It has a more dynamic interface. It has Office inside. It can run two apps on the same screen. And it has a USB port and a built-in kickstand. The iPad has none of these things, and the Microsoft Surface does. So why does Microsoft's first tablet already seem to be on the ropes?
According to one estimate, Microsoft is slated to sell only between 500,000 to 600,000 Surfaces running Windows RT during the December quarter, well below expectations. To put this anaemic performance in perspective, Apple moved three million new iPads and iPad minis in three days.
Hope isn't lost for the Surface. There are some things Microsoft can do immediately to boost sales, as well as some changes the company should make to ensure that there is a second and third Surface. Given that this tablet is a beacon for Windows 8 adoption, there couldn't be more at stake. So listen up, Steve Ballmer and friends.
Microsoft's Surface tablet has potential, but it's not clicking with customers yet. Laptop Magazine's Mark Spoonauer gives Microsoft some advice on how to ease the company's growing pains.
1. Bundle the Touch Cover For Free
When you think about it, the Surface ads are just a tease. Microsoft showcases its Touch Cover in all of the commercials for its tablet, which attaches magnetically to the slate and offers a surprisingly good typing experience given that there's no physical travel. And, like the iPad's Smart Cover, the screen turns on and off like a refrigerator door light when you open and close the cover. There's just one problem.
Microsoft in Australia charges $679 for the Surface if you want the Touch Cover, $120 more than the tablet by itself. Want a colour other than black? You'll have to pony up $140. If you look at iSuppli's teardown of the Surface's components and manufacturing costs, Microsoft is making $215 on each device, making this tablet more profitable than the iPad. But this margin is meaningless if no one is buying. At least through the holidays, the Touch Cover should be free.
2. Widen the Distribution, Pronto
Let's say you were excited by what the Surface has to offer. You'd want to run out and try one before you buy, right? Well, unless you happen to live within range of a few dozen Microsoft stores, you're out of luck. The good news is that it looks like the Surface will soon become more widely available. According to Microsoft watch Paul Thurott, the Surface should find a home with major retailers very soon - as in days instead of weeks.
Apparently, Microsoft has decided to accelerate its plans to widen the Surface's distribution. Potentially peeved partners be damned, this is the right move for Microsoft. You can't blanket the airwaves with ads and then not make it easy for people to pick a Surface up or at least test drive it. As far as I'm concerned, hitting Best Buy and other big-box stores will only be good for partners, because at least there's the potential for shoppers to look past the iPad aisle.
3. Amp Up the Apps
Recently Microsoft caused a bit of a stir when a Facebook live tile was spotted in a Surface banner ad. As it turns out, the tile was just a shortcut to the website. Never mind the fact that this ad is misleading. Where the heck is the Windows 8 Facebook app? Or the Twitter app? Or Spotify. Or Draw Something? You get the picture.
Despite the fact that the Windows Store stocks some compelling apps, such as Angry Birds Star Wars and UrbanSpoon, there are lots of holes in the lineup. Microsoft is trying to court developers, hosting app labs for them in 30 technology and design hubs around the world. But the clock is ticking.
More: Top 25 Windows 8 Apps
4. Supply a Sharper Screen
Microsoft makes a big deal about the ClearType display on its Surface tablet, arguing that the sub-pixel rendering on this 1366x768 screen makes for sharper images than what you'll find on competing tablets. In reality, the iPad's retina display (2048x1536) runs circle around the Surface. Although the Surface and iPad have comparable brightness (373 versus 383 lux), the Retina display is way sharper, whether you're viewing high-resolution photos or text. The iPad also offered warmer and more saturated colours when viewing the same videos.
The good news is that the Surface Pro will bump the resolution up to 1920x1080 pixels. But Microsoft should include this resolution on the RT version as well without charging a premium. After all, you can pick up an Android tablet like the ASUS Transformer Pad Infinity with a 1920x1200 screen for $US499. Microsoft also needs to ensure that icons and other items don't shrink at full HD to the point they're nearly impossible to target with a finger. The Acer Iconia Tab A700 is a great example of how high-def can be hard on the eyes.
5. Ditch the Desktop on Windows RT
I'm certainly not the first to suggest this, but perhaps hearing it from more and more critics will drive the message home. Microsoft needs to stick with the Modern (formerly Metro) interface on Windows RT devices like the Surface. That means no desktop. You shouldn't have two completely different computing environments on the same tablet. In order to unify the user experience, though, Microsoft will need to get Office to work within the Modern environment, as well as create a file manager that works in that mode. Microsoft would also need to beef up the settings menu in the Modern UI to obviate the need for a desktop.
6. Lose Core i5 and Beef Up Battery Life
The Surface with Windows RT lasted a decent but unspectacular seven hours and 43 minutes in our battery test, which involves continuous Web surfing over Wi-Fi on 40 per cent brightness. Sadly, Microsoft says that the upcoming Windows 8 Pro version will have half as much endurance. That would mean less than four hours of juice, which is unacceptable for a tablet.
Why does the Surface Pro have such a pitiful rated runtime? Part of the blame goes to the Core i5 processor under the hood, which simply guzzles more power than the ARM chip inside the RT version of this tablet. If I were Microsoft I would switch gears to an Atom CPU. This would allow users to still run desktop apps while offering longer battery life. Sure, you'll give up some horsepower, but the Surface isn't really designed to be your primary PC. Besides, an Atom-powered Surface Pro would also likely be cheaper. For example, Samsung charges $US699 for its Atom-enabled Ativ Smart PC, and $US899 with the keyboard dock. The Surface Pro will start at $US899 without a keyboard.
7. Offer Better Cameras or Don't Bother
Our review probably sums it up best: "If you're planning to take pictures with your tablet, don't plan on buying the Surface." Ouch. The front and rear one-megapixel cameras on Microsoft's tablet disappointed in our tests. The rear camera took blurry photos with washed-out colours, while the front camera captured dull and noisy. What's the point of Microsoft owning Skype if you can take full advantage of the service on its hallmark tablet?