September has been a fantastically busy month for those of us in the industry covering all the new smartphone and tablet announcements. First there was IFA, then Apple’s iPhone launch, and now we’re less than a week away from Microsoft’s Surface event, where some new tablets are eagerly anticipated.
Last year, I really wanted to see the first Surface models be a hit. When we got that surprise announcement in June, the design looked great, and Microsoft had an outside shot at being the breath of fresh air that the tablet market could really use. But in the months that followed, concerns started building: would app selection be sufficient? And just what was Microsoft hoping to charge for these guys? Unfortunately, when sales details arrived for the Surface RT in the fall, the tablet proved to be a little on the steep side, a condition only exacerbated by Microsoft’s unwillingness to bundle Touch or Type Covers as essential components of the Surface experience, and instead positioned them as expensive accessories.
By the time I actually had the chance to try one out, it almost seemed like the obituary was already written for the tablet: key apps were lacking, but beyond even that, the Surface RT just couldn’t perform at the level it needed to, seeming oddly underpowered. Considering how much Windows Phone got done with middling hardware, this lag was all the more confusing.
Now sure, the Surface Pro ended up delivering the sort of performance, flexibility, and compatibility that I wish the RT had been capable of, but the brand was already tarnished. Indeed, in the months that followed, we started learning just how epically Microsoft had botched the Surface RT launch, as tablet after tablet sat unsold in Microsoft’s warehouses.
But now that same hope I felt last summer has returned; I still think that Windows RT’s a big mistake on a fundamental level, but from everything else that I’ve heard about these new Surface models, I’m pretty darn excited to finally see them go official. So what’s so great about them?
Let’s start with the hardware, specifically with the Surface RT. By the time the first tablet went up for sale in October, the Tegra 3 was already pushing ancient. The particular Tegra 3 variant used, the T30, dates all the way back to 2011, showing up then in the ASUS Eee Pad Transformer Prime.
This year, we’re likely looking at a Tegra 4. For the moment, the Tegra 4 is a pretty open-ended question, and though we’ve seen the odd device running one, it’s yet to make the same impact as the Tegra 3. While that means we very well may be disappointed again, there’s the definitely the potential to be impressed here.
Other rumored improvements, like doubling RAM from 2GB to 4GB, are well in excess of the sort of year-to-year spec bumps we’re used to from many devices, and could well speak to Microsoft’s devotion to avoid delivering an underpowered tablet.
What about the Surface Mini that’s been rumored? At the moment, I’m really not sure what to think of the device. For one, I’m far from convinced that it even exists, and assuming it does, little’s been said about it to date. From the sound of things, it might not even launch on Monday, and could be scheduled for later in the year.
I’m also excited about what these new Surface models could have to look forward to in terms of accessories. We’ve heard about a new Power Cover, long rumored but perhaps only now ready to show itself, integrating an extended battery into a Type Cover to boost the operating time of your Surface tablet. And it looks like Microsoft will continue to push to blur the lines between tablet and computer with the release of a docking station – at least for the Pro 2.
Those are both really promising, and I can see the Power Cover, especially, becoming a must-have accessory for a lot of new users. But even with this new stuff, Microsoft really needs to learn from last year’s mistakes. If it still doesn’t want to force the keyboard covers upon users, Microsoft must know by now how off-putting the prices look on top of an already expensive tablet, and I really hope that it intends to price Surface 2 keyboards accordingly. Seriously – anything over $50 won’t cut it.
Keeping on the subject of price, I’m similarly optimistic that Microsoft has learned a thing or two about pricing the tablets themselves. In the past few months, we’ve seen some big discounts on first-gen Surface tablets. Some have been crazy good (like that TechEd 2013 deal for a 64GB Surface RT WITH Touch Cover for $100) and others more sensibly good (like the current discounts we saw go into effect in July and August), but in either case, Microsoft has clearly seen what effect such moves can have on Surface sales.
Sure, it could ignore that lesson, let hubris get the better of itself, and push forward with more of last year’s delusional pricing – the Surface is simply not the iPad, and no one but dedicated Windows fans are going to pony up the same amount of cash – but the company clearly has the evidence by now. It’s seen where the first Surface models faltered, and with these little pricing and free-cover experiments it’s been conducting lately, it’s experienced firsthand how to get people interested in Surface once again. Now all it needs to do is follow-through next week. Taking any bets?