Microsoft takes second swing at tablets with new Surface 2 lineup

Faster and with longer battery life, but priced nearly the same as the originals

Microsoft today kicked off its second attempt at cracking the tablet market, unveiling replacements for both the Surface RT and Surface Pro.

"We only set out to make them better," said Panos Panay, the Microsoft general manager who leads the Surface team, in a roll-out in front of an invitation-only audience of reporters and analysts in New York City on Monday.

The Surface 2, a renamed and revamped Surface RT -- it's no coincidence that Microsoft ditched the "RT" label, which few consumers knew referred to the Windows RT that powered it -- will cost $449 for 32GB or $549 for 64GB of storage space when it reaches retail next month, said Microsoft.

Those prices were $50 less than the original prices for the Surface RT, but $100 more than the heavily discounted prices of 2012's version after Microsoft began unloading it this summer.

Meanwhile, the Surface Pro 2 will swap pride-of-place in Microsoft's lineup with the Surface Pro. Like its ancestor, the Surface Pro 2 will run a full-fledged Windows able to handle legacy applications, and is not a scaled-back device like the Surface 2, which is capable of running only tile-style "Modern" nee "Metro" apps. The Surface Pro 2 will be priced at $899 for a 64GB device, $999 for one with 128GB of storage space.

The prices were identical to the initial prices of the Surface Pro when it launched in early February, but $100 more than the discounted prices the now-superseded tablet currently sports.

Both tablets will come with the 8.1 update for their respective operating systems: The Surface 2 with Windows 8.1 RT -- there's the "RT" again -- and the Surface Pro 2 with Windows 8.1 Pro.

Panay touted the changes in each tablet, citing 20% faster performance overall, a 50% increase in graphics performance, and a 75% boost in battery life for the Surface Pro 2, all largely -- though not entirely -- due to the use of Intel's new "Haswell" Core i5 processor.

The Surface 2 is also faster, said Panay, who claimed a three- to four-time increase in performance courtesy of the Nvidia Tegra 4 ARM-licensed processor, and an increase of battery life to 10 hours.

Microsoft also revealed several new accessories for the Surface line, including a keyboard-cover combination that packs an extra battery, new Touch Covers in five different colors, and a docking station for connecting the tablet in the workplace to peripherals such as multiple monitors and a full-fledged keyboard.

The Surface Pro 2 will run Windows 8.1 on Intel's Haswell processors. Aimed at power users and professionals, it will cost $899.

The Power Cover, a modified Type Cover -- the more true keyboard-like of Microsoft's two covers -- will cost $199.99, but will not hit retail until early 2014, said Microsoft.

Surface 2
Microsoft unveiled new Surface tablets as it takes a second shot at the market after poor sales of the original devices.

The Docking Station for Surface Pro, as the new add-on is called, will also cost $199.99 and launch early next year. It will work with both the original Surface Pro and the Surface Pro 2, and will offer one USB 3.0 port and three USB 2.0 ports for connecting peripherals.

The accessories, and much of Panay's time on stage, reinforced the pitch that Microsoft has long made: That the Surface Pro should be envisioned as a two-in-one purchase, not only a tablet but also a replacement for a notebook or even a desktop PC.

"You now have the full ability to use, literally, what I believe is the most powerful tablet for professional use in the world," Panay boasted.

Carolina Milanesi of Gartner, who was at the New York event, praised the move to expand the Surface Pro 2's functionality with the add-ons. "Accessories are key not just to add to the devices but to show the commitment to the platform and kick-start the ecosystem," she tweeted today.

But other analysts were unimpressed.

"It doesn't look like Microsoft has done much which is compelling with these to overcome the negative perceptions [of the originals]," said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates, in an email. "Seems like Microsoft is just maintaining the traditional PC mantra -- keep upgrading the chip and hardware a little bit every year at a slightly lower price.

"I think they needed to do something that was innovative beyond the first generation, and I don't see that in these devices," Gold continued. "I think they'll continue to sell a few, but I don't think this will dramatically alter their sales trajectory."

Microsoft will take pre-orders beginning tomorrow at 8 a.m. ET on its online store, in its own chain of retail stores, and at those of its Best Buy partner in the U.S. and Canada. The on-sale date will be Oct. 22, several days after Microsoft and its OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) release Windows 8.1 and their own new devices, respectively.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His email address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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