Just over five years ago, on Feb. 9, 2013, Microsoft introduced the first Surface Pro device. By modern standards, it was downright chunky — the refreshed Surface Pro in 2017 measured 7.9 by 11.5 by 0.33 inches (HWD). The original, in contrast, was slightly shorter but also significantly thicker at 6.81 by 10.81 by 0.53 inches. The newer flavor is also lighter, at 1.7 pounds for the Core i5 version, compared with the original’s Core i5 CPU and 2-pound weight. Not bad, considering performance and capabilities on newer hardware are also much improved.
To celebrate its launch, Microsoft is offering $200 discounts on Surface Pro hardware over the weekend, beginning at 12 AM PST on Feb. 17 and ending at 11:59 PM PST on Monday, Feb. 19. Panos Panay has written a blog post about the Surface Pro’s launch, including about how a blizzard forced Microsoft to pull the New York unveil and move it to Los Angeles. At the same time, some of Panay’s commentary looks at the impact of Surface with rather rose-tinted glasses. He writes, under a heading called “The Ultimate Laptop:”
Since the first Surface Pro launched we’ve seen the PC category evolve, with new growth segments (when we entered the market in 2013 the premium 2-1 category saw 4x growth and we have continued to see significant growth every year since), and a set of new experiences and interactions, allowing millions of people to type, write, touch, and create in new ways.
I think Panay is right that the PC market has evolved since the Surface Pro launched. One common opinion voiced at the time was that Microsoft had provided a blueprint for other device manufacturers to follow — an excellent tablet with an attachable keyboard that could convert, in a very limited fashion, into a “laptop” — provided you didn’t need to balance the system in your lap, didn’t need a fine-tuned adjustable kickstand, and could work with the port limitations on the original device.
Five years after Surface, the 2-in-1 market is one of the few bright spots of the industry, with consistent year-on-year sales increases. But these devices haven’t generally gone the direction of the Surface Pro. Instead, most 2-in-1s today continue to emphasize a conventional keyboard with a hard, solid base. Microsoft argues the Surface Pro is the “Ultimate Laptop,” but that’s not the phrase I’d use to describe the device. If you actually need to work from your lap, or a conference chair, or anything other than a hard, flat surface, the Surface family doesn’t suit. As the Wirecutter wrote last year:
Attempting to type with the Surface Pro on my lap was much more frustrating. Whereas the iPad Pro’s Smart Keyboard has a flat base, the Pro’s kickstand has an open bottom: If the kickstand slid off my lap, the rest of the device soon followed. And when using the Surface Pro as a pure tablet (with the keyboard folded behind the screen), the on-screen keyboard occupies over 40 percent of the display’s real estate in landscape orientation, and apps aren’t as smart about getting out of the keyboard’s way as iOS apps are.
The Surface family has never been a great option if you want a laptop you can actually use in a variety of environments. It’s a much stronger option if you want a powerful tablet you can easily carry between work and home. Microsoft’s own efforts with the Surface Laptop and Surface Book belie the claim that the standard Surface Pro represents an “ultimate” laptop — if it did, why would we also need a conventional and not-quite-as-conventional product family to cover the bases Surface Pro doesn’t touch?
Ultimately, I do agree with Panay on one thing. Regardless of whether the Surface Pro drove the evolution of 2-in-1 systems into the present day, it demonstrated our collective concept of a PC could evolve at a time when the PC market was collapsing.
From 2011 to 2016, PC sales fell by 27 percent. This decline had numerous knock-on effects across the industry. It drove Dell to go private, was a significant factor in the breakup of HP, and had a negative impact on AMD’s earnings, over and above the general weakness in the company’s product line during the Bulldozer era. Happily, those days are over. But one thing Surface Pro provided was the idea that if PC manufacturers threw their weight behind premium ultraportable models, they’d be better equipped to ride out the storm. They did, and generally have.
In that respect, the Surface Pro succeeded brilliantly.
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