IT TOOK Microsoft years to convince anyone that “pen computing” was a good idea - and just as a few users are beginning to catch on, along comes another company to steal their lunch.
Microsoft’s version of computing by pen involves using a stylus, rather than a mouse or your finger, to communicate with your PC. It’s been available in theory since the days of Windows Vista but no-one was interested in making the hardware.
That’s why the company launched its own device four years ago. The Surface was, and remains, part laptop, part tablet, and is Microsoft’s response to the runaway success of Apple’s iPad. You can, suggests the current crop of TV commercials, use it all day, clipping on and off the optional keyboard to suit your needs.
The current Surface Pro 4 is a very capable machine - as it should be for a starting price of £745, including keyboard. You can buy a regular laptop and a separate tablet for less. The top-of-the-range model is an eye-watering £2,200.
But notwithstanding the TV advert’s attempt to compare the Surface Pro with a high-end Mac, it’s impossible to justify that kind of expense on a piece of tech that may be out of date before you’ve worked out how to use it. Especially when you can have the same thing for £275.
Chuwi - not a character from Star Wars but a Chinese computer maker - is the latest to steal Microsoft’s thunder with a range of hybrid machines that deliver the most useful features of the Surface at mainstream prices.
The Chuwi Hi12, available on Amazon, is the closest in size to the Surface Pro 4, and like the Microsoft product, runs Windows 10, as you would expect of a laptop. Unlike the Surface, it also runs Android, as do most tablets - you can choose whichever system best suits what you’re doing, and switch between them freely. It’s neither as fast nor as well-built as the Surface, but certainly sets the bar for other competitors.
Affordable alternatives to the Surface also include HP’s Pavilion x2, available for £230 on the high street and less still online. With a ten-inch screen, it’s 2” smaller than the others, and packs a less powerful processor and only 2GB of memory, but it’s fine for most things you’d expect to do on a tablet, and its included, detachable keyboard makes it a contender to replace your laptop at the same time.
At the other end of the market, the mighty iPad Pro is a credible alternative to a laptop, if you pair it with Apple’s slim keyboard, which doubles as a cover. Prices start at £550 for a 9.7-inch screen and £730 for a near 13-inch display - though this rises to £1,029 if you want cellular connectivity and the maximum 256GB of storage. The smart keyboard adds another £150 or £170, depending on size, and the “Apple Pencil” stylus a further £100.
All of this hardware, except, perhaps, the very cheapest, is aimed squarely at those who want to get through as much work on a tablet as they would expect to on a full-blown laptop, and both Apple and Microsoft are clearly eyeing corporate buyers.
That’s quite appropriate: they can more easily use their £100 pencils to write off the expense.