Technophobe: Laptop/tablet hybrids and the Microsoft Surface

Megan Youngren/Sun Star Columnist
October 2, 2012

If you have a tablet or you’ve used one recently, you may have noticed that they are about as thin as a laptop screen. Manufacturers see an opportunity with this and are producing tablets that have a ‘keyboard dock’ that make them into pseudo-laptops. As part of the push for Windows 8 later this month, a whole wave of ‘laptops’ with removable screens will be available. Also, Microsoft is producing its own hardware for the first time. The keyboard for Microsoft’s 10 inch tablet, called the Surface, isn’t exactly a dock. It’s different and cheaper, and may have a significant impact on the tablet world.

Microsoft feels that its longtime hardware partners need a standard to meet or exceed, and instead of suggested guidelines it’s entering that market as a competitor. It’s similar to Google’s occasional production of Nexus phones. Google doesn’t intend to dominate the market with them, but to set up something that its software licensees will try to beat.

It’s still unknown how Microsoft will market its tablet. It’s likely to be a superior device than what the competition will release, but for the same price or even lower. If properly advertised and kept in-stock at retailers, it will be hard to beat.

A move like that might alienate manufacturers who have long partnered with Microsoft. They might consider building Android tablets. Unlike Android, Windows licenses cost money and it’s hard to compete against a company that doesn’t have to pay for them.

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Transformer tablet being removed from its keyboard dock. Credit: asus.com

Prices for the Surface will be approximately $400 for the basic version, and around $700 for the Pro version. This isn’t cheap like the $200 Nexus 7 from Google, but if considered against a laptop or the iPad it is very competitive.

Asus has already perfected the make-a-tiny-laptop approach. At first glance it appears to be a laptop running Android with a trackpad and keyboard. But you can undock the screen, which is then a tablet on its own. These are aptly branded as Transformer tablets. Many manufacturers have followed their lead, with a tablet for which you can buy a keyboard dock with extra battery or storage.

Microsoft knows that selling a tablet for $400 and then having a $200 keyboard sold separately isn’t going to have the market associating Windows tablets with having a keyboard. No one will think these Windows 8 tablets are any more special than the iPad for real work.

But that’s what they want to impart. No one wants to only use a ‘virtual’ or on-screen keyboard to type an essay, after all. Their approach is to have something like the ‘Smart Cover’ that Apple has sold since the iPad 2. This provides a flipover cover that magnetizes to the tablet, covering the screen when not in use.

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A Microsoft Surface – On left, the tactile keyboard. On right, the touch keyboard. Credit: microsoft.com/surface

Brilliantly, Microsoft has put a keyboard and trackpad onto their version of the Smart Cover. Since this doesn’t have a battery or anything else that would add significant cost, it will be priced at $40-50 or just bundled with the tablet. Unlike bulky cases with a keyboard for the iPad, or separate Bluetooth keyboards, it is physically connected. You can remove it whenever, but keeping it on means that when you need it you have the convenience of a laptop. There are two versions, one with tactile keys and one with gooey touch keys. Both have a trackpad for mouse control.

Microsoft hopes that this will provide a good compromise for consumers not ready to ditch the comfort of Word and Excel with a keyboard and mouse, but would like a tablet for its portability and long battery life. All kinds of options for hardware type and size will be available, but so far none are quite like Microsoft’s Surface tablets. Mostly, they use the Asus formula of a separate and pricey keyboard dock. Windows 8 comes out on Oct. 26, and alongside it the Surface tablets. Are you interested?

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1 Response

  1. It’s still a cool tablet, but Microsoft has seriously messed up this opportunity.

    Windows RT tablets, which will be released alongside Windows 8 on October 26th, will cost $499 and be sold separately from either keyboard dock. The Touch Cover will be $120 and the Keyboard Cover will be $130.

    The kicker is that on October 23rd, Apple will likely announce an inexpensive (in comparison) iPad mini.

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