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Microsoft Surface Pro Versus... Google?

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With the release of the Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT  ) Surface Pro over the weekend, the obvious comparison is with Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) iPad. The already polarized masses are arguing either that the new device falls short of the iPad's tablet chops, or that the productivity capabilities mean Microsoft has redefined the entire space.

The one conversation that is conspicuously missing from the conversation is any comparison with the devices available from Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL  ) . For as little as $400, you can buy both a Google tablet and laptop that arguably exceed the capabilities of the Surface Pro. Ultimately, for a significant savings over either the options available from Apple or Microsoft, Google is a legitimate alternative. In this sense, the decision turns on your desire to use the Microsoft productivity suite.

Microsoft joins the party
While Microsoft has long been the leader in productivity software, the release of the new Surface Pro marks only the second PC offering from the company. The device is essentially a laptop in a tablet form factor. This format makes the comparison with the iPad the most natural, given that Apple owns the full-size-tablet market. And despite many pros, the weight and weak battery life of the new offering from Microsoft make it easy to dismiss it as no iPad.

Where the Surface Pro changes the conversation is that it contains a full laptop processor and that runs a full version of Windows. Once you attach the additional keyboard, you get a fully functioning laptop in a tiny size. The Surface Pro may prove to be a bit heavy for the tablet market, but the target of the release is to propel mobile computing to the next level.

In terms of price, the Surface Pro starts at $899 with 64 GB of storage, jumping to $999 with 128 GB. The larger version is already sold out online, but without knowing the numbers, it's hard to characterize that situation as a supply or demand issue. From Apple, iPads start at $499 for a 16 GB device, while a 128 GB version runs $799, a full $200 below the Surface Pro of the same size. Of course, the MacBook Air starts at $999, running up to $1,199 for the larger version. If you think you would need either a MacBook Air or both that and an iPad to accomplish what the Surface Pro does, the price quickly becomes more reasonable.

The Google alternative
But if you're looking for a much -- and I mean much -- cheaper alternative, the combination of a Google Nexus 7 tablet and a Google Chromebook can be had for a combined $400. The Nexus 7 starts at just $199, and while we're now talking about a 7-inch tablet rather than a full 10-inch version, the Android tablet is not light on performance or apps. There's a reason the Nexus 7 is one of the leading non-Apple tablets out there.

The Google Chromebook is a fairly new entrant. It's the Google solution to the MacBook Air, for about one-fifth the price, depending on the manufacturer you choose -- versions range from $199 to $329. The device comes preloaded with various Android apps and relies on cloud access to the Google productivity suite for the bulk of its computing might. While this won't solve the problem for those looking to run Microsoft Office on their laptops, as more and more corporations and governments transition to Google Docs, this solution begins to make more sense.

The success of Google Docs, and the penetration that it has achieved, has been largely responsible for Microsoft's development of Office 365. This is Microsoft's cloud-based version of its productivity suite, as an increasing number of users wish to transition into the cloud. Some commentators have noted that for most basic operations, Google Docs is able to compete with Microsoft, but for really heavy lifting, Office remains the gold standard. Microsoft Excel, for example, has capabilities well beyond that of the spreadsheet app in Google Docs for intermediate and advanced users. Anyone wishing to do heavy-duty statistical analysis will find Google Docs wanting for certain critical features.

The verdict
In the most general sense, all of these developments should be seen as significant advances in mobile computing that will benefit consumers. As the number of options continues to increase, competition is likely to increase and advances are likely to occur. In the immediate term, Google provides a legitimate alternative to either Apple or Microsoft for a fraction of the price. Not surprisingly, the landscape remains somewhat static, with Apple providing the smoothest devices, Microsoft the most powerful software, and Google the most creative and affordable solutions. As Google continues to fire on all cylinders, the company looks increasingly attractive and should be considered a buy at current levels.

As one of the most dominant Internet companies ever, Google has made a habit of driving strong returns for its shareholders. However, like many other Web companies, it's also struggling to adapt to an increasingly mobile world. Despite gaining an enviable lead with its Android operating system, the market isn't sold. That's why it's more important than ever to understand each piece of Google's sprawling empire. In The Motley Fool's new premium research report on Google, we break down the risks and potential rewards for Google investors. Simply click here now to unlock your copy of this invaluable resource, and you'll receive a bonus year's worth of key updates and expert guidance as news continues to develop.

Read/Post Comments (5) | Recommend This Article (2)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On February 11, 2013, at 9:03 PM, marv08 wrote:

    The devil is in the details...

