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Surface Pro Sniping

Surface Pro Sniping

Is fear driving a purposeful misreading of the device’s early tech reviews?

For a couple months, I’ve had a TweetDeck column focused on Surface Pro tweets, and that column has seen a steady stream of curious consumers and anxious productivity workers, clamoring for more information about the new hybrid tablet/PC. You can imagine how that column has been inundated with tweets in the past week, and you might also imagine how it exploded a couple nights ago, when the embargo for reviews of the new Microsoft device was lifted, and tech reviewers everywhere went live with their thoughts.

I was tuned into Twitter that night, watching reactions pour forth, and I read most of the coverage with great curiosity. You’ll recall that I have a strong interest in the Surface Pro as the kind of device I’ve been hoping for—a media consumption tablet that is also a very capable productivity device. I wrote about that promise, pretty optimistically, in my article “ The Microsoft Surface or the Apple iPad at Work?” As more information became available about Surface Pro—specifically about how Microsoft made necessary compromises in some areas to permit functionality in other areas—my optimism was tempered, as I wrote in “ Surface Pro: Weighing the Pros and Cons.”


Essentially, I was coming to terms—along with other potential buyers—with the difference between my perfect vision of Surface Pro and the necessary realities of such a powerful device. Yes, the device would be pricey; this thing is, after all, comparable to a high-end Ultrabook. Yes, battery life would not equate to that of a pure tablet; that’s because Surface Pro is far more than just a tablet. Yes, it would be heavier than a media tablet; that’s because it’s not only a media tablet. Yes, the Windows 8 OS would take a significant amount of internal storage; that’s because this is not just a tablet, but a PC with USB connectivity in the age of cloud storage. These are all items that were expected and known ahead of time—call them the necessary hardware compromises for a brand-new category of device that promises to bring us a no-compromises computing experience.

I suppose it was appropriate that, when that embargo was lifted on Microsoft’s hybrid tablet/PC, I experienced a hybrid sort of reaction to the reviews I was seeing. On one hand, I read more than a few articles from trusted sources that expressed exactly what I hoped—that the Surface Pro is a brilliant piece of engineering and hardware that gets a lot right in its first incarnation.

  • David Pogue of The New York Times wrote, “There’s a lot to admire in Microsoft’s accomplishment. The Surface Pro is an important idea, almost a new category, and it will be the right machine for a lot of people. It strikes a spot on the size/weight/speed/software spectrum that no machine has ever struck. You can use this thing on a restaurant table without looking obnoxious (much). You can hold it in one hand to read a Kindle book while you’re standing in line. And wow, is it happy on an airplane tray table. Lean back all you want, pal. I’m getting work done.” (Full review here.)
  • Hayley Tsukayama of The Washington Post wrote, “Microsoft’s newest device, the Surface with Windows 8 Pro, makes a big promise to consumers. It’s unique form — a tablet-like touchscreen with a full, snap-on keyboard and touchpad — offers the specs of a light laptop with enough tablet DNA to make it attractive to those who prefer the more portable devices. In many ways, the Surface Pro fulfills that promise. It’s a strong alternative for those who’ve held off on trading in their laptops because they can’t do the work they need to do on a tablet.” (Full review here.)
  • John Biggs of TechCrunch wrote, “The Surface Pro is so good that it could drive Windows 8 adoption with enough force to make people reconsider Microsoft’s odd new OS. Microsoft bet the farm on a new paradigm and it needs a champion. Surface Pro is the right hardware for the job. I haven’t been a Surface apologist and, although I’ve seen Windows 8 as more of a success than a failure, no hardware has truly made me see the value of the platform until this model Surface.” (Full review here.)
  • Joel Santo Domingo of PC Magazine wrote, “The Surface Pro is the Windows 8 slate tablet to beat when you need the performance and convenience of a real PC in a compact tablet form factor. It's the one to get if you need corporate or academic campus portability.” He added, “Everything in the portable world is a tradeoff”—an essential understanding, particularly in a V1 product. (Full review here.)

On the other hand, I read a number of reviews that slanted negative. These tended toward bizarrely inflammatory titles such as “ Microsoft Surface Pro: Is It a Rip-Off?” and included such lines as, “The 64GB version is slated to sell at a whopping $900, and in honesty I am laughing at this product.” A Bloomberg video report the following morning characterized the Surface Pro with the exclamation, “This thing is a dog!” Most fascinating (and frustrating) was that the many "review roundups" that popped up focused on those negative reviews, highlighting the perceived flaws, most of which we knew were hardware compromises, and downplaying the positive.

It’s a strange phenomenon, in which Microsoft—having rather triumphantly introduced an inarguably groundbreaking device—is pummeled not so much in the actual reviews of the device but in the reactions to those reviews. Perhaps it’s simply the way conversations proceed in the era of social media and vocal fanboys, but among these reactions there was a strong sense of willful ignorance of the technology and the purpose behind Surface Pro. You might chalk that up to a tech media that slants anti-Microsoft by nature, and I think that’s a valid argument to be made. In that sense, the tech landscape is similar to that of American politics. (Shudder.) And carrying that analogy forward, it’s possible that fear in certain sections of the market that’s causing these kneejerk reactions.

After all was said and done, a day later, it was PC Magazine that approached the Surface Pro with the most fair-minded mindset, in its article “ Why We Like the Microsoft Surface Pro.” Author Dan Costa called out that willful misunderstanding in the Surface Pro coverage: “Although Silicon Alley Insider published a story titled, ' Surface Pro Reviews Are Overwhelmingly Negative,' with some selective quotes, the actual reviews tell a different story. CNET, PC World, and Popular Science all gave it 8 out of 10 stars. PCMag gave it 4 out of 5 stars and our Editors' Choice award.”

I predict that fortunes will sway back toward Microsoft in the coming days, as the Surface Pro gets into the hands of actual customers rather than predisposed journalists. Because it certainly makes an impression once you’ve had some hands-on time with it. I’ve spent my own time with a Surface Pro demo unit, and with my foreknowledge of the smart hardware compromises that Microsoft has made in order to produce a “no compromises” experience, what I saw was a piece of V1 brilliance. I’ve got my preorder in.

What I’m appreciating today is Microsoft’s calm methods for addressing those initial concerns about the aforementioned hardware compromises. Several solutions to perceived flaws are already being addressed. Surface Pro lead Panos Panay hinted about a way to extend battery life. And the sharpest among the tech crowd are already debunking some widely spread myths: Check out Ed Bott’s illuminating article “ Surface Pro versus MacBook Air: Who’s being dishonest with storage space?

Compromise is often a very powerful thing. And for Microsoft, it was the strongest approach to take during the creation of a new category of device. Surface Pro will only get better and more powerful. (See Dan Ackerman’s CNET article “ Five things the Microsoft Surface Pro 2 needs” for some things we might expect Microsoft to add to the next generation.) But I’m diving in now.

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