Reassessing Microsoft Surface

Posted on January 30, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Microsoft Surface with 0 Comments

Reassessing Microsoft Surface

It’s been an interesting couple of months since the launch of Surface Pro 4 and the initial roll out of Surface Book. These are both amazing, trend-setting devices, but some customers have experienced bewildering reliability issues. What’s going on?

To date, I’ve taken a fairly rigid stance on these problems: Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book are both premium devices, after all, and they carry a commensurate price tag. Customers who pay $1500 to $2000 or more for a PC shouldn’t have to put up with rampant reliability issues.

But that’s the thing. Not all of them do.

The weirdest aspect to these problems, in many ways, is that the people I’ve interacted with have had sharply different experiences. And some are a bit mystified why I’m so critical here, because their Surface Book or Surface Pro 4 works just fine.

One might argue that I should have seen this coming. After all, while I’ve had major issues with two Surface Books now, the Surface Pro 4 I reviewed—you may recall I described it as “a magical, nearly perfect device”—has worked flawlessly, with no problems. When you consider that the two devices are in fact identical platforms internally, this makes no sense. Either they both have issues, or they both don’t have issues.

I’ve been around the block enough times to know that anecdotal evidence is no evidence, however. Just because you experience something doesn’t mean it’s universal. There’s no correlation at all. But as it turns out, my experience is normal, in this case. Some people are experiencing issues with their Surface Book or Surface Pro 4. And some—many, perhaps—are not.

What do I base that on? Hundreds and hundreds of interactions with readers and listeners via email, web site comments, and Twitter. Several on- and off-the-record conversations with people at Microsoft who see what’s happening from the inside. And a renewed testing cycle with Surface Book and Surface Pro 4, which has only confirmed my original findings.

The good news? I am as sure as ever that Microsoft will be able to fix these issues with firmware updates. We received the first set of relevant fixes this past week, but I’ve been told they don’t address the central, burning (pardon the pun) power management problem that continues to dog some Surface Pro 4 and Surface Book customers. I was told to expect a fix within a few weeks.

I think what we’re seeing here is the price that Microsoft—and, yes, some of its customers—paid for living on the bleeding edge. With previous Surface Pro products, the devices’s processors and chipsets were always a generation (or two) behind what was current from Intel. But for Surface Book/Pro 4, Microsoft faced an interesting schedule alignment for the first time: It could, in fact, be the first PC maker to ship devices based on Intel’s new “Skylake” SoC (System on a Chip) designs.

Microsoft swung for the fences, and seriously, you gotta love that they did that. And … they got bit, and least somewhat. Because there’s something flaky going on. But as with its decision to aggressively push Windows 10 upgrades on Windows 7 and 8.1 users, the software giant isn’t apologetic about this decision. And believes that this was the right long-term play. And, again. You gotta love that, even if you sort of disagree with it.

As important, and regardless of the issues that I and others are sometimes seeing, Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 will ultimately be judged as massive successes.This past quarter was the biggest-ever for Surface, thanks to these product launches, and Surface Book is only available in a limited set of markets at the moment. That momentum can only continue as Surface Book is released in more and more markets throughout 2016.

And, again, I really do think that Microsoft fixes these problems. This will be good for all Surface users, but also for all Windows users. Now, Microsoft is forced to struggle with the types of problems PC makers have had for years: The amount of code that Intel/AMD, PC makers, device makers, and Microsoft (as the OS maker) have to supply to address issues in new silicon must be incredible, and probably grows as the technology gets more complex. But with Microsoft now getting hit from two directions, it can only result in improvements for all of us. (And I’m sure there are those at PC makers breathing a sigh of relief as well.)

In using both Surface Book and Surface Pro 4 again regularly over the past few weeks, I’ve been reminded of how absolutely wonderful the hardware is, and of the seamless interaction between that hardware and Windows 10. These devices really do represent a pinnacle, of sorts, for the modern PC. Which, contrary to Apple’s backwards designs, is a detachable/transforming and multi-touch capable powerhouse. No matter which Surface you choose.

I’m still looking forward to these issues being fixed, of course. But with Surface Pro and Surface Book, Microsoft is redefining the PC market and taking a leadership role that was, frankly, missing for too long. And that is worth a little bit of pain.


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