The burning question facing Satya Nadella during his early -- and so far highly praised -- reign as Microsoft's chief executive was how he would manage the company's hardware business, notably the Surface tablets that to date haven't posed any meaningful threat against Apple's still dominant iPad.
With today's launch of the Surface Pro 3 tablet, we have an answer: a slate that Microsoft insists is a viable replacement for your laptop. On the surface anyway—I need to spend more time testing—it appears that Microsoft might just be able to pull it off.
Microsoft defied some of the speculation leading up to Tuesday's event: that it would go small and compete against the iPad mini—a battle that in all likelihood would leave Microsoft bloodied and beaten. Instead, Microsoft is fighting on a productivity-based playing field. Microsoft still expects to compete against Apple, of course, and not just against the iPad but against the company's popular MacBook Air notebook. Analyst Avi Greengart thinks it will also be competing against Windows-based Ultrabooks.
"Microsoft has rightly decided its future is not at the low end of consumer tablets, where ultra thin margins and highly competitive vendors from the Far East have and will continue to dominate," says analyst Jack Gold. "Instead, it has concentrated on its key strength, business users who look at tablets as extensions and or replacements for full laptop capability."
Surface Pro 3, which Microsoft takes preorders on starting Wednesday, will cost $799 on up, with the first units available June 20. The new slate has an impressive looking 12.1-inch Full HD display that is larger than the 10.6-inch display on current Surface Pro models. It runs off Windows 8.1 software and 4th generation Intel Core processors, and appears to have enough oomph to handle powerful third-party software such as Adobe Photoshop. Microsoft says you'll get up to 9 hours of battery life while surfing the Web.
The magnesium machine is light (1.76 pounds) and thin, and it has a single USB 3.0 port, micro SD card slot, and a mini HDMI port. There will be an optional docking station available at $199.99 that will add ports and connectors and give you more of a desktop PC experience.
Surface Pro 3 has a more flexible kickstand than prior models, even letting you lower the angle to use as a canvas you might draw on.
Indeed, Microsoft is also putting heavy emphasis on the pressure-sensitive pen that the company claims is as natural and personal as writing with real pen on paper (quickie impression, it is better). As you might imagine, there are close ties to Microsoft's OneNote program, which is free and will be preloaded. You'll have to subscribe to Office 365 for other Office programs such as Word, Excel and PowerPoint or purchase them separately.
Plus, you'll have to buy an optional $129.99 Surface Type Cover to add a keyboard and an improved trackpad.
Microsoft executive Panos Panay actually dropped the tablet intentionally on stage and it came through unscathed, though Microsoft isn't making any formal durability claims.
"You've been told to buy a tablet when you only need a laptop," says Panos.
For now, Microsoft is still selling the prior Surface models, including those based on a flavor of Windows called Windows RT which will not run older PC software, though it does come preinstalled with Office. It remains to be seen what kind of future RT continues to have, especially if Microsoft does deliver on a smaller tablet.
In the meantime, stay tuned for a more complete review of Surface Pro 3.