If you had to be a tragic mythological figure, which would you choose?
a) Cassandra. Saddled with the gift of perfect prophecy, and the curse of never being believed.
b) Sisyphus. Condemned to rolling a huge boulder up a hill, and then watching it roll back down again, over and over forever.
c) Microsoft. Endowed, after decades of failure, with the ability to make phones and tablets that are genuinely beautiful, elegant, and powerful — but cursed by a total lack of interest from the buying public.
Yes, here is Microsoft again, with a third version of its Surface Pro; versions 1 and 2 flopped. Trying to make the public care about the Surface kind of makes boulder-rolling look like fun.
The Surface concept is either brilliant or doomed: It’s a tablet and a laptop in one. A hybrid. A convertible.
When it’s a tablet, it’s something like an iPad. It has a beautiful touchscreen (now enlarged to 12 inches, a full laptop-screen size), nine-hour battery life, a finger-friendly interface, and an app store full of simple, full-screen apps. It’s fantastic for tablet-y things like reading ebooks, watching movies, surfing the Web, and skimming through Twitter and email.
When it’s a laptop, though, it runs full-blown Windows. You know: the desktop, the taskbar, the Recycle Bin, overlapping windows, the works. It can run the 4 million Windows programs — full-blown software like Photoshop, Quicken, iTunes — that the iPad can only look at and drool.
The Surface works as a laptop thanks to two ingenious features, both of which have been vastly improved in version 3.
First, the screen has a kickstand — a hinged, supportive panel that’s invisible when closed but sturdy and nifty when open. Previous versions could click open to your choice of two predefined angles. But in version 3, the kickstand’s friction hinge lets you prop up the Surface at any angle, all the way down to nearly flat. It’s a superb engineering feat.
The second feature that contributes to the Surface’s success as a laptop is its screen cover. This wafer-thin, felt-lined cover has a full keyboard and trackpad on the inside. And, no, it’s not like the Bluetooth add-on keyboard covers you can buy for the iPad. This one attaches magnetically to the Surface and turns on instantly. There’s no messing around with Bluetooth, pairing, and all that stuff. This one is also thinner, lighter, and better designed than anything you can get for the iPad.
The Surface Pro Type Cover, Version 3, has been overhauled and improved. The trackpad is much smoother and more solid, and clicks nicely. The keys light up now.
Better yet, the far edge of the cover folds up by half an inch and fastens magnetically to the tablet. The effect is to put the keyboard at an angle — a much better imitation of a real keyboard — and also to stabilize the whole thing.
For the first time, you can almost happily use the Surface on your lap. It’s not the Rock of Gibraltar, but it works.
A convertible that doesn’t leak
The upshot is that, with hardly any thickness or weight penalty, the kickstand and the Type Cover let you transform your 1.8-pound tablet into an actual, fast, luxury laptop.
The Surface Pro 3 comes with a stylus, too — a pressure-sensitive pen for writing, drawing, and annotating on the screen. It works wonderfully (it’s not fooled by your palm resting on the glass).
Very cool: Even if the Surface is asleep, you can wake it directly to a blank OneNote note-taking document by clicking the pen’s top button. That’s great when you want to jot something down in a hurry, like that cute stranger’s phone number or a new flight confirmation code.
The only bummer is that there’s still nowhere to carry that darned pen. There’s no socket for it in the tablet — only a loop of fabric on the Type Cover, which is clumsy at best.
Rescuing Windows 8
I’m on record as a disser of Windows 8. It’s two operating systems crudely shoveled together. One is for touchscreens — it’s tile-based (like Microsoft’s phone operating systems) and runs its own apps.
The other is the traditional Windows desktop, which is clumsy to use without a keyboard and a mouse.
In Windows 8, including the current and improved version, Windows 8.1, you have two control panels, two copies of Internet Explorer, two Help systems, two email programs, and so on. Both of the operating systems are polished and powerful. But, smashed together, they’re a train wreck.
There is one solitary time when Windows 8’s split personality is not a disaster, though, and this is it. The Surface is the one machine (so far) where Windows 8 makes sense. You’ve got one OS for tablet mode and regular Windows for desktop mode. Boom.
Now, it’s hilarious to read the Microsoft bashers online dump on the Surface. Usually, their primary beefs have to do with its price. In this case, that’s $800 for the base model (with 64 gigabytes of memory, about 37 of which are available for your use), plus $130 for the Type Cover, which is essential. Grand total: $930.
“That’s absurd,” the haters say. “Does Microsoft think I’m stupid?! I can get an iPad for $500!”
Yes, but that iPad doesn’t have 64 gigabytes of storage — it has 16. To get 64 gigs in your iPad, your price would be $700.
Even then, you wouldn’t have a keyboard, mouse, USB jack, video-output jack, or pressure-sensitive pen. You wouldn’t have a real desktop operating system, and you wouldn’t be able to run real desktop programs. The iPad is fantastic, but it’s not the same thing.
“OK, fine! But even if you’re calling the Surface a laptop, $930 is insane. I can get a Dell laptop for $300!”
Why, yes, you can. But what you’re getting is not a tablet. It doesn’t have a touchscreen. It weighs 2½ times as much (5 pounds) as the Surface. It’s nearly three times as thick (1 inch). The battery life is about half (five hours). It’s made of plastic, not metal. It’s ugly, not sleek and beveled.
It’s just not the same thing.
You could argue that a MacBook Air is more like the Surface: sleek, thin, metal, beautiful.
But even then the Surface looks like a better deal. The Air doesn’t have a touchscreen, of course; it can’t turn into a tablet. The Air weighs much more than the Surface (even with the keyboard attached). There’s no pen.
And yet the prices are in the same ballpark. The 128-gigabyte Air and the 128-gigabyte Surface Pro 3 are both $1,000 (although the Surface keyboard is, of course, extra).
And by the way, travelers: Remember that laptops and tablets are worlds apart when it comes to air travel, and the Surface is a tablet, according to the FAA and the TSA. You can use a tablet (but not a laptop) during takeoff or landing. You can leave a tablet (but not a laptop) in your bag as it goes through the TSA scanner machines.
So the Surface Pro 3 is thinner, lighter, and bigger-screened than its predecessors. Its kickstand is infinitely flexible now; its keyboard, trackpad, and pen are much improved.
Oh — and so is its power cord. Microsoft has finally fixed the infuriating, balky connector that made Surface 1 and Surface 2 owners’ lives periodically miserable. (And my favorite feature is still there: a USB jack right on the power brick. So great for charging your phone.)
Do you need this beast?
That said, there are legitimate reasons to pass on the Surface.
If all you need is a tablet, get a tablet; you’ll save money, weight, and thickness. If all you need is a laptop, get a laptop; you’ll save money, you’ll probably have more storage, and your machine will be more rigid and secure when it’s in your lap.
And, of course, if you prefer Apple’s unified, attractive universe of machines that work wirelessly together, well, then a Windows machine isn’t for you.
But if you own or carry around both a tablet and a laptop, then the Surface is calling out your name. There’s nothing like it.
It’s so much better than the sales figures would indicate. We, the buying public, are not giving it a fair shake.
If this marvel of engineering doesn’t lift the Microsoft hardware curse, I don’t know what its designers are supposed to do. Maybe join a self-help group with Cassandra and Sisyphus.
You can email David Pogue here.