Whatever you think about Microsoft’s Surface Pro, it’s impossible to deny its beautiful design, and the quality of the the tech behind it. It’s a siren, luring you into an oddly metaphored whirlpool of unsure typing. I’ve been using it for close to two weeks now, and the entire time I couldn’t escape one feeling: Microsoft should have made a laptop.
That isn’t to say that Microsoft should have only made a laptop. The Surface isn’t perfect, but it’s gotten people talking about laptop-tablet hybrids more than more outwardly capable devices like the Lenovo Yoga. A lot of that is billions in advertising, but it’s also the uniqueness of the Surface as an idea.
But the Surface remains, more or less, an idea without a home base. Windows 8 is about touch and a new way to think about software design, yes. But it’s also about being Windows. And the Surface doesn’t do the best job of showcasing that.
That’s the thing. No one knows PCs like Microsoft. No one is more central to them. And if Microsoft is going to do hardware, and do it well, why wouldn’t it give its flagship, Windows, the perfect vessel? The Surface isn’t that. It perpetuates the idea that Microsoft can’t get anything right. That sure maybe it has some good ideas, but it can never get more than halfway there. It’s still too easy to poke holes in Microsoft’s Windows 8 arguments. A Nexus-like Surface line for Windows PCs would change that.
Judging from the Surface Pro’s design and performance, it would be an easy jump to make. The Surface might be the most thoughtful and well-considered piece of design in tech. Ask anyone who’s held one — you just don’t want to put the thing down, even if you’re not especially enjoying using it. And things being equal, its components tested either equal to or ahead of ultrabooks and MacBook Airs. That 10.6-inch 1080p screen would probably look just as good at 11.6 inches, 12 inches or 13 inches too.
The biggest standouts for a laptop transition though are the keyboard and trackpad, oddly. Aside from an issue where the trackpad will lose your finger right as you start using it, the Surface’s trackpad is basically the most accurate I’ve used on Windows 8; it’s just too tiny. The Touch cover takes some getting used to, but it’s a usability miracle that it’s as usable as it is. And with the Type cover, Microsoft crammed a more usable keyboard onto the back of a TABLET COVER than a lot of laptops have period. With the standardization of Intel Core chips, laptops basically break down to keyboard, display, touchpad, and design, in some order. Microsoft has all of those covered in the extreme. The rest would be just not tripping over its feet.
And yes, making a laptop would have pissed off PC makers something fierce. OEMs are already threatened: Acer fired some warning shots about not supporting Windows RT if Microsoft is going to be making hardware like the Surface. An honest to goodness Microsoft laptop would give the industry a heart attack. But who cares. Those OEMs know that they can’t ditch Windows, unless they want to resign themselves to the IT afterlife.
Besides, there’s a clear need for something like this. Dell just bent over backward (with a hand from Microsoft) to put itself in position to catch up to where we’re going. HP is constantly in disarray. Lenovo’s actually doing just fine, thank you, but even it’s throwing (mostly well made) stuff at the Windows 8 PC wall to see what sticks. Microsoft can consolidate that, be a standard bearer. It can afford to be a loss leader like no one else in PCs right now. It can throw billions down the drain on the Xbox and make it all back a generation later. Why not take the same example-setting approach of the Surface and set the bar for long-blundering (but in fairness lately improving) PC makers?
We’re ready for that to happen. As great as the current MacBook Air is, its design is starting to seem a little frumpy when you hold it up to newer models like the Series 9 or 11-inch Acer S7. Next to a Surface, it looks practically middle-aged. But because all those Windows machines fly under different flags, they end up splitting the vote. Give us a Windows Laptop Prime to rally around and maybe that changes. It would be a chance to shake off the John Hodgman-ed image of Windows everything being a bumbling, outmoded fossil. “My god, this is perfect,” resonates more loudly than, “This is really impressive, but what about…” even if it’s not the all-at-once revolution Microsoft is reaching for. And it’s not like the thing wouldn’t have a touchscreen, anyway.
In fact, a Microsoft laptop would only strengthen the unsure mobile footing that the Surface is built around. The formerly Metro UI needs time to grow. And more importantly, it needs more people using it, nurturing it. Where the Surface leans on mobile muscles that Microsoft hasn’t quite developed yet, a more conventional laptop could play to Microsoft’s strength in desktop software and drive both forward.
But really, it comes down to this: Ask anyone who’s touched and used either Surface if they’d be excited about a laptop made in the spirit of the Surface line, and the answer is always some unqualified permutation of “HELL, YES PLEASE.”
When’s the last everyone had that reaction to something Microsoft was doing?