Paul Dempsey looks at how marrying spot-on technical specs with an off-target physical design has resulted in a powerful business tablet that may still frustrate IT managers.
Potential Microsoft Surface Pro 3 buyers should treat anything a journalist says about the tablet with caution. We'll come to why in a moment. But even then, this product has significant issues with regards to hardware security and how mobile computing devices fit into evolving corporate IT policies.
The market Microsoft is chasing provides the context. The Pro 3 puts productivity first. The target is the businessperson lugging around a laptop PC and a tablet in every-kilo-counts carry-on bags.
By comparing the Pro 3 specifications in marketing with the MacBook Air rather than the iPad, Microsoft has made clear its aim of offering a single device combining the advantages of two platforms. Not only Apple laptops seem to be in its sights but also the slimmed-down Windows Ultrabooks many of its partners already offer.
Most journalists work on Apple hardware. It is one of the few industries where the company is the commercial and consumer market leader. So, ask us to talk about porting the work experience to Windows 8.1 and you will likely get above-average whining.
Instead, let's note that while business users can run a lot of apps on both iOS/OSX or Android and Windows, and then transfer files between the two, many still need Windows-only job-related software. That's why they are seen swapping between hardware in airports and hotels.
The Pro 3 has much that commends it to this huge market beyond its mere 800g weight for a 12in tablet.
CPU configurations cover the range of Intel fourth-generation Core processors, up to a chunky i7 (1.7Ghz/2.9Ghz turbo). The Pro 3 can be configured with up to 8GB of RAM and up to 512GB of storage. That's a PC-standard workhorse.
The LCD display has 2160x1440pi resolution (ahead of the latest iPad but behind a 'Retina' MacBook Air) and the Pro 3 can drive two external HD displays. That's ample for standalone usage, PowerPoints to clients and connection to an office docking station.
There is a USB 3.0 port alongside the inevitable wireless capability and microSD storage slot. Only the 5MP cameras are underwhelming.
Ergonomics are also worth noting. The Pro 3 user works off the thin Type Cover as a keyboard rather than the sturdier aluminium-enclosed one on the MacBook Air. Again, beware the journalist's bias.
The kickstand now offers a much wider range of variable rather than fixed viewing angles from 22 to 150 degrees. Optional stylus input has also been greatly improved. And at the most basic level, the Pro 3 sits more comfortably on the user's lap.
So far, so very good indeed.
But having specified the Pro 3 so precisely, how appropriately has Microsoft built it? That's where the physical design exposed by a teardown matters. When iFixit took apart a Pro 3, it didn't go well – its experts gave the tablet a repairability score of one out of ten.
When iFixit tried to open the Pro 3 by its usual technique of heating the adhesive that holds front and back together, the fused glass-to-LCD display cracked. "Microsoft went to great lengths to make the Surface Pro 3 super-portable, thinning it down from the Pro 2's 0.53in [1.35cm] to 0.36in [0.91cm] thick. But it seems the thinner glass does not bode well for ruggedness or repair," says iFixit's Andrew Goldberg.
In another example, Goldberg adds that next there were problems with the battery: "This battery is stuck like a mastodon in a tar pit. The tar-like adhesive makes removing the battery without severe warping nigh impossible." As iFixit's team went further inside, they encountered "a never-ending story of dark sticky adhesive".
This raises two problems for the Pro 3's prospects as a commercial computer. Many IT departments issue traditional form-factor laptops because they are most easily repaired and upgraded internally. The idea of just throwing away and replacing broken hardware is not commonly accepted.
The second problem is security. Consumers are more wary of giving anyone access to what resides on their hard drives, including repair shops.
The solid-state drive inside the Pro 3 can be removed, but iFixit says there is a very high chance that the tablet will be bricked in the process.
Amid the competition to reduce the size and weight of mobile devices, these are not new issues. Many IT managers already argue against tablets and Ultrabooks. It is surprising though that as such design-for-security concerns spread, they appear to have been largely set aside when designing the Pro 3.
This is not a cheap tablet, a £200 slab you can securely destroy without the IT budget taking a big hit. The standard pre-VAT price range runs from £532 (Intel Core i3, 64GB storage, 4GB RAM) to £1,375 (Intel Core i7, 512GB storage, 8GB RAM). The Type Cover is £92, excluding VAT.
The purchase decision will increasingly be corporate. Even where it isn't, business users face growing restrictions as to which personal devices can load and run commercial programmes or connect to an employer's network. Microsoft's market will again be constrained if the Pro 3 appears on what are already surprisingly long corporate blacklists.