After years of being the tech company that could do no right, Microsoft is getting a fresh look from investors and critics.
With the new version of its Surface tablet computer unveiled last week, Microsoft has a chance to win back skeptical consumers as well.
The Surface Pro 3 is a large touch-screen tablet and a Windows PC that runs both apps and regular desktop programs, all in a slim and sexy case.
It’s an incremental upgrade over previous versions of the Surface, which first went on sale in 2012.
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But the upgraded hardware and recent improvements to the Window 8 operating system dramatically improve the Surface Pro’s looks, feel and usability.
Microsoft also is making the Surface Pro slightly more affordable. A new entry-level version will sell for $799 — $100 less than the cheapest version of last year’s model, the Surface Pro 2.
There’s another line of Surface devices that start at about $500. They use a bare-bones version of Windows and run only special apps distributed by Microsoft. New models in that line haven’t been announced and some have speculated that it may be phased out.
There’s also a wrinkle if you’re shopping for a Surface Pro 3 as a graduation or Father’s Day gift. Only the midrange, $1,000 version will be available at launch on June 20. Other models — ranging from $799 to $1,949 — won’t be available until August.
That gives people time to figure out just what Microsoft is offering. With the Surface line overall, it’s blurring the line between PCs and tablets and showing buyers and other PC-makers how thin and flexible full-power computers can be nowadays.
Not for everyone
Not everyone will want one of these. If you just want a tablet or a laptop, there are nice alternatives that cost much less.
But if you’re intrigued by the convenience and flexibility of a hybrid or “2 in 1” PC that can work in either tablet or laptop mode, the Surface Pro 3 is state of the art and worth consideration.
In a few days of use, I found the Surface Pro 3 to be an especially appealing tablet and a decent laptop.
It’s lighter (1.8 pounds) than it looks, the high-def screen is bright and crisp, and programs feel fast and smooth, though once the system didn’t recognize when I switched from laptop to tablet mode and I had to restart to sort things out.
Despite its light weight, it does get heavy when you hold it up for a few minutes. It’s about the size of a letter-sized sheet of paper, but it’s too big to stash in a purse or a glovebox.
The signature style of the Surface — beveled edges and a matte magnesium case — hasn’t changed. But in a larger size it looks even better and more modern — sleeker and less severe.
Some users may find the 12-inch diagonal screen a little big for a tablet, especially if they want it mostly to read digital books and browse the Web.
Others will be thrilled by the larger screen, especially those wanting to multitask with several windows open. They may also love how online newspapers and movies look on the larger screen, compared with “standard” 10-inch and smaller tablets.
There’s also the trademark kickstand on the Surface, which props the tablet up on a table or lap for viewing and browsing. On the Pro 3, the kickstand has a variable hinge that lets you use it nearly vertical or tilt it almost flat, for drawing or writing with the included stylus.
Microsoft is pitching the Surface Pro 3 as a laptop replacement. But this costs extra. To work as a laptop, the tablet needs a $130 keyboard accessory that doubles as a cover. It may be the best tablet keyboard cover on the market, with large keys and an improved touch pad.
Microsoft cleverly fixed a problem with previous Surface keyboards. In a lap — as opposed to tabletop — the previous keyboard covers would flex and sometimes disengage, limiting their usefulness as a laptop.
The new “Type Cover” has a second magnetic strip that firmly locks the keyboard in a slightly slanted position that’s better for typing and stayed connected when I pounded away.
I did encounter a few minor hiccups. A few times the system didn’t realize that I had removed the Type Cover and reverted to tablet use. Then it wouldn’t rotate the display from horizontal to vertical, and the on-screen touch keyboard wouldn’t automatically appear when I needed to type something.
Although Microsoft seems to have largely sorted out Windows 8 with the latest update, more can be done to make it easier to adjust the system.
A big improvement was enabling people to configure the system so it starts in traditional “desktop” mode, but it’s hard to find this option. You have to search the machine for “taskbar and navigation” to find a special control panel.
When my loaner device became stuck in a horizontal layout, I had to search online to find out that you unlock the rotation control by tapping a tiny, semihidden icon. If that doesn’t work, you’re advised to restart the system.
Microsoft also should have included 4G capability, instead of just Wi-Fi.
Still, my overall experience with the device was good and I’d suggest looking at a Surface Pro 3 before buying another laptop or tablet.
With the Type Cover in place, you’ve got a capable laptop. Unlike an iPad, the Surface has a built-in USB 3.0 port, a micro SD memory card slot and a port for connecting external displays.
If it’s going to be used as a primary computer for a desk jockey, there’s also a $40 dongle for connecting an Ethernet cable and a $200 docking station that will be available later this summer.
Then it really isn’t a $799 laptop replacement, but a $930 laptop with the Type Cover, or an $1,170 workstation.
In that price range you can buy really nice laptops that may be a bit thicker but will have multiple USB ports, a full-size memory-card slot and perhaps an optical drive.
But then you may miss the tablet capability and whatever that may bring during the lifetime of the device.
Companies see appeal
The possibilities and laptop capabilities are good enough that a handful of big companies, including BMW and Coca-Cola, have committed to using the Surface Pro 3.
Locally, Microsoft offered an early peek to Wes Wright, chief information officer at Seattle Children’s hospital. Wright, who was already planning a laptop upgrade, ordered a first batch of 200.
Updates to Windows 8 that let users configure the machine with a traditional desktop, rather than the tiled app interface, were a factor.
Wright also wants to take advantage of the platform’s touch capabilities to run apps that can be accessed by other touch screens — including iPads and Android tablets — through a virtual Windows desktop.
But mostly he thinks it’s a nice laptop plus a tablet that gives employees “a device they can innovate with.”
“Even if I don’t exactly know what I’m going to do with the Surface 3 now it’s such a good laptop replacement, it gives me the ability to do something with the laptop-slash-tablet form factor down the road,” he said.
We’ll see this summer if everyday tablet and PC shoppers are as enthusiastic and open to the possibilities of the Surface Pro 3.
Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or firstname.lastname@example.org