Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 sets its sights too high — as well as its pricetag

Microsoft on Tuesday unveiled its Surface Pro 3 in New York, taking the wraps off a visually stunning, capable device the likes of which the company had yet to produce.

Arriving curiously just six months after the release of the Pro 2, the Surface Pro 3 is everything you could hope for in a Windows tablet: It runs full Windows 8.1, it’s powered by a very capable Intel processor, it has a gorgeous display, it’s thin and light, it comes loaded with Microsoft Office, it has long battery life. I don’t even like, want or need a Windows product and I was drooling at the thought of owning such a souped-up device.

But…

As has been the case with Microsoft for several years now, the company seems to have gotten it only half right. The look and feel of the device are spot-on. Where Microsoft has erred is in the Surface Pro 3’s price and targeted customers.

Rather than releasing a machine to be a true laptop replacement at an affordable price, Microsoft instead announced the Surface Pro 3 to be the device that replaces a MacBook Air and sports a more-expensive pricetag to boot. The Surface Pro 3 will cost $799 in its base configuration, which does not include the $129 Type Cover physical keyboard it would need to convince MacBook Air owners to toss aside their $899 machines. How does this add up?

Rene Ritchie of iMore tried valiantly to take a stab at it, defending Microsoft’s approach in targeting the MacBook Air by writing that “it really does look like Microsoft finally understands their product and its position in the mobile device spectrum.” Ritchie attempts to make the case that, having realized it can’t knock the iPad off its pedestal atop the tablet world, Microsoft had correctly sets its sights on wooing customers away from the MacBook Air.

That’s all well and good, but why would Microsoft offer a new device in a product line that hasn’t enjoyed any sort of success and believe it can knock off what is arguably considered the gold standard of ultrabook laptops, especially when that new, untested product will cost more than the established MacBook Air? Heck, Microsoft had to write off $900 million in unsold Surface RT tablets because nobody wanted to buy them. How is putting out a premium model of what has so far been an albatross of a product line and charging a hefty price for it going to help drive demand?

A skeptical commenter on the iMore website summed up what will likely be the mass market reaction to the Surface Pro 3: “It is still an expensive ultrabook that won’t work well on a lap and that is not really replacing a tablet at all. Add the mandatory keyboard … and the i7/512GB SSD option … What you get is a compromised ultrabook, a compromised tablet (with little of a software ecosystem) for the price of a 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro (well over $2,000). Or the price of a better 13-inch MBA plus an iPad, even with 4G.

“There will be a niche for it, but selling it as a better laptop (and making all these comparisons to the MBA, the most mentioned product during the presentation) when it is really not, is not what I would consider “understanding their product.” Or, to say it a bit more bluntly, this is the umpteenth rehash of Windows XP Tablet Edition running on some hardware that would cost a fraction without it. It left people cold for 13 years, don’t see this changing.”

Ouch.

I’m not feeling that harsh toward the Surface Pro 3, just bewildered. The Surface Pro 3 at this price isn’t even a good competitor to other Windows 2-in-1s, let alone the MacBook Air. For example, the ASUS Transformer Book series has models that cost hundreds of dollars less, starting at just $349. The soon-to-be-arriving Acer Aspire Switch 10, which uses a really smart magnetic hinge to connect the tablet with the keyboard, will cost just $380.

Admittedly, the Surface Pro 3 is a nice piece of hardware. It has a 2160×1440, 12-inch display with an aspect ratio of 3:2. Microsoft claims it will have 9 hours of battery life. It supports Bluetooth 4.0 and USB 3.0, includes a microSD card reader, boasts a very impressive included pen that features 256 levels of pressure sensitivity and has a 5 mega-pixel front camera and a 1080p rear camera for video calls.
But here are the configurations that Microsoft is offering as well as their (gulp) pricetags:

*Intel Core i3, 64GB SSD, 4GB RAM, $799
*Intel Core i5, 128GB SSD, 4GB RAM, $999
*Intel Core i5, 256GB SSD, 8GB RAM, $1,299
*Intel Core i7, 256 GB SSD, 8GB RAM, $1,549
*Intel Core i7, 512 GB, 8GB RAM, $1,949

And keep in mind that none of these configurations or prices include the $129.99 Type Cover keyboard. This is sure to frustrate people other than me. Indeed, an article at Boy Genius Report does a good job of ranting about this decision:

“Microsoft, you’re killing me. You’ve just announced what looks like a killer new tablet that you’re hyping as “the tablet that can replace your laptop.” It looks like a big improvement over the Surface 2 in just about every possible way, from the display quality to the super-thin build. But for some reason, you are still insisting on selling the keyboard cover separately for $130 a pop. To use an old science fiction cliché, this does not compute.
“This bothers me for no other reason than because it seems like an assault on basic logic. You are selling a tablet that is, by your own admission, meant to be a laptop replacement. You compared it to the MacBook Air repeatedly during your presentation. And yet you’re still telling customers that having a keyboard is optional for something that’s supposed to be a laptop replacement … why?”

And here’s one more thing that doesn’t add up for me: Wouldn’t a laptop replacement be able to accomplish one of the most basic functions of a laptop? Because it appears the Surface Pro 3 will be a little difficult to actually use on your lap. According to the Verge in its hands-on time with the Surface Pro 3:

“The Surface’s core design is simply physically more complicated than a laptop’s single hinge. You will find yourself mucking about with setting the kickstand in the right place on your knees and dealing with that cover flapping about. Microsoft may have needed two years of design iterations before it could honestly make the case that the Surface can be used on your lap like a, well, a laptop. … It’s just strange to think of so much design effort going into what other companies solve with a hinge.”

I wish Microsoft the best of luck in trying to entice consumers to buy the Surface Pro 3. Competition helps drive innovation and benefits consumers with new devices with even more functionality — and lower prices. Maybe Microsoft will learn this bit of supply-and-demand economics lesson by the time it’s ready to trot out the Surface Pro 4.

Chris Cox is the owner of moderator of the Apple iCommunity on Google+, a place for enthusiasts and detractors alike to talk about all things tech and how they relate to Apple, its products and services.

About Chris Cox

I love technology, but I could do without the tinkering. I'm a firm believer in technology that just works. If it's intuitive, that leads to greater adoption, which leads to more advances, and that benefits us all. That said, a little tinkering on the front end that helps you every day is worth the effort. I'm all for simple solutions that keep me -- and you -- from reinventing the wheel every day.