Coming to the Surface

Microsoft’s Surface tablets have never been able to compete with Apple’s iPads. There’s finally reason to think that might change.

A woman in bed with her Microsoft Surface Pro.

Microsoft’s bet on the present—and future—of mobile hardware is the Surface. First introduced in late 2012, its laptop-tablet hybrid didn’t make much of a splash amid the iPad’s clear dominance. Since then, the Surface’s sales have gone up and down, but its revenue has remained a fraction of the iPad’s. Is this the year that starts to change?

In its first quarter earnings report, Microsoft’s revenue from the Surface was up 32 percent from the same quarter in 2017. Microsoft’s Surface Laptop and Surface Pro both resonated with critics and consumers alike, and the sales numbers showed. And now Microsoft has a new Surface in the mix, the Surface Go, right as larger market trends seem to be changing in its favor.

The $400 Surface Go isn’t as premium of a device as the Surface Laptop or Surface Pro, but it shares the same sturdy build, polished looks, and a surprisingly speedy user experience. The 10-inch device has an 1,800x1,200 resolution display, and a 5-megapixel front-facing camera and 8-megapixel rear camera. Along its sides, it’s got a USB-C port, microSD card slot, and headphone jack. Inside, its specs are more modest: It starts at 64GB of storage, 4GB of RAM, and a Pentium 4415Y processor—but Microsoft says it worked directly with Intel to optimize this CPU for the machine, so it’s quite speedy and responsive. Gizmodo called it a “cheap, tiny tablet that just might beat the iPad.”

Microsoft’s Surface Go most directly competes with the $329, 9.7-inch iPad that Apple announced in March, and the two devices share a number of similarities. They’re both light and portable (the Surface Go weighs 1.15 pounds; the iPad 1.03 pounds). While both start at a more economical price than true premium devices, their costs quickly add up once you start tacking on things like smart covers, keyboard cases, and other accessories. The Verge estimates the Surface Go you’d really want—one with extra RAM, Microsoft’s Type Cover, and other additions—would cost more like $600.

While topping the iPad’s success sounds like a tall order, industry trends are leaning in Microsoft’s favor. A report from research and analysis firm Gartner out this week predicts that the worldwide shipment of PCs, mobile phones, and tablets is only set to grow 0.9 percent this year, with PC and tablet sales dropping a combined 1.2 percent and phone sales growing only 1.4 percent. But there’s a niche of the market that’s expected to do quite well: premium ultramobile devices. Gartner sees this market segment, which includes things like Microsoft’s Surface line and the iPad Pro, growing 12 percent in 2018 as businesses opt for light but powerful devices for employees. J.P. Gownder, vice president at another research firm, Forrester, sees the Surface Go filling this role as well.

“It should compete extremely well with the iPad,” Gownder told CNN Tech. “It’s … got the design flair and usability workers want, but it has the applications that employees really need.”

And compared to Apple’s 9.7-inch iPad, it might be seen as more versatile given its Windows 10 S operating system and innate interoperability with things like detachable keyboards and mice. Windows 10 S has additional security measures compared to other versions of the software: You can only download apps from the Windows Store, and it has a BitLocker encryption system for keeping files secure. Apple marketed its cheapest iPad squarely at the education space; the Surface Go is more broadly targeted to general consumers, students and educators, and enterprise clients.

With the Surface Go added to its lineup, Microsoft now has a suite of high-quality hardware options encompassing a variety of price points and user needs, but importantly, these products are also in line with today’s mobile device buying trends. Software-makers have warmed to making enterprise and productivity programs mobile-friendly, while these glorified tablets themselves have become lighter and more powerful—a combination that makes them far more attractive to purchase. That, combined with the performance improvements of Windows 10 S, could make 2018 the Surface’s best year yet. Whether it’s merely a personal best for the Surface line or a best that could take it closer to iPad levels, we’ll have to see. But if ever the Surface had a chance of overtaking Apple’s tablet dominance, it’s now.