I thought I’d write about my experience of the Microsoft Store; the stores have limited presence and are just in the USA at the moment. That means there’s nearly a whole world of people who have never visited one. We’re also at an interesting time for devices. with Windows 8 driving a major change in interface and form types, and supply of these machines has been limited worldwide.
It’s MVP Summit week. That means some 1,200 geeks head to the Pacific northwest of the USA to visit Redmond (Microsoft global HQ) and we typically stay in nearby Bellevue, WA. Most of the hotels are within walking distance of Lincoln Square, where you will find a Microsoft Store (and an Apple Store just up the escalator). Every Sunday before the Summit, you’ll see hundreds of MVPs walk into this store and many of them walking out carrying a large bag. Oh! And don’t forget that the Surface Pro was just launched, and MVPs are in that niche that would want an ultrabook alternative tablet, with 4 GB RAM, 128 GB+ of storage, and an i5 CPU.
Sure enough, the store was busy just after opening last Sunday. Myself and two other MVPs went in. 1 wanted to buy a Surface Pro, and the other was interested and open to the idea of a purchase. As you can see above, the Surface (RT on left, Pro on right) were front and centre, one with a type keyboard and the other with a touch one. All along the wall on the right were sample Surfaces for you to spend time on. The other tables (on the right) were populated with alternative tablets and (on the left) with ultrabooks and laptops. Either all, or close to all, devices featured multipoint touch.
We went straight to the Surface Pro. It is as advertised. It is solid as a tank, as is the Surface RT, has a great screen (Surface screen has excellent contrast which we photographers love), and the type keyboard is worth the extra 1.5mm for the typing experience. The power connector is improved slightly from the RT device. The stylus attached to this same connector. The attachment is pretty solid and it takes a good tug to pull it out. However, with a 4 hour battery life, I can see people needing to remove the stylus, power the device, and ordering many an expensive stylus from Microsoft over the coming years. I had already told my colleague who wanted to buy a Pro to check out a few things:
- The typing experience for when you’re on the go or at a conference like TechEd or MMS where you have no table to rest a kickstand
- The battery life versus the competition
The battery life of the Surface is a serious weakness. 4 hours is very short, shorter than a modern ultrabook by 1.5-4 hours. He got a stool from another desk and tried to use the Surface Pro keyboard on his lap: fail.
We tried some other machines. The Samsung ATIV Smart Pc (what I use) was there. That “clovertrail” device gets 12 hours of real life but the CPU is limited. The similar HP Envyx2 was there too. I liked the feel of it, but I didn’t like the lack of ports and the use of a blank to fill the MicroSD port; that blank will get lost. The Samsung approach with a nicely fitting flap is much better. The Samsung ATIV XE700T1C-A01US Smart PC Pro 700T was also there:
- Same i5m (mobile) as the Surface Pro
- Same 4 GB RAM as the Surface Pro
- Stylus with same functionality as Surface Pro that hides seamlessly into a dock in the chassis (so much so that 1 person who bought one of these tablets last Sunday thought he didn’t have a stylus until I showed it to him on Friday)
- 8 hours of advertised battery life – twice that of the equivalent Surface Pro running the same operating system
The dockable keyboard was not there to try out on the demo table. The Microsoft Store has lots of sales people available and easy to find in their luminous t-shirts. We asked for a keyboard to test with, and one appeared a couple of minutes later. The clamshell (or convertible or transformer) keyboard gave 2 USB 2.0 ports in addition to the USB 3.0 port on the tablet. My MVP colleague tried the stool test again and was happy with the laptop-like experience. Here’s where things start to get interesting:
- The sales guy told us that the keyboard (clearly different to my one) had an additional 4 hours of battery life. I was surprised, but had no material to contradict him. He must have been briefed.
- Other MVPs who were trying the Surface Pro out came over and started to ask lots of questions about this Samsung tablet that could also be an ultrabook style machine. We started to gather a crowd around us.
My colleague was sold and decided to buy the Samsung instead of the Surface Pro … and a few minutes later we saw another guy in the crowd do the same. I decided to wander the store:
- Lots of Windows Phone 8 handsets, all locked to networks (ick!)
- An attractive Asus 15” thin laptop that reminded me of a MacBook Pro
- The wafer thin Acer ultrabook that journalists have raved about … that features a keyboard with the feedback of wet lettuce. I would hate this machine
- Lots and lots of machines with variations to suit anyone
Two great things about buying from the Microsoft Store:
- You get a 2 weeks, no questions asked, return policy. You don’t like it, you can bring it back and get your money back.
- Every machine is rebuilt with a “signature” build so you don’t get crapware that eats up disk space, RAM, and CPU.
We left and spend the day wandering, checking out the Barnes and Noble Nook (a nice machine but with severe region limitations on content availability), seeing some of our books for sale on the shelf (happy dance!). We met more of our MVP colleagues that night, many of whom had bought the Surface Pro, and some were having buyer’s regret. We told them that it wasn’t too late to return the device and look at alternatives, such as the Samsung.
The next day was the start of the Summit and some more Samsungs appeared where the owners had a Surface until the night before. Hmm! And the trend continued. The no-questions-asked returns policy was being tested and passing with flying colours as people switched to an alternative device. And this went on for the week.
Myself and another colleague looked into the question of the keyboard having an additional battery. I was doubtful – and our research confirmed my suspicions. We went back to the store when we had a free moment … my colleague with the new Samsung explained what had happened to another sales person. We’re used to a “who give a flying f**k” attitude from sales people back home. They’d tell us that’s our problem. Not so in the Microsoft Store; the sales person was apologetic and gave my colleague two kick stands for his new tablet … no questions asked.
I’ve got to say that the Microsoft Store is the best PC shopping experience that I’ve had. Great modern stock, and helpful sales staff. I really hope they expand internationally … and soon. Right now they have a limited presence and that allows the Best Buys of the world (we went there and it was a very different experience) to continue unchanged.
By the way: there were only 64 GB Surface Pros available until mid-week. A discount was being given to anyone who bought one and additional expandable storage in the Microsoft Store. I know lots of MVPs bought a Surface Pro this week, and most of the folks we talked to weren’t very happy with them. Battery life was an issue. Meanwhile, another VM MVP was using his machine all day long on battery to take notes, keep up with email, etc, and my original colleague from this story managed to get 9 hours with the machine sleeping here and there as a tablet does. My lesser clovertrail machine was coming home with over 25% of available battery with constant usage – I was even leaving the charger in the hotel – who does that with a Windows machine!!!
The Surface Pro is a niche machine. Who’s going to pay $1100 plus tax for a tablet, other than a Pro who needs an ultrabook style machine that will double as a tablet? The Surface has name recognition … and that’s mostly all it has over the competition. The Pro alternatives from the others are much better machines with the same internals, same touch interface, and same operating system. I get driver and software updates made available to me almost every couple of weeks from Samsung – I have 4 queued up right now. So that’s not an advantage for Microsoft.
My advice is: don’t mistakenly assume that Surface is the only machine. Go out and get the machine that suits you best … and maybe that is a Surface and maybe it is an Asus, a HP, a Lenovo, a Samsung, an Acer, a Dell … and so on … and it runs Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro.