Microsoft came up with a way to sell a lot of Surface tablets: deeply discount the devices and sell them to attendees at TechEd North America 2013 in New Orleans. Microsoft’s premium tablet computers running their flagship operating system Windows 8 have not exploded in sales since their introduction last year. However, the quality of the Surface hardware, the touch-friendly ‘live tiles’ that Windows 8 shares with Windows 8 Phone, and some truly unique Surface features make an attractive package that most people like once they try it.

A lot more IT professionals in the world are getting their hands on Surface tablets this week at TechEd. Microsoft made a surprise announcement the week before TechEd that each attendee could purchase two (2) Surface tablets, one (1) each of the “Pro” and “RT” types. The price of the Pro 128 is $399 and the RT is $99 for attendees (and includes a free Touch Cover that previously cost $120 and can be used with the Pro or the RT). Figure A is a photo of the line of attendees to purchase Surfaces.

Figure A

Queues at Microsoft TechEd North America 2013 to purchase Surface tablets and accessories.

Fire sale moves gear

The special offer is only available during the event, Sunday, June 2 – Thursday, June 6. Microsoft has assured attendees that there will be enough devices for everyone to get one of each. The offer was initially limited to customers and partners (including exhibitor attendees, sponsor attendees, faculty/staff and students), press, and non-Microsoft employee speakers and staff. Microsoft employees at TechEd were not eligible for the offer.

The Pro 128 retail price is about $1,000 and the RT retail price is about $500. Needless to say, many of the 15,000 or so TechEd attendees and other eligible staff seem to be getting both models-about $1,600 in hardware for just $500. Put another way, that’s a top of the line Pro for 50% off, plus a free RT and Touch cover. A no brainer for most attendees with $500 to get both.

Since the attendees are IT professionals representing industries and regions all over the world, this “partial giveaway” of technology to such a large and influential group could have quite a beneficial effect on Surface and Microsoft. At least for the Surface Pro that is. There are limitations to the RT model, for example, it cannot run Microsoft Office Outlook. [Update: Just since the writing of this piece, Microsoft announced at the Computex show in Taiwan that Outlook 2013 RT will be coming to RT tablets later this year.] It will be interesting to see industry feedback as IT pros who never otherwise would have used Surface RT provide feedback and reviews in the community.

To give a personal example, I have held off on diving into Windows 8 since my aging Lenovo ThinkPads (running Windows 7) were still holding up, even though the screen on one was starting to black out, and the battery life of the other kept shrinking. I really like the “live tile” interface of my Windows 8 Phone and the natural addition of touch capability, but I haven’t had the time and/or push to take the leap. This promotion of Surface at TechEd was for me, like most attendees, too good to pass up. I was in the line in Figure A and purchased my Surfaces and Surface accessories.

Better with two surfaces

Because of this surprising opportunity, I found myself doing something many TechEd attendees probably never expected to do: Have an out-of-the-box experience (OOBE) simultaneously with both a Surface Pro and a Surface RT. I can report that I was amazed at the consistency of the two products from a hardware and software viewpoint. The smallest details of the packaging and presentation were duplicated across the Pro and RT-the only real differences being that the Pro has a slightly larger power supply and the Pro also uniquely has a stylus. Figure B shows my Surfaces side by side after initial setup.

Figure B

Surface RT and Surface Pro side-by-side. RT (left) with Touch Cover, Pro (right) with Type Cover.

Complete kit for the Surface road warrior

A weakness I have always had (or is it a hobby?) is to collect all the options and accessories I might use when buying a device. (Would you like to see my collection of Zunes and Zune accessories?) While a Surface works great out of the box as a touch tablet, there are some sleek and handy accessories for Surface available from Microsoft. TechEd attendees could purchase Surface accessories at Microsoft employee prices.

At the TechEd Microsoft Store, I added to my Surface tablets (which included the Touch Cover with the RT) a Type Cover, a Microsoft Wedge keyboard, and a Microsoft Wedge mouse. Figure C shows what my Surface Road Warrior stack looks like: Two Surfaces with keyboard/covers and the Wedge keyboard and mouse.

Figure C

The Microsoft Surface Road Warrior kit: Pro and RT tablets, Wedge keyboard, Wedge mouse.

So many ways to Surface

There are a lot of ways to use your Surface: As tablets only with no cover, as well as with a keyboard: the low-profile Touch Cover, the more tactile Type Cover, or any Bluetooth keyboard connected to either the Pro or RT model. Sometimes there is no substitute for a mouse, and the Wedge mouse is so small yet so usable. It’s a great follow on to Microsoft’s inspired Arc and Arc Touch mice. Bluetooth pairing of the Wedge accessories to the Surface tablets was quick and easy.

To capture content during the keynote, I needed to compose the article while typing with my Surface on my lap while seated in the keynote audience. I wanted to minimize the “lap real estate” since I would be typing in the dark and in a crowded space. I elected to use the Wedge keyboard along with the Surface Pro tablet only.

Figure D shows a compact way to use a keyboard with your Surface in the most space-constrained situations. I wrote the whole keynote article yesterday on my Surface Pro, downloading photos from my Windows 8 Phone. I can share that the OOBE and the first day of real work with Surface was wholly successful.

Figure D

Using Surface with Wedge keyboard layout for space-constrained typing.