Yesterday, Microsoft announced the Surface Pro 3, which is an impressive piece of hardware. The Surface and Surface Pro 2 were good, but the larger display (12.1 inches vs. 10.6 inches) and shift in aspect ratio (3:2 vs. 16:9) make the Surface Pro 3 much more capable when you need to use it with the Type Cover keyboard as an "ultrabook hybrid" for extended periods of time.
This is not your average tablet. Internally, the architecture of the Surface Pro 3 didn't change substantially from the previous model. The tablets still use the fourth generation Intel Core processor line, codenamed "Haswell." The Haswell chips enable the Surface Pro 3 to go for up to nine hours on a single charge. Surface Pro 3 comes with either 4 GB or 8 GB of RAM, and a 64 GB, 128 GB, 256 GB, or 512 GB SSD. It also has 5 MP / 1080p HD cameras on both front and back, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, a microSD card slot, and a full-size USB 3.0 port.
I pointed out a couple weeks ago that one of the reasons the Surface tablet line has struggled is because of a branding and marketing failure by Microsoft. Microsoft focused on the fact that the Surface is a tablet and even ran commercials — rather clever ones, actually — comparing the Surface against the iPad. That was a mistake, and Microsoft has adopted a new strategy for the Surface Pro 3.
The problem with pitting the Surface Pro line against traditional tablets is that it costs substantially more. No matter how awesome you make it seem, somebody in the market for a tablet is going to walk into a Best Buy and see a $500 iPad Air, a $400 Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro 10.1, and a $900 Surface Pro 2 — and the vast majority will walk away with one of the tablets that are thinner, lighter, and cost half as much as the Surface.
When you pit the Surface Pro tablet against a laptop, though, it's a much more level playing field — one where the Surface has some distinct advantages. As far as I'm concerned, the Surface Pro 2 was already "the tablet that can replace your laptop," but Microsoft failed to position it that way.
There are 2-in-1 hybrid laptops that cost half as much as a Surface Pro 3, but they come with significant tradeoffs in both form and function. For example, you can get a Lenovo Yoga hybrid for $500, but it has an older, slower Intel processor, only 4 GB of non-expandable RAM, a traditional 500 GB hard drive, 802.11n Wi-Fi functionality, it weighs three pounds, and you only get an estimated five to six hours of battery life. That's a choice you can make, but it's a choice that comes with some consequences and caveats.
At the media event that unveiled the Surface Pro 3, Microsoft stopped comparing the device to the iPad and instead focused on the more apples-to-apples comparison against the MacBook Air. The two devices share much of the same architecture, but the Surface Pro 3 display has greater pixel density. The Surface Pro 3 is also 40% lighter than the 13-inch MacBook Air and 25% lighter than the 11-inch MacBook Air. The MacBook Air boasts longer battery life, but the Surface Pro 3 has a better front-facing camera and identical rear-facing camera.
When it comes to price, the Surface Pro 3 is basically on par with the MacBook Air. The Surface Pro 3 starts out cheaper at $799 — but that's for a Core i3 model with only 64 GB of storage. The Core i5 Surface Pro 3 with a 128 GB SSD has both the same basic hardware and the same $999 price tag as the base 13-inch MacBook Air.
The high-end Surface Pro 3 models actually cost a little more than a comparably equipped MacBook Air, but not unreasonably so. The Surface Pro is lighter, thinner, and has a touchscreen display with pen input. More importantly, the flight attendant won't make you put your Surface Pro 3 away during takeoff and landing, because it's a tablet.
I was already a fan of the Surface Pro 2. The Surface Pro 3 is a substantial improvement in the device itself, but the shift in marketing is what will really make the difference. The Surface Pro 3 really is "the tablet that can replace your laptop." Microsoft finally got both the device and the marketing right.
Does the Surface Pro 3 have what it takes to replace your laptop? Share your thoughts in the discussion thread below.
Tony Bradley is a principal analyst with Bradley Strategy Group. He is a respected authority on technology, and information security. He writes regularly for Forbes, and PCWorld, and contributes to a wide variety of online and print media outlets. He has authored or co-authored a number of books, including Unified Communications for Dummies, Essential Computer Security, and PCI Compliance.