The third time is not the charm: 3 ways the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 still fails

Microsoft's third try at creating a laptop-replacement tablet is better, but still has three big problems.

Everyone knows Microsoft's historical modus operandi when moving into a new market: Rush in late to a market someone else defined with an initial, just-barely-good-enough product to ship, refine it in a second version, and then release something fully functional the third time around. That’s how Microsoft turned Windows into the dominant PC operating system, and the company has used the iterative approach over and over again throughout its history.

Now it's trying again in the tablet market with the Surface Pro 3. The first Surface was widely derided for a variety of reasons, and the Surface 2 was marginally better. (See my September 2013 post on Why Microsoft's Surface 2 doesn't fix what's really broken.) But the newly announced Surface 3 seems to have gotten the tech press all hot and bothered. (Of course, the tech press really liked the initial Surfaces, too, and that worked out to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in losses.)

Still, the Surface Pro 3 seems to have addressed many of its predecessors' shortcomings:

·      A bigger, higher-resolution screen

·      Thinner and lighter

·      Longer battery life

·      Full support for legacy Windows apps

·      Multi-position kickstand

Those are not insignificant improvements, but the Surface Pro 3 still has three key shortcomings that will likely keep it from becoming a mainstream laptop replacement:

1. The cost is too damn high

The base price for Surface Pro 3 is $800, but that price is nothing but bait-and-switch. First off, a keyboard costs an extra $130. If Microsoft was really serious about positioning the Surface Pro 3 as a laptop replacement, the keyboard would be included. Second, a Surface Pro 3 with a decent processor (Intel Core i5) and 256GB of storage starts at $1,299. And top-of-the-line models costs $1,950. Plus, you know, another C-Note-plus for the keyboard. You could buy a MacBook Air and an iPad Air for that kind of scratch.

2. Pen computing is a non-starter

Microsoft is cheerfully touting the "large and clunky" stylus that comes with the Surface Pro 3. Who cares? Do you miss a stylus on your laptop? I've been using an older Surface models on and off for months, and I've never once used the stylus. In fact, I think I've already lost the stylus, but I'm not sure. That's not a ringing endorsement.

3. Windows 8 still has an identity problem

Here's perhaps the biggest issue of all. Is Windows 8 a computer operating system or a mobile operating system? We'll, it's both. Microsoft clearly believes that the dividing point between devices comes not between laptops and tablets, but between tablets and smartphones. So it has one OS for laptops and tablets (let's not even talk about the misbegotten Windows RT) and another for smartphones. Apple and Google, on the other hand, have one OS for laptops and another for tablets and smartphones.  

It may seem like an arbitrary distinction, but it's not. The increasing popularity of phablets shows that it's actually a fundamental disconnect. And it means that when using a Surface device as a tablet, it's really a crippled laptop, rather than a big, easy-to-use smartphone. The Surface Pro 3's lack of mobile broadband connectivity simply reinforces the point.

Ultimately, it doesn't make sense to have a combination laptop and tablet unless both parts work well. Even if the Surface Pro 3 is a decent laptop replacement, it also needs to be a good tablet to justify its hefty price tag.

And the jury is still out on that score.

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