The speakers aren't especially strong. The screen and keyboard are both slightly smaller than what you'd get on a real laptop. The magnet on the power cord is stronger than on the non-Pro Surface, but attaching that cursed cord is still a flummoxing operation.
You should also realise that of the base model's 64 gigabytes of storage, only 23 are available for your use. A full 65 per cent of your storage is eaten up by Windows itself. (On the 128-gig Surface Pro model, only 83 gigabytes are free.) Ouch.
The real heartbreaker, though, is the battery. Microsoft says the Pro will get about half the battery life of the non-Pro Surface, which would mean about 4.5 hours. I say, you'll get 4.5 if you're lucky; I barely got 3.5 hours from a charge.
Guess that's why there aren't many other 2-pound, half-inch-thick laptops with Intel i5 processors. So in the end, the Surface Pro isn't for everyone, it isn't all it seemed at first, and it isn't all it could be.
Even so, there's a lot to admire in Microsoft's accomplishment. The Surface Pro is an important idea, almost a new category, and it will be the right machine for a lot of people. It strikes a spot on the size/weight/speed/software spectrum that no machine has ever struck. You can use this thing on a restaurant table without looking obnoxious (much). You can hold it in one hand to read a Kindle book while you're standing in line.
And wow, is it happy on an airplane tray table. Lean back all you want, pal. I'm getting work done. (DAVID POGUE/The New York Times News Service)