This morning I read a review of an 8 inch Windows 8 tablet. What stuck out was CPU: an x86 Intel Atom. You’d think a practically pocketable (my iPad mini fits in my back pocket and many jacket pockets) would want to use an ARM CPU for battery life reasons. Well, it turns out that lack of Apps is keeping both manufacturers and consumers from going anywhere near Windows on ARM.
An optimist would see the recent price cuts on the Surface RT as simply nearing the end of a product cycle. But why not wait until the Surface RT 2 is available to discount like Apple has done with the (still selling) iPad 2? In reality, it’s probably because they aren’t selling enough to even justify making a Surface RT 2 at this point. They probably expected the price cuts to cause overnight sellouts like the $99 HP Touchpads and spur excitement over the next one.
So went wrong with the Surface RT and what (if anything) can be corrected for a Surface RT 2?
The Surface hardware is actually nice to look at an hold in my opinion. Microsoft did a very good job, and their custom Segoe font with clear type looks amazing in Metro on a mere 1366×768 display. There are only two things wrong with the Surface hardware from a design perspective
The Aspect Ratio
The developer tools make developing Metro apps for arbitrary viewports are pretty good. 16:9 tablets are still weird in portrait mode. I think the iPad’s 4:3 would produce a tablet more likely to be held in multiple orientations. The problem with a 16:9 tablet that big is that it’s awkward to hold in one hand and use with the other in either orientation. If a tablet isn’t useful without carting around a keyboard and trackpad than it’s not really a tablet, which brings me to
As I pointed out in my post about the clamshell form factor, the kickstand plus keyboard cover takes up as much space as a 15″ MacBook Pro (back to front) when it should be much less because the space between the kickstand’s foot and the base of the tablet is wasted.
The kickstand and its marriage with the cover (and the angle of the camera) sends a strong message about the Surface: I’m not a tablet, you should use my like a laptop. A next generation Surface RT needs to be viable product for two hands to dual-thumb on.
Other minor nuisances with the hardware are the proprietary HDMI port (the Pro uses mini DP) and the camera being angled so it’s straight when the surface is at its kickstands 22 degrees. LTE would be nice, but you need a table to use this thing so there’s probably WiFi.
Windows 8 RT Portrait Tablet Edition Mobile for Home with Office 2013 RT Edition Edition
Including Windows on the Surface caused a lot of unnecessary confusion regarding what it could and couldn’t run. It can run Desktop Office, so why can’t it run Photoshop? I’m not saying Microsoft shouldn’t include a Metro task manager or file system explorer, but they shouldn’t look like a Windows 7 desktop. Finishing Metro and removing all traces of Aero from Windows RT would make the next problem a little easier.
The current state of Surface products has no reason to buy the RT. It’s the same size, runs a subset of apps that you don’t understand, has a lower resolution screen, and no pen. The lack of pen on the RT is particularly interesting because the Pro has driver problems with the pen and apps. On the RT, there are no x86 apps that can mess with things that low level. Sandboxed Metro apps would use a single standard pen API and driver.
Without as much legacy Windows to support, Windows RT should be much lighter weight than Windows x86 and thus achieve 10-12 hour battery for surfing and video playback. It comes in pretty close (7.5 hrs of 1080p in one test) and further optimizations could push it further. It’s not the 13″ MacBook Air’s 12 hours or god knows how many hours the iPad 5 will last, but it blows the between 2 and 4 hour batteries of x86 tablets out of the water.
Perhaps a better differentiator for Surface RT going forward would be a different form factor that doesn’t make it feel like an inferior PC. 8 inches, doesn’t need a keyboard, has a pen by default (differentiate from iPad, compete with Note), and an IPS display and clear type fonts that shame the typography of Android devices of similar sizes. $399 with LTE and 64GB. This would be $100 cheaper than the 64GB LTE Kindle Fire HD 8.9″ and $130 cheaper than the 64GB LTE iPad mini. Microsoft could theoretically achieve such a price by not being as greedy as Apple is in terms of charging consumers for storage. They could prevent taking a loss by only offering it alongside a $299 32GB WiFi version. This would have the movie popcorn effect, where a small is $4 but a large is $5 so everyone buys that thinking they’re getting a good deal when in reality the paper bag costs more than the popcorn in it. Because the LTE chip and upgraded storage only cost $25 more in materials, people flock to the $399 model which gives Microsoft more profit. But what do I know… No matter how much more compelling they make the hardware, it still won’t be useful without, you guessed it, Developers Developers Developers. If Microsoft sends me a free one I’ll port at least one app.
UPDATE Microsoft announced a 900M loss on Surface RT
Now I’m pessimistic that there will be a Surface RT 2/mini at all.