With its new Surface 3 Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) has finally accomplished what it set out to do when it launched the hybrid line in 2012.
The new laptop/tablet, which runs the full version of Windows 8, not the limited RT edition of the operating system, stands as a true alternative to an Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPad, which also works as a serviceable laptop. It's a highly functional device that offers the business productivity associated with traditional computers along with entertainment capabilities tablets are known for.
Surface 3 is essentially a slightly smaller (10.8-inch screen vs. 12 inches) version of the well-regarded Surface Pro 3. The 3's 1.6 GHz quad-core Intel Atom X7-Z8700 processor is not as powerful as the Pro 3's fourth-generation 1.5 GHz dual-core Intel Core i3, 1.9 GHz Core i5 or 1.7 GHz Core i7 processor, but it's still powerful by for a tablet and acceptable for a laptop.
The Surface 3 is not the biggest or the most powerful hybrid available, but it's a lightweight, elegant device that delivers on the promise of the initial Surface. It's a product with a lot going for it that could work for many people as an iPad or even a MacBook alternative.
The Type keyboard
The major reason iPads have largely been an add-on device and not laptop replacements is that they are designed to consumer content more than they are to consume it. It's possible to add a keyboard to the Apple tablet and use it as a productivity device, but that's not what it was built for.
The Surface 3, however, was designed to integrate with Microsoft's "Type" keyboard/cover. This thin add-on hooks on to the tablet and turns it into a laptop that is propped up in natural fashion by the device's innovative three-setting kickstand. Typing on the Type cover is not quite as fluid as the keyboard on most laptops, but after some practice, it's close enough.
Using Type may not be perfect, but it's good enough and it makes Surface 3 feel like a small laptop, not a tablet with an external keyboard.
It's a business machine
Microsoft has made its Office apps available on iPads and, of course, laptop users on Apple's iOS and Windows have always been able to use the popular productivity suite. For Surface 3, however, the company has sweetened the deal by throwing in a full year of Office 365 -- a $69.99 value -- for free.
Offering Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Outlook, and the rest of the Office programs for free may seem like a small gesture, but it makes Surface 3 immediately useful for laptoplike applications. That's a big deal when someone has just shelled out the money for a high-end tablet, or, in this case, as top-tier hybrid.
It has a new charger
One of the benefits of having a hybrid device is that it's small, lightweight and easy to travel with while removing the need to cart along a separate laptop and tablet. One frustration of the earlier version of the Surface is that it used a proprietary charger.
Microsoft has eliminated this problem by equipping the Surface 3 with a micro-USB charging port. That means the new tablet can be charged using the same power cord used by nearly all non-Apple smartphones. For a traveler, that means that if he or she was already carrying a tablet, a laptop, a phone, and two chargers, he or she would be able to slim down to a Surface 3, a phone, and one charger.
That's the kind of sensible move that Apple has been loathe to make using proprietary "Lightning" chargers on iPhones and iPads, and different ones on MacBooks.
It's another seemingly small move, but it's a smart one by Microsoft that makes it even easier to trade in a traditional laptop for a Surface 3.
It costs too much
With Surface 3 Microsoft has delivered a hybrid that truly can replace both a a laptop and a tablet (and at a much cheaper price than the $799 starting point for the Pro 3). The problem is that Surface 3's $499 cost before buying the $129.99 Type keyboard -- which you need or else all your buying is a pricey tablet -- is simply too high. Add in the somewhat useful, but less necessary Surface Pen ($49.99) and the number gets even bigger.
Surface 3 is a nice tablet, but it's not better than an iPad, which starts at $399. It's also a decent laptop, but the small screen and less-than-perfect keyboard are sacrifices. If the price was $499 with the keyboard, it would be an easier sale for the company, but $628.99 for the tablet plus the cover is a bit of a turnoff.
Surface 3 has a lot of plusses in its favor and it's a reasonable alternative that could absolutely replace your laptop -- at least for travelers. But it would be a lot more appealing (and probably sell a lot more units) if Microsoft brought the price down.
Daniel Kline owns shares of Apple and Microsoft. He has an original Surface RT, which he likes a lot but rarely uses. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Intel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.