Surface Pro 3's 'tweener' screen is too small for a laptop, too big for a tablet

People want smaller tablets and bigger-screen laptops, says analyst, not a 12-in. display

Microsoft has picked the wrong screen size for its new Surface Pro 3 if it really intends to push the tablet-no-it's-a-laptop as a replacement for premium-priced notebooks, a retail analyst said today.

The Surface Pro 3 tablet. (Photo: Microsoft)

"Tablets with screens above 9-in. [are] down 12% YTD [year-to-date] 2014," tweeted Stephen Baker of the NPD Group yesterday during Microsoft's rollout of the Surface Pro 3. "Android down 5% and iPad down double digits. Not sure consumers want 12-in. tablet."

Moments later -- Baker went on a short Twitter tear during Microsoft's hour-long event -- he added another hurdle for the 2-in-1. "Not sure consumers want notebooks with 12-in. screens either. Sales of Windows notebooks [with] 12-in. screens or less just 8.5% of total YTD 2014," Baker said.

If the Surface Pro 3 is part tablet, part notebook, then it's a hard sell in both markets. By selecting a 12-in. display, Microsoft has targeted a shrinking part of the tablet space and aimed at a fraction of those looking for a notebook.

"There's no evidence that people want a 12-in. device like this," Baker said in a follow-up interview today. "It's still a heavy tablet. It's still a laptop with too small a screen. That's why [the previous] Surface Pro hasn't jumped off the shelf."

The original Surface Pro, and its successor, the Surface Pro 2, both sported a 10.6-in. display.

Baker backed up his screen-size argument with other data from U.S. sales, which is what he and NPD track.

"Fifteen-inch notebooks account for two-thirds of the total volume, and in business, about three-fourths are 14-in. and 15-in., so that's the challenge you have with something smaller," Baker said.

The notebook numbers were especially pertinent to the Surface Pro 3, as Microsoft hammered home on Tuesday the idea that the device was a laptop replacement first, a tablet second. "This is the tablet that can replace your laptop," said Panos Panay, the head of the Surface team, several times Tuesday.

But larger-screen tablets aren't dashing out of stores, either.

"I would disagree with the idea that people want larger tablets. Take Samsung's Galaxy Note [Pro 12.2]," said Baker, about one of the few big-screen tablets, a relatively new device that lists for $750 and $850 configured with 32GB and 64GB of storage, respectively, but is discounted as much as $100, even by Samsung. "You need a microscope to see the sales on that."

On the bright side, said Baker, Microsoft's Surface is selling better in the U.S. than most accounts imply. "Everyone says the Surface is not selling well, but year-to-date, the volume of Surface and Chromebooks and other Windows 2-in-1s are all about the same," said Baker.

"Everyone thinks that Chromebooks are a big hit, and that Surface is doing poorly," Baker continued. "But actually they're all pretty similar in volume."

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

See more by Gregg Keizer on Computerworld.com.

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