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Why Microsoft couldn't fully realize its Surface vision until Surface Pro 3

Brad Chacos | May 22, 2014
Surface head Panos Panay bounced around the stage at Microsoft's Surface event on Tuesday, bubbling over with enthusiasm as he detailed the Surface Pro 3's sleekness and power and fancy-pants digitizer pen. And why shouldn't he? The Surface Pro 3 is clearly the Surface that Panay and his crew has dreamed of building ever since Microsoft decided to leap feet-first into the mobile hardware game.

Surface head Panos Panay bounced around the stage at Microsoft's Surface event on Tuesday, bubbling over with enthusiasm as he detailed the Surface Pro 3's sleekness and power and fancy-pants digitizer pen. And why shouldn't he? The Surface Pro 3 is clearly the Surface that Panay and his crew has dreamed of building ever since Microsoft decided to leap feet-first into the mobile hardware game.

The Surface Pro's guiding vision was clear ever since the original Surface Pro was announced: Powerful, PC-style productivity in a portable, tablet-style frame. But for two long and money-losing years, that vision proved so lofty that it seemed unreachable.

Make no mistake: The Surface Pro and Surface Pro 2 were intriguing devices. Heck, the Pro 2 was downright enthralling. But ultimately they were devices compromised by hardware, software, and ecosystems that simply weren't ready to support the grand Surface vision.

In other words: The Surface Pro 3 is everything its predecessors simply couldn't be. Let me explain.

Too much, too soon

Chalk up Surface's previous problems to Windows 8. As the flagship device for all that was theoretically possible with this new-look version of Windows, the Surface Pro also painted a painful reminder of just how incomplete Windows 8 was at its launch.

Windows 8 wasn't as awful as some claimed, but it certainly wasn't appealing, and there's no doubt it was half-formed at its release — a birth forced prematurely because Microsoft's lengthy development cycles caught Windows flat-footed as tablets burst onto the scene. The Modern-style interface had serious usability issues. The Windows Store selection sucked. The desktop suffered from scaling issues on tiny tablet displays. Windows 8 simply wasn't compelling, and neither was its pricey physical avatar.

The mad dash to play tablet catch-up created more tangible problems as well. To be frank, Intel's processors simply weren't ready for mobile prime time at Windows 8's launch. The Ivy Bridge-based Core i5 processor in the heart of the original Surface Pro was designed during the laptop era. While it was technically impressive to see a tablet with Ultrabook-level performance, in the real world, power considerations made the original Surface Pro both chunky and almost appallingly short-lived.

The power considerations continued to plague the Surface Pro 2, even though it was powered by a far more energy-efficient Intel Haswell processor — the very same chip architecture found in the Surface Pro 3. Microsoft kept the SP2 at the same bulky half-inch thickness as the original Surface Pro, both to allow the Surface Pro docking station accessory to work with the first- and second-generation models alike and to (successfully) use Haswell's power-sipping chops to greatly enhance the endurance of the SP2.

 

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