After three Microsoft misses, it's Surface Go time

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Video: Microsoft goes after the iPad with low-cost Surface Go

Had the Surface Pro line not resonated in the market, there might be no Surface business today. But the lower end of the line has a much more colorful history. The first Surface RT was among the first devices to run the doomed Windows RT. Marketplace rejection of it and its the RT-based Surface 2 sequel resulted in a nearly billion-dollar write off for Microsoft.

Read also: The smaller, less-expensive Microsoft Surface Go - CNET

Microsoft came back for a third try at an inexpensive Surface device with the Atom-based Surface 3, which switched to the 3:2 aspect ratio that has become one of the product line's signatures. While a far more appealing device, it was, at $499, closer to the wrong end of the price-performance curve, particularly when paired with a Type Cover.

But if the third time wasn't a charm, Microsoft is betting that the fourth time will be. Physically and architecturally, the Surface Go has more in common with its immediate predecessor than with the first Tegra-based Surfaces RTs. With a lower starting price of $399, a beefier processor in the Pentium Gold, the debut of USB-C in the Surface line, and a redesigned Type Cover providing more luxurious Alcantara than many wrists deserve, the Surface Go represents a better value as a PC.

That said, with the product's Go branding, fanless design, and optional LTE connectivity, the Go more strongly recalls the Surface family's roots more directly as an iPad competitor -- even as Microsoft continues to lag in a pure tablet experience. The Surface Go is almost twice the price of an Asus Transformer mini. That's another 10-inch Windows 2:1 kickstand device with a price close to that of such entry-level laptops as the HP Stream, and that's with its bundled keyboard and pen. While the Asus can fit the bill for a thin and featherweight on-the-go casual mobile PC, it can get pokey, particularly when readjusting to the state of the world after booting.

It's a bit surprising that Microsoft decided not to hop on the Always Connected PC bandwagon with the Surface Go. The product's focus on delivering light productivity with high mobility would seem to fit well with into the class of PCs using a Qualcomm architecture. Indeed, at some point, Microsoft will still likely deliver a Snapdragon-based Surface.

Read also: Microsoft Surface Go: What the pros need to know - TechRepublic

For now, though, there are a number of reasons why Microsoft may have held off. For one, the Surface Go's target price falls far below those of Always Connected PCs from Asus, HP, and Lenovo. While Windows-on-Snapdragon is off to better vendor support than Windows RT was and PC OEMs have acclimated to having Microsoft as a competitor, a cheaper competitor from Microsoft would surely provide less breathing room for this first generation. And while Snapdragon 835-based PCs have delivered good enough performance to avoid that being a dealbreaker, the experience is expected to improve significantly for PCs based on the optimized Snapdragon 850 recently announced by Qualcomm.

So, concerns about ARM compatibility -- greatly ameliorated by the Windows-on-Snapdragon approach versus the extensive limitations of RT -- shall not haunt Surface Go. That leaves Microsoft's latest non-Pro device as a similar if superior soldier to the Surface 3, but the battlefield keeps changing.

While Microsoft has sent its partners to do battle with the very Chromebooks they produce using entry-level Windows laptops, Apple has been trying to reclaim a higher-value education proposition for iPad, touting its use for field applications using its camera and Apple's leading work in mobile augmented reality. (That's also a proposition that Acer has tried to tap into with its fringe outlier Chromebook Tab.) Alas, if Windows still can't muster a great tablet experience, it is woefully behind in AR.

Nevertheless, a large part of Surface's rationale extends back to Microsoft's lack of faith in its hardware partners' ability to compete with Apple, the signature competitor highlighted at Surface product introductions. Thus, it's no surprise that the company would remain committed to fighting the iPad with Surface as well as Chromebooks through partners in the classroom.

Read also: Can Microsoft's Surface Go unseat Apple's iPad?

As for the other tablet market hotspot, it could be even more useful for Microsoft to have the Surface Go as a less expensive option for VARs developing various field applications using Windows, particularly with cellular capability. When it comes to Surfaces that don't include the Pro label, that would be yet another opportunity for Surface Go to go where Surfaces have not gone before.

Previous and related coverage:

Microsoft takes aim at schools, consumers and businesses with Surface Go tablets, starting at $399

Microsoft's Surface Go tablets will hit shelves starting in early August 2018, and are meant for not just the education market, but also consumers and business users.

Why did Microsoft build the Surface Go?

Microsoft's new Surface Go isn't just another, cheaper Surface. Microsoft has plans to try to capture a bigger piece of the overall PC/tablet pie with this device.

Rescuing tablets from the abyss: Can education and field applications save them?

Tapping education and field applications, Apple, Samsung, and Acer are taking divergent routes to find better homes for tablets beyond consumer channels.

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