For the Want of a Nail…

Last Tuesday, Microsoft announced the latest device in their Surface range: the Surface Pro 3. Everyone expected that Microsoft would be announcing a different, smaller, model – the so-called Surface Mini, but somewhere between announcing the launch event, and the event itself, someone in Microsoft apparently got cold feet – but that’s another story.

The Surface Pro 3 is being pitched by Microsoft as a true laptop replacement. It is not seen as being just a tablet, such as the iPad. At the launch event, Microsoft’s Panos Panay claimed that 96% of people who own an iPad also own a laptop, since the traditional tablet is “designed for you to sit back and watch movies, read books, made for browsing the web, snacking on apps…”, whilst “Laptops aren’t designed that way at all, they are designed to get stuff done”.

The result of the design process for the Surface Pro 3 is a device that is as powerful as a laptop, whilst being lighter than the 13-inch MacBook Air.

There will be a range of models available, running from devices fitted with the Intel Core i3 processor, through ones with the Intel Core i5, up to the most powerful, fitted with the Intel Core i7. All will have a new form factor ratio (3:2) for the screen, which is both touch and pen-enabled.

I have to say that the SP3 models are tempting. But I want to be rational about this. My current devices are a full Desktop PC (home build) and a companion tablet (Lenovo ThinkPad 2, with GNSS, NFC and WWAN). I don’t have a laptop.

Microsoft, for some reason known only to themselves, have not included any of these capabilities (GNSS, NFC and WWAN) in what is clearly positioned as their flagship model (the SP3 web site trumpets: “best of a laptop, best of a tablet”). I agree that NFC is, at this stage of the game, more of a “nice-to-have” feature in a tablet than a necessity. It is further advanced in the smartphone world, and is already being exploited in applications such as those for mobile payments. And many people argue that WWAN is unnecessary in a tablet, since most tablet owners will have a smartphone, and the tablet can access the internet through the smartphone when WiFi is not available. This is true, but it’s not as convenient as having WWAN directly available in the tablet, and it also drains the phone’s battery faster. Still, at a pinch, it’s a way of achieving internet access.

However, I am really surprised that Microsoft has still not seen fit to include GNSS capability in any of their Surface products (other than their Surface 2 LTE device, where GNSS comes riding on the back of the WWAN chip). A dedicated GNSS chip (such as the Broadcomm BCM47521) consumes little in the way of real estate or power. Location services are part of the Windows 8.1 operating system, and many Apps (e.g. maps, weather, astronomy, photography) make use of them.

All models of the Lenovo ThinkPad Tablet 2 come with GNSS as standard (as do the newly announced successor, the ThinkPad Tablet 10). Having used Apps that exploit GNSS on my TPT2, I really don’t want to go backwards and lose this capability in my next tablet. It seems to me that Microsoft has missed an opportunity here to provide leadership. As far as I’m concerned, it takes the edge off the claim that the SP3 is the “best of a laptop, best of a tablet” product.

If I were to look at the SP3 models for simply a replacement for my TPT2 as a companion tablet, then I would go for the Core i3 model of the SP3. However, for roughly the same price as what I paid for my TPT2 eighteen months ago, I would be losing GNSS, NFC, and WWAN with the SP3. I really don’t see the point.

It seems to me that the only option worth considering (for my case) would be the “origami computing” option – going for the i7 SP3 + docking station + type cover to replace both the Desktop AND the tablet. Expensive, yes (extremely!), so I certainly couldn’t justify it on economic terms, but it would be rather a statement of where I want to get to. And I’d still be losing the GNSS, NFC, and WWAN capabilities.

Frankly, I think I’ll give the SP3 a miss. I don’t see that I could justify it. It’s more likely that I will be replacing my 18 month old ThinkPad Tablet 2 with a new ThinkPad Tablet 10.

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
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6 Responses to For the Want of a Nail…

  1. aarondr says:

    I’m no Surface fan, in fact I don’t really get the Surface Pro 3 personally. How big does a tablet need to be before it’s a pain to lug around. I have a Lenovo Yoga 2 Pro and absolutely love it’s ability to transform into a tablet when needed… How many times I’ve done that probably number in the single digits so far, but I’m a power user/dev so keyboards are how I work and play.

