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Hearts, minds and balls: Microsoft's Windows 8 Surface gamble

Punters don't want expensive PCs - will they take a tablet instead?

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What makes Microsoft think people will buy its Surfaces? It would have to be either for the love of the Microsoft brand or because Redmond has got them by the balls on data and apps.

These can be the only reasons, based on the partially released specs of the Intel-based Surface running Windows 8 Pro that was unveiled on Thursday.

First, Microsoft is slapping on a price tag that is $200 more than the Surface RT - $300 more if you count a touch cover that has suddenly become a pricey separate accessory. A 64GB Surface RT with a touch cover running the ARM chipset is priced at $699. The 64GB Windows 8 Pro running Intel will be priced $899 and excludes the touch cover, which retails for around $100.

Compare that to the 64GB iPad from Apple, which is priced at $699. The Android-powered 64GB Samsung Galaxy Tab, meanwhile, comes in at around $889, no keypad required.

The problem for Microsoft here is that the keypad is essential on the Windows 8 Pro edition, because – as Microsoft points out in the supporting blog – Windows 8 Pro will run your existing Windows 7 apps, and those apps won’t be built for touch.

The next problem is battery life. Microsoft has cherry-picked the data it has chosen to officially release on these new Surfaces and with good reason: Surface Pro will have half the battery life of Surface RT. The first Surface runs at about 10-12 hours while running H.264 video, according to reviews. Surface RT comes in at just over seven hours.

That means you’ll be looking at a battery life of between three-and-a-half and six hours depending on your use. The iPad 2 comes in at around 10 to 12 hours while the Samsung Tab is about seven hours running that H.264 media.

Obviously settings differ according to use and settings, so numbers are a guide.

Don't new Intel chipsets make computers CHEAPER?

These are troubling details. The irony is, Intel is a commodity chipset and historically it’s something that has driven down the price of computing. It was the marriage of Intel with Microsoft in the late 1980s and early 1990s that helped OEMs undercut systems build on more expensive and complicated RISC chip sets.

Also, Intel is fairly well understood from a technical perspective, which makes it all the more mysterious that the price is going up while the battery life is coming down.

Microsoft has justified the higher price on the fact Surface Pro will run the Core i5 chip - to help graphics in things like reader and gaming - have a stylus for pen input, run those older Windows 7 apps and on the facts that it's lighter and slimmer - it weighs in at just under two pounds (903g) and is just 14mm thick. Windows Surface RT, however, is both thinner and lighter - at 1.49 pounds (675g) and 10mm.

Hybrid features like pens, however, are said to be "uninteresting" to consumers. US retail giant Best Buy in an interview with Time reckons that hybrid and convertible Windows 8 machines from PC makers, with features like detachable screens, are appealing but at the end of the day don’t justify a high asking price. The take-away is this: shoppers are opting for cheaper machines and that bodes ill for Microsoft on the Windows 8 Pro Surfaces, in going up against the iPad and Android.

Jason Bonfig, Best Buy’s vice president of merchant computing, gave this as one reason why the retailer’s not stocking more Windows 8 hybrids. Bonfig said:

We felt the customer would either make a choice to buy a less-expensive tablet, or they would make a choice to buy a more expensive Ultrabook or convertible, and they weren’t interested in some of the performance and value associated with a few of those products.

Interestingly, Bonfig reckoned another reason why there’s a lack of generic Windows 8 machines in Best Buy has been manufacturing problems inside the PC makers trying to build the new systems. Many Windows 8 tablets use touchscreens larger than 10 inches - the standard for Android tabs from Samsung, Asus and Acer. It took years to refine the manufacturing process for 10-inch screens, so it's likely to mean a similar delay on Windows 8 machines - plus the production of faulty screens in the meantime as the manufacturing process is nailed down.

Far from being knock-out punch in Microsoft’s one-two sequence that started with Windows RT in October, it’s starting to look as if Surface on Intel could go the way of Windows RT, with disappointing sales and the consequence that the manufacture of new fondleslabs is slashed. ®

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