A laptop, and the Surface Pro... and all points in between
This month we've been testing budget laptops, office PCs and internet security suites. You couldn't get more 'PC' than that - the kind of Windows computer the average person seeks out, and the software required to protect it.
I've been testing an Ultrabook; new BlackBerry 10, Android and Windows Phone 8 smartphones; and the Microsoft Surface Pro. Products in a different league in terms of their bang for your buck, but not so far advanced in terms of what they do and what they are for. We all want similar things from our computers.
We've also seen both HTC and BlackBerry launch what each referred to as 'new' experiences in the smartphone space. Is the gap growing between traditional PC and modern mobile computer growing?
Testing the Surface Pro
Testing the Surface Pro (reviewed here) was an education. I expected a tablet to rival the iPad or Nexus 10. Focussed on business use like the Surface RT, but a device lacking true computational power with the battery life of a mobile. Quickly I realised the Surface Pro has more in common with a high-end business laptop than it does a consumption device such as the iPad.
It's a Core i5 PC with the power that entails, slightly hobbled by its smallish screen and portable keyboard, its portability reduced by the needs of a power-hungry chip both in terms of battery charge and heat dissipation. But it is the most portable full-spec PC ever.
To understand the Surface Pro's importance to Microsoft you have to consider why it exists. Microsoft is a software company, reliant on Intel to provide the hardware, and OEMs such as Dell, Lenovo, and HP to make the products. It's made the Surface Pro to showcase what Windows 8 can do, to push PC makers into innovation. Like Intel creating and promoting Ultrabook, Microsoft wants OEMs to leave behind the safety of traditional desktops and cheap 15in laptops, and innovate in the spaces between the standard models to which we have grown used.
Portability = compromise
Arm-led mobile technology has developed at a furious pace, and the Windows and Intel world is trying to catch up. But true portability requires some compromise: whether on battery life, performance, features or price, no-one has yet come up with a device that offers perfect performance wherever you are.
Surface Pro is not that device, but it does occupy a unique space between Arm tablet and Intel laptop. And it showcases Windows 8 in a way a million office PCs can't - it makes sense to use the touchscreen and stylus when you can lay the computer flat or hold it in your hands.
Microsoft designed Windows 8 to be used on computers with screens ranging from 4- to 40in, but unlike Apple it doesn't make the hardware so it cannot dictate how its software is used. It's a similar scenario over at Google, where the best Android devices are Google's own 'Nexus' branded products.
And while Microsoft, Google and Intel have to dig deep and pay for products that show off their wares, Apple designs and makes what it thinks people will want. Whether the upcoming iWatch is a success will depend on whether there is desire for a smartwatch. Windows 8 will be a success only if the Surface Pro spawns other products in the gaps between traditional PC, laptop and smartphone.