Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT ) hybrid tablet, the Surface Pro 2, is emblematic of Microsoft's entire Windows strategy. Windows 8 is a hybrid operating system, designed to satisfy the needs of both mobile and traditional PC users. The Surface Pro is the ultimate extension of that philosophy -- it's a tablet, yes, but it's also capable of running just about any piece of PC software.
Microsoft recently unveiled an update to the Surface Pro: The Surface Pro 2 is better, faster and the battery lasts longer. Yet, early reviews have not been kind. It appears Microsoft still has much work to do to beat back Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL ) and Google (NASDAQ: GOOG ) .
"It makes you compromise everywhere"
The Verge, in its lengthy review of the Surface Pro 2, ultimately concludes that it's a machine not noticeably different from its predecessor. The tech site awards it a 7.8 (on a 10 point scale), noting that -- despite its versatility -- it still comes with numerous drawbacks.
Likewise, engadget comes to a similar conclusion, noting that while the Surface Pro 2 is far better as a laptop replacement, its tablet credentials are still lacking. In particular, both the size and the weight -- still the same as the previous generation -- make the Surface Pro 2 far bulkier than its tablet competitors like Apple's iPad.
CNet, too, finds issue with Microsoft's size decisions, and complains about the pricing scheme. While the Surface Pro 2 technically starts at $899, but that doesn't include Microsoft's proprietary keyboard cover, a necessity to use the device as its intended. Wired remarks that a touch-capable Ultrabook might be better value for the money.
All signs point to Apple slimming down its iPad
Mobile: The name really says it all. The big appeal of mobile devices is that they're, well, mobile -- users can tote them around easily, hold them with one hand, stick them in a purse, or otherwise make the process of transporting and handling their computing device easier.
And while reviewers complain about the size of the Surface Pro 2, Apple is making its own tablets more mobile. The fifth generation iPad borrows heavily from the design of Apple's iPad Mini -- it's both smaller and lighter than the previous version.
Moreover, in addition to winning the mobility war, Apple's iPad also dominates when it comes to apps. As Apple's management is quick to point out, there are almost 400,000 apps in Apple's store designed specifically for the iPad. Google's Android, meanwhile, has fewer tablet-specific apps, instead relying mostly on phone apps stretched to fit the larger screen. Microsoft's Windows 8 doesn't even have those, still lacking key apps like Spotify and Instagram.
Apple continues to offer the best all-around tablet experience, though admittedly, it's looking like consumers are less and less interested. Last quarter, Apple posted disappointing iPad sales, with many analysts blaming the decline on the lack of a new product. With a new model, it will be interesting to see if iPad sales rebound.
Google's Android partners are moving faster than Microsoft
Those poor iPad sales may be due to Google's mobile operating system Android, and its numerous hardware OEMs. Although Android still lacks the dedicated mobile app experience, Android tablets -- like Android phones -- are available in nearly every size and shape, and at just about every price point. Google's Android finally surpassed Apple's iOS in terms of tablet market share earlier this year, and should continue to dominate for the foreseeable future.
That's because many Android OEMs have already done what Microsoft is attempting to do with the Surface Pro 2. Admittedly, there aren't any tablets powered by Google's Android that can run traditional PC applications -- but that combination of tablet and laptop functionality is already available. Asus' Transformer Pad Infinity is a high-powered Android tablet with a keyboard dock, compete with HDMI and USB ports. Hewlett-Packard's SlateBook x2 is much the same.
And then there's the pen. It isn't mentioned as much as the keyboard cover, but the Surface Pro 2 also includes a stylus -- keeping in line with a long tradition of Microsoft tablets that focused on pen input. But again, here, too, Google's hardware partners are already a step ahead of Microsoft -- Samsung's lineup of Note tablets includes its S-pen, a smart stylus that works with Samsung-specific apps.
Users that need Microsoft's Office software suite, or who need to run desktop PC apps on their tablet, have little choice but to go with the Surface Pro 2. Others, who just need a keyboard or a stylus, may be better off going with a device powered by Google's Android.
The problem with the Surface Pro 2
Although Microsoft appears to have improved its flagship tablet, the Surface Pro 2 continues to be affected by the limitations of the previous version. Unlike Apple's iPad, which has gotten lighter and thinner, Microsoft's Surface Pro 2 remains bulky and heavy. It may have a keyboard and a stylus, but so do many tablets running Google's Android. Most importantly, its mobile applications remain limited.
That's unfortunate, because as long as the Surface Pro 2 remains a lackluster product, Microsoft's Windows 8 will never reach its full potential. Microsoft's idea of a hybrid tablet and PC experience remains intriguing for now, but still needs a true, fantastic product to demonstrate the concept.
Apple's iPad might be the best tablet right now, but that won't stop the company from destroying it
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