    However, I’d argue that GNSS, NFC, and WWAN are dead technologies as far as tablets go. I say that since NFC barely makes sense in a phone – no one uses it, and those that do half the time it doesn’t work. It was nearly impossible for me to use my GWallet credit 2 years ago, and I’d venture that things aren’t too much better today. The size of the target sensor requires you to know a very small area of the device where it will read properly – and it’s awkward at best finding that on a large phone, let alone a tablet. WWAN is a nice to have, but until the advent (in the US) of shared data plans it was another excuse to have $30 a month tacked on your cell bill. US carriers effectively killed the connected non-phone device. A lot like SUVs – the phablet was born. Now I’m bringing the perspective of an individual in the US market here – and I’ll even argue that WWAN can still be a big deal here in the US, but most people use tablets at coffee shops, malls, airports, and their homes – where free wifi abounds. When WWAN adds about a $100 to the price tag of a device plus the ongoing expense of a data plan, it become much less palatable to the majority of consumers. Even the $10 a month to add a tablet to my shared AT&T plan seems like too much ($15 adds a cellular device with unlimited talk/text – why should a device that can do neither cost only $5 a month less? If the Surface Pro 3 was classified as a ‘laptop’ device, they’d charge me $20 a month!). Apple gets away with WWAN due to volume, chipset, and carrier relationships – something MS doesn’t have. On the Intel side Apple still doesn’t have a device with any of those features – even though an Air is ripe for it.

    Now GNSS – I agree that adding a simple GPS chip isn’t much of an investment. However, let’s consider the lack of WWAN means your using it on WiFi. WiFi location data all but kills the necessity of GNSS. The usage scenarios for a WiFi tablet mean that your not moving around a lot, so pinpoint accurate positioning is of little value.

    I’m not saying your wrong – in fact I’d say a device with all those features is much more palatable to ‘Pro’sumers which you’d think the Surface Pro 3 is targeted toward. In reality though, this device seems more targeted to the every-man, where these features don’t pay off.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Thanks very much for the comments. You make some good points, but I don’t think it’s all as cut and dried as you say. I think NFC is an emerging technology, rather than a dead one. Here in Europe, and also in Japan, it’s being used for contactless payments and transportation checkin/checkout. Early days, and small steps, but it may grow. However, I suspect that it will remain confined to smartphones, so in that sense, you’re right.

      I’ve never understood the rationale for having a data plan for devices that only need WWAN occasionally. You’re right, WiFi hotspots are everywhere in built-up areas (and on trains) here in Western Europe as well, so for most of the time, I can use WiFi. For the occasions when I need WWAN, I have a prepaid SIM card, so I only pay for what I need. No data plans for me – a complete waste of money, for my case.

      Why do you think that you need to have WiFi/WWAN when using GNSS? You don’t. For example, using the HERE Maps App on my TPT2, with its downloadable maps, means that I have a complete working navigational solution when completely off the grid, and out in the wilds.

      • aarondr says:

        Your welcome! Oh it’s more fun to be cut and dry :-).

        NFC is nice for simplifying pairing of bluetooth devices, and I always wanted to get writable NFC tags to change settings back when I first got my Galaxy Nexus (using a Lumia 520 nowadays). The problem, it’s a geeky solution and requires physical manipulation of a device that needs a user to interact with software via the screen, which might be at an oblique angle and hard to use. Payments, want me to enter a pin, sharing a URL wants me to touch the screen. I just haven’t had a great experience with it. But I’m willing to concede (especially in the first use case I mentioned) it has the potential to be a useful technology if implemented properly.

        Ah, a world where carriers don’t suck – at least I’m able to get a plan these days that doens’t make me pay a premium for my services because they think I”m going to buy their crappy carrier locked phones.

        You don’t need Wifi – but really on a 64GB device (entry level Surface 3) your not going to want to download large offline maps. Many people have satnavs, and those that don’t probably rely on either a dedicated device or most likely their phones – again. A tablet usually means consumption, so I’m much more likely to want to not only navigate, but also find a restaurant, read reviews, look at the menu – something you can’t do without data access. If you include WWAN – then I think it’d be a bonehead move not to include a GNSS – but if you’re WiFi only most average users will never miss it.

        • Geoff Coupe says:

          I have a 64GB TPT2, and I’m happily using downloadable HERE Maps for my corner of Western Europe, with very little impact on storage. My old TomTom Satnav came with a 2GB harddisk – and that held maps for Western Europe as well.

          I agree that data access capability will certainly enhance the App experience, and in many cases would be required for an App, but I would still argue that GNSS by itself is an important capability that should not be dismissed so easily. Your average user probably will never miss it because they’ve never had it. Now that I’ve experienced it, I don’t want to lose it in my next tablet.

          For Line of Business Apps for employees out in the field, it seems to me that accurate Location services would be very useful to have. That’s probably why Lenovo have included it by default in their business range of tablets.

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