    "Once you attach the additional keyboard, you get a fully functioning laptop in a tiny size."

    No. You don't. E.g. you do not get a device that can be used in your lap, you do not get a screen with an adjustable angle (so even a different desk height can cause trouble), you get no usable trackpad (not even one that can compete with a $250 "netbook" from 2009), no backlit keyboard... etc. You get a powerful CPU in a tiny size, the rest can't compete with the cheapest of laptops. Heck, several reviewers have pointed out correctly that the surface with the attached keyboard does require more desk space (in depths) than a 11" laptop... so, it's not even that "tiny".

    But all these details do not even really matter. The average price paid for a Windows laptop (excluding Apple laptops) has consistently been between 700 and 750 USD for some years. The Surface Pro is at least 1/3rd more. And you will still have to add at least Office if productivity is the goal. For most people that is a serious amount of money. For that money, it would have at least to be competitive with a similarly priced laptop. As outlined above: it is not.

    Next "problem": most casual users are still well served by their existing laptop (my GF still uses her Thinkpad from 2006, it runs Windows 7 just fine) and she prefers the pre-Ribbon Office versions anyhow. So, would she spend $1.1k to get a worse, far less ergonomic, laptop with some (doubtful) tablet capacity? Or just get an iPad Mini for $329 (or a Nexus 7, or a Kindle Fire, whatever...) and keep her, better, laptop? The answer is quite easy.

    Google's ChromeBooks and tablets are of course another possible answer... I do not really think most corporate users could get away without Office, Google Apps is just too limited and there hasn't been much progress with it for years, not having a proper email client is also likely a big problem in business. And Google dropping ActiveSync support in Google Apps does not really help either. So, Google is not really for business. Most students do at least need a proper tool to write papers and you can't even use Latex or a proper type setting app and bibliography tools on a ChromeBook. So, don't think it will fly with students either. Leaves casual private users (most of those won't even know what a ChromeBook is) and schools... With MS and Apple being most active in school programmes and software that will not be easy either, but the cost argument might actually really help here. But Google would have to make more progress with their web apps; heck, my WordPerfect 5.1 under DOS could do more than Google's word processor, and that was in 1989...

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2013, at 1:32 AM, bg2141 wrote:

    You can get Asus laptop with touch screen for less than 500$

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2013, at 10:26 AM, H3D wrote:

    If you want a notebook buy a notebook.

    If you want a small, light notebook, buy a MacBook Air. You won't need an iPad too.

    If you want a tablet but need to work with MS Office documents, then iPad + iWork (Pages and Numbers) is generally the way to go.

    If you want the cheapest portable with real MS Office and must have every every bug and misfeature for ultimate compatibility, then buy a netbook and put MS Office on it. Buy think carefully about whether the saving is really worth it. Assume a machine life expectancy of 12 months.

    If you want a portable machine where you can only work at locations with good Internet access then consider the ChromeBook, but don't touch it if there is any possibility that you may ever need access to your data where you can't get a good Internet connection.

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2013, at 3:43 PM, lancesundrich2 wrote:

    One Android tablet maker making strides to offer quality Android tablets at competitive prices is Ainol Electronics - which won runner-up for "Best Tablet of the Year" at CES 2012 and this month introduced the Novo 9 Spark - a 9.7" Quad Core

    Android tablet with a Retina display -- with one of the first resellers, a site called TabletSprint offering this new model for $269 --

    The Novo 9 Spark compares to the Nexus 10 and iPad tablet at a much more competitive price - and features a Quad Core processor/ 1.5Ghz-2GB DDR3, a 2048x1536 Liquid Crystal screen, 32GB memory, Android 4.1 with an upcoming 4.2

    upgrade, Google Play Store preinstalled, a powerful 10,000 mAh battery, 4K Digital HDMI, and a 2 Megapixel Front Camera and

    5 Megapixel Rear Camera with AF and Flash.

    It should be interesting to see how the new Novo 9 Spark and rest of the Ainol's new Quad Core Series fares in 2013 as this company gains more presence in the tablet market. The site TabletSprint also offers $25 in quality Bonus Apps, including an Office Suite App with all models they carry.

  • Report this Comment On February 12, 2013, at 5:50 PM, applefan1 wrote:

    The problem with the Surface Pro is that it's running Windows 8. Oh well.

    These Surface products are dysfunctional, trying to be everything and not being very good at any of them. The Jack of All Trades syndrome.

    I'll stick with my Apple products. they just work a lot better and I don't have to get suckered into the whole WIndows mess anymore. Been there, seen it, done it, and not prudent at this juncture.

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