Is the Microsoft (MSFT) Surface Pro 3 the tablet Batman would use? Maybe not, but at the first Microsoft Surface Cafe in Toronto, a popular illustrator from Time Warner’s (TWX) DC Comics showed how he uses MSFT’s new laptop-killer to draw Batman. While the iPad and MacBook Air weren’t mentioned during this big coming out party for the new Surface Pro 3, it was clear that the event — given the tagline “where creativity comes together” — was intended to be a shot at Apple’s (AAPL) stronghold among the creative class.
I made the three hour drive in to Toronto after being invited to attend the workshops at this first Microsoft Surface Cafe. This isn’t the way I usually spend my Saturdays, but the event had been splashed in the Wall Street Journal and I was curious about this new take on the Surface Pro.
Would the Surface Pro 3 be less awkward to hold than the overly narrow Surface Pro 2, despite being physically larger? Would the new hinge and keyboard combo live up to the hype to actually make this professional tablet a potential replacement for the tablet + laptop so many people rely on?
Perhaps most importantly (especially for the future of MSFT’s devices business), would anyone show up to gawk at the Surface Pro 3?
The Surface Pro 3 Cafe is a pop-up event, held in a trendy space in Toronto’s in Toronto’s hip Queen West area. The studio for Much Music (the Canadian equivalent of MTV) was only a few blocks away, expensive shops surrounded the space, and the fashion district was nearby. A gaggle of people wearing Microsoft shirts stood outside the front door, encouraging passers-by to stop in for a free coffee and a Surface Pro 3 test drive.
When I arrived, attendees and drop-ins were probably outnumbered about 3-to-1 by eager Microsoft employees and PR staff. A collection of Surface Pro 3 tablets was set up for public use, but other than myself and a guy who kept demanding to see Bill Gates, they were mostly manned by blue shirts. One of this gentleman’s ideas, which the staff seemed less than fond of (especially in his attempts to demonstrate it), was a magnetic levitation feature so he could drop the expensive hardware without shattering it into a $850+ pile of broken glass.
That’s the kind of quirky color you can get when setting up shop in a trendy neighborhood….
However, the venue quickly filled up for the two-hour session with DC artist Francis Manapul, the guy currently entrusted to draw Batman for the comic book publisher’s Detective Comics series.
Manapul showed how he has been using the Surface Pro 3 along with the specially optimized version of Adobe (ADBE) Photoshop in his pre-production work. The Surface Pro 3’s large 12-inch display, its switch to a 3:2 aspect ratio (more like paper), and the pressure-sensitive stylus were all highlighted.
Then Microsoft staff distributed a Surface Pro 3 — the Core i5 version that will be first to hit store shelves — to each of the attendees and let us play with them, while Manapul circulated.
So, was this Toronto Microsoft Surface Cafe a successful public debut for the new Surface Pro 3?
Surface Pro 3: The Hardware
Overall, I was impressed with the Surface Pro 3. Despite that big 12-inch display, it felt thin, light and much better balanced than previous versions. The improved friction-adjusted kickstand and magnetic keyboard both lived up to Microsoft’s claims — they were solid and made the Surface Pro 3 feel almost infinitely adjustable.
I still don’t think of it as a laptop replacement (with the kickstand it’s simply not as stable on your lap as a flat-bottomed portable PC), unless your use of a laptop is to plunk it on a desk or table. In that case, it may be worth paying the premium for the Surface Pro 3, especially if it gives you the opportunity to consolidate down to one device.
Surface Pro 3: The Reception
From the range of presenters, the audience (heavy on artists, photographers and designers), the location (Toronto’s trendy Queen Street West) the tag-line used in promotional material and an emphasis on Photoshop, it was pretty obvious who Microsoft was targeting at this event: visually creative types.
The reception for the Surface Pro 3 was good, the attendees really pushed the hardware and software and many seemed genuinely impressed. Walk-in traffic included a few curious retirees and some kids. They aren’t the demographic Microsoft is targeting with this device — it’s too big and too expensive to be considered a casual use tablet — but having everyone aware that MSFT makes tablets is important for the company.
Overall, I’d say Microsoft is taking the right approach in trying to drum up pre-launch interest in the Surface Pro 3. It has to overcome a lackluster response to previous Surface tablets and try to generate some actual buzz about this one.
Its only real competition in the 12-inch tablet space is Samsung (SSNLF) with the Galaxy NotePRO 12.2 (reviewed here), and the Surface Pro 3 has numerous advantages over that device. Primarily, the use of an Intel (INTC) Core CPU and running desktop software — like Microsoft Office — makes the Surface Pro a more natural choice as a laptop alternative among enterprise customers.
The real question is whether Microsoft will succeed in using the Surface Pro 3 and a collaboration with Photoshop publisher Adobe to take a chunk out of Apple’s iPad and MacBook sales. Luring more of the creative class from the Apple camp to Windows would be a shot at one of Apple’s long-time core customer bases. It wouldn’t just sell more Surface Pro 3s (and prove that the third time’s a charm for MSFT), it would be a public relations coup for the “new” Microsoft under CEO Satya Nadella, adding a much-needed boost to the company’s image and make it seem less tied to the fading PC’s glory days.
We should know the results in few more days, when the Surface Pro 3 goes on sale.